The NGO challenge towards the global village

An essay on electronic media, revolutions and totalitarism

Documentation and analysis is often unappealing to a larger audience, but 'subtitling' the flood of information is a challenge that could meet the respect of a wider public and maybe offering a necessary more independent and viable economic perspecitve.

NGOs should provide via electronic services critical reflections on the news, background information and report on all forms of emancipatory developments, but also enable people themselves to participate and communicate with the rest of the world.

The NGOs worldwide will actively have to help to destroy the 'electronic walls' that keep people less or desinformed on aspects regarding their own environment, economy and society. Walls that are rapidly growing between those who have access to the global electronic village and those that have to depend on the filtered reality that world media are offering.

The success of TV media like CNN shows that people care to be informed and to be part of a global village. NGOs could help to ensure that people wherever they are based can get access to the sources of information and means of communication that can empower them to become global social actors in the new information age.

Michael Polman, Antenna, september 1991

Published on Nettime:

The world is boiling, history unfolds its dramatic changes in 
full colour on TV and in full text in electronic bulletins.
History seems to be present through an index of messages, 
statements and reports from our global electronic village 
reporting day by day its cascade of events. The linking of 
NGO news services and bulletins on NGO mailbox networks is 
a global platform to report and comment the daily reality of 
people and a critical addition to existing news media.
The electronic NGO networks have not only become global  platforms for message exchange between NGOs worldwide -  enabling NGOs to co-operate and communicate on a global scale  - they also provide nowadays daily reports and statements  from all regions of this world. Chernobyl, Malaysia,  Tien-a-men, Iraq and Moscow are all dramatic examples where  global electronic networks proved they could be reliable and  independent sources from the grass roots perspective. 

CNN-isation or on-line participation?
The full newsload of IPS and also from small NGO news services, the reports from NGOs reporting from the turmoils of history, all indicate that subtitling the CNN-isation of world media is possible by enabling readers background information from the perspective of people involved in the daily reality of people.

But the inability to filter or retrieve selectively these hugh loads of information, creates a similar feeling of overload and alienation as the commercial CNN-like media are inflicting.

Information is not participation and communication is not democracy. Although access to both should be regarded as essential human rights, in themselves they lack any direction or option for sensibilisation without some form of context or analysis.

NGOs are capable to provide these additional elements which could upgrade the global electronic village into a platform for social change. Unfortunately the necessary reflection requires time and adequate models, which both seem to be unavailable for the moment. History is avalanching and all social models, conceptual frameworks and critical ideologies seem to have become 'seropositive', most of them isolated from society, stigmatised as carriers off the AIDS-syndrom.

Ideological vacuum
The burocratic implementations of socialistic ideologies - hoping to provide equality, fraternity and justice via central control over people and their resources - have shattered many dreams that socialism can become a reality, an economic and political model and not just another academic utopia. As analytical model socialism still provides a powerful tool to visualize the main reasons for poverty and human exploitation.

But since it lacks an adequate ability to analise the exploitation of nature, the systematic destruction of its ecological environment and its resources, it obviously failed to function as basic conceptual model for the new social movements advocating social change on a range of new issues.

Where trade unions and the labour movement once were the core of one social movement for a better world, now new movements assisted and facilitated by many NGOs and their networks are challenging the economic interests that control world order.

These new movements confronted traditional political parties and movements with new issues - like rights of women, black and indigenous people and nature itself - and proved them that unlimited further economic growth is incompatible with fundamental human rights and the conservation of nature.

Global totalitarism
An economic model that respects all rights of humans and nature has yet to be invented. All economic models and social experiments implemented on the basis of socialist ideologies have been stopped or are in the process of extinction. This does not mean that human and natural exploitation and the violence of hunger, poor health, illiteracy and poverty, have ceased to exist. More then ever the reality of urban and rural cultures - either in the North (like the US or UK) or in the South - prove that the capitalistic and liberal-economic models that feed and protect injustice, inequality and unfair competition, are no answer to the needs of people, wether based in the gettoes and slums of the North, the South or the East.

But as long as no new serious models are being presented that contain concrete proposals and policies for economic viability, democratic and governable politics and ideological values that can be reproduced and rooted in a modern global society, any confrontation or competetion with the new totalitarian global model of one free market, will be extremely difficult.

UNCED or nonsense
The UNCED as Earth Summit to reconsile economic development and environmental responsibility sounds like the ultimate challenge for many NGOs to participate in a political platform for global managment of development and environment.

Wether the UNCED is the apple that finally will force these NGOs to leave their paradise to become mortal organisations or a true festival of the empowerment of dreams, has yet to be seen. Real is the overwhelming flood of statements, activities and proposals by thousands of NGOs hoping to be part of the events in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Old ideas are being polished, tested and edited to sound as historical statements. For this allone hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to reproduce and disseminate.

The lack of realistic economic models - able to confront or compete the existing global order of transnational corportations - will force any plan to be executed within the economic reality and political framework of the North. All ideological and political opposition can be neutralized by demanding a friendly co-existence with economic growth. Critical opinions can only be ventilated by the willingness of the hegemonic powers of the global free market economy.

The failure of centrally managed and controlled economies in the East seem to prove the inadequacy and inability of effective central control over economic development and the environment. Ergo economic liberal models of the free market and western models for political control and power seem to be the 'only' real alternative. Hopes are expressed - like the UNCED Earth Summit - that the social and ecological responsibilities in these models can be enlarged and guaranteed.

But this seems incompatible with the reality that in fact highly centralised transnational corporations control and manage the largest part of world economy and world trade.

Asking them to enlarge their social and ecological responsibility is like asking the Communist Parties in the East to become true democratic organisations able to save the economies and environemt they have ruined so destructively.
New platforms for social change 
In this essential confrontation of interests and believes between social movements, national governments and transnational corporations, trade unions should and could play an essential role since by their very nature - platform of the labour force of which governmental institutions and transnational corportations are made off - they represent a hugh economic component and interest: human labour.

Interdoc as platform of NGOs and NGO networks working for social change and users of information and communication technologies, has never developed any political perspective beyond the common understanding that information exchange, international co-operation and interdisciplenairy communication are vital tools for social change. There is no shared analysis and certainly no shared policies how to implement social change. In reality the various implementations are often incompatible and inconceivable as political fraternities.

But by itself - Interdoc's success in promoting and establishing global electronic networking - it created a powerful tool that can be used by any platform willing to politisize networking.

Both traditional social movements like trade unions and their international structures as the new social movements networking on a global scale on black, indigenous, women, environmental and consumer issues, adopted electronic networking as vital tool for meeting their political goals.

The global electronic village created by linking NGO mailbox systems - with eachother and the commercial and academical counterparts - could become a global arena for political co-operation. An unprecedented option for social change.

And for the first time NGOs have formed an important stronghold by using modern technologies. Information handling - their major trade - is being regarded as political and economical valuable. Suddenly their global networks are greenhouses of appealing homegrown products with access to the growing international market of information.

They managed to politisize the global electronic village by their active participation, although the overall majority is still unaware of their political and economical potentials.
Democratising the global electronic village 
Before such a global platform could be established on a viable and democratic basis, NGO networks and their mailbox systems should enable more then now grass root organisations and their communities to participate themselves in these global networks.

NGOs participating in the forefront of historical changes and developments participate unconsciously in the avant-garde of various new social movements. Unwillingly they have become the gatekeepers of information and of communication channels.

It is of utmost importance that NGOs give up their monopolies over information sources and services and reach out to all parts of society that can benefit from it or could be interested to participate. This could mean loading databases on important issues like background data on food additives. Also it would mean providing cheap access to electronic conferencing and bulletin boards, directories, documentation and news. Not headline news but the personal reality of the people confronted with disasters, politics and pollution.

Democratizing information and communication technology is a necessary step to increase political awareness on a global scale. Promoting electronic media, by providing training and support and offering appealing services to the communities, could change the political arena dramatically
Growing roots in the community 
It will be vital for a sustainable viability to anchor these new electronic platforms in local communities. Dependency on international funds - no matter how sympathic they seem - is a basic threat to the political independence and future.

A viable future of NGOs can not be found in simply merchandizing their information, logos and slogans, neither in a membership organisation that functions in fact as a charity organisation.

Creating services rather then movements
Taking people serious means providing professional services and products, meeting the needs of the people - which sometimes will be the reality of the market. Let NGOs prove that they care about the people by willing to depend on them for income and as platform. This maybe could mean involvement of local companies, local services and local governments.

NGO networks could enable people to find the information they need to take their own decissions, to communicate to other people or to the right audience or authorities - wether local, regional, national or global. That is empowerement, that is democratization.
Democracy versus adhocracy 
People will no longer need an ideological or political avant-garde gatekeeping the decission making and available information sources. Political parties and ideological models will probably no longer form the intellectual leadership of people open to support social change. Information itself and the context of its content will form the basis of people's opinions and policies.

In fact in a few years more and more demands will made by people to participate more directly in the political process via access to on-line governmental and parliamentairy information.

At a later stage direct participation as a kind of 'teledemocracy' is to be expected. Wether politicians want their voters to be more involved has to be seen, but certainly 'teledemocracy' will not be a realistic alternative since it could empower another elite.

It is very likely future 'democratic' models will be more like some form of 'adhocracy': those who feel engaged or committed will participate in the development of policies and in the decission making process. Others like to be kept informed and have no need to participate in political or economical decission making.

This means that a central body where formally decissions are being made has maybe no longer the highest democratic value. Maybe people start to participate in those decission making processes which are linked to their own domain, wether this is a geographical location or area or topic oriented. The same way as people now express their concern and committment by browsing on-line networks for news and discussions. But realistically spoken this decentralized model of decission making will be too much regarded as unwanted anarchism. At least it is good to know there is an alternative model available!
A cyberspace odyssee 
If NGO mailbox systems could further grow into platforms for social change, it is important to install these systems as close to the users as possible. Alternative access points, networking mail and messages between hundreds of hosts, a true mailbox explosion is to be expected in the next few years. In fact automatic linking of PCs to networks - to pick-up and process mail and messages - is more and more being implemented. Helping NGOs to establish this on a global scale is an important challenge and task for the current systems.

But on an international scale succesfull mailbox systems are difficult to be reproduced when they are simply being cloned without adequate local expertise and links to the social actors in the national cultural and political context. Too many systems are too dependent on a 'priesthood of male and pale techno-wizzards' often only temporary based in a country.

These committed and almost altruistic operating wizzards cannot be blamed for their kingdoms; in the land of the blind one-eyed people are king. The problem is that there are too many blind 'profets' confirming the myth that 'technotopia' is the new land.

Funding agencies have been often financing electronic mail adventures that often ended within months after the last funds were spent or the last consultant left the country.

Information and communication are too important for people to become mere side-effects of a technocratic model hoping to link any part on the worldmap. Tele-missionairies are rapidly spreading the faith that electronic networking is the ultimate model to avoid 'info-mortality'. Cyberspace as 'heaven' for post-industrial, post-modern and post-socialist societies. The global electronic virtual reality as escape from the discouraging ideologies and declining economies.

Cyberspace is indeed a challenging new frontier for NGOs, an arena hardly discovered by existing hegemonic powers and certainly a powerfull battle field were in the future information and communication will be processed and offered. Indeed NGOs should create strongholds to protect the vital interests of grass roots communities and nature itself, but every step should also be guided by a political awareness and not just by sheer technological admiration.
The NGO challenge towards the global village