and the roles of NGOs
By Sandrina Burkhardt / filmsforaction.org
Jul 30, 2015

This is the century of civil unrest, protest and movements for democracy and against austerity across the globe. These movements, which emerged in the past three years around the world, have been a strong expression of anger and address concerns about the lack of democracy, social justice and dignity. Yet, while the demonstrations in the streets were often perceived as a rise in the mobilization for change, maintaining those movements has always been rather difficult. The question that motivates this text is therefore: how anti-austerity and pro-democracy movements can be empowered and facilitated in order to have a longer lasting and deeper effect in society, and especially what role can nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in this process of organization from the bottom-up?

Although the demonstrations introduced certain practices and view points around certain subjects which have been continued beyond the squares, creating organizational support and relationships with NGOs in order to root the movements deeper within society is relatively problematic (Ishkanian and Glasius, 2013, p.10). Since nongovernmental organizations in the contemporary system are mainly supported by funding from statutory bodies rather than from the people themselves, criticizing those same institutions is generally perceived as too risky. Activists on a larger scale claim that NGOs fail in their mandates and preliminary function, as they are too close to the state, too market-oriented in their way of working, and in some contexts even corrupt (Ishkanian and Glasius, 2013, p.32). In today's society the perception of NGOs, their work and organizational structures are far off from what they should be. Where people often see nongovernmental organizations only as platforms to practice altruistic behavior in order to ‘compensate’ their lifestyles, NGOs primarily adapted to this perception and are serving tit by simply collecting those people’s donations for their causes - no questions asked, no strings attached (Pallota, 2010; 2012). Yet, NGOs are and can be so much more than only the valve for the consciousness of people conforming to the capitalistic laws of ignorance.

Therefore, it is crucial to shift the understanding of NGOs from altruistic institutions to being incubators of change.

It has become vivid throughout the years that the urge for resistance is rising throughout certain parts of society, what is important however is to give those movements access to reach through all fragments of the population and facilitate their maintenance – NGOs have the tools to do so, on a macro-political as well as on micro-social level. In order to dive deeper into this power of NGOs, the following essay is split into two sections, with the first analyzing the current political and economic environment and the place in which the civil society finds itself, showing that people not only have the right to resist but also and especially the duty to do so – providing the justifying ground for NGOs to step up and give people the platform to act. The second section of this paper will then look into the different ways NGOs can do that, facilitate movements, and use their abilities to twist the current democratic system and empower the people to raise from below.


Understanding Dynamics

To be able to present a thorough analysis of the roles NGOs should take within the modern state system it is crucial to first of all understand the system as such, the dynamics behind it and the position in which the civil society finds itself. The modern understanding of society is usually seen and interpreted within four very distinct sectors and understood hierarchically according to its power and influence:

1) The State,

2) Corporations and Businesses,

3) NGOs and Private Voluntary Organizations (national as well as international),

and 4) The Citizens.

What is extremely questionable about this structural understanding is not only the fact that the citizen is located at the bottom of this hierarchy of power, with state as well as corporations and business dominating, but also that NGOs are seen as only another level of this latter and not, as they could and should, a mediator and curator providing a basis for understanding and a platform for communication between the people, state and economic drivers.

The following paragraphs will dive deeper into those power dynamics and explicate the ways in which the civil society needs to step up, in order to illuminate the areas in which NGOs can find their role.

First of all, the primary question is to examine whether the government or the state in its modern form truly represents the primacy of being ‘first sector’. It is rather unavoidable to realize that the state, throughout time, has become insubstantial and fragile and is showing to be gradually incapable of a consistent management of the nation, economy and society. It appears more and more that authorities lack respect and support by its citizens and that politics and party-engagement becomes an increasingly abstract subject. Nonetheless, the state appears to play an progressively dominant role in defining every aspect of the citizens life, determining not only macro-political law and order, but has also taken over economic, cultural and social functions, which were till then performed within the sphere of civil society. As a result of this complexity of governance taken over by the state, public bureaucracy lacks accountability, flexibility, responsiveness and commitment to the collective good. Even more, one of the more striking consequences of this dynamic is the dismantling of the autonomy of the civil society and its role within public life. This leads to the question of how effective our current system of liberal democracy actually is, when in the end it eliminates its fundamental goal of empowering the people?

After all, democracy cannot be reduced to merely collecting people’s vote every other year, as a real and true democracy is about offering citizens the chance to exercise more direct influence on decision-making. A self-governing republic, so David Held (2006, p.43), requires involvement in the political process, as freedom within this liberal system is marked by the ability to participate in the public sphere. Yet, participation and the engagement in a relevant political discussion in today’s society is not as easy as it might be assumed. In ancient Athens, a politically involved and participating citizen was someone who gave judgment and held office. Yet, the ancient Greeks would have found it quite difficult to locate those ‘citizens’ in modern democracies, as the limited possibility of contemporary politics for active involvement would have been considered as most undemocratic. Today’s political sphere finds itself in a moral conundrum of liberal democracy. Seeking equal participation of all citizens, while having an increasingly complex society makes this idea almost unachievable; leaving the civil society doomed to obey the rules and regulations of the representative elite. On top of that, the state does not even have the obligation to exclusively act in a common collective interest, serving the ‚public good’, but is in fact free to accommodate some interests more than others; interests of the powerful political and economic stakeholders (Tandon, 1991, p.8). It is true that the growth of the modern economy has always relied heavily on interventions of the state. In fact, it is only a myth that the market economy and modern capitalism means no state intervention, as macro policies and external relationships need to be managed by the state in a manner that it creates conditions for the rise of economic growth and capitalistic prosperity (Held, 2006, p.96), giving at the same time rise to inequality and class society. Once again, the state finds itself in the crossfire of defending its actions and following its core ideals. Our society today, is not in a harmonious social order. It is based on contradictions and produces a series of conflicts as all productive units are functioning competitively and mainly in isolation from each other (Held, 2006, p.100). What does our liberal system really mean in a society where it promises ‘equal justice' between individuals on the one hand and causes massive social, economic, political inequalities on the other?

Modern society is a culture based on private possessions and dominated by the capitalist mode of production with the aim to create surplus. Neoliberal principles have become embedded in our economic, social and political structures as well as in our daily lives; or as Couldry (2010) would put it: by defining all interaction in terms of markets, neoliberalism crowds out voice as a means of communication. Quite clear, in a world dominated by neoliberal ideals, the voice from below does not count as long as it is supported by those with equal powers, leading to what Couldry (2010) terms as the ‘crises of voice’. Why is voice not accounted more relevant in a system that is built on participation?

One explanation is that the contemporary citizen has been socialized into a passive consumer, making it therefore extremely problematic to give governance to masses that are not well informed, shortsighted and ignorant.

Liberal democracy has broken its promises – the promise to encourage political participation, creating an accountable government and providing the space for the freedom to protest and reform. Today’s democracy fails on all accounts, as it presents itself through the existence of a largely passive citizenry; the bureaucratic authority, and the displacement of parliamentary institutions and the erosion of its function as representatives advocating an elite culture of highly influential parties with the necessary economic resources to dig through this system; as well as the substantial structural constraints on state action on the piecemeal reform of capitalism (Callinicos, 1991, p. 109 in Held, 2006, p.225). Saying this, genuine democracy and a change in this dynamic can only come from below, within a system of direct democracy and a defense of the civil society.  Yet, how can this idea of a more direct democracy be applied in this vast world; in this world that has to fight issues that are interdependent, interconnected and integrated into a system going beyond the borders of one's own backyard?

Looking at today’s global connectedness, from a macro as well as from a micro perception engaging into positive as well as negative relationships - we need a solution that is able to transnational. Of course, territorial boundaries specify the basis on which individuals are included (Held, 2006, p.292), yet there are certain disjuncture’s between the idea of the democratic state, capable of determining its own future as well as the future of its neighbor states and the world society as such, be it within the global economy, trade and the processes of multinational corporations; international political decision making; international law; or culture and environment. Globalization is more than only the process of faster internet, international travelling and worldwide businesses – it is tangible within the life of every single individual, within the realm of the media, culture or language. Therefore, intermediaries need to be able to not only monitor and curate between the state and its citizens but also within the state and other nations citizens, between nations and other nations, and within the citizens on a global scale.

It is crucial to encourage a new definition of the ‘general interest’, the interest of the collective that has to be given priority over individual or commercial interests, and in which a fair division of wealth can be created that serves the entire population rather than only a few. With this idea at the forefront, the global Occupy Movement established itself and articulated the most well known critique against the global capitalist system, by coining the slogan “We are the 99%”. Even though the power of this movement has been enormous over the course of a defined time-span, voice can only be effective when it is heard and when its message matters to those in charge. It is therefore up to today’s generation to ensure that society becomes, once again, one that can be heard. According to Hessel (2011), people need to learn how to raise their voice, become a militant, energetic and engaged. It is not only about creating emotion, and the need for change, but about actively responding to it and getting involved in actual deeds of change. However, starting a fire does not solve the problem, as the rise and fall of many social demonstrations have shown throughout the years - it also needs to be kept burning. Several movements, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement have made the step of claiming back their voices – only to fall silent after a while. Indeed, voice is proposed as the most efficient response to the problem of neoliberalism (Cloudry, 2010), as it can disrupt the market principle of neoliberalism and encourage envisaging a different kind of democratic politics based on social cooperation. Since the current economic system fails to design a reciprocal relationship as the influence of the consumer is rather reactive than proactive (Curran, 2002,) voice finds its value especially outside the market domain through open platforms and social media channels. Nonetheless, it has to be understood that it is not enough to articulate more voices, when it cannot be ensured that they will be heard by those in charge. Therefore, it is essential to find a way to make those voices count, give them roots within the political sphere and have them tuned up to a volume that cannot be overheard. It has been realized that the issue of ‘voice’ is not about today’s society not creating spaces for people to articulate themselves, but rather about the fact that it boils down to a lack of recognition. This calls for the creation of new political institutions. The possibility of democracy must be linked to an expanding framework of democratic institutions and agencies, establishing an overarching network of a ‘democratic public flora’ that is covering cities, nation-states, regions, and the wider transnational order - and this is where NGOs come into play.

The Role of NGOs

The relationship between the state and the civil society in our contemporary world can be described as a Yin-Yang dynamic. The state has to be seen as the representative of the ‘politics of domination’, where the civil society represents the ‘politics of consent’ (Tandon, 1991). This means that both the state and the citizens are simultaneously needed to complete the process of governance of society. The state represents the structures of governance, and the civil society creates the values and normative framework around this governance. For this reason, people should hold as much power in demanding for policies and procedures as the state does. However, for the people to develop an informed opinion and build a public judgment, they need to have access. Therefore, the process of formulating rules, policies and laws needs to be an open and public practice. Governments are meant to be the primary guarantors of people's rights, yet are also their main violators. When governments violate or refuse to recognize rights, it is on the NGOs to stress this violation, since individuals or domestic groups often have not the resources and the position do so. Hence, NGOs, voluntary associations, citizen initiatives and neighborhood groups all become essential in ensuring that the state becomes accountable to the people and not vice-versa. To create a balance, a Ying-Yang of modern society between the population and the state, mediating institutions are crucial. Historically, NGOs have always had the core aim of strengthening ‘citizenship’. Even globally, the idea of a transnational civil society and international non-governmental organizations are far from being new forces in global politics. In fact, its history reaches back to the eighteenth century and even earlier, and has a major significance in the transformations of world politics in the last two centuries (Davies, 2013). They formed broad coalitions around major issues, as „before the mid-eighteenth century, the variety of what are now termed INGOs was limited, consisting of institutions such as religious orders, charities, missionary societies, merchant associations, fraternal organizations and scientific bodies. The period from the mid-eighteenth until the mid-nineteenth centuries was a significant period of transition, as multiple new INGOs were formed in an exceedingly expanded variety of fields, including, inter alia, anti-slavery, art, communication, communism, cooperation, education, exploration, imperial trading, indigenous rights, lifesaving, peace, prison reform, republicanism, standardization, vaccination and women’s emancipation“ (Davies, 2013, p.177).

It is not the single, isolated individual who is active in political debates and historical processes, but rather human beings as such who live in define relations with others and who’s nature is determined by precisely these relationships (Held, 2006, p. 97).

Transnational organizations, or INGOs, have not only the ability to create linkages on a large scale, but also act locally. Many, development NGOs have proven the ability to strengthen international ties across domestic civil societies – facilitating the creation of a more interconnected international civil society. Yet, those same development NGOs also help strengthening, and rebuilding, institutional mechanisms on a domestic level in order to provide for service to families and communities in remote areas – connecting locally and globally. True Democracy, so Habermas (2001), can only come about if the people of a state share a form of collective identity. This shared identity however comes in problematic when thinking about international connectedness and the decline of territorial boundaries, distinct languages, cultural habits and traditions. Change within the modern nation-state and the global society as such therefore depends on the development of an international consciousness to provide a cultural substrate for a civil society. Within the a more and more globalizing world, the role of the nation-state to provide shared identity is slowly but steadily getting more and more difficult and doing so causes more and more the risk of negative nationalism. Focusing on a cultural identity is in no way bad, yet keeping this identity fixed on territorial boundaries that are diminishing is a rather dangerous development. NGOs can however smoothly take over this necessity for s sharing of shared values and behaviors.  To become more precise, these nongovernmental organizations are usually forms of organizations characterized by voluntary, reciprocal, and horizontal patterns of communication and exchange (Keck & Sikkink, 2007). Those networks can be either defined as, international and domestic nongovernmental research and advocacy organizations, local social movements, foundations and institutions, consumer organizations, churches or other religious-based groups, and intergovernmental organizations to name a few. NGOs play a central role as they are initiating movements and pressuring more powerful actors to take positions. They introduce new ideas, provide information, and lobby changes. Generally, non-profit organizations have the power of information and are able to use these to persuade and encourage sanctions; they can quickly generate usable information and move it where they have the most impact; and they have the ability to call upon symbols, stories, emotions and connection and hold the capacity to call upon powerful actors. However, it is not only about so called ‚information politics’ and educating people about the wrongs, but also about exercising the power to influence the (consumer) behavior towards certain corporations and economical forces through these information, working against the before described class struggle, locally as well as globally. Consequently, NGOs have the power to facilitate the process of generating an informed public judgment and the ability to empower active citizen participation in order to support the reclaiming process of their rights to their voice. The role of NGOs lies therefore in strengthening civil society to regain and retain hegemony over the state and corporations - be it through challenging the continuous attempts by companies or political parties to control the minds and behavior of people, the expansion of social control through education and science, the strengthening of the mechanisms of democratization of knowledge, promoting philosophical and normative debate around issues of public concern, encouraging civil articulation facilitating promotion of ideas related to social distribution of power, or the accountability of the state to the people as such (Tandon, 1991, p.13).

Through their symbolic power as well as their accountability scheme, NGOs have the ability to not only link different global actors and call them to a right position, but also create a relationship between individuals, their values, needs and wants – a connected identity. Transnational networks in form of nongovernmental organizations have the power to create the idea of a global civil society, passing a feeling of responsibility. Moreover, the before elucidated economic dynamics of the liberal market system and capitalism destroys the system that a democratic constitutional state essentially aims for (Habermas, 2001, p.65). Especially within a more global system, social state interventionism becomes more and more difficult, since the span of distribution widens. NGOs, here, have the ability to work against those mechanisms. Where several citizen initiatives on global, regional and local levels have tried to introduce new systems of monetary distribution in order to cover everybody’s basic needs and give the people the ability to strive for higher goals than short-term financial benefits, NGOs have the power to support those to an extent, that gives them the resources to actually root within the contemporary political system. Unfortunately, often these initiatives never grow to higher grounds, as NGOs and transnational organizations for some reason keep out of this. In order to elucidate on these reasons, the following paragraphs will dive deeper into this issue and suggest a rather utopian yet very proactive solution.

Where the strategic roles NGOs can play their part in strengthening the ideological base of the civil society has been analyzed, it is now crucial to understand that NGOs also have the ability to take on a more practical role, by empowering the people from the bottom-up. The civil society needs to be enabled to articulate values of unity within diversity (Davies, 2013)  – a task that only NGOs can truthfully fulfill, as they can strengthen the practice of citizenship by encouraging the people to view themselves as producers of culture, ideas and values.  The problem is however, and this is also why so many NGOs backed out of supporting the resistance movements, that the history of NGOs is mainly situated on a macro-political level. Looking at today’s dynamics however it becomes quite vivid that there is an immense need for them to move more to a macro-individual level. Also economic forces, as stated earlier, are a main reason for national and international organizations to not wanting to become too involved with those mobilizations. Yet, another reason that is brought up by many critics of the resistant movements, in regard to ‘Occupy Wall Street’, is the pure progressive character of such movements, and the lack of a more proactive approach, as it is not only about standing against what is wrong but also to create what is right. Here, citizen Initiatives like ‘Mein Grundeinkommen’ (My Basic Income) in Germany, show how a proactive approach is indeed able to root itself within society. Started as a crowdfunding initiative, the initiator have already collected and distributed 13 Unconditional Basic Incomes, supported through more than 19.000 individuals within the country (Bohmeyer, 2014), showing how NGOs can successfully play a role on the political and economic scale. If NGOs would take up on such initiatives and support alternative systems through their funds, their information and their power, the ‘utopian project’ (Held, 2006, p.309) of a global civil society living in a welfare state that reaches beyond territorial borders and monetary gains is not as far away as one might think. Nonetheless, many nongovernmental organizations still stay largely uninvolved in promoting this idea further, as they do not want to risk their funding from constitutional bodies, businesses and large governmental institutions, and therefore do not dare to condemn those same bodies (Ishkanian & Glasius, 2013, p.24). So, where does this lead us? The most obvious answer here is probably to promote the facilitation of a stronger bottom-up support of those NGOs; an approach that aims for support backed by the devotees rather than playing along in a paradoxical system of accepting funding from those who cause the need for non-governmental organizations in the first place. Yet, getting people to support NGOs is a widely discussed topic, amongst academics, social psychologists and citizens themselves, be it because of the wrongly understood meaning and role of NGOs in general (Pallota, 2010; 2012), or the misinterpreted duty people have towards their fellow global citizens (Singer, 2009) as a purely ethical understanding. Moreover, some theorists have even gone to the extent of articulating that the interrelation of NGOs and citizens goes beyond people solely supporting NGOs so they can do their job at the other side of the world, but actually moving NGOs in the center of the politic sphere, and giving them a pre-eminent role in the emergence and the guarantee of democracies in modern nation states (Tandon, 1991). This means, that where NGOs now offer a way for voices to be heard from below, they also have the ability to make them count on the larger scale. It can be argued that NGOs next to their monitoring, balancing and facilitating role also offer a way around the restricted system of a representative elite within today’s liberal democracy. When entertaining this thought for a moment, it becomes quite clear that NGOs in fact have the resources to be seen as an alternative to the electoral cycle, able to work towards a form of institutional democracy with the citizens at its core. Here, the citizens would have the possibility to engage with several organizations and initiatives according to their fields of interests and needs – those with the highest engagement would then have the largest influence on the decision-making processes. Also Crouch’s (2004, p.15) sees this form of civil participation as a justified alternative to the current liberal democracy; an alternative without party elites and political alienation as no party really represents the full agenda of one individual. Often if a party would support a more extensive welfare system or stricter regulations on animal welfare, which some individuals would support, they might at the same time publicize against open borders or looser trade rules, which those same people might disagree with. As a consequence, people decide to stay out of the political cherry-picking after all, skip the attempt to translate all different party manifestos into an understandable language and rather engage in pub conversations about how bad politics are and why our system is doomed. ‘Group democracy’ (Scott, 2001, p.114) through initiatives and several interest associations, be it on the scale of merely seeking limited changes and becoming involved in ‘politics of pressure’ or more activist ways towards fundamental changes in social structures and redistribution offers the possibility for people to engage actively in as many groups as they want and choose only those ‘memberships’ they actually care about, enabling people to build a stronger political identity.

Furthermore, those institutions and organizations of collective interest would be able to move easier within the global environment as well as on the dimension of the market, since they do not risk to loose financial ties with corporations or governments, as the latter would not exist anymore and the first would be not needed as interest groups are not only started but as well financed from within. Also, those institutions and organizations would represent only one field and theme of interest and hence would not risk their reputation or an inconsistency within their agenda (as some parties or influential individuals would) when campaigning against individual corporations and business.

Collective behavior and social movements have the ability to translate values and ideals into tangible initiatives (Scott, 2001, p.120), they relate more than any other political party to the identity of the individual. Castells defines this establishment within the three different stages, of which one has been defined as the Resistance Identity. This identity is produced, so Castells, by those who are in a position of being excluded by the logic of domination. The identity of resistance leads to the formation of communities as a way of coping with otherwise unbearable conditions of oppression. Crucial here is however that those bottom-up resistant movements have the ability, so Castells, to at some point rise into so-called Project Identities. These Project Identities are proactive actions, which aim at transforming society as a whole, rather than solely establishing the circumstances for their survival in opposition to the predominant actors. These identities are well-grounded activist identities within society and possess the power to justly move the political agenda, such as movements on environmentalism or feminism for instance.

It has become vivid that NGOs, be it on a local, national or transnational level, have the power and ability to not only influence the current dynamics within the contemporary power system of the civil society, the state and the free market, but also could offer an alternative to the current party system and democracy of representation. The idea of NGOs and ‘interest group’ democracy provides an alternative that can easily be introduced today and is able to gradually shift the current system towards a system of more citizen involvement and participation by lobbying precisely those interest groups more and more. In fact, it can be argued that a democratic system that focuses on interest groups rather than a party system meets the criteria of democracy on a much higher scale. First of all NGOs have the ability of stimulating productive participation (Dahl, 2000), meaning that they have the power to put the citizens as their members in the center of the organization, providing adequate and equal opportunities for them to form an opinion and place questions in order to express reasons for one outcome over the other. Secondly, organizing the democratic system towards a ‘collective behavior’ account allows for larger voting equality at the crucial stage for each citizen and assuring judgments to be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others. Thirdly, enlightened understanding is a pivotal character, as citizens must experience plenteous and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests, NGOs have the informational as well as the symbolic power to fulfill this task adequately. Fourthly, non-governmental organizations provide the possibility for people to exercise control of the agenda, providing the opportunity for people to decide what political matters are and what should be brought up for deliberation. Lastly, inclusiveness is what NGOs and Interest group formations can provide better than maybe any other institution, providing the equal grounds for all citizens from all backgrounds to become part in the political processes by getting involved in either one group or more groups of their interest, as NGOs usually have one core value that people can relate to rather than a party identity.

Scott (2001) sees the power in collective behavior and social movements to actually install a deterministic model, linking structure, consciousness, and action (p.117) as long, and this is essential, as they have the necessary resources to root within society in order to grow into associations that can take part within the Democratic field - NGOs can grow these roots.

Of course this might seem like a very utopian approach, yet, it can be seen as ‘an ideal model’ that can set a marker (Crouch, 2004, p.3). It is essential, so Crouch, to take a rather utopian approach towards democracy rather than scaling down its definition, so they conform to what is easily achieved.  Until then, the idea of NGOs moving more in the center of politics through citizens actively supporting the existence of the NGOs is something that can be aimed towards today, by creating a new understanding of resistance and empowerment, democracy and community. Therefore, a reinterpretation of the dynamics between all those sectors has to be attempted, putting the Civil Society the core of the dynamic and the NGOs around it as a monitoring function. The reason for NGOs not to support citizen-advocacy has been analyzed as an economic and political force, implemented by the bodies that direct the flow of subsidies and funds. NGOs have a wrong image within society and need to not only turn around the way they position themselves within the system of the nation state but also how they position the people within their organizational structure. NGOs have the tools to empower people, to give rise to more bottom-up initiatives outrage and the ability to claim back true democracy and voice. People have the tools to facilitate NGOs in accommodating this idea – the Ying-Yang of modern nonprofit management.



(Stephane Hessel)





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