Hauser Center Panelists Discuss Impact of NGOs on World Politics

May 23, 2008
by Sarah Staley, Hauser Center

How non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are changing the landscape of world politics was the focus of discussion Wednesday afternoon (May 21) at a seminar co-sponsored by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, professor of the practice of religion and public life and former President of Catholic Charities USA, moderated the panel of academics and practitioners uniquely equipped to debate the impact of NGOs on world politics.

Peter Bell, senior research fellow at the Hauser Center and former President of CARE USA, argued that the role of NGOs in world politics has become increasingly salient and cautioned NGOs to be thoughtful about the political impacts of their role in global affairs.

“Being apolitical could be dangerous. We need to be intentional about our role in politics,” he suggested. “Until recently, most NGOs considered themselves non-political. Over the last ten to fifteen years, that has changed.”

Bell also noted the emerging consensus among top NGOs that they have the potential to tackle serious global problems like poverty if they work together on some joint causes.

“Given the enormity of the task of reducing poverty, larger NGOS have shown greater willingness to come together and collaborate. NGOs have begun a movement to end poverty,” he explained.

The broader role that NGOs could play in world politics was also recognized by panelist Jackie Smith, associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. She argued that NGOs are particularly suited to democratize world politics especially by leveraging networks and symbolic resources, and rectifying asymmetries in “information politics.”

Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and visiting professor of government at Harvard, suggested that while NGOs are increasingly in the view of international political scholars, their role in world politics is still extremely limited when compared to that of the nation state. “NGOs have shown little evidence of being able to change the hierarchy [of nation states]. It has recently become clear how limited civil society can be in affecting world politics, when nation states are uncooperative. States that wish to keep a distance from civil society have capacity to do so,” he remarked.

Consensus emerged that these conversations need to continue within the academy. Smith called on the audience to assert their roles in civil society.

“We can help students see themselves as part of civil society and gain an appreciation for human rights. We tend to put the academy outside civil society, but what I tell my students is ‘you are civil society,’” she posited.

Wednesday’s event was the final seminar of the series “Ushering in the Second Decade: The Future of the Nonprofit Sector,” celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Hauser Center.

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Image of Fr. Bryan Hehir and Peter Bell

Panelists Fr. J. Bryan Hehir (L), professor of the practice of religion and public life, and Peter Bell (R), senior research fellow at the Hauser Center

“Being apolitical could be dangerous. We need to be intentional about our role in politics,” Peter Bell suggested. “Until recently, most NGOs considered themselves non-political. Over the last ten to fifteen years, that has changed.”

Image of Peter Bell and Jackie Smith

Panelists Peter Bell (L), senior research fellow at the Hauser Center, and Jackie Smith (R), associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame