PSPD in English Archive 2000-10-31   3152

The Role of NGOs in Politics in Modern West-Europe

The Role of NGOs in Politics in Modern West-Europe

1. NGOs are a States best friends

NGOs have evolved in the last two decades as new and genuine elements of politics. They play a role not only in domestic politics, but, with increasing importance, also in international politics. The TV-pictures of the battle of Seattle , where a transnational coalition of NGOs and interest groups has partially paralysed one of the most important international negotiating processes of our times – the discussions about the further development of the world trade system – has driven home the message world wide: NGOs do play a role in politics. On a symbolical level, the images of Seattle were conveying a well-known and familiar idea: that NGOs are a kind of corrective element, a counter-weight against the overarching powers of state bureaucracies: Inside, them, the cold and anonymous negotiating machinery of the WTO and its member countries; outside: We, the people.

These pictures were effective and powerful. And yet, they were also deceptive in several ways. In reality, the NGO vs. State – logic of NGOs has waned since quite a time. On the contrary: NGOs are – at least in Western societies – on their way to become the states best friend.

2. Why NGOs?

Why do NGOs exist altogether? The question is complex and intrinsically related to social changes in Western societies. As theories abound, any answer will necessarily be somehow arbitrary and eclectic. But I would suggest that there are four fundamental developments which explain the emergence of NGOs as a political phenomenon in West European societies.

a) Reflexive Modernity

Anthony Giddens, the academic master-mind of the Third Way has in various writings tried to analyse the shape and dynamics of post-traditional society.1) Central to his thinking is the notion of manufactured risks . Insecurity, he argues, does in the scientific age no longer originate in mans inability to master the threats imposed to him by an uncontrollable nature. The mayor threats to our life and security today come from within the modern scientific system itself. The risk of mass destruction, the risk of the destruction of the very basic prerequisites of human existence – natural resources, bio-diversity, ozone-layer etc. – the risks of social disintegration are brought about by technological and scientific progress. The age-old struggle of man to ban insecurity out of his existence via technological innovation and scientific progress has failed; the very instruments he used to wage this struggle – scientific and technological progress – have proven to be at the origin of always new risks. So, systemically, no security is left: Any attempt, to reduce insecurity by scientific and technical means does produce new insecurities. Ulrich Beck, the most influential German sociologist speaks in this respect of the Age of the side-effect :2) Any wished for positive effect of scientific innovation is accompanied by a host of side-effects which are not positive and not wished for.

Man, under these circumstances, is forced to take another stand to his own doing: he has to reflect continuously the possible unwanted effects of his undertakings. Society as whole becomes reflexive , and has to take an critical and analytical approach to itself.

b) Scientification

A second consequence of the age of manufacture risks is the scientificization of political and social processes. If the central driving force of change and the primary source of collective insecurity is of scientific origin, than any attempt to asses and master these effects has to root in scientific knowledge itself. Hence, intellectual capacities and scientific knowledge become central elements in social and political controversy. Evidently, this tends to alternate in a significant way the balance of power within the political arena. If it comes – to take a cold war example – to asses the character of Soviet armed forces and its relative degree of aggressiveness or non-aggressiveness, it is difficult for ordinary citizens, to contradict an assessment which comes out of the political-administrative system. But when it comes to assess the risks implied in a given scientific or industrial procedure, any citizens with corresponding scientific knowledge will be able to participate at the discussion, often at far higher degree of competence than politicians and government officials, who almost necessarily are non-experts. So it is not surprising, that in western Europe, the rise of non-governmental expertise and scientific knowledge has been closely linked to the development of the ecological movement in the 1970s and 80s: Ecology tended to be the first thoroughly scientififized political issue in our societies.

c) The society of the smart people

This point is closely linked to the emergence of what James N. Roseau has called the society of the smart people . The world as a whole, but especially the OECD-countries have witnessed the last fifty years a continuous expansion of second- and third level education. This skill revolution has, combined with rapidly expanding availability of information in the information age , led to a rapid increase in competence inside society. Knowledge is no longer restricted to exclusive circles of professional experts or bodies; it is fairly equally distributed at any levels of society. As James N. Rosenau says, ‘…elites are conceived to retain control over resources, communications and policy-making processes, but they are also viewed as increasingly constrained by publics who follow their activities, who are more skilled at knowing when to engage in collective action, and who are ever ready to demand appropriate performances in exchange for support.3)

d) The Changing Character of the State

Last but not least, the character of the State itself has changed. The classical mechanisms of government by political institutions have been replaced by a far more complex system of governance, in which society itself plays a much more active role. This neo-corporatist model of stateness and political order is in Germany closely linked to the writings of a group of scientists working at the Cologne-base Max-Planck-Institute fur Sozialforschung , esp. Wolfgang Streeck, Fritz W. Scharpf,, Adrienne Heritier and – internationally – to the oeuvre of Philipe Schmitter.4)

Instead of formulating (in the processes of political decision-making inside the political class, the bureaucracy and parliament) and executing political decisions in a hierarchically organised top-down approach, the state today acts more of less as a notary . He codifies, officialises and implements political results, which have primarily been developed and matured inside society itself. Politics turn out to be the result of bargaining-processes within policy-networks where the social and economic interests at stake are represented.

This redefinition of the role of the state in the process of policy-making is the result of many developments; I would like to cite only some, which seem essential to me:

a growing autonomy of the economy enterprises gained considerable room of manoeuvre by the denationalising dynamics of globalisation; this process has considerably limited the capacity of the state to intervene in the economic sphere;

a rapid increase in complexity of political decisions to be taken, which would structurally exceed the states institutional capacities; private knowledge and expertise are needed to find adequate and socially acceptable solutions;

The increasing demand of society to take an active part in decision taking which has its roots in the development I mentioned above.

A decreasing capacity of traditional political institutions like political parties to aggregate and represent the society in its diversity and complexity.

Within this institutional framework of the Negotiation-State NGOs have finally emerged as new actors, forcing their way into the bargaining room.

This intrusion of new players into the world of the neo-corporatist German negotiation state has been facilitated res. made possible by two processes:

The emergence of the so-called New Social Movements which were, at a given moment, able to mobilise for their cause important parts of society. The heydays of these new social movements have been the 1970ies and 80ies, when the hedonistic revolution – perhaps the only lasting social revolution of the 20th century – has put into question several pillars of the social and political organisation of the industrial societies of the West. These movements – Womens movement, ecological movement, peace-movement, citizens-rights-movement, gay- and lesbian-rights movements, to name just a few could not totally be excluded from the policy-formulation process;

Closely related to this is the fact, that these movements were able to gain considerable support in the media and public opinion. It is interesting to refer here shortly to the concept of ‘deliberative politics , as Jurgen Habermas has formulated it.5)

The political system consists, in this understanding, of various concentric circles; the state bureaucracy is only a kind of core element. Basic political processes tend to be prepared, negotiated and made accepted in the outer spheres of the political system within a process of rational argumentation. It is not so important, how we would like to label this ‘room , where the deliberative process of politics take place: Civil society, political public or what so ever. It is in this area of public politics where the new social movements – and their political heirs, the NGOs – had been able to master considerable support and influence. Media – especially television that covered their activities and thus popularised their issues and concerns were crucial to that process. The fact, that politics tend to become more and more medatized has, for a long time, been a facilitating factor for the emergence of NGOs and social movements. Greenpeace-Actions make good TV-pictures, as well as gay-pride-parades. Also street-fighting, tear gas and water-cannons are highly welcome. I do not wish to be impolite; but generally, the pictures we see in German TV-news about Korea, are of this type: labour strife, trade unionist vs. police, student riots etc. I do not think that there is any hidden agenda or social stereotype behind this. The reasons for this lie in the intrinsic logic of television as a visual medium and in its growing commercialisation.

3. State NGO relations today: From friendly co-existence to cosy relations

So, where are we now? NGOs have become established actors in the political negotiating process inside Germany, but also in international politics. They are accepted as advocates of ‘public goods that in the traditional corporatist setting of German – and West European – politics tended to have no voice, as they are not related to established socio-economic interest or the overarching public goods which the state has to deliver: protection of property and the underlying economic and social order, security, respect of the law and constitution.

The basic features of this equilibrium, of the new extended negotiating framework of post-traditional modern states can be described as follows:

The weakening of the state in the process of neo-liberal restructuration of western societies since the 1980ies has given increasing possibilities to influence political processes to NGOs; non-state actors are today increasingly important to deliberative political procedures;

The complexity of problems has increased; scientific knowledge and expertise have become more important; specialised institutions which can proceed scientific information and make it accessible to the political decision-making process become ever more important. NGOs play an important role here.

The ways in which the political consensus is produced within societies, have changed. NGOs – just because they are diverse and heterogeneous – play an important role within that system. But their role is generally much weaker than that of other non-state actors, like business and the media. The ‘power of the NGO is, to use term of Peter Wahl, ‘only borrowed from the media .6)

NGOs have developed significantly from their origins inside the broader social movements of the 1970ies and 80ies. Contrary to the new social movements, they do not put into question the legal and institutional framework, or the broader social order within they are active. They are reformist by nature. They have adopted a professionalized style of action based on expertise and co-operation within decision-taking-processes instead of collective action and -experiences, mass mobilisation and -politication. The participation of NGOs in the processes of deliberative politics depends more from the quality of the input they can deliver than from their social representativeness.

This points to another element: NGOs tend to have been co-opted into the instrumental array of the extended state . Many of them receive direct or indirect public funding, and are quite often rotating around their department of local, regional or federal government. This is not only true for Germany. Thomas Carothers wrote recently, in an article in Foreign Policy , that ‘…even in the US, governmental funding of civil society is much more extensive than many people realize… Government is almost twice as significant a source of income for American non-profit organisations as is private giving…’7)

In international arenas, NGOs form quite often more or less part of the German Delegation and serve as pool of expertise to the official negotiating delegation. This has been true for almost all of the major UN-Conferences of the recent years be it at Bejing, Cairo, Kophenhagen, Istanbul or even Seattle.

NGO-research suggests, that NGOs tend to concentrate their activities not on the legislative power, but on the executive power, i.e. the administration. This reflects the shifting balance of power between legislation and executive power in the western states within the last twenty years.

Finally, there is a growing discrepancy between the analysis of situation and the form and content of the NGOs behaviour: Whereas, on the analytical side, NGOs tend to deliver ‘doomsday -type of descriptions – imminent collapse of the ozone-layer and other crucial ecological systems, alarming poverty and underdevelopment, growing social tensions inside societies or completely inadequate functioning of the international financial system (just to cite a few) in practice, they opt for a reformist and gradualist approach. Instead of working for the abolishment of a system, whose alleged inadequacy and self-destructiveness they denounce systematically, they merely want to reform it.8)

So what we are witnessing now, is a kind of symbiotic relationship between the state and the NGOs. This friendly co-existence between NGOs and state bureaucracy is of benefit for the state and, in a larger sense, for the political system as a whole. NGOs are of use for the state, as they:

indicate actual problems in diverse spheres of society;

aggregate and regroup disparate weak interests which are by the means of NGOs integrated into the political system;

make the expertise and know-how accumulated in epistemic and scientific communities available for the political process

reinforce and complete official resources on the international level.

Summarising this trend, we would rather see NGOs no more as the antagonists of the state. To come back to the images from Seattle: It is not we and them . In reality, it is something which sounds more and more like us .

4. New Challenges

In the end, the ‘Battle of Seattle was only a last, more or less symbolic confrontation between civil society and the world of states. Behind the facade, there was already a new, much more powerful opponent looming: Market totalitarism.

The old ‘adversary of the new social movements an authoritarian, patriarchal, and technocratic state, deeply enmeshed with mighty economic and social interests – does no longer exist. Partially, it has been buried by the new social movements themselves; partially it fell victim as did the ‘new social movements to the rise of neo-liberal anti-etatism as the dominating ideological paradigm in Western societies.

Today the most important threat to the ‘weak interests , represented by NGOs, as well as to the citizens and individuals rights do no longer come from ‘big government . These interests and values are put into question by the economic sphere, which tends to delegitimise and eliminate any sphere of society which is not organised according to the market-principle and not open to commercial exploitation. Equally important, the technological dynamic within the economic sphere is nowadays more or less beyond any public or political control. These processes are, to come back to the terms of Anthony Giddens ‘manufactured risks in their purest form. Actually they tend to reach a new quality by the manipulation of the very basic elements of nature and human life: I talk about the new so-called ‘life-sciences , i.e. genetic engineering, bio-technologies and reproduction-technologies. Again: most of these processes are beyond any public control, organised and controlled by private enterprise.

Most NGOs, of course, know that. Hence there is an increasing tendency within the NGO movement to group itself around the state and to protect the political sphere against the ongoing attempts of ‘hostile take-over by the economy. The democratic state is the last big island of non-market, non-economic forms of social interaction beyond the immediate private sphere. It is the purveyor of public goods, which neoliberalism wants either to abolish or to commercialise. Last but not least, the democratic state is accessible for rational argumentation the only power resource the NGOs do dispose of. The state, being weak and instrumental to the economy as it may be, still is a bulwark against the totalitarism of the market, where interests, which have no financial resources, are ignored, and goods, that have no price, are not produced. These are the new challenges for the NGOs: to conserve social and political spheres which are not subdued to market principles and at least partially open to the procedures democratic decision-making and governance.

Let me finally come to the transnational perspective. Seattle, again has been a very clear indication for the emergence of new transnational arena for NGOs and social organisations. Internationalisation or better denationalisation of politics implies automatically, that also non-state-political actors and NGOs want to be political actors have to pass the borders of their respective national state. This is particularly true, in some of the fields, where NGOs tend to be particularly engaged: Ecology, development questions, social policy. In Western Europe, with the growing integration of the European Community, there tends to be literally no significant political question left which does not have an European aspect or dimension.

So it is not surprising to see, that many NGOs and NGO-networks do have their own representation at Bruxelles, whose only purpose is to follow the development of the EU-policy making process.

A second aspect of the need for the growing transnational dimension lies in the increasing importance of international regimes and organisations. Very decisive decisions, concerning the economic and social fate of millions and millions of people tend to be made inside international organisations like World Bank, IMF or WTO. NGOs have to react to that development by adding an international dimension to their activities. Generally, this does lead to the integration into transnational ‘NGO-networks , which try to coordinate acitivities of like-minded organisation on an international scale and which developed considerably in the last year.

A additional rationale lies in the globalisation of the economy. It is not just ideology, but a simple reality, that capitalism especially in form of the transnational corporations – has outgrown the limits of any given nation state. States may like to put limitations to that, but they tend to be more and more unable to do that. So any attempt to (re)regulate parts of the economic sphere – as the financial system – any attempt to regain a minimum of public control of technological developments has to have an international dimension.

Let me finish with a concluding remark: I do in no way wish to advocate for a new ‘confrontation between civil society and the economic sphere. What I would like, is, in a certain way, a repetition of history. Like civil society was able to make the state more open, transparent, participatory and accountable, I would like it now to make the great corporations more open, more transparent, participatory and accountable. Also this new formula of society-economy-relations would be of mutual benefit. And would considerably reduce the probability, that ‘manufactured risks will do major damage to our societies.


1) Anthony Giddens, Jenseits von Links und Rechts, [Beyond Left and Right], Frankfurt/M., 1997, p. 118 – 123.

2) Ulrich Beck, Das Zeitalter der Nebenfolgen und die Politisierung der Moderne, in ders./Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernisierung, Frankfurt/M., 1996, S.19-112.

3) See James N. Rosenau, Along the domestic-foreign Frontier, Cambridge 1997, p. 61.

4) See especially Fritz W. Scharpf, Die Handlungsfrigkeit des Staates am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, in PVS, Vol. 32, No. 4, p. 621-634

5) Jurgen Habermas, Die Einbeziehung des Anderen Studien zur politischen Theorie, Frankfurt 1996, here esp. Chap. 9, Drei normative Modelle der Demokratie, p. 277-292. Also Rainer Schmalz-Bruns, Reflexive Demokratie Die demokratische Transformation moderner Politik, Baden-Baden 1995.

6) Peter Wahl, Mythos und Realitie internationaler Zivilgesellschaft, in Elmar Altvater et. al. Vernetzt und verstrickt. Nichtregierungsorganisationen als gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft, M?ster 1997. See also Achim Brunngr?er, Advokaten, Helden und Experten NGOs in den Medien, in Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen, Vol. 10, No.4, 1997, p. 13-26.

7) Thomas Carothers, Think again: Civil society, in Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000, S. 18-29.

8) Ulrich Brand, Nichtregierungsorganisationen, Staat(ensystem) undk ologisch Krise, Ph.D.-Thesis, Frankfurt/M., 1999, p. 131 – 142


Ulrich Beck, Das Zeitalter der Nebenfolgen und die Politisierung der Moderne, in ders./Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernisierung, Frankfurt/M., 1996, S.19-112

Ulrich Brand, Nichtregierungsorganisationen, Staat(ensystem) und kologisch Krise, Ph.D.-Thesis, Frankfurt/M., 1999

Achim Brunngr ber, Advokaten, Helden und Experten NGOs in den Medien, in Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen, Vol. 10, No.4, 1997, p. 13-26

Thomas Carothers, Think again: Civil society, in Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000, p. 18-29

Anthony Giddens, Jenseits von Links und Rechts, [Beyond Left and Right], Frankfurt/M., 1997

Jurgen Habermas, Die Einbeziehung des Anderen Studien zur politischen Theorie, Frankfurt 1996

James N. Rosenau, Along the domestic-foreign Frontier, Cambridge 1997

Fritz W. Scharpf, Die Handlungsfahigkeit des Staates am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, PVS, Vol. 32, No. 4, p. 621-634

Rainer Schmalz-Bruns, Reflexive Demokratie Die demokratische Transformation moderner Politik, Baden-Baden 1995

Peter Wahl, Mythos und Realitat internationaler Zivilgesellschaft, in Elmar Altvater et. al. Vernetzt und verstrickt. Nichtregierungsorganisationen als gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft, Munster 1997

* Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Bonn

Dr. Ernst Hillebrand *

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