Filling gaps in modern civic life


NGOs: Nonprofit groups have emerged in force throughout the world to take on causes neglected by government and business.

February 27, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This month's policy summit on youth in the Balkans was a thoroughly modern political powwow.

The site, Helsinki, Finland, was far from the Balkans. Most of the 45 delegates didn't work for Balkan governments. Many didn't work for any governments. Instead, they took orders from Chicago, Geneva and Baltimore, from private committees responsible to nobody.

It's politics, 21st-century style, where borders fade, civic interests spread, and government authority makes room for something new.

The Balkans meeting was organized by the International Youth Foundation, based on South Street in downtown Baltimore. Run by a polyglot, 10-person board, IYF works in 20 nations to improve education, health and economic prospects for young people, often cooperating with local governments but deriving its authority and power from somewhere else entirely.

IYF is one of perhaps millions of nonprofit organizations seeking to leave their marks on neighborhoods, solar systems and jurisdictions in between.

NGOs, they're called. Nongovernmental organizations. Their recent ascendancy, infamously marked by the disruption of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year, "may be as significant to the late 20th century as the rise of the nation-state" in an earlier time, said Lester M. Salamon, director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies in Baltimore.

In a recent study of 22 countries, Salamon and colleagues found that nonprofit organizations spent $1.1 trillion in 1995, enough to make up the world's eighth-biggest economy, after Italy.

But NGOs are more than a source of jobs. Political scientists see them occupying the civic no-man's land -- a sort of power gap -- between the modern state and for-profit businesses.

Their thinking goes like this: Although the world is more connected than ever, governments are stuck minding the interests of constituencies within their borders. And even there, governments have retracted, cutting social programs and other services.

Corporations, for their part, have embraced globalism, but only the part yielding profit.

Left over are tiny niches and huge swaths of what many people see as unmet needs: homeless people in America; poor schools; global warming; Third World sweatshops; slow international dissemination of scholarly research.

"No single sector or government has enough money or enough wisdom to solve these very complicated, intractable problems alone," said Rick Little, IYF's president. "We need each other."

The WTO meeting in Seattle was a landmark for NGOs and world politics in general, many analysts believe. Hundreds of NGOs from dozens of countries challenged the power of nations and corporations -- and won.

Protesting against unfettered global commerce, groups from the Friends of the Earth to the Teamsters to the Kenyan Consumers Information Network mobbed Seattle and torpedoed the launch of a new round of trade negotiations.

But NGOs have scored other international victories in recent years, successfully promoting a treaty to ban land mines and scuttling an investment accord that would have lowered barriers to global capital flows.

The land mine pact, which the United States has not signed, was ratified by more than 130 nations after a global grass-roots network pressed for it. Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the Nobel Peace Prize, as did another NGO, Doctors Without Borders, which dispenses medicine amid wars, disasters and other places where government is scarce.

Baltimore's IYF acts as a sort of clearinghouse for youth-oriented NGOs everywhere, evaluating programs, directing resources, promoting communication. It fights illiteracy in Paraguay, drug abuse in Slovakia and dropping out of school in China.

While NGOs' prominence and reach are new, NGOs are not.

"Of course, they're more active now. They're more powerful now," said Steve Charnovitz, a Washington trade attorney who has studied NGOs. "But this idea that this is something new is just wrong."

Neighborhood associations, professional societies and service organizations such as the Rotary Club have been around for many decades.

Early international NGOs included the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. A century ago, NGOs helped fashion the first round of globalism, setting international measurement standards and time zones, said John Boli, associate professor of sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

But NGOs didn't blossom and start to affect national and international policy until the 1960s or so.

The Yearbook of International Organizations lists about 26,000 trans-border NGOs around the world, up from 6,000 in 1990. Within national borders, the number of groups might exceed 2 million, experts said. The small former Soviet state of Kazakstan, for example, has nearly 700 NGOs, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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