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3 November 1999 Issue

Growing Power of Activist Groups
e-mail worldwatch@worldwatch.org
visit our website www.worldwatch.org A

Private citizens throughout the world, banding together in millions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are exercising an unprecedented level of influence over the decisions of governments and businesses, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute. "The proliferation of these groups and the spread of their influence have been very rapid," said Curtis Runyan, author of "Action on the Front Lines" in the November/December issue of World Watch magazine. Estimates show that up to 70 percent of the 2 million NGOs in the United States have been created in the last three decades. The number of NGOs operating internationally - those with a significant presence in three or more countries -- has quadrupled to 20,000 in that same period.

As the powerful proponents of trade liberalization gather for the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle, activists groups are planning their own meetings and demonstrations to fight for labor, health, consumer, and environmental standards threatened by the WTO's current agenda. "The biggest story in Seattle may not be the WTO and its trade negotiations, but the influence that citizen protests around the world, coordinated by thousands of NGOs, exercise over one of the most powerful yet least accountable transnational organizations," said Runyan.

Despite having modest budgets and resources that pale in comparison to those of their government and business counterparts, NGOs are increasingly powerful players in local, national, and international decision-making.

"Many groups have proved more adept than governments and business at responding to social and environmental problems," said Runyan. "In Bangladesh, for example, a child is more likely to learn to read with the assistance of one of the 5,000 NGOs working on literacy programs than through a state school or organization."

More and more, these groups are operating in extensive, worldwide coalitions, teaming up to give local issues international prominence, or international issues local relevance. In 1988, for example, as countries were working to ratify a treaty permitting mining in Antarctica, a coalition of 200 NGOs crafted a counter-proposal to set the continent aside as a world park. Using data showing the fragility of the region from Greenpeace's Antarctic monitoring station, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition marshaled so much public support for its park proposal that the mineral treaty was abandoned and Antarctica was soon declared a world park.

By withholding or conferring public support, activist organizations have affected policies of the world's most powerful institutions. Greenpeace and other environmental and health groups in Europe have rallied consumers against the bioagricultural industry's efforts to introduce genetically modified foods onto supermarket shelves without sufficient testing of ecological and health effects. In the past year, major supermarket chains and baby food manufacturers have announced that they will refuse to use genetically modified food in their products. Faced with unrelenting criticism, Monsanto, one of the most aggressive purveyors of genetically modified crops, recently announced that it was dropping plans to develop its "terminator" seed technology, which would have made it impossible for farmers to save seeds from one season to the next.

Even governments once impervious to protest are responding to the coordinated pressures of local and international activist groups. In Indonesia, NGOs like the London-based Tapol and the East Timor Action Network, helped pressure the government to allow an independence referendum in East Timor after 25 years of military occupation. Despite the Indonesian military's genocidal response, the overwhelming vote for independence stands as a victory for the East Timorese and the international NGOs working on their behalf.

Citizen action groups also play an important role in providing consumers with information about the behavior of corporations. One example is the stamp of approval that some groups offer products, such as SmartWood, which certifies wood that is harvested sustainably; Green Seal, which promotes environmentally friendly products; and the California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies food which meets its organic standards. In addition, massive consumer boycotts coordinated by NGOs have pushed clothing, shoe, toy, and other companies to address the use of sweatshop and child labor.

Increasingly, activist groups are bypassing tactics that require influencing government or industry. Instead, they are providing their own solutions to social and environmental problems. The Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, which has tackled rural poverty by providing poor women with small amounts of capital, has sparked a micro-lending revolution around the world. The Grameen Bank's loans, which average around $175, provide small-scale entrepreneurs with the money they need to get on their feet. To date the bank has lent more than $2.4 billion, seen a phenomenal repayment rate of 97 percent, and made unparalleled inroads against poverty and discrimination against women in many poor countries.

The vast majority of NGOs are not high profile activist groups that tend to grab headlines. Instead, in most countries, a large share of these groups provide education, health, and social services. One survey of 22 countries found that two-thirds of all nonprofit employment is devoted to such services as primary and secondary education, hospital and health care, income support and emergency aid and relief.

While NGOs are increasingly stepping up to provide unmet needs," said Runyan, "we should not allow governments to shirk their social and ecological responsibilities by pawning off their duties to citizens groups and charities."

Runyan also highlights the confusion caused by the growing number of nonprofit organizations funded and controlled by corporate interests. "Having observed the effectiveness of grassroots groups, industries are setting up front groups that attempt to make use of these same channels of influence," said Runyan. "Groups like the Greening Earth Society and the Global Climate Coalition are nothing more than well-funded industry PR firms." Nonprofit industry and trade groups already employ four times as many people as environmental groups do.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:

Worldwatch Institute
1776 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036
telephone: 202 452-1999
fax: 202 296-7365

e-mail worldwatch@worldwatch.org
or visit our website www.worldwatch.org

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