During the heyday of Islamic rule in India, the Mogul Emperor Jehangir decided that he needed to better connect with his people, majority Hindus and minority Muslims alike. So he installed a bell outside his palace. Commoners with grievances could ring that bell day or night, and the emperor would emerge to meet his citizens. Because of the large numbers of individuals wanting to petition Jehangir, however, he eventually urged that people form groups and send their representatives instead. And in this way Jehangir fostered civil-society activism among his subjects--centuries before NGO, the modern-day abbreviation for nongovernmental organizations, became a buzzword in the international community.
Jehangir's gesture is worth recalling as tens of thousands of NGOs descend this week upon Seattle to protest against the World Trade Organization. In the spirit of accommodation and openness, the WTO invited representatives of civil society to come and express their views at trade talks that would set the stage for a new round of international trade and tariff negotiations. Unlike the Mogul emperor, the WTO must be ruing its decision--for prospects of any civil discourse between petitioners and potentates are being smothered by the incessant clanging of NGO bells. Meanwhile, the WTO's proposed agenda--an agenda aimed at strengthening globalization in ways that create fewer victims--appears in jeopardy because of disagreement among rich and poor nations over protectionism, child labor, subsidies and environmental security.
The NGOs' agenda is focused on linking trade to social issues. Some radical NGOs want the WTO to be dismantled altogether, accusing it of being a handmaiden of recharged capitalist neoimperialism. Most activists, however, would have to scramble to marshal plausible arguments against faster economic growth, foreign investment, more affordable imports and the lowering of trade barriers--all of which would help alleviate global poverty and promote desperately needed economic growth in the world's 130 developing countries. "There's increasing recognition that poverty, deprivation and desperation lead to political instability," says Steven W. Sinding, who's leading a new Columbia University study on foreign aid. "There's a definite connection between poverty and instability in developing countries and our own well-being in affluent societies."
Is linking trade to social issues sensible, then, and is the WTO the most appropriate entity to expedite progress on issues such as social justice and environmental protection?
NGOs need to be freshly reminded that in today's increasingly interdependent world economy, continued resistance to globalization is self-defeating. "A retreat to doctrines like self-sufficiency and import substitution--once the most devoutly advocated prescriptions for economic progress in poorer countries--today would virtually assure that backward economies would stay that way," says Prof. Ralph Buultjens of New York University. "Besides, it's time that many NGOs grasp the reality that today's globalized world is not only about saints and sinners."
If questions about the legitimacy of the WTO are considered relevant by NGOs, it is also appropriate to raise some inconvenient but timely questions about civil-society organizations themselves:
All this is not to suggest that the NGO community ought to be restricted to the grass roots. But it would be nice if NGO representatives who seek headlines and face time at global carnivals occasionally went back home again to reconnect with their constituencies.