Manual Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century

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The purpose of this background paper is not to provide a comprehensive review of the literature or of experience, but to suggest a framework to help participants think the issues through and make connections between their own contributions, and the wider picture.


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The first part of the paper looks at the changing context for NGOs in international development, and identifies some of the challenges this context throws up. Three key trends are explored, corresponding to the themes that will run throughout the conference proceedings:. Underlying these three, inter-related trends is the need for new forms of solidarity - or new "social contracts" - between citizens of different polities and new structures of authority at different levels of the world system. It is these new relationships - expressed through partnerships, alliances and other forms of collaboration - that provide the framework for NGO innovations in economics, politics and social policy.

However, responding effectively to these challenges requires NGOs to develop different roles, relationships and capacities, and these organisational implications are explored in the second part of the paper.

One might question the wisdom of launching such a wide-ranging, futuristic discussion at a time when so much remains outstanding from the agenda of the first two Manchester Conferences - how to achieve and measure impact, work with donors and governments without co-optation, and remain accountable to different constituencies - yet progress on these issues is taking place, albeit in piecemeal fashion. What is lacking is a broader framework that relates changes inside the NGO community to the great economic and political questions of our times.


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Our hope is that the conference papers and debates will generate more of this framework than we currently have, so helping us to respond more effectively to global trends to the benefit of those we seek to serve. Ultimately, it is these broader questions that will determine whether development NGOs are major players on the world stage in the 21st Century, for if they are not part of a truly "global future", then the future of NGOs - at least in their present disguise - may be bleak.

In the lates, no conference is complete without a panel on globalisation. There is much disagreement on the meaning and extent of this phenomenon, but there is surely a basic reality at work which cannot be ignored. This reality is globalisation as technology-driven fact: electronic communication, declining transport costs, more flexible forms of economic organisation, and the growing importance of mobile assets like finance and knowledge establish an increasingly uniform horizon of production possibilities across national borders, integrating markets around the world and internationalising decisions about jobs and investment.

The consequences of this process in a world of unequal producers and consumers are well-known - spectacular rewards for those well-endowed with the conditions required to take advantage of these opportunities; increasing pressures on those less well-endowed to sell their labour, family life or environment cheaply in order to make a living; and rising inequality between these two groups, both within and between countries. In , the combined income of three billion people in the Third World was less than the collective assets of multi-billionaires; Bill Gates' fortune prior to the late-summer stock-market crash was worth more than that of the poorest 40 per cent of the US population put together.

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UNDP Rather than solid and stable blocs of 'North and South', NGOs in the 21st Century will confront a rapidly changing patchwork quilt of poverty and exclusion that requires new and genuinely- international responses - notwithstanding the continued presence of a hard core of absolutely-poor people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As recent events have demonstrated, the "new rich" like those in East and Southeast Asia , and those previously well-provided for in social protection like the former-Soviet Union can become the "new poor" on an epic scale within a matter of a year.

Inequality, exclusion and the insecurity they breed look set to drive global politics for the next generation and beyond. Underlying these trends is a more controversial process of "globalisation as culture": the homogenising of values and aspirations to Western norms of individualism and consumerism - what Hobsbawm sees as the real "cultural revolution" of our century.

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The media - recently transformed into a truly global institution controlled by a small number of multinational corporations - now plays a key role in these cultural processes. Some commentators dismiss such conclusions as superficial - capitalism has always adapted to the local context; others see culture as pivotal in the coming "clash of civilisations" as those who see themselves threatened or disempowered by cultural re-colonisation take refuge in ethnic or religious identity, often violently expressed. The conflicts that this process generates are considered in Section 3.

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Despite these divergent interpretations, all agree that there is considerable room for manoeuvre in retaining the potential benefits of globalisation-as-fact, while addressing the potential costs of globalisation-as-culture. The real debate is not whether globalisation exists and will continue it does and it will , but about how its costs and benefits are distributed, and on that question there is little that is pre-ordained by technology or impervious to politics.

The issue for our conference is clear: what role do NGOs have in re-shaping the processes of an evolving global capitalism so that all can enjoy the fruits of economic progress without losing what gives equal meaning to their lives? On this issue there is no consensus. Some NGOs advocate de-linking from the world economy in order to promote self-reliance and protect local cultures; others think this unrealistic and opt for various forms of constructive engagement; while the most optimistic embrace globalisation as a progressive social revolution in the making.

We are all experimenting, and learning as we go. Despite the diversity that characterises these debates, there remains a common thread that runs through all NGO positions: civil society can act as a countervailing force to the expanding influence of markets and the declining authority of states. Although workers have less power in integrated markets, consumers have more; and while the erosion of national sovereignty does leave some groups more vulnerable to the abuse of unaccountable power, it also opens up more possibilities for civic organisations to link with each-other across national boundaries in new structures of governance, especially as information technology makes it easier to move from traditional hierarchies to more flexible networks and alliances.

The potential globalisation of governance and decision-making is explored in Section 2, though it is worth remembering that access to IT is also skewed toward those with more power and resources. The true extent and potential of civil society is a controversial subject, especially at the global level. Some perceive a fundamental "power shift" as state-based authority recedes, while others question the ability of non-state groups to fill the resulting political vacuum.

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These doubts apply especially to development NGOs because of their dependence on foreign aid and their non-representative character. Nevertheless, an increasing number of NGOs are diversifying their funding sources and generating high levels of their own income from a mixture of commercial ventures, cost-recovery and local fund-raising, especially in South Asia and Latin America. In the process, they are sinking roots into their own societies and assuming more of the characteristics of a genuine civic actor, rather than a service delivery contractor.

The rise of civil society in the South is uneven and in many areas slow, but it is happening, and this obviously has important implications for NGOs in the North and for the broader global civic alliances that are taking shape around the world. These are exceptional cases, but even where the number and range of civil society organisations is smaller, individual agencies are developing a research and policy-lobbying capacity to rival those in the North, alongside their activities in service-delivery.

Whatever else globalisation may be doing, it has not changed the fundamental reality of poverty of assets - the maldistribution of productive resources, skills and capacities that lies at the root of the problem. Integrated markets increase the importance of some of these assets like knowledge and organisational strength , and decrease the significance of others the fixed factors of production , but the imperative of re-distribution remains. NGOs have a vital role in advocating for it, especially where fuzzy-minded "Third-Way" thinking makes all talk of re-distribution unpopular. Underlying these inequalities are the power structures that discriminate against certain groups of people.

There is a danger that civil society will be seen as a new "magic bullet", now that politicians are disenchanted with both state planning and "free" markets, ignoring the fact that exclusion results from the interlocking structures of social, economic and political power in which civic associations are also implicated.

Most NGOs believe that human rights standards and other social values can be mainstreamed through these power structures in order to spread their benefits and reduce their costs - whether in markets, politics or social discrimination. In that sense, the over-arching role of NGOs is to "help revision the world as an ever-growing web of non-exploitative relationships" Fowler Translating these principles into practice at different levels of the world economy is difficult and complex, but the case for doing so is clear.

Despite the disagreements and probable future fragmentation of NGOs in both North and South, all agree that there are increasing opportunities to work together across institutional boundaries in order to influence the forces that underpin poverty and discrimination, finding partnerships and synergies where few existed before, and moulding not just a strong civil society but a society that is just and civil in all that it does.

Confronting globalisation begins and ends at the grassroots level, where NGOs are already developing a number of strategies to help poor people address the realities of their position in global markets and play a creative role in re-shaping economic forces. First, by improving the endowments of the poor so that they can compete more effectively and achieve a basic level of security, voice and equality of rights, without which economic "alternatives" are impossible.

This continues the traditional NGO role of developing skills, confidence, capacities and forms of association, and improving access to credit, services and economic opportunities - but underpinned by a more systematic attempt to link different levels and sectors of the economy. Second, NGOs can turn market forces to the advantage of poorer groups by reducing the benefits normally siphoned off by intermediaries - using, for example, joint marketing associations like those supported by NGOs in Latin America Bebbington or attempts by NGOs in South Africa to work with community associations to help them negotiate better contracts with commercial hunting and tourism concerns.

Third, civic groups are exploring alternative modes of production and exchange which are less costly in social and environmental terms, build more "social capital" for use in market settings qualities such as trust, co-operation, and honesty , support men and women to combine their market and non-market roles to better effect, and distribute profits with a social purpose.

These deeper changes are crucial in addressing the Achilles heel of most empowerment strategies: a failure to think through what happens when people with less power obtain more of it - a fairer society in which people distribute the costs and benefits of social and economic change more equitably, or more competition against the background of existing gender and other inequalities?

This challenge - the regulation of all exclusionary systems of power - is one that most NGOs have tended to ignore, but it is the key to an agenda for transforming capitalism rather than "humanising" it. Small-scale innovations may be viable at a larger scale if they can be shown to generate material advances sufficient to eradicate absolute poverty, thus building the long-term public and political support that more radical alternatives currently lack. We hope that the conference will explore this issue in detail.

Future Positive: International Co-Operation in the 21st Century

At the opposite extreme, NGOs continue their role as carers of last resort, operating safety-nets, and providing welfare to the casualties of globalisation, especially in countries where the transition from protected markets has been far too rapid as in the Former Soviet Union. At the national level, grassroots innovations need support from pro-poor macro-economic and social policies. Although globalisation does erode state authority, the re-distributive and protective functions of states remain paramount.

There is a tendency among some NGOs to focus on global advocacy to the exclusion of the national-level processes of state-society relations that underpin the ability of any country to pursue progressive goals in an integrated economy - the task of rebuilding government capacity to negotiate, monitor and regulate global regimes; the importance of pro-poor alignments in civil society and between civil society, business and government; and the role of domestic civic groups in combating corruption, pressing for institutional accountability, and preserving a social consensus in favour of economic reform.

Few NGOs have given enough thought to their roles in these areas, partly because of a lingering suspicion of states in any form, and partly because of the temptation to "leap-frog" the national arena and go direct to Washington or Brussels. In sustainable development terms, this is a serious mistake. At the global level, successful strategies must be connected to supportive actions in other parts of the international system.

Globalisation means, not only that NGOs must engage more strategically with market forces on a much bigger scale than before, but do so in ways which link micro- to macro-forces together in a coherent way.

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Examples include: linking alternative production systems to international fair trade networks that give them some security in open markets; holding corporations to account against minimum social and environmental standards negotiated locally but monitored across global supply chains; and altering patterns of consumption in the "global North" in ways which do not disadvantage producers in the "global South. NGOs have been key players in attempts to reform corporate accountability, test out multinational codes of conduct, re-shape consumer demand, and alter patterns of global trade.

Inevitably, enthusiasm tends to run ahead of actual achievements - there are limits to the extent to which market economies can be reformed - but the principles involved have now been identified, and much is already known about how to operationalise them in practice. The conference provides an opportunity to take stock of what is happening with a greater degree of rigor.

In the same vein, NGOs are becoming more strategic in their lobbying of the International Financial Institutions, the monitoring of international commitments like Social Watch , and the democratization of global economic and other regimes like the World Trade Organization and the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Although there has been little concrete progress in opening these regimes to civil society participation, they are likely to be the centrepiece of the global system in the 21st century and demand a concerted response.

The beginnings of such a response are sketched out below. The inadequacy of the IFIs has become an issue on which there is an unusual global consensus. Their focus on ensuring that public sector finances are not overextended has led them to neglect the regulation of private financial transactions. The consequences - financial panic and massive over-exposure - are fuelling a global recession that has already cost the world 10 million formal sector jobs. Are NGOs any better prepared?

Critiques of the World Bank and the IMF have been an easy game; redesigning the international system will require more complex analysis and more subtle proposals than the sweeping campaigns of the past. In addition to these very broad shifts in global economics, development NGOs face another set of changes much closer to home.