NGOs ready to flex new muscles at world trade talks
By Sophie Walker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angry people brandish placards while
men in suits scurry into a heavily guarded building — it’s a
classic image from world trade and finance meetings but it’s
not the whole story and it’s a little out of date.
Today, some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
whose activists once protested outside such gatherings are
spreading their message inside, having been brought into the
talks process because of their rising influence as campaigners
for the world’s least developed nations.
When the World Trade Organization (WTO) holds what may be
make-or-break trade talks in Hong Kong from December 13, the
fraught relationship between politicians and NGOs will again be
Some on both sides say the relationship has improved
dramatically but others warn tensions remain.
“NGOs do have a growing influence but I’m not convinced it
is perceived as a positive force by some decision-makers as
they are still blamed in some circles for the collapse of the
WTO Cancun meeting (in Mexico) in 2003,” said Aldo Caliari of
the Washington-based development group Center of Concern.
NGOs represent a huge range of interests from trade policy
and the environment to human rights and disaster aid.
And despite some NGOs’ inclusion in the political
mainstream, others are still treated with suspicion by
governments and corporate interests, wary of high profile
anti-globalization activists and the sometimes opaque financing
of other groups.
Even NGOs recognize that if their members feel excluded,
things can still turn nasty.
“I hope Hong Kong will be friendly and constructive,” said
Gawain Kripke, senior policy adviser for Oxfam in Washington.
“A lot of critics have strong feelings about the way these
negotiations are progressing and they want to be heard. If
there’s no other way for them to articulate their point of view
then violence can be the result.”
A MATTER OF TRUST
The Hong Kong meeting was originally meant to cap four
years of hard bargaining with a deal on a blueprint for a new
treaty on slashing rich nation subsidies and opening world
The painfully slow progress on farm subsidies has already
drawn stinging comment from NGOs and prompted attacks from
poorer countries, who want better access to rich nation
Previous WTO ministerials have been incendiary. In Seattle
in 1999, protesters battled police in the streets, leading
Britain’s then International Development Minister Clare Short
to denounce the rioters’ “misplaced criticism.”
In 2003, the Cancun meeting collapsed when African leaders
walked out, saying their demands on cotton trade were not being
met. Former European farm chief Franz Fischler said NGOs’
influence made it harder to reach a deal.
NGOs said they were not in the negotiating rooms, arguing
that it was easier to blame them than the African governments.
But Fischler’s comments reveal much about how NGOs’
perceived power — they consistently top public polls about
trustworthiness — can worry governments.
“We’ve seen growing respect for NGOs’ impartiality, which
is a function of a long-term trend of people losing faith in
the impartiality of scientists,” said Peter Hardstaff, head of
policy at World Development Movement in Britain. There is also
a growing mistrust of politicians and business interests, he
NGOs themselves are becoming more sophisticated, honing
communication skills in order to react quickly to breaking
Since Seattle and Cancun, the WTO and other international
institutions like the United Nations and World Bank have opened
their doors to NGOs, holding briefings and discussing studies.
They can do no less, some suggest. NGOs are growing cannier
at exposing the links between trade and finance on the one hand
and poverty and debt on the other. Their campaigns have also
attracted rock stars and movie idols, ensuring public interest.
At last summer’s meeting of Group of Eight leaders, Irish
rocker Bob Geldof assembled the greatest rock-’n-roll lineup
ever to pressure world leaders to alleviate poverty — making
Africa a hot topic at least for a few weeks.
Ahead of Hong Kong, the latest champion for the trade cause
is actor Brad Pitt, who visited Washington in November to learn
how agricultural subsidies affect African farmers.
The relationship between NGOs and stars can be tricky —
activists are careful to keep celebrities on board to lure
cameras and coverage but they are often frustrated at what they
see as the stars’ tendency to oversimplify issues.
However, this link between causes and celebrities is an
example of a new sophistication among NGOs as they push their
agendas among people and politicians.
“Governments this year have seen NGOs working the political
agenda very effectively,” said Jamie Drummond, executive
director of Bono’s Africa awareness lobby group DATA, which
stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa.
“They’ve been hugely influential in driving the agenda
forward and putting development in Africa on the map as a
political priority for world leaders. So it would be natural to
try and engage NGOs in trade talks.”