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Has there been a power shift from states to non-governmental organizations in world politics?

Essay 2013 4 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Int. Organisationen u. Verbände


Has there been a power shift from states to non-governmental organizations in world politics?

In the traditional IR theory of realism, states are regarded as the principal, unitary actors within the international system. While anarchy is underlying the international system, states' main concern is survival and security over other states. As no higher authority exists, states are the ones who hold control and power. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this view of states has been questioned. State power has declined and has been reallocated "among states, markets and civil society" (Mathews, 1997: 50). Among non-state actors, i.e. international organizations, such as the World Bank, non-governmental organizations (NGO), such as Amnesty International, and multi-national companies, such as Shell, especially NGOs have taken on a more influential role in world politics. NGOs have increased in quantity, from 14,000 in 1985 to about 40,000 in 2013 (APA, 2013); they have expanded in their functional areas, from advocates to service providers and mobilizers of civil society groups and have developed from small, rather unimportant organizations to equal partners for governments.

In IR, there are two main views on this phenomenon: some scholars (Lipschutz, 1992; Mathews, 1997; Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Rosenau, 2002) see the emergence of NGOs from a bottom-up perspective and argue that the decline in state power is a causal consequence of the increasing emergence of non-state actors in a zero-sum-relationship. Others (Reimann 2006, Sending & Neumann, 2006) view NGO growth as a top-down process and assert that states encourage NGO development and that non-state actors and nation-states merge into one network not sharing a limited amount of power but expanding on power.

After providing a definition of the term power and an understanding of NGOs, this essay lays out sound arguments rejecting the view presented in Mathews (1997) but agreeing with Reimann (2006), Sending & Neumann (2006). This essay argues for a cooperative, complementing relationship between states and NGOs instead of a hierarchical relationship in a zero-sum power game.

According to the definition of ECOSOC[1], NGOs refer to "any group of people relating to each other regularly in some formal manner and engaging in collection actions". NGOs' activities entail the following characteristics: "non-commercial, non-violent, (...) not on behalf of a government" (Willetts, 2002). According to Willetts (2002), NGOs often deviate from this definition in practice as some are connected with political parties or rely on financial resources from commercial activities. Nevertheless, NGOs have emerged as influential players in world politics from the 1970s onwards, mainly due to the UN Article 71[2] and the active inclusion of NGOs in UN conferences. This culminated in a "new pro-NGO norm" (Reimann, 2006: 59) in the 1980s and 1990s, including major funding from states and foundations (Reimann, 2006).


[1] ECOSOC refers to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

[2] Article 71 has given NGOs major "political opportunities such as formal international recognition and accreditation for participating in UN international conferences" (Reimann, 2006: 50).


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Titel: Has there been a power shift from states to non-governmental organizations in world politics?