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Whose world is it, anyway?   

Lorne Gunter

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there are as many as 17,000 of them worldwide. They consume billions of dollars each year from governments and foundations. They cluster around the United Nations and its agencies like moths to flames and influence the public politics of sovereign states, sometimes profoundly, without ever seeking elective office. That's quite a chunk of influence for unelected players most people don't even know exist. They claim to be deeply committed to the Third World, yet fewer than 15% of them have their headquarters there. They also fancy themselves champions of the people against imperialist governments and multinational corporations, yet few people have ever heard of them, much less given them their blessing.

There are as many as 17,000 of them worldwide. They consume billions of dollars each year from governments and foundations. They cluster around the United Nations and its agencies like moths to flames and influence the public politics of sovereign states, sometimes profoundly, without ever seeking elective office. They claim to be deeply committed to the Third World, yet fewer than 15% of them have their headquarters there. They also fancy themselves champions of the people against imperialist governments and multinational corporations, yet few people have ever heard of them, much less given them their blessing.

They are NGOs, non-governmental organizations, and their impact on national and international policies concerning the environment, human rights, population control, income redistribution, international security and multilateral trade is surprisingly great, and growing.

NGOs accredited to the UN receive weekly briefings from its senior officials. Those accredited to its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) are usually permitted on the floor of the General Assembly when it is in session (although there is now a dispute over such access between the secretary-general and the president of CONGO, the group representing official ECOSOC NGOs).

The World Bank, one of the leading lenders for international development projects, admits "NGOs help shape bank policy." It has an NGO/civil society secretariat and nearly half of all new projects approved by the bank in the past five years have included NGOs.

In Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs administers an internship program that arranges postings for recent university graduates with international businesses and NGOs.

Job openings at civil society organizations instantly flash around the globe on the Internet, as do "action alerts," requests for help from one NGO to hundreds of others to bring their expertise and influence to bear on an intransigent government or corporation.

Many of the same groups that so vigorously opposed last year's failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment—claiming it would lead to global corporate rule and an end to democratic, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights—are waded up to their chests in civil society. The United Nations Association in Canada, for instance, provided research assistance to the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow for her 1997 book The MAI and the Threat to Canadian Sovereignty, yet it is one of the key supporters of the upcoming civil society conference in Montreal.

In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, the adults of Springfield discover a sex tonic. Perplexed by their parents' disappearance every day in the late afternoon, the town's children gather in a tree house to discuss the possible causes. The character Milhouse summarizes their conclusion. "OK, here's what we've got: The Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner."

There is a danger of sounding Milhousian any time one seeks to pin nefarious global ambitions on the UN or its supporters. So let's be clear up front: The black helicopter crowd is wrong. The UN and the NGOs are not conspiring with the Bilderbergers, under the supervision of the Masons and the Trilateral Commission, to enslave the globe.

To be sure, there are plenty of globalist dreamers among the ranks of the NGOs. The World Government Address Book (yes, there is such a creature) is full of pie-in-the-sky organizations such as the World Federalist Movement, the Campaign for World Government based in Winnetka, Ill. (no mention of whether the campaign's members intend their fair town to be the capital for our new global masters), the Association of World Citizens, the World Union of India and the United Planetary Federation, which, despite its name, appears to have no affiliation to the United Federation of Planets of Star Trek fame.

But why would NGO executives want to take over the world? The governments of the industrialized democracies, and in particular the government of Canada, have proven themselves enthusiastic partners, heavily subsidizing NGO activities and affording these organizations easy access to the corridors of power where national priorities are set.

What, then, are the intentions of NGO executives? Most are working to reduce the role of nations and expand that of the UN. In addition, they are pursuing the creation of a network of international organizations, such as their own, that parallels the existing UN framework, grants them a role in UN priority-setting and decision-making, and authorizes them to sit in judgment of national efforts to comply with UN directives, treaties and conventions. This they refer to as international "civil society."

Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of law at Cornell University and author of Why Sovereignty Matters, an examination of the threat to national sovereignty posed by international agreements and agencies, says "it's mostly just straws in the wind right now. But people in the [civil society] movement have big plans and have gained a fair amount of momentum. Mostly this has gone on unchallenged, but the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to put an end to it later."

Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Open Society Institute, a foundation endowed by billionaire anti-capitalist George Soros seems to prove Rabkin's point. Civil society, she claims, "can help set the agendas for governments" and "create a culture of accountability in both the North and South [the industrialized and the developing worlds]. What goes on at [UN] conferences is simply hollow rhetoric unless there are civil society groups ... watching and keeping track."

Take the Commission on Global Governance (CGG) for instance. The CGG represents the sort of nanny globalism envisioned by many in the civil society movement. Its hope is to tie nation states much more closely to the UN (and corporations, too, since much of what drives civil society actors is a profound mistrust of the profit motive). Then intellectually and socially superior persons, such as, well, CGG directors, will be placed in senior advisory positions to ensure everyone else acts in the best interests of all.

The CGG may refer often to "our global neighbourhood." And its co-chairman, Shridath "Sonny" Ramphal, who from 1975 to 1990 was secretary-general of the Commonwealth, may insist that "when we talk of 'governance' and 'democracy,' we have to look beyond governance within countries and democracy within states. We have to look to Global Governance and Democracy within the Global State."

But for all its ominous rhetoric, and a board of directors that looks as if it could become the first cabinet of the United States of Earth (including several former senior World Bank and IMF directors; Jacques Delors, the Frenchman who was the officious president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995; population control experts and, of course, Maurice Strong, the former advisor to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, who was the first president of Petro-Canada), what the CGG and most in civil society are seeking is a realization of the high-modern, one-world, one-family-of-Man dream that has been the hallmark of international busybodies from Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, through the Club of Rome and the Concert for Bangladesh.

What has changed recently is the receptiveness of national governments to such utopian schemes. Where once sovereign states were skeptical of surrendering sovereignty, social democratic governments (and often the bureaucracies serving conservative ones), especially in the developed world, have begun using the UN-NGO nexus the way they use the courts: to effect changes to domestic public policy that would be difficult or impossible democratically. In other words, they use the UN and the NGOs to circumvent democracy.

They have some powerful allies. U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton has dubbed civil society the "vanguard" of a new international order where NGOs operate more nearly equal with nation states. And UN secretary-general Kofi Annan contends NGOs are "not only disseminators of public information or providers of services, but shapers of policy, too." Last year, Annan called civil society "the new superpower," which "information technology has empowered ... to be the true guardians of democracy and good governance everywhere."

For many in the civil society movement the goal is a second chamber of the UN's General Assembly—a so-called People's Assembly. This call has come from the UN bureaucracy, from the UN's most enthusiastic supporters (such as the Campaign for a More Democratic United Nations, or CAMDUN, the World Federation of United Nations Associations, and former secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar) and from NGOs themselves.

Why is that not surprising? Because rather than the People's Assembly being comprised of members or deputies from around the world, elected by and accountable to the people they represent, it would likely be made up of the heads of civil society NGOs, and, under most scenarios, only those civil society NGOs accredited by the UN. In other words, the government would elect the voters.

Connected to the drive for a People's Assembly is the push for taxes on international financial transactions (the Tobin tax), on international flights and on land values. This combination would simultaneously paste a democratic veneer on the UN and give it an independent source of funding that cannot be withheld by member states. It would also give the UN an unprecedented ability to operate above and beyond the reach of national governments, especially the American government.

Accordingly, the process of electing a global People is in full swing. Eighteen months ago, at the 50th annual meeting of NGOs at the UN, Mr. Annan called for a People's Assembly in 2000. A Millennium People's Assembly Network (MPAN) was formed and immediately began drafting a People's Agenda and Vision for the 21st Century, and planning regional People's Assemblies. Many of MPAN's members hope to prove through this one-time-only event that a permanent People's assembly, or at least an annual Civil Society Forum (with much less stature and decision-making authority than an assembly), would be useful "to educate the public, actively lobby governments, and support the UN in funding and implementing ... global action plans," so as to "further develop the executive, legislative and judicial power of the UN."

CIVICUS, a sort of professional association for civil society NGOs, will hold its third biennial world conference in Manila this September. Calling itself a world alliance for citizen participation, CIVICUS serves as a clearinghouse of information useful to NGOs—where to find money and how to pressure governments and international agencies. Of its 25-member board, one-quarter heads charitable foundations with large pools of cash to dispense. Patrick Johnston, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, is a director.

CIVICUS is also assisting with the organization of the first-ever World Civil Society Conference (WOCSOC) in Montreal in December. A gathering of "key figures from the UN system, governments, business, academia and the media to propose changes and take action for new global governance partnerships and to create a wider support base for a stronger UN," WOCSOC has been nearly five years in the planning. Organizers of the Montreal meeting will be asking delegates to plot "new action by civil society to oblige ... governments to fulfill the promises and commitments made at recent (UN) conferences."

Yet the embarrassing fact is that very few people are involved in the People. Believing in the nobility of their intentions, however, most civil society actors are convinced they speak for "the people." Suffused with their own magnanimity, they justify their lack of a popular mandate by claiming their actions are what the people would choose for themselves if conservative governments and transnational corporations were not keeping the truth from the masses.

And so, without even considering how civil society representatives should be selected by the people they represent, or by what mechanisms the people may hold them accountable, NGOs are demanding enhanced roles in organizing UN conferences, drafting resolutions, directing debate, participating in closed-door negotiations, approving final texts of treaties, and obliging national governments to implement such treaties (including those their parliaments refuse to ratify). And, increasingly, they are getting such roles.

That's quite a chunk of influence for unelected players most people don't even know exist.


Lorne Gunter, “Whose world is it, anyway?” National Post, (Canada) 28 August, 1999.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Lorne Gunter writes regularly for the National Post.

Copyright © 1999 National Post



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved