WHEN George Zeidenstein, president of the New York-based Population Council, asked to address the plenary session of the 1984 United Nations population conference in Mexico City, he was told he would have to wait until all 151 national delegations had spoken. He finally began his speech after midnight ''to a largely empty room,'' he recalls.
Ten years later, as evidenced at the UN's International Conference on Population and Development now under way in Cairo, respect for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Population Council has increased dramatically.
These groups have helped to increase food production, improve public health, expand educational opportunities, and upgrade the status of women. In the run-up to the conference, NGOs seized the initiative in shaping the agenda.
''The situation in the intervening 10 years has changed the circumstances regarding NGOs a great deal,'' says Mr. Zeidenstein, now a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Demography.
Unconstricted by bureaucratic red tape, NGOs fill the gap left by larger, more rigid institutions like the World Bank. For example, the Orangi Pilot Program, which originated in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, helped communities design, build, and manage their own sewer systems. The local government was unable to provide this service, and local banks were unwilling to finance the project. Today, more than 600,000 people have access to sewage systems.
NGOs specialize in a wide variety of tasks. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, organized 20 years ago, empowers women by providing them with small business loans. NGOs purchased discounted national debt in Bolivia in exchange for environmental protection guarantees. In Botswana, World Conservation Union experts advised the government on the environmental impact of public works projects.
The first NGOs appeared in the 1970s in developing countries and began performing specialized services such as teaching farmers how to use more-efficient irrigation techniques. They spread worldwide in the 1980s in response to the perceived failure of governments and the private, for-profit sector to meet the needs of the developing world. Half of all NGOs devoted to economic and social development are less than 10 years old; 70 percent are less than 15 years old.
Today, hundreds of thousands of NGOs help poor nations achieve sustainable development. ''NGOs have an amazingly powerful role in calling attention to the world's neglected areas,'' says Joseph Speidel, president of Population Action International.
This activity has not gone unnoticed by governments and international aid organizations, which now routinely contract out development work to NGOs because they are more efficient and less costly. One example is in the Philippines, where President Fidel Ramos has contracted local government functions to NGOs, tacitly recognizing that government itself had been unable to deliver basic services. Organizations like the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development also now sanction and fund NGO projects in developing nations.
After two decades of isolated, individual success stories, NGOs have begun to cooperate, joining forces for the first time at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. More than 9,000 NGOs from 171 countries gathered for the Global Forum, a parallel conference that had a major influence on Agenda 21, the document issued by the official delegations. Nine thousand journalists and 450,000 visitors attended the event, giving the efforts of NGOs wide attention.
Delegates at the Cairo conference are ratifying a document containing recommendations on various issues related to population and development. The drafting of the document, called the Programme of Action, has been heavily influenced by NGO activists. In many cases, issues dealing with the environment, indigenous groups, and particularly the status of women have been included in the agenda because of NGOs.
When originally drafted, the document to be ratified in Cairo said almost nothing on the subject of women - until the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) stepped in.
WEDO organized a women's caucus that shadowed the UN's document-writing committees, methodically monitoring every vote and analyzing every provision. The caucus also lobbied delegations and aggressively proposed amendments, many of which were adopted. The result of these efforts has been an expanded recognition of the role of women in the population debate.
Many of the Cairo delegates, including half of the US contingent, will be representatives of NGOs. And an NGO Forum, to be held at a football stadium, is expected to promote networking among the thousands of NGOs expected to attend.
A number of criticisms have been levied against NGOs, the most important having to do with the lofty expectations surrounding the work they do. Despite their origins as grass-roots organizations, many NGOs today depend on government assistance for survival. These NGOs are sometimes seen as vulnerable to government manipulation, which can turn them into servants of the very institution they were created to replace.
In spite of this, policymakers from the World Bank to the US State Department are reconsidering development approaches because of the innovative ''bottom up'' approach of NGOs.