My friend Jeff Huffines of the Bahai United Nations Office invited me to address the class he is teaching on the operations of NGOs at New York University. Here’s my notes on my lecture.
It was quite a treat talking with students looking in a more academic and robust way at the functioning and structure of non-governmental organizations. I would have loved to have taken this kind of course when I was at NYU getting my masters in International Politics. Certainly more fun than studying regime theory.
“Strategies for Activism: How New Media and the Internet are Reshaping the NGO Landscape”
Lecture Notes for NYU Class on Operations of NGOs
March 1, 2006
Thanks to Jeff for organizing this course and inviting me.
- The Floppies of Democracy
- Braille as the Sixth Language of the UN
- Click Here to be Bored in English
- “Who will be the Next Secretary-General” not coming to Fox in September
- Netizens versus NGOs – Who’s the Grassrooty-est?
The Floppies of Democracy
On January 4 of last year there was an unheralded by important advance for more democratic, transparent international governance — the UN quietly released their Official Document System to the internet. For the first time, anyone — a high school student in Mumbai or an activist in Sao Paolo — could go to documents.un.org and download freely GA Resolutions, Security Council reports, and statistics from UNDP. The closed door of diplomacy widened by the tiniest crack.
I was reminded of ten years ago as the program associate for an NGO in New York, when I would walk over to the translation service of the United Nations to get UN documents on floppy disk on the sly. Officially the translation service wasn’t supposed to be giving out to NGOs UN documents that were in the process of being translated and printed. But in practice they had a hard time justifying not giving out to us what was clearly a public document, even if it was in digital not print format.
I would walk back to my office and upload the document to our gopher server and bulletin board service, which at the time was considered a radical move. Allegedly, the UN legal section questioned the legality of “publishing” UN documents to the internet before the UN itself did.
Now ten years later, after numerous appeals and petitions to the UN, the fact that anyone with an internet connection can access the main document database of the UN is immensely gratifying.
These are the kinds of crumbs we have to feast on in the NGO world.
My goal is just to give you a few morsels of what the NGO struggle is about.
Braille as the Sixth Language of the UN
NGOs are increasingly demonstrating their competence at contributing to the mind-scrambling task of treaty drafting and diplomatic negotiation. One innovative process demonstrating this are the negotiations around a new “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” which recently finished a round of meetings in February. Many of the participants at these meetings are disabled themselves, both NGO representatives and government delegates. So the UN has had to come up with innovative ways to ensure everyone’s full participation.
With the help of a disabled people’s rights group and a private company, a braille printer was provided for the meetings, so that blind participants could read the text in their native languages, including braille french, spanish, english and arabic.
Because of the collegial atmosphere of these negotiations, NGOs often find themselves working alongside governments in proposing text and drafting compromise language.
Click Here to be Bored in English
The UN is more and more seeing the value in opening up their meetings to public observation and participation using ICTs.
I recently helped facilitate online participation at a meeting between NGOs and the General Assembly President and several government delegates. The meeting was remarkable not only because it reflected a growing openness of the General Assembly to interacting with NGOs in New York, but also their understanding that they need to reach far beyond the traditional New York and Geneva based NGOs to a larger public constituency.
So the GA President decided to webcast the meeting on the UN website as well as provide opportunities for people to email in their questions.
Now webcasting of a large majority of UN meetings might be the least popular web videos of all time, given how long and boring most of the UN’s proceedings are. But for those of us working on some of the key issues being debated at the UN, having an opportunity to observe from afar what is being discussed and to pose questions to the delegates is another small crack in the door.
Another similar effort was the use of real-time transcription and instant message broadcast of a UN meeting. At a couple of the meetings of the Working Group on Internet Governance, convened during the WSIS in 2005, an Italian NGO volunteered to set up a real-time text transcription of the meetings, which would be broadcast of ICQ instant messenger to anyone who wished to observe it.
While this was only done in English, due to budget and technical considerations, it served as a useful record of the meetings and a helpful complement to the discussions. Even government diplomats in the room noted how useful it was to see the words of the transciption being simulcast on a large monitor at the front of the conference room.
“Who will be the Next Secretary-General” not coming to Fox in September
NGOs are using technology to effect the outcomes of once closed door negotiations. For example, a couple of groups are working on opening up the opaque process for selection of the UN Secretary General.
In December of this year, Kofi Annan’s second and final term will be finished. Typically, a short list of candidates is agreed by the General Assembly, and the actual Secretary General is chosen by the Security Council in closed session. Some have compared the process to how the Pope is elected by the college of cardinals.
This year though a few NGOs have started websites to try and shed some light on what has always been an opaque process. One of them, called “Who will be the next UN secretary general” at www.unsg.org is a more edgy, blog-style coverage of the SG race. It even includes links to gambling sites that have given the various candidates their odds of being selected.
A bit more conventional website is www.unsgselection.org, started by the World Federalist Movement. This site more directly advocates for more public involvement in the process of selection of someone who will be a very influencial figure in world politics for at least the next four years. The site includes detailed background on the selection process, compares this with how other major leaders of intergovernmental institutions are selected, and gathers various proposals and recommendations from NGOs on the selection process.
Netizens versus NGOs – Who’s the Grassrooty-est?
One phenomenon that we are starting to witness at the United Nations that is increasingly becoming an issue is what I call the “Netizen versus the NGO.” That is, there is an inherent tension between the way that the internet empowers individuals and the kind of collective action required for NGOs to be legitimate and effective. The internet was born out of a kind of coordinated chaos, with individual programmers and engineers and hackers providing innovative ways of using the technology, and others in their individual volunteer capacity building upon these innovations and refining them until a much more complex and robust communication architecture was built than any one organization could develop.
In the same way, the internet has spurred several activist efforts that have ignored the traditional NGO campaign route and used mass e-mails, online petitions, e-fundraising drives and text messenging to advocate for social and political change. The People Power II movement in the Philippines and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine are perfect examples of groundswells of activism empowered by communications technology that bypaassed the NGO route completely.
Meanwhile, the UN has a specific recognition of NGOs as the only legitimate “non-governmental” entity it interacts with. There are specific procedures for how NGOs are recognized, allowed access and accorded various rights of participation. Few of these are applicable to what can be seen as the new wave of e-activism.
This presents a problem both for the UN and for NGOs. The UN doesn’t want to be seen as being captured by a minority of the larger “civil society” sector. While the NGOs that traditionally interact with the UN don’t want to be seen as working against other grassroots and newer intiatives. However NGO activists have noted how many of these e-activist efforts have a fly-by-night quality that peaks and dips as quickly as the latest internet fad, while NGOs have an institutional continuity and consistent mandate that doesn’t shift with the tides of popular media attention.
In this WSIS we faced many of these dilemmas as we saw the coming together of e-activists who have been involved for years in internet governance debates trying to work with veteran NGOs who have weathered several other UN conferences. There were a host of difficult challenges that needed to be surmounted, such as how to make collective decisions (one vote per NGO? one vote per person? online voting? weighted voting? regional representation?) . Whether or not to have one omnibus civil society set of proposals to present to governments or individual caucus texts which might be contradictory or opposing. How do accredit individuals who had no NGO affiliation? Any many more that I can remember.
In the end, we managed to work through our differences and cooperate fairly effectively to impact the process in beneficial ways. Much of the language on human rights, women’s empowerment, the rights of people with disabilities, cultural and linguistic diversity, free and open source software was strong supported by civil society. Much of our best work combined the best practices from the NGO world — from sign-on letters to direct lobbying of government delegates — with online consultation practices from the netizen world.
So has new media fundamentally changed the way NGOs operate? Do blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds, webconferencing, and the like change the way we do business? How has the NGO landscape changed?
- Brought forward distributed, empowered individuals, groups from the south who would have never been able to participate in any meaningful way.
- Made consensus a lot harder.
- Made our internal difficiencies a lot harder to hide.
In some ways the landscape has not changed much at all. Lobbying and activism is still largely a face-to-face activity, whether its public protest or private meetings with officials. You can get 100,000 online signatures to a web petition, but someone still has to deliver to the person that matters. You can’t email your way to social justice. You’ve still got to show up.