In Bangladesh, a shop owner gets a $175 "micro loan" to expand his business. In Kenya, a woman joins the activist "green belt" movement to fight deforestation. In the Western United States, churches join forces to save salmon and redwoods.
Around the world, private, nonprofit organizations are fighting - and winning - major social and political battles. Most are small, grassroots groups working at the neighborhood or village level. Others are spread across continents with hundreds of thousands of members and a variety of sophisticated organizational structures. But in virtually every part of the world, these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are having a major impact on governments, on corporations, on official international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, and - most importantly - on the lives of people and the health of the planet.
Working together, individuals and private groups around the world have had major impact on international trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on security and safety matters such as the use of land mines, and on such economic issues as the new requirements that forest products in some parts of the world be certified as environmentally friendly.
"The past few years have seen a remarkable growth in the number and prominence of such groups and their ability to precipitate change," says Curtis Runyan, who studies NGOs for the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "They have cajoled, forced, joined in with, or forged ahead of governments and corporations on an array of actions as disparate as the decommissioning of nuclear reactors, brokering cease-fires in civil wars, and publicizing the human rights abuses of repressive regimes."
It's hard to put an exact figure on the number of such groups. Some - those fighting slavery, women's suffrage organizations, humanitarian associations like the Red Cross - have been around for well over 100 years. But the numbers have accelerated rapidly in recent years.
The Yearbook of International Organizations reports that there now are more than 26,000 international NGOs - more than four times as many as existed just 10 years ago. Mr. Runyan estimates that there are some 2 million grassroots citizens' groups in the US, at least two-thirds of them created within the past three decades.
Lester Salamon, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who specializes in alternatives to government, calls this phenomenon "a global association revolution that may prove to be as significant ... as the rise of the nation-state."
Two reasons behind this rapid growth: governments around the world becoming more democratic and less authoritarian, and advancing means of communication allowing citizens and activists around the world to share information and strategies.
Environmental issues critical
Many of these groups deal with environmental issues or - more broadly - the "sustainability" movement encompassing economic development, environmental protection, social justice, and quality of life.
"Numbers themselves ... do not convey the power of this movement," says Paul Hawken, successful business entrepreneur and author of several books on sustainable business practices. "What does are the underlying mental models and frameworks that inform it."
"In the past, movements that became powerful [Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism] started with a set of ideas and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core model was changed, diluted, or revised," Mr. Hawken said in a recent Internet discussion moderated by the Sierra Club. "The sustainability movement [estimated by Hawken to include 30,000 groups in the US and 100,000 worldwide] does not agree on everything, nor should it.
"But, remarkably, it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth and how it functions, and about the necessity of fairness and equity.... This shared understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts. And it is absolutely growing and spreading worldwide, with no exception. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, there is no orthodoxy."
Paul Ray, a sociologist and market researcher who focuses on values, calls people who share such interests "cultural creatives." Such folks - some 44 million in the US alone, Dr. Ray estimates - take a more global view of economic and social issues, tend to be more altruistic and less cynical than other segments of society, and they are more likely to be involved in volunteer activities.
"A major change has been growing in American culture," Ray wrote in American Demographics magazine. "It is a comprehensive shift in values, world views, and ways of life.... They are eager to rebuild neighborhoods and communities, committed to ecological sustainability, and believe in limits to growth. They see nature as sacred, want to stop corporate polluters, are suspicious of big business, are interested in voluntary simplicity, and are willing to pay to clean up the environment and stop global warming." This philosophical outlook and willingness to engage in activism - which is growing in other parts of the world as well as in the US - was evident during the recent protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Aside from the handful of anarchists who trashed some buildings and got most of the media coverage, there was a large network of environmentalists, human rights activists, labor organizations, and others concerned about the economic and social impact of the secretive, government-sponsored WTO.
While it may have looked to TV viewers like spontaneous protests caught local officials by surprise, NGOs around the world had spent months developing strategies for expressing their concerns in Seattle. As a result, a broad non-partisan effort - one that saw consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader team up with conservative Republican-turned-Reform-Party-candidate Pat Buchanan - was able to slow the WTO negotiations to a halt.
The spread of global communications in recent years has made it possible for activists like those in Seattle to quickly find out about each other's work and to join forces for maximum impact - often in a way that lessens the traditional power of governments.
"The most powerful engine of change in the relative decline of states and the rise of nonstate actors is the computer and telecommunications revolution," Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. "Widely accessible and affordable technology has broken governments' monopoly on the collection and management of large amounts of information and deprived governments of the deference they enjoyed because of it. In every sphere of activity, instantaneous access to information and the ability to put it to use multiplies the number of players who matter and reduces the number who command great authority."
A major point in the growth of NGOs was the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (the "Earth Summit") in Brazil in 1992. More than 100 governments were represented - largely due to the pressure of nongovernmental advocacy groups, some 1,500 of which were accredited by the UN to take part in the discussions.
A coalition of some 350 humanitarian and arms-control groups from 23 countries pushed through an international treaty banning the manufacture, distribution, and use of landmines. Jody Williams, head of the US-based International Committee to Ban Landmines, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Her main weapon, she said, was e-mail.
Over the years, the World Bank often funded programs that disrupted indigenous people and promoted industrial development at the expense of the environment. Under pressure from NGOs, the World Bank backed away from massive dam projects in India, Malaysia, and China. The bank has begun working closely with such groups as Oxfam International. Today, more than half of all World Bank projects involve input from NGOs.
Nongovernmental organizations also have influenced major international corporations. Nike has been pressured to improve working conditions for its overseas employees. After years of criticism, Home Depot recently announced that it would shift to lumber products that are independently certified as having been harvested "sustainably." Chevron oil company is working with the World Wildlife Fund to ensure that its operations do not harm the environment.
Such influence, say political scientists Margaret Keck at the Johns Hopkins University and Kathryn Sikkink at the University of Minnesota, is the direct result of what they call "transnational advocacy networks."
"What is novel in these networks is the ability of nontraditional international actors to mobilize information strategically to help create new issues and categories and to persuade, pressure, and gain leverage over much more powerful organizations," they write in their recent book "Activists Beyond Borders." "Activists in networks try not only to influence policy outcomes, but to transform the terms and nature of the debate."
From relatively wealthy American suburbanites to African villagers to residents of "megacities" in South Asia, the ability to communicate rapidly and affect change is expected to continue growing. "Both in numbers and in impact, nonstate actors have never before approached their current strength," observes Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment. "And a still larger role likely lies ahead."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society