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Output from the Research Project on
Civil Society Networks in Global Governance

This draft is for discussion purposes. Please contact Peter Willetts, before publishing any direct or indirect quotation from the paper.


Civil Society Networks in Global Governance:
Remedying the World Trade Organisation's Deviance from Global Norms

  Presentation by Peter Willetts for the Colloquium on International Governance
Palais des Nations, Geneva, Friday 20 September 2002


The concept of "global governance" signifies an important intellectual shift from analysing the relations of states pursuing power in an anarchic international system to seeing the world as a multiplicity of different types of actors mobilising support for their values in global policy-making. Of course, states have never existed, except as a legal fiction, necessary for the purposes of international law, but historians and political scientists have too often mistaken this abstract idea for the concrete reality. In diplomacy, it is governments rather than states who are the decision-makers. Increasingly, it is evident in the United Nations specialised agencies and in the regional intergovernmental organisations that even governments are not coherent. Each ministry in each government has its own transgovernmental relations, with subtle differences in priorities and values from the other ministries in the same government. Each society also generates transnational relations, for political parties, companies, trade unions, churches, ethnic minorities, epistemic communities and a wide range of other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Global governance captures the pluralism that we all recognise in the global politics of the environment or human rights, but sometimes fail to notice in other issues. The report of the Commission on Global Governance described it well

Governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and co-operative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest.1

The Commission then went on to emphasise both the centrality of the United Nations and the contributions made by civil society.2

      Unfortunately, the Commission failed to make any distinctions between NGOs, social movements and civil society. The terms were used interchangeably.3 Others make sharp distinctions and prefer to see NGOs as being conservative and social movements as being progressive. This is invalid, because NGOs can be progressive and social movements can be reactionary. The only real distinction is between an NGO as a specific organisation and a movement as a diffuse and diverse group of organisations and individuals, who share a common desire for change. A second source of confusion is whether NGOs or civil society include commercial companies. The best way to cut through these debates is to define an NGO in the same way as the UN does.

An NGO is an independent voluntary association of people acting together on a continuous basis, for some common purpose, other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities. Such an association can have individual people or groups of people, such as other NGOs, political parties or companies, but not criminals, as its members.

This definition does not appear anywhere in UN documents, but it summarises UN practice. Notice that associations of companies can be NGOs, but a single company cannot and the same point applies to political parties. NGOs with mass membership or with mass support may be parts of social movements, but NGOs with low membership and low support are not. Then civil society is constituted by the totality of social relations, excluding government and the economy. However, by the time we get to the level of participation in global institutions, any sector of society has to operate through organised groups, to be able to have an impact. The only presence of civil society in global governance is through NGOs.

      NGOs do of course have a great impact. One person could have an idea for change, create an NGO with sections in all the major countries and achieve an international treaty within five years. And that happened here in Geneva, from 1859 to 1864, when Henri Dunant created the Red Cross and achieved the first Geneva Convention. In 1945, the insertion of an article in the UN Charter, to provide for NGOs to have consultative status was the result of lobbying by NGOs at the San Francisco conference. Since 1945, NGOs have gradually shaped the UN's work on disaster relief, development, human rights, women's rights, the environment, the laws of war and to some extent disarmament. In recent years, we have seen the successes of the campaigns against landmines, for reducing developing country debt and for creating the International Criminal Court. These three campaigns demonstrate, in a spectacular manner, the power that NGOs can exercise, because success was achieved against the opposition of the United States government.

      NGOs form networks, in order to exchange information, to mobilise support, to co-ordinate strategy, to share costs and to have a greater political impact. There are four main types: "umbrella" international NGOs (INGOs), issue networks, caucuses and governance networks. An umbrella INGO arises when organisations in different countries have similar goals and decide to work together in a joint organisation. If they are very similar and wish to share a common identity, they can adopt a common name. Alternatively, when the various groups were formed for different reasons and face different local problems, they may simply find benefits from close collaboration, without adopting any form of common identity. The former type of INGO can be highly centralised, such as Amnesty International, while the latter may be a loose confederation, such as the International Council for Social Welfare. An issue network consists of a set of NGOs who have nothing in common, except the desire to work together on a specific issue. The prototype was the International Baby Foods Action Network formed in the 1979. It brought together medical personnel, women's groups, consumer associations, development activists, churches and community organisations. Many such issue networks now exist.4 A variant on this is an issue caucus that is focused on lobbying in a particular forum. The members may only work together for the duration of the relevant meeting. Finally, I wish to draw attention to the concept of a governance network. They exist to promote the participation of a diverse range of NGOs in a particular policy-making forum. The oldest and most complex of them all is the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO), with branches at the UN centres in New York, Geneva and Vienna. Other examples are the Commission on Sustainable Development NGO Steering Committee and the Global Environment Facility NGO Network.

      We tend to divide international organisations into two types. Governments come together into intergovernmental organisations and NGOs come together into international NGOs and other networks. Logically, it is possible for governments and NGOs to form international organisations together. This is so beyond the realm of traditional patterns of thought that we do not have a word for such an organisation. I have called them hybrid international organisations. The ideal type of a hybrid is one where both governments and NGOs are full members, both contribute to the budget of the joint organisation and both have voting rights in the policy-making and constitutional processes. In other words, governments and NGOs recognise each other as having equal status. Once one starts to look for them, they can quite easily be found. The International Red Cross, the International Labour Organisation, the World Conservation Union and the International Air Transport Association are prominent examples.

      For more than fifty years, the UN has had a Statute for NGOs, codifying the arrangements for consultative status.5 Over the years some form of close relations with NGOs has gradually been extended beyond ECOSOC to all the UN's programmes. Most of the specialised agencies have their own variants on the consultative arrangements. Since the 1970s, there has been a steady expansion of participation rights at UN conferences. The combination of the documents specifying the formal participation rights, the years of practice in the UN system and the existence of the hybrid international organisations means that, when NGOs are formally recognised at the global level, they become subjects of international law, alongside states.

      A few intergovernmental organisations do not fully fit into this pattern. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation do not give any formal participation rights to NGOs in their decision-making bodies. However, they do have other types of contacts. The Bank has deep and extensive relations between NGOs and the staff, up to the highest levels. The Fund staff has much weaker relations with civil society as a whole, but has close relations with academics and with bodies such as the Institute for International Economics and the Institute of International Finance. Nevertheless, since 1999, the Bank and the Fund have jointly been committed to the involvement of civil society in their policy process through the production of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The civil society consultations that have taken place so far have been subject to much criticism, in different ways in different countries. There have been questions over who was invited to take part, the nature of the consultation procedures and whether there has been any effect upon the resulting policy. The important point for this argument is that the Bank and the Fund have since the mid-1990s made a major change towards being fully transparent organisations and have accepted the principle of a role for civil society in their work.

      The WTO stands out as a deviant organisation in many ways. It is not a UN specialised agency. It does not have a normal policy-making structure. It does not have any formal engagement with non-governmental organisations, beyond public relations outreach.

      The WTO is the only major global organisation not to enter into agreement with the United Nations to become a specialised agency. It is often assumed that the Bank and the Fund are not specialised agencies, but each did enter into an agreement with the UN in November 1947. These agreements are not the same as for the other agencies, so the WTO could have special provisions in its own agreement, if it was really necessary. The Marrakesh Agreement provides in Article III (5) for co-operation with the Bank and the Fund, "with a view to achieving greater coherence in global economic policy-making". It also provides in Article V (1) for "effective co-operation with other intergovernmental organisations that have responsibilities related to those of the WTO". The wording discourages, but does not prohibit, becoming a specialised agency.6 The problem is a political one and not a legal one. The GATT was never a specialised agency de jure, but it was one de facto, co-operating with ECOSOC in a similar manner to the agencies. The WTO has been reluctant to maintain this tradition, as was shown most extraordinarily by the delay in agreeing to participate in the Monterrey Financing for Development conference.

      The WTO's institutional structure consists of a Ministerial Conference that normally meets every two years, a General Council in permanent session and a set of technical councils and committees. All these bodies are open to the total membership. This structure is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, in technical terms, it is too large and complex. The four councils, five main committees and a score of subsidiary bodies, with their implementation agendas and the Doha negotiations are much more than the majority of the membership can handle. Small countries are overwhelmed and cannot follow matters that might be crucial to the future of their development. On the other hand, in political terms, it is too small and unsophisticated. For such an important body, it is grossly inadequate to have one ministerial meeting every two years. Other global institutions usually have a plenary meeting every year and also have some form of political executive council meeting more frequently.

      The WTO has a very small Secretariat of 550 people, with only 150 of them being at the professional level, and it has a tiny budget of less than $100 million per year.7 To make matters worse, there is a culture of affirming the Secretariat are no more than administrators: "Since decisions are taken by members only, the Secretariat has no decision-making powers".8 People at the WTO also like to assert that it is "a membership-driven organisation". Neither of these points differentiates the WTO in any legal manner from the UN, but their assertion does matter politically, by limiting the leadership role of the Secretariat. Thus, the political weakness of the intergovernmental organs is compounded by the bureaucratic and political weakness of the secretariat. For comparison, the IMF, which arguably has a less complex mandate than the WTO, has more than ten times the number of professional staff and a gross administrative budget of $660 million.9 The WTO is staffed and funded more like a large NGO than a major intergovernmental organisation.

      The Marrakesh Agreement does provide for relations with NGOs in Article V (2)

The General Council may make appropriate arrangements for consultation and co-operation with non-governmental organisations concerned with matters related to those of the WTO.

This text may be compared with Article 71 of the UN Charter

The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence

The wording is nearly identical. Anything authorised by Article 71 of the UN Charter must be possible under the authority of Article V (2) of the WTO Agreement. In as much as there is a difference, the addition of "co-operation" suggests a more positive attitude to NGOs by the WTO. In practice, the WTO article has not been implemented. There are no consultative arrangements. Again the problem is political and not legal.

      There cannot begin to be negotiations about establishing some form of consultative arrangements for NGOs at the WTO, until the culture of secrecy is broken down. At the moment, the debate is about the release of documents. Slowly but surely, more documents are being released and the period of delay is being reduced. The WTO will be a normal intergovernmental organisation when all its documents become public on the day they are issued. It is argued that this would breach commercial confidentiality. For an outsider, it is impossible to believe that WTO documents contain sufficiently precise commercial information for this to be a valid claim. It is also argued that negotiations cannot be conducted under public scrutiny. There is an element of truth to this argument, but it does not make the WTO any different from a myriad of other global negotiating forums on arms control, the environment or economic policy. At the UN, when governments wish to limit public debate about whether to make concessions on sensitive issues, they engage in informal bilateral discussions or table "non-papers". The release of information is delayed only so long as the negotiations on the contentious points are highly fluid and normally for just a few days. At the WTO, the culture of secrecy appears to be hypocritical. While the news media, NGOs and the general public are unable to follow negotiations, it is assumed by critics of the WTO that the relevant commercial interests are operating on the inside and are kept well informed.

      The basis of the WTO being a deviant organisation is the assumption that trade negotiations are a technical matter. Some government representatives in Geneva from developed countries say "the WTO is not a development organisation" and they appear to believe what they say. I have even heard an extraordinary statement, "the WTO is not concerned with economics". All these attitudes represent a denial that economic policy, including trade policy, is central to politics. Economists, lawyers and other professional negotiators find it exceptionally difficult to have a holistic view of trade. They are correct to assert the WTO cannot decide policy on all trade-related issues. For example, the ILO is the proper place to decide upon global labour standards. If the WTO decided such matters, it would shift from being a participant in global governance to becoming an embryonic global government. Nevertheless, the WTO does have to recognise it is a political organisation and its work has a major impact on many global issues.

      The change from acting as a technical organisation to recognising its political role links the need for the WTO to become a UN specialised agency, to shift the balance between its technical and its political organs, to strengthen its Secretariat, to increase its "internal transparency", by making developing countries equal partners in negotiations, and to increase its "external transparency", by allowing NGOs to participate in the policy-making process. If all these reforms were made, the WTO would have the capacity to know when it should take political decisions itself and when it should raise questions on the agendas of other institutions of global governance. It would not decide matters of trade policy in ignorance of the consequences of its decisions.

      After the breakdown at Seattle, it was widely recognised that the WTO was facing a crisis of legitimacy. The failure to reach a consensus at the Ministerial Conference was an internal crisis and the failure to engage with civil society had generated an external crisis. Since then, the WTO has become more of a political organisation. Developing countries are gaining a stronger voice in decision-making and the Doha Development Agenda has been launched. The links between environment and trade issues have been wisely addressed by the Dispute Settlement Body and the links between health and trade issues have been acknowledged in the Doha "Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health". The Secretariat is being allowed to engage more widely with NGOs. For their part, a few NGOs have substantially increased their knowledge and understanding of WTO issues.

      These changes are just a beginning. Major reforms in attitudes and procedures are still needed. The reforms may develop in a piecemeal fashion and the complexities of the Doha negotiations will generate pressures for change. However, none of the reforms will be fully effective, until all dimensions of WTO deviancy can be addressed. In particular, NGOs will not want to work in a technical manner in negotiating bodies, if there are no political organs to review the progress of negotiations. Many NGOs will not have the capacity to gain technical expertise, if they cannot receive information and engage in greater depth with the Secretariat. The political organs will not be effective for government representatives, if the Secretariat cannot provide political reports, including an ability to raise issues brought to their attention by NGOs. Finally, the negotiators will not be able to construct internal and external legitimacy for the WTO without a normal, fully functioning system that is sensitive to all trade-related issues on the global agenda. Economic globalisation is not separate from political globalisation. The WTO has to contribute to global governance.

      I cannot suggest answers to all the reform questions raised above, but I would recommend the following steps for the WTO to establish consultative arrangements with NGOs.

  1. Consultative status with the WTO should be open solely to NGOs that have already been approved for consultative status by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. This would lift from the WTO Secretariat the main burden of processing and assessing applications.
  2. The Geneva section of CONGO, in co-operation with the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, should convene a meeting to establish a governance network for all ECOSOC NGOs interested in relating to the WTO.
  3. The resulting WTO NGO Network would become autonomous from CONGO. Its steering committee would have the authority to negotiate with the WTO, on behalf of NGOs, on all aspects of the definition and operation of the arrangements for consultative status. It would have the obligation to provide assistance to all ECOSOC NGOs that desire to participate in the WTO consultative arrangements.
  4. The officers, the steering committee and any subsidiary bodies of the NGO Network would explicitly be denied the right to adopt positions on trade or trade-related issues on behalf of the Network, but could, if asked, assist in publication and distribution of joint statements signed by authorised representatives of NGO members of the Network.
  5. The WTO should provide an office in its headquarters building and provide the salary for one professional person and one secretary to be appointed by the NGO steering committee to facilitate the operation of the Network.
  6. The first task for the steering committee would be to draft and adopt by consensus a Code of Conduct for NGOs in their relations with the WTO. This Code would cover the obligation of NGOs solely to accredit representatives authorised to speak on their behalf and to behave in a manner that is appropriate to a diplomatic forum.
  7. The General Council of the WTO should authorise the immediate public release of all documents and reports issued by the WTO Secretariat, all decisions and reports of any organ or subsidiary body of the WTO and all documents tabled by a member of the WTO, unless the member requests a public embargo on the document until the closure of the session of the relevant negotiating body. The situation on documents was improved in May 2002, but it still does not approach the standards of transparency expected in democratic systems.
  8. The General Council should instruct the Secretariat to maintain a register of representatives accredited by the officers of ECOSOC NGOs.
  9. The Secretariat should maintain a web site of statements submitted by registered NGO representatives or by the headquarters of an ECOSOC NGO, with separate pages for general statements and statements directed at the agenda for specific sessions of WTO bodies. (This is an extension and modification of the current system.)
  10. For a period of five years, the General Council should authorise registered NGO representatives to attend meetings of the Ministerial Conference, the General Council, the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services, the Council for TRIPS and any other subsidiary bodies that agree to accept NGO observers. The chair of each WTO body should be authorised to develop procedures for NGO participation, bearing in mind the ECOSOC Statute, with the consent of the government representatives, as they think is appropriate for their work.
  11. After five years, a small Working Group of the General Council, in consultation with the steering committee of the NGO Network, should review the practices and codify them into a WTO Statute for Consultative Relations with Non-Governmental Organisations.

      These recommendations are based on the assumption that the WTO cannot just open its doors and allow access to anyone who wants to walk in. Even with a formal system for recognition of NGOs by ECOSOC, there have been problems about the behaviour of some NGOs at the UN, particularly in the Commission on Human Rights. Any consultative arrangements with the WTO will have to be managed, but it will only be legitimate if this is done by the NGOs themselves. It is widely argued in Geneva that the WTO is developing effective informal relations with NGOs and there is no need to adopt a formal system. While there has been a substantial shift from the closed world of the GATT, an informal system will always remain heavily biased towards large NGOs and those based in Geneva or with easy access from other European cities. A formal system is needed to assist small NGOs, those who do not already have personal contacts in the WTO system and those who have not yet developed expertise about the institutional processes. Just as developing country governments need assistance with capacity building to become full participants in the WTO, developing country NGOs need support for their participation. A formal governance network is essential to promote understanding of how the WTO system works, to enable inexperienced NGOs to learn from experienced NGOs and to ensure equal access for all types of NGOs.

  1. I. Carlsson and S. Ramphal, Our Global Neighbourhood. The Report of the Commission on Global Governance, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 2.
  2. Ibid, p. 6 asserts the UN's "central role in global governance" and pp. 32-37 discuss "Agents of Change in Civil Society".
  3. Note in particular the first two sentences of the second paragraph on p. 32 of the Commission's report.
  4. See the recent books: M. E. Keck and K. Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders. Advocacy Networks in International Politics, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) and M. Edwards and J. Gaventa (eds.), Global Citizen Action, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2001).
  5. ECOSOC Resolution 288 X (B) of 27 February 1950, as modified in Resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 23 May 1968 and then again in Resolution 1996/31 of 25 July 1996. The text of the current version and other information about consultative status is available at www.staff.city.ac.uk/p.willetts/NGOS/ngo-home.htm#CSECOSOC.
  6. The wording for the WTO may be compare with the Articles of Agreement of the IMF. Article X on "Relations with Other International Organizations" states "The Fund shall co-operate within the terms of this Agreement with any general international organization and with public international organizations having specialized responsibilities in related fields".
  7. The figure for the total staff was on the web page www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/secre_e/intro_e.htm as of September 2002. The figure of "some 150 professional staff in operational divisions" comes from document WT/GC/W/74 of 18 December 1997, paragraph 23 (d).
  8. Quotation from the web index page for "WTO Secretariat and budget", at www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/secre_e.htm as of September 2002.
  9. International Monetary Fund, Annual Report 2001, (Washington DC: IMF, August 2001), p. 85 for the staff figures and p. 90 for the budget.

Copyright Peter Willetts, 2002.

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