NGOs, Accountability & Democracy


Richard Moore

Date: Thu, 26 Jun 2003 09:16:47 +0200
Subject: FW: Naomi Klein:  Bush to NGOs: Watch Your Mouths
From: Helene Connor <•••@••.•••>
Resent-To: "Richard K. Moore" <•••@••.•••>
Resent-From: Helene Connor <•••@••.•••>
------ Message transféré

 Bush to NGOs: Watch Your Mouths
 by Naomi Klein

 The Bush administration has found its next target for pre-emptive war,
 but it's not Iran, Syria or North Korea -- not yet, anyway.

 Before launching any new foreign adventures, the Bush gang has some
 homeland housekeeping to take care of: It is going to sweep up those
 pesky non-governmental organizations that are helping to turn world
 opinion against U.S. bombs and brands.

 The war on NGOs is being fought on two clear fronts. One buys the
 silence and complicity of mainstream humanitarian and religious groups
 by offering lucrative reconstruction contracts. The other marginalizes
 and criminalizes more independent-minded NGOs by claiming that their
 work is a threat to democracy. The U.S. Agency for International
 Development (USAID) is in charge of handing out the carrots, while the
 American Enterprise Institute, the most powerful think tank in
 Washington, D.C., is wielding the sticks.

Date: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 11:18:00 +0100
From: John Turnbull <•••@••.•••>
To: Syd Baumel <•••@••.•••>
CC:  •••@••.•••,  •••@••.•••,
Subject: Re: [simpol] Re: [simpolicies-general] Bush to NGOs: Watch your mouths

Syd Baumel wrote:
>...they do seem to have found an Achilles heel: the
>relative lack of transparency, accountability, and democratic interaction
>with members/supporters of (it seems to me) most NGOs.

I have to agree - NGOs might do excellent and necessary work in alleviating the 
worst excesses of the current system, but where is the democratic 
accountability, the mandate from citizens? This is why real (system) change can 
only come about through political action. David Rieff, writing in the Nation, 
looked at this issue (taking a somewhat confrontational stance) in 'The False 
Dawn of Civil Society' - see 

John T

To: John Turnbull <•••@••.•••>
From: "Richard K. Moore" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: [simpol] Re: [simpolicies-general] Bush to NGOs: Watch your mouths
Cc: •••@••.•••, John Bunzl <•••@••.•••>

Dear John,

Are you implying there is democratic accountability in our electoral system?
Do you believe Bush is operating with a mandate?
Do you believe we live under a democratic system?


To: John Turnbull <•••@••.•••>
From: "Richard K. Moore" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: strand of thought in the Civil Society Movement
Cc: John Bunzl <•••@••.•••>, •••@••.•••

6/26/03, John Turnbull wrote:
  > My understanding is that there is a strand of thought in
    the Civil Society Movement that sees NGOs as one of the
    three components of future global governance. In other
    words, the power of governments (and, by extension, TNCs)
    would be counterbalanced by strengthened global
    institutions, such as the UN, and some kind of global
    coalition of NGOs. My point is that, if we want to see real
    improvement, we need to go to the root of the problem - our
    dysfunctional systems of democracy and governance - rather
    than rely on unelected bodies to either a) attempt to
    negotiate with governments that will simply ride straight
    over them (can you imagine the Bush regime taking the
    slightest notice of a coalition of NGOs?) or b) mop up after
    those governments. This seems to me to be a defensive
    strategy (as opposed to a change strategy) - treating the
    symptoms of the disease rather than the causes. (BTW - I'm
    not suggesting that I have the answers as to how this
    'systems change' in democracy and governance can be brought

Dear John,

I agree completely that NGOs can be no solution for systemic
change, not as a counter-force within the current power
matrix.  Such a strategy would be ineffective, and in fact
would serve to help maintain & legitimize the current
system.   This is of course true of ALL reform projects, for
the same reasons.

If we want to get to the cause of the disease, we must focus
on the question of political power, as you say yourself. 
We must develop an understanding of power, and a strategy to
place it on a new foundation.   Without that we are tilting
at windmills, scratching at the walls of granite fortresses.

In seeking such an understanding, many of us are blinded by
a certain illusion.  We are dazzled by the layers of
corruptions in our current electoral systems.   The
corruptions are so blatant, and so gross, that it is easy
for us to assume that removing them would make a difference.
Equal air time &  equal funding for candidates, an easy
path for third parties, more referendums, etc. etc.  If only
we had all these things then society would change for the

As I've come to understand things, this is all an illusion:
the Illusion of Liberal Democracy.

If you look at the historical record (the empirical
perspective), you find that electoral systems have ALWAYS
come under the control of centralized parties and elite
cliques.  The standard patterns were already
well-established in the Roman Republic.

Despite that we might hope, somehow, to be THE FIRST to 'do
it right', to eliminate all corruption -- but then we need
to look at the inherent nature of electoral systems.  That
is, we need to look from a theoretical perspective...

When big issues are decided by Yes and No votes, then people
naturally seek to form alliances and coalitions in order to
prevail on issues they consider important.  One can observe
this behavior universally in all scales of society, from
whole populations, to parliaments, to local school boards.
De Toqueville talked a lot about this phenomenon.  Out of
such associations comes the natural evolution of political
parties.  In the end, you get parties which are on the one
hand selling themselves to the electorate for votes, and on
the other selling themselves to wealthy elites for campaign
contributions.  The contributors get the policy while the
electorate gets the rhetoric.

You can try to reform away this natural scheme of things,
but it's like trying to block a river.  The natural flow --
of self-interest, money, and pursuit of power -- always
finds a way eventually around the barriers.  And once elites
get a hold on power even a little bit, then the reform
regulations are weakened, and elite rule is soon stabilized.

Another way to describe the situation is to say that voting
is inherently divisive.  For each choice, there's the A camp
and the B camp. Over time, voting leads to permanent
factions (left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, etc.)
Elites then play factions off against one another -- divide
& rule.


That's a rather brief and incomplete overview of why,  but I
concluded some time ago that we need to look at other models
of governance if we want societies which embody the needs
and aspirations of people generally.  We need a way of
making societal decisions that brings people together rather
than one that splits them apart.

I looked for other models in many places... in books about
utopias, in histories of societies, in current movement
practices, in anthropological studies, in various kinds of
organizational structures, and in ideas that people toss
around the internet.  In the end, I became convinced of two
foundation principles: local autonomy & consensus.

Localism instead of centralism, and consensus instead of
voting.  There's a lot to be said about why one might narrow
down the scope of possibilities in this way, and also lots
to say about what the consequences of those principles are
likely to be.  For now, let me offer a simple metaphor.

In the mythology of Pioneer America, one learns about
community barn-raising.  Someone in the town needs a new
barn, and everyone turns out after church with hammers,
saws, and basket lunches.  Eveyone pitches in and builds the
barn.  No ideological issues need be settled; no agreement
on values is at issue; there is no voting.  People are
collaborating together to get a job done.

I'm not making a point here about communalism.  The gesture
of offering labor to newcomers was a choice made in the
context of private farm ownership, strong property rights,
etc.  The point is that the focus is on getting a job done,
not on debating issues or agreeing on ideologies.

My view is that our societal problems are like
barn-raisings.  We've got problems to work out.  They
require the application of some intelligence and some
collaborative effort.   They have nothing to do with
agreeing on religion, gun control, abortion, or gay rights.
The things that divide us politically are mostly meaningless
abstractions.  Boogeymen that are conjured up to make us
fear one another and distract us from our real oppressors.


Let's consider NGOs from this perspective.

NGOs tend to represent local interests -- the interests of
those affected on the ground by corporate abuses.  NGOs
focus their activities on finding solutions to problems and
championing those solutions in places where funding,
volunteers, or other support can be obtained.  They do have
officers and elections, as dictated by law, but most of
their time is spent pursuing collaborative activities, not
with politics.  I may be over-idealizing, but basically I
think this is a reasonable description of how a legitimate,
savvy, grass-roots-supported NGO operates.

Regardless of how NGOs fit into the current power matrix, I
think they serve as a valuable working prototype.  They
provide an example of how people can come together
voluntarily and productively, in pursuit of shared
objectives, without a private economic motive -- and how
they can focus on collaboration instead of politics.

Within the current political ecosystem NGOs may be
ill-suited to compete, as were mammals in the age of
dinosaurs.   How fortunate it was for us that those pioneer
pygmy mammals stuck it out to the endgame.  As future seeds
of the new ecosystem, they had always been important, but
that importance was not visible.  They were like the ugly


If one has a vision of a new society, then it is useful to
look for potential seeds of that society, and to do what one
can to nurture them.   From my perspective,  legitimate NGOs
are among those seeds. Also the consensus processes used by
the anti-globalization movement.   And all this non-economic
discussing and seeking we do on the net.  These things
cannot eliminate the tyranny of the dinosaurs, but when the
dinosaurs fall we'll need as many seeds as we can find
wherever we can find them.

best regards,


    For the movement, the relevant question is not, "Can we
    work through the political system?", but rather, "Is
    the political system one of the things that needs to be
    fundamentally transformed?"

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