V. Heins: Nongovernmental Organizations in International Society

Nongovernmental Organizations in International Society. Struggles over Recognition

Heins, Volker
New York 2008: Palgrave Macmillan
Anzahl Seiten
224 S.
$ 74.95
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Isabella Löhr, Historisches Seminar, Universität Heidelberg

The present book is part of a growing number of publications dealing with the phenomenon and the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) in international politics. This increasing interest in the activities and impact of NGOs goes back to the middle of the 1990s when NGOs gained more public attention after the United Nations had reformed the conditions of admission so that a larger number of NGOs obtained the possibility to participate at UN-conferences. Volker Heins approaches the topic not merely from a legal and political perspective. Rather he probes into the activities of nongovernmental advocacy groups by exploring their motives, reasoning and patterns of argumentation.

The author bases his book on several assumptions about the nature of NGOs. He describes NGOs as “new actors” (p. 3) in international politics saying that they induced a shift from “politics based on national and class interests to a politics based on moral values and emotions” (p. 1). His study aims to question the often cited narrative that NGOs largely contribute to the decline of state sovereignty in favour of new forms of governance outside traditional state authority. Instead he advances quite the reverse, namely the hypothesis that NGOs need powerful agents such as states to support their programme. For this reason Heins assumes, following the so called “English School” of British writers on international politics, that NGOs serve a twofold purpose: They foster the building up of global institutions while at the same time contributing to the persistence of sovereign statehood as the principal basis for international politics. In doing so, Heins argues, NGOs are not a peripheral phenomenon but they essentially shape international politics by bringing up new agendas, by playing the role of an intermediary and by modifying “the way in which power is exercised” (p. 4). Besides the already mentioned “English school”, the author embeds his study in two more theoretical approaches. The first coming from the so called “Frankfurt School” of critical theory directs the attention to agency and communicative performance as the main capacities of NGOs allowing them to actually influence international politics and to participate in, as the subtitle indicates, struggles over recognition – which means “struggles for changing the scope of norms” (p. 31) in policy fields such as human rights, environmental issues, health or war. Secondly, Heins works with the term “post-traditional civil association”. This concept includes three distinctive features of NGOs: They are non-state actors not confined to the territory of a state: they do not belong to what Heins calls traditional political entities; and, finally, NGOs are preoccupied to act in the name of universal moral norms expected to advance mutual recognition and the living conditions of people suffering any kind of what the NGOs activists define as “harm”.

Following the introduction the chapters aim to clearly describe and define the characteristic, activities and goals of NGOs during the last decades. Chapter two explains in detail the key features of NGOs, highlighting their focus an narrowly defined issues, their moral impetus, their non-territorial status and their “other-regarding interest” (p. 20), Heins emphasizes as their most distinctive features. The third chapter asks for the reasons that NGOs were able to emerge as a purportedly new political phenomenon. Here, the author suggests NGOs to be the result of an interplay of several factors, including among other things affordable transport and communication technologies, the decline of political master narratives such as Marxism or modernization theory and the reorganisation of funding structures and of international organizations such as the United Nations. The fourth chapter explores the activities of NGOs. Taking the 19th century anti-slavery movement as a starting point and as “moral template” (p. 65) it analyses the normative, moral and political impact of NGOs on national and international state politics in policy fields such as the international criminal court, intellectual property rights or climate protection. On the basis of these case studies Heins elaborates different types of policy strategies NGOs pursue in order to achieve their goals. Chapter five is dedicated to the issue NGOs are committed to and their spatial sphere of activity (including the relationship between local and global commitment by describing especially humanitarian NGOs as “multilocal actors” (p. 137) who rescale their subject matter from local to global policy arenas and back if necessary) while chapter six asks whether or not and how NGOs succeed or fail. In this last chapter Heins stresses the communicative performance of NGOs as their main strength, which in his eyes is even much more effective than their attempts to set normative agendas. In the conclusion the author critically reflects on the “downsides” of NGOs discussing well-known reproaches such as a deficit of democracy, the setting up of a “culture of emergeny” or the lack of factual argumentation in favour of what Heins calls moral outrage.

The author presents a study on the role of NGOs in international politics that offers a lot of valuable insights especially for the reader who is interested in normative thinking and theoretical approaches to the subject. But there remain some aspects which should be mentioned critically. For the most part the author argues on a normative scale: He limits NGOs to the idea of organisations pursuing mainly charitable aims in the widest sense thus excluding other forms of nongovernmental activism for example trade unions, international associations of artists such as the PEN-Club or indigenous groups fighting for the preservation of the tropical rainforest as crucial element of their living conditions. Secondly, Heins assumes NGOs to be a historically new phenomenon. Contrary to this opinion, recent historical research on international organizations has pointed out the existence of private international organizations already in the 19th century and the partial strong impact they had on the shaping of the respective policy fields. Although the majority of these studies acknowledge that World War II and the foundation of the United Nations principally altered the categories through which private international activists were perceived as well as the possibilities they had to intervene in international politics, historical literature as well as literature coming from the social sciences agree on the interpretation that NGOs cannot be interpreted as something new.[1] At this point I am somewhat hesitating about his argumentation to take the anti-slavery movement as moral template for contemporary NGOs while at the same time denying the historical dimension of NGOs. Thirdly, the author does not elaborate on the question who is actually running the various NGOs so that he keeps the reader in the dark as to the social profile of the responsible groups or networks standing behind the label NGO. In the fourth place it appears to be a problem that the author critically discusses the moral claims of NGOs while writing at the same time “to be biased in favour of many of the values professed by modern NGOs such as freedom and diversity” (p. 11) – a bias which is expressed in a morally loaded terminology that does not distance itself enough from expressions such as good or evil or the observation that certain NGOs have made “moral progress” (p. 111). For these reasons the study can be recommended to all readers who have already background knowledge and who are interested in getting an insight in current discussions on NGOs – and in this respect the reader will find a well written book with a lot of valuable insights that might provoke controversial discussions.

[1] For example see: Madeleine Herren, Internationale Organisationen seit 1865. Eine Globalgeschichte der internationalen Ordnung, Darmstadt 2009; Bob Reinalda, Routledge History of International Organizations. From 1815 to the Present Day, London 2009; Christiane Frantz, Kerstin Martens, Nichtregierungsorganisationen (NGOs), Wiesbaden 2006.

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