GLOBALISATION: WTO confrontation shows growing power of NGOs

Private citizens throughout the world, banding together in millions of 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. 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


As the proponents of trade liberalisation gather for the upcoming World

Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle, activists groups are planning their

own meetings and demonstrations to fight for labour, 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, co-ordinated by thousands

of NGOs, exercise over one of the most powerful yet least accountable transnational organisations,” said Runyan.

By withholding or conferring public support, activist organisations 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 GM foods

onto supermarket shelves without what they claim is 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 GM 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.

In most countries, a large share of these citizens groups provide education,

health, and social services. But the work of these groups cannot replace

essential government services. “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

citizen groups and charities.”

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