National Post

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Saturday, December 11, 1999

Beware the world's unelected do-gooders
How, exactly, do NGOs derive their mandate to speak for 'the people'?
Lorne Gunter
National Post



Caption shows a man in a suit and glasses holding up a puppet in one hand depicting a hippie protester. The puppet is holding a sign reading "Esperanto now!".

MONTREAL - The Seattle World Trade Organization meeting was merely a whistle stop.

Since September, the world's jet-setting social reformers and poverty advocates have had barely a moment to catch their breath: Manhattan, Manila, Seoul and now Montreal, with side trips to Chicago, Durban, The Hague and Beijing. After Christmas, there'll be Costa Rica, Bangkok and D.C. then back to New York City in May. It's enough to make even the most passionate crusader question his or her commitment (and make the rest of us wonder when these self-anointed saviours of the planet find time for the noble works they insist are their real mission).

For the past four days, 300 representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from 60 nations have been ensconced in the grand ballroom and plush meeting rooms of a downtown Montreal hotel. The event: WOCSOC (pronounced "walk-sock"), the first World Civil Society Conference. The topic: "Creating Conditions for Global Governance."

Most non-governmental organizations are anything but non-governmental. Their funding comes mostly from governments or United Nations departments; the rest from multi-million-dollar charitable foundations set up ages ago by super-rich industrialists (Ford, Rockefeller, Pew) but long since taken over by professional managers with left-wing sympathies. More recently, billionaires Bill Gates, George Soros and Ted Turner have established their own left-leaning, internationalist charities.

Some NGOs do provide disaster relief, refugee aid, education, health care and job training in the most dangerous and forlorn locations in the Third World. Most, though, devote the largest chunk of their time to lobbying governments in the First World on gender equity, environmental protection, social justice, poverty eradication, human rights, nuclear disarmament, labour standards and forgiveness of poor-country debt.

Civil society? Traditionally, civil society has meant the web of laws, institutions, traditions, social norms and local customs, visible and invisible, that make civilized countries civilized. But to the delegates at WOCSOC, and at similar NGO conferences around the world, civil society seems to mean relinquishing to NGOs and CSOs (civil society organizations) the final call on national and international social and economic policy.

That's not entirely fair. Most NGOs and CSOs concede there is also a role for NPOs, CBOs and UNAs, and perhaps even IFIs and MNCs. (In order: non-profit organizations, citizen-based organizations, United Nations associations, international financial institutions and multinational corporations.)

Still, always at the pinnacle of this "new paradigm of global governance" sit the NGOs. To hear them explain it, only the dedicated executives of these venerable organizations possess sufficient selflessness to guard the true will of "the people."

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan gave the keynote address at WOCSOC on Wednesday morning. "The NGO revolution -- the new global people-power [Annan has previously called NGOs the new superpower] -- ... is the best thing that has happened to [the UN] in a long time.

"You have made your power felt," he assured delegates. He listed among NGOs' successes the 1997 Ottawa agreement to end the use of land mines and the 1998 Rome agreement to establish an International Criminal Court (a particularly odious institution that shows little respect for national sovereignty and that initially suggested that domestic laws placing any limitations on abortion-on-demand should be counted as crimes against humanity). Annan also credited NGOs with this year's campaign to have governments and banks in the developed world forgive the national debts of the poorest countries and thanked delegates for spurring military intervention in Kosovo and East Timor. He seemed impressed by their role in the WTO protests last week, too.

Insisting that a partnership between governments and civil society "is not an option, it is a must," Annan implored delegates to unilaterally fill the void, "where governments are unable or unwilling to act." The notion that NGOs should step in where sovereign governments have refused to act is ominous in its implications for responsible government.

Much of the activity this fall has been a lead-up to next May's Millennium Forum at UN Headquarters in New York. A quasi-official gathering of NGOs, the forum has the imprimatur of the secretary-general and the General Assembly, but is not a UN-organized event. Its declared purpose is to draft an agenda for the United Nations in the coming century. Many delegates to the Montreal gathering, though, also hope the forum will lay the groundwork for a third legislative house at the UN: a permanent People's Assembly, a sort of Parliament of Humankind.

Since WOCSOC is one of the last significant warm-ups to the Millennium Forum, and since so many participants see themselves and their organizations as the only true defenders of the common people, I came here to have one question answered: By what mechanism do NGOs derive their mandate to speak on behalf of "the people"?

Parliamentary and congressional democracies may not be perfect. Garnering only 38% of the votes in a national election, as Canada's Liberals did in 1997, hardly seems enough to earn four or five years of largely unchallenged majority rule. But at least Western democracies may be relied upon to conduct periodic elections, with proper enumerations to determine who has the right to vote. The rules by which citizens may petition the resulting governments are reasonably clear. And, even if it is occasionally difficult to enforce, there is accountability.

On the first full day of WOCSOC, I set off to see if my answer lay in one of the 16 workshops.

One session was entitled "The erosion of state sovereignty and the emergence of civil society"; surely it would provide a hint. Wrong. "Resource person" Jacqueline Nkoyok of Cameroon started off with a rambling, 20-minute attack on individualism and globalization. If the concept of individual rights cannot be stamped out, "it will destroy even plant life," she said. However, "if globalization can mean collectivization or living in solidarity, then it could work."

A Rwandan now living in Quebec insisted "the problem" was "a poor person living in Africa survives better than a poor person in Canada." A Jordanian countered that the real problems were unemployment, poverty and military influence over the democratic governments in developing states. Oh yeah, and also the way "developed countries are keeping [Saddam] Hussein in power," to maintain their arms sales to his neighbours and provide someone upon whom to perfect their bombing. An Angolan delegate insisted the others were all wrong; the problem is that "Africa is a hostage of international speech." (Huh?)

The closest anyone came to answering my question (and I assure you, it was purely unintentional), was a delegate from Congo who insisted there was no need to discuss state sovereignty since all sovereignty emanates from the people. Thus those organizations that speak for the people have more legitimacy than governments. (Now we're getting somewhere.) But of course, she added, the true problem was a lack of women's rights and protection for labourers.

It was the same at sessions on "redesigning the international financial architecture" and "democratizing the WTO." "Does civil society need stronger governments and stronger parliaments?" Who knows? This debate, like nearly all the others, quickly denigrated into an angry reiteration of the sins of the "rich northern countries" and the problems of "poor southern ones."

One would hope that people who presume to speak for the masses at global conferences and in international negotiations would have at least contemplated the source of their legitimacy. A handful considered my question a form of cultural imperialism, an attempt to impose upon the UN and civil society an Anglo-Saxon understanding of responsible government. Clearly, though, the idea had never even dawned on most.

There are roughly three classifications of delegates at globalist conferences such as WOCSOC: the carpers, the dreamers and the players. The formal sessions are largely the preserve of the carpers who fly from conference to conference on someone else's tab to declare their affinity with the oppressed and their disgust for the comfortable.

The dreamers: They fervently believe a congress of all peoples is just around the bend. They can't answer how its members will be nominated and elected, or even if they will be. They haven't worked out its powers to make laws or levy taxes. But they know it is coming soon.

Finally, there are players like Kumi Naidoo and Felix Dodds. Naidoo, a former legal advisor to the African National Congress, and now the secretary-general of CIVICUS, a major civil society promoter based in Washington, D.C., and Dodds of London, co-chairman of the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development, explained in separate interviews that the real international action is not in the People's Assembly movement, but rather in "multilateral stakeholder groups." Here business, environment and women's groups, bureaucrats and NGOs sit down together to discuss common approaches to development and governance.

Naidoo and Dodds are right that the processes at such stakeholder meetings are open to public scrutiny. And the reason the left has so thoroughly co-opted these processes is surely partly the absence of organization by the right to demand balance. (Although the impossibility of obtaining funding -- public or private -- for conservative NGOs is an even larger hindrance.)

Still, it all seems like so much elite reinforcement of elite opinion, paid for by the people and conducted in their name, without sufficient mandate.

Copyright Southam Inc.