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Peter Willetts
Emeritus Professor of Global Politics

Non-Governmental Organizations in World Politics
The Construction of Global Governance

UK publication 15 December 2010 and US publication 26 January 2011.
Price information updated January 2014.

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A book about all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in all parts of the world would in effect cover all social and political activities of all people. The title of this book might at first glance appear to suggest such a gigantic task is being attempted. However, the subject matter is much more focused. It covers the relationships of NGOs with each other and with governments, when they are seeking to influence global political decisions. This book is about global politics and not about other aspects of NGOs and their operations.
    The Introduction outlines the following chapters and continues with a discussion of the relationship between NGO activities and democracy. The idea of a global People's Assembly is rejected.

1     NGOs, Social Movements, and Civil Society

It is necessary to be clear what we mean by an NGO. The reader is alerted to abandon preconceptions about NGOs gained from personal experience with particular NGOs or from common prejudices about NGOs. There are many competing definitions of NGOs. If we are considering NGOs in global politics, then the only reasonable basis to proceed is to ask what organizations the UN accepts or refuses to accept as NGOs. At the global level, NGOs provide the leadership for transnational social movements. They are also in practical terms the main components of global civil society.

2     The Access of NGOs to Global Policy-Making

NGOs have fought for and gained the ability to participate in and to influence all aspects of global politics. The chapter starts by outlining the official consultative arrangements for NGOs with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN. Then it is emphasized how unofficial practice has evolved over the years to give NGOs a wider range of participation rights. The evolution has widened the range of activities by which NGOs can communicate with government delegates, to include many opportunities to distribute their publications, to present their ideas at unofficial events, and to lobby for their positions to be endorsed by the UN. The evolution has also widened the range of fora, so that NGOs now are no longer restricted to questions handled by ECOSOC. The chapter presents, in summary, a comprehensive overview of the extent of NGO access to all parts of the UN system.

3     The Status of NGOs in International Law

It is central to this chapter and taken for granted throughout the other chapters that the term international organizations is not limited to intergovernmental organizations. NGOs also come together in their own formal, institutionalized international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) as well as less formal global networks. In addition, there is a third type of international organization, a hybrid of intergovernmental organizations and INGOs, in which both governments and NGOs are members. This means some global organizations, such as the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, are not NGOs, despite the common assumption that they are. The existence of these hybrids is part of a detailed and controversial argument that NGOs have gradually gained international legal personality.

4     NGOs, Networking and the Creation of the Internet

I started to investigate how NGOs first sought to gain political benefits from global communications by using the Internet, with the assumption NGOs were merely early adopters of the new technology. Instead, the surprising conclusion was reached that in the 1980s NGOs made a major contribution to the creation of the Internet. NGOs were crucial innovators in bringing the Internet to the public and in making the Internet a global system. This has had a major effect on global policy-making. After 1990, all global institutions have experienced much wider NGO participation because of the enhanced facilities for mobilization offered by Internet communications. The early technological leadership of the NGOs was demonstrated by the role they took on behalf of the UN Secretariat in providing global access to documents and a global e-mail network for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – before the web existed.

5     Understanding the Place of NGOs in Global Politics

After presenting the detailed evidence on the impact NGOs have made upon global politics, law, and communications, the book moves on to ask how we should include civil society in our theoretical understanding of the nature of global politics. The answer is to merge governments, NGOs, transnational corporations (TNCs), and all types of international organizations into a pluralist analysis of global political systems. But it is not enough to say we live within multi-actor pluralist systems.
    There also has to be a theoretical basis for asserting NGOs are able to exercise influence over the other political actors. A constructivist analysis of the mobilization of support for values and norms is essential to explaining how NGOs that lack the ability to coerce others and lack access to substantial economic resources can nevertheless change policy-making outcomes. Relating pluralism to constructivism takes the theoretical debate forward, because each of the two approaches requires the other.
    The structures of global political systems cannot be analyzed separately from the processes of interaction within those systems. The pluralist understanding of structures, which include NGOs, and the constructivist understanding of changes in society's norms, expressed in policy-making, each substantially strengthens the other.

6     The Creation of Global Governance

The final chapter is an ambitious attempt to integrate all the previous chapters into a coherent perspective on global governance. It is argued that the increased access of NGOs to the global politics of policy-making, the increased status of NGOs in international law, and the increased communication capabilities of the Internet, created and utilized by NGOs, have constructed a new system of global governance.
    Brief outlines of the immense change NGOs have achieved in human rights, women's issues, development, environmental politics, and arms control are given to demonstrate that NGOs do not just influence the margins of policy-making. They do contribute to the construction or the reconstruction of the overall framework for policy-making.


This book aims to present what I have learnt from 30 years of studying nongovernmental organizations and to take the subject forward, by arguing why it is essential to consider NGOs as significant participants in all aspects of world politics. On such a long journey, I have a great debt to many who helped me along the way.
    The British government's Department for International Development provided a research grant that made it possible to attend sessions of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Council of the Global Environment Facility, and the IMF, World Bank Spring Meetings in 2001 and 2002.
    Thanks are due to the series editors, Thomas Weiss and Rorden Wilkinson, for their encouragement and their endless patience in being willing to wait too many years for the slow production of the manuscript.
    The book is dedicated to James Rosenau for his pioneering work on transnational relations that stimulated me in the late 1970s to ask how NGOs relate to the United Nations.

Selected bibliography

A short essay provides comments on further reading about the activities of NGOs in global policy-making. In addition, guidance is given on how to use the websites of intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisations.

Index of NGOs and hybrid international organizations
Subject index