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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


NGOs and Transnational Networks: Wild Cards in World Politics
William E. DeMars

Pluto Press: London, 2005, 256pp, PB, 15.99, ISBN 0-7453-1905-X

The proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across the globe during the last century, but more particularly in recent years, has been immeasurable. Not only are they to be found at every level of world politics from the bottom to the top, but they now have a presence in every region of the world, covering every possible transnational issue from human rights to animal rights, from peace to conflict and from poverty to democracy, in the process claiming ?to be able to do almost anything in world politics? (1).

This book provides an alternative insight into the intricate world of NGOs and the transnational networks they create by challenging what the author believes is their largely unexamined claim of being the ?most effective vehicles for social and political transformation? (6), a claim they articulate by evoking future progress through present action, despite only making minimal progress over prolonged periods. While supporters claim they are effective in the work they do, disparagers believe they are pathetic in comparison to governments and corporations. It is argued that many well established beliefs about NGOs (for example that their influence on the workings of the world flows automatically from their global norms development work at international conferences) are actually deceptive. NGOs and their networks are complex structures and oftentimes their significance lies in their unintentional political consequences ?whose impact is more important than either success or failure in reaching official [NGO] goals? (2). Many have managed to institutionalise conflict as much as cooperation and reshape states and societies often inadvertently. It is thus claimed that these organisations are wildcards in world politics as their influence and impact are really an unknown quantity ? hard to predict and certainly not measurable. This book therefore, aims to analyse the complex world of NGOs across a range of issues in order to provide an understanding of their use and subsequently their consequences in world politics.

This analysis is presented at a number of levels. The book firstly looks at examples of NGO actions from several fields, examining a range of claims and contradictions associated with them. (For example, the fundraising technique pioneered by the Save the Children Fund of individual direct sponsorship of a child which provides the sponsor with a photograph and personal information is essentially flawed as more often reality dictates that the NGO has no way of tracking whether or how the contributions affect individual children. Yet it is a method that cannot be abandoned as it raises around $400 million each year in the United States alone). It is argued that this examination illustrates the need for ?a new theoretical approach to illuminate both the politics and the particularity of NGO action? (33) as the current schools of pluralism, globalism and realism do this only in a restrictive way, failing to explain NGOs as creators of institutional political conflict or to capture the minutiae of current NGO growth. By asking what are NGOs, what do NGOs do and what difference do NGOs make in world politics, the three planks of this theory ?portrays NGOs not only as agents of social and political action, but also as constituting the structure of international relations at three levels [showing] where to look for empirical evidence of how NGOs institutionalise international conflict and cooperation? (61). After looking at the rather ironic religious origins of NGOs, the book?s central challenge is then illustrated through three key examples of NGO relationships between state and society, ?the most significant consequences of which fell outside official NGO goals? (5), these being the role of human rights NGOs and their networks in overthrowing Argentina?s dictators during the dirty war from 1976 to 1983, inadvertently acting as a catalyst for the transition to democracy in Argentina and also contributing to the process in Latin America; the complex response and permeation of NGO networks to the Yugoslavia wars which ultimately shaped the final outcomes of the new states and the role of several groups in reengineering sexual relations, women?s fertility and families on a global scale. Finally, the future of NGOs is addressed through emerging trends of NGO-corporate partnerships, moves once again towards religion after twentieth century secularisation and roles post-September 11.

By presenting a rarely examined aspect of NGOs, this book certainly achieves its central aim. Although an intricate read in itself, it clearly illustrates their huge ability for social and political change while revealing just how difficult it is to predict their impact by carefully peeling back the layers of complexity that surround NGO activities, particularly through the details of these three examples.

This book would appeal not only to policymakers or those engaged in international relations, conflict or development research but also to those working directly with NGOs. Indeed, anyone with a passing interest in current global movements, such as the Make Poverty History campaign, would find this book stimulating reading.


Sandra Buchanan, Ph.D. Candidate, School of History & International Affairs, University of Ulster, INCORE Research Associate



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