The world watched recently as the continuing tragedy in Myanmar unfolded.
Millions were displaced earlier this month by a cyclone that devastated the country’s Irrawaddy delta, leaving 134,000 people dead or missing.
But in a cruel twist, the tragedy only deepened as relief for the victims was repeatedly blocked by the nation’s military regime that considered foreign intervention, even the simple delivery of food and water by nonprofit aid agencies, suspicious and unwelcome.
Though aid has finally begun to flow to the country, it is sobering to contemplate how many lives the three-week delay may have cost.
The Myanmar situation served as a timely, if tragic, backdrop to a May 21 discussion at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, which was co-sponsored by the School’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. The discussion addressed the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to impact world politics.
A panel of scholars acknowledged the increasingly influential role of NGOs over the past 30 years, but also offered a skeptical view of their ability to fundamentally change governmental structure and policy.
Though organizations with no direct connection to or representation by a particular government have existed for years, the term NGO came into popular use with the creation of the United Nations, which had to distinguish between the rights it offered to intergovernmental agencies and those it offered to international private organizations. Currently, NGOs hold consultative status with the United Nations, which allows them to act as technical experts, advisers, and consultants.
Such organizations have many assets that can help them influence policy and politics, noted Peter Bell, senior research fellow at the Hauser Center. In particular, their experience on the ground in the poorest countries in the world offers a critical perspective.
“This experience provides firsthand information and knowledge, giving voice to the aspirations, the conditions, and the concerns of the people who live in these communities,” said Bell.
Their commitment to a vision of a better and safer world that includes global poverty relief and development is a message that resonates around the world, he said. Additionally, he noted, their ability to work on both sides of civil conflict puts them in a position to “bring testimony to leaders on both sides of these conflicts.”
Most NGOs, said the former president of CARE USA, are also members of global federations and alliances and have developed important partnerships and collaborations with governments, corporations, and other NGOs.
But they do have limitations. Bell noted their inability to influence the president or his administration in the lead up to the war in Iraq, or diminish the impact of powerful domestic interests like the corporate lobby behind the farm bill that blocks competition and commodities from developing countries.
Still, he argued, “there is little question that they have become and are becoming more influential in world politics, where they can bring their experience and expertise to bear and where there is resonance in a broader constituency.”
Jackie Smith, associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, was optimistic in her assessment of the influence of NGOs in shaping world politics.
States have evolved historically through interactions between power holders and civil society groups that challenge that power, she said, offering the example of the role of the Red Cross in promoting the Geneva Conventions and the work of civil society groups that helped define the structure of the League of Nations.
“By interacting in the context of the United Nations or the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, … what civil society groups have always been doing is democratizing global politics and institutions and creating new mechanisms for transparency and accountability.”
The major dissenting voice on the panel belonged to Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and associate at the Weatherhead Center. NGOs, he said, have had limited ability to “alter traditional world hierarchies.” He used the grave human rights violations in the post-Cold War era to support his claim.
“It’s more recently become clear how limited the influence of international civil society is in advancing human rights when states have another idea,” Paarlberg said.
Only military air strikes put an end to the ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia, said Paarlberg. No such intervention was ever used in Rwanda, where the genocide went unchecked. The situation is the same, he said, in the Darfur region of Sudan.
In these instances, noted Paarlberg, the powerlessness of organizations like the United Nations and civil society “stand out.” The problem, he said, is largely tied to the notion of sovereignty that often prohibits foreign intervention.
“[In Myanmar] we see a regime … that is able to tell humanitarian assistance agencies that they’re not allowed into the country,” he said. “States that wish to keep a distance from international civil society have the capacity to do so.”