NGO's Gain Places at Tables of Policy

Friedman.jpg Tom Friedman’s (pictured left) March 16 NYT column, "Marching with a Mouse," ended with, “Message to young activists: If you do your homework, have your facts right and the merits on your side, and then build a constituency for your ideals through the Internet, you, too, can be at the table of the biggest deal in history.” Catches the attention, doesn’t it?

Friedman’s column provides a tight synopsis of a fascinating drama that unfolded in Texas over the last year or so. It began with Environmental Defense and the National Resource Defense Council launching an internet campaign to stop a Texas power company, called TXU, from building eleven coal-fired plants. It ended with them extracting environmental concessions and support for a greenhouse gas cap from two buyout firms, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Texas Pacific Group, who wanted to buy TXU in the biggest leveraged buyout in history. They got the concessions, and the seat at the table to demand them, because the buyout firms wanted to buy the power company, but not a nasty snarl with environmental groups.

As his final quote indicates, Friedman was excited about this story largely because of the power of the internet, and the way this story proves his ongoing point about the world being “flat” now. He’s right. When the organizations took their campaign to the Internet, by definition, they took it global. That allowed them not only to tap into the ire of a larger population in general, but also to find a larger sub-set of people for whom environmental issues are their passion.

I saw another dimension to this story, though. One striking phenomenon of the last several decades has been nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) ability to gain seats at national and global policy bargaining tables despite their lack of formal political standing. The organizations are not sovereign states or political parties, and they have not gained legitimacy to represent a codified group of people (such as those in a city, state or country) through some political process or another. But they have become legitimate parties in these negotiations nonetheless, taking seats next to governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the UN or the European Union. That NGOs have such relationships with governments and IGOs is increasingly accepted and expected.

What’s worth noting here is that the TXU story demonstrates that NGOs are beginning to claim the same standing in the marketplace. Just as there was a time when it was shocking that NGOs became a driving force behind, and a key negotiating party in, say, the banning of land mines, two just became similar players in the purchase of a for-profit company. Many of us who study nonprofits and civil society have been arguing that the future of our political economy is one in which the roles and interactions between government, the market and the nonprofit world are increasingly both blurred and overlapping. We have had evidence on the government/NGO side for quite a while. Hello market.

Tiziana Dearing

Posted at 7:28 AM, Mar 21, 2007 in Cross-Sectoral Strategies | Permalink | Comment