Are NGOs undemocratic? I think not!

By Mark Horler, Simpol supporter and networking officer.

In this piece on the author says that “for 40 years, big green NGOs have helped to denigrate democracy and stand in the way of progress.”

The article argues that NGOs were (and are) seen as being able to “provide an efficient and effective alternative to public agencies’, in both the design and delivery of international and national policies”.

This is basically describing NGOs as a privatisation of democracy, a pretty serious accusation by any standard. Do the claims stand up to scrutiny?

To decide we need first to work out what a privatisation of democracy would entail.  I would argue that we would expect to see an organisation that is democratic within itself but undemocratic in the wider societal context. Since it is privatisation, we might also reasonably expect the democracy that is available to come at a financial cost.  Can this be said to be true?

The first part is certainly true. The big NGOs are, as far as I know,  run democratically within themselves.  Since the author of the article made a point of picking on Greenpeace, let’s use them as our example too.

A search of the Greenpeace website (quite a lengthy one actually) revealed this document on Governance Structure. In it Greenpeace sets out its commitment to the principles of democracy. To cut a long story short; The Greenpeace International Board of Directors is elected by representatives from their Regional and National offices who are, in turn, elected by voting memberships.  Each regional/national office also sends a representative – a trustee – to the international AGM.

So yes, we can say that Greenpeace is democratic within itself. However it is notable that, at the bottom level, national/regional representatives are elected by paying membership. So we have established one of the conditions in that the democracy available comes at a financial cost.

It is also true to say that NGOs such as Greenpeace are not elected by the wider public and so their participation in wider societal politics could be argued to be undemocratic in that sense.

To be honest though, I don’t buy this argument. For a start, paying memberships allows NGOs like Greenpeace to be independent of government and corporate funding. In the end, the funding for their operations has to come from somewhere. To say that getting it from members rather than governments and corporations is undemocratic seems a tad obtuse to me.

What’s more, membership is not obligatory so in that sense people vote with their money; the more the NGO represents the will of the people, the more paying members it will get and the more respresentative and (arguably) democratic it becomes.

To give an example, there is an organisation called the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition (SCCC), which contains many NGOs including Greenpeace (and Simpol). SCCC, unsurprisingly enough, is focused on climate change. With all the NGOs within it totaled up, the SCCC represents over 11 million people, which is more than the number who voted Conservative at the last elections! Undemocratic? I think not!

As if that were not enough, Simpol has already established that, at the global level, democratic politics is in pretty dire condition – in fact it is abjectly failing. That’s why Simpol exists in the first place. Global governance is unable to function due to unrestrained economic competition, not because Greenpeace are trying to save the rainforest.

To decry NGOs for stepping into this breach in an attempt to avert disaster is therefore pretty foolish, if you ask me. Or perhaps it is simply hiding something. The author’s assertion that the NGOs are “standing in the way of progress” in the opening blurb perhaps tells us more than the rest of the article!

Nevertheless becoming a Simpol supporter is free and open to all. Yes, we have paying memberships too, in order to make our funding sustainable and free from government and corporate influence (just like Greenpeace). But that is simply for organisational structure. Participation in the policy creation and implementation process is and will remain open access for everybody.

Moreover it is not the Simpol organisation that decides the policies, it is our supporters and therefore our entire structure is both inwardly and outwardly democratic.

It stands to reason then, that any NGO putting its global policies into the Simpol policy process can connect to this direct democracy and thus become inwardly and outwardly democratic too.  




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