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Framing NGOs in the Market for Change: comment on the report by SustainAbility


Framing NGOs in the Market for Change
Timing of the report
Institutional origins of the report
Thematic framework
Focus of the report
Making an impact
Engagement vs Criticism and confrontation

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The international consultancy SustainAbility has published a report entitled: The 21st Century NGO: in the market for change. The report was launched at a meeting on 26 June 2003 at the International Finance Corporation (Washington DC) and featured in the Financial Times on that day -- together with an editorial entitled "Biters Bit".

The concern here is not to review the report in detail. It is a commercially available publication. An executive summary and related documents are available from the SustainAbility website. Rather the purpose here is to question the manner in which the report -- co-produced and promoted by two United Nations bodies -- may effectively serve to distort a debate at a delicate time in the evolution of the international community. Of particular concern is the manner in which its conclusions posted on the web will be read -- as illustrated here by their treatment in the Financial Times.

In what follows the comments below relate primarily to how the report is likely to be superficially understood and used on the basis of freely available documents such as the executive summary and the promotional materials of its sponsors -- rather than to the valuable insights it indeed contains, if appropriately used with respect to an appropriate context, notably those insights in a preliminary white paper on the SustainAbility website. In this sense the comments are indeed likely to constitute a degree of misinterpretation of the body of the report itself. The comments endeavour to explore the significance of the misinterpretation arising from the superficial understanding to which greater numbers will be exposed -- in an international community increasingly governed by spin.

Issues of concern include:

The following comments are produced in the light of experience as managing editor of the Yearbook of International Organizations: Guide to Global Civil Society Networks (5 vols, now in its 40th edition) and the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (first produced in 1976). These, and related databases have been managed by the self-funded Union of International Associations (UIA) in Brussels since its creation in 1910. The data has been published in various forms via a multinational corporation since 1982, following a brief period of cooperation with the International Chamber of Commerce to that end. These publications are the source of the standard statistical data on international nonprofit organizations over many decades (see Volume 5 of that Yearbook) and their adaptation in the Global Civil Society Yearbook (2002). These international NGOs now number in excess of 40,000 (depending on definitional preferences). The related work on problems and strategies has been enhanced in the environmental field through a contract with the Commission of the European Communities Info2000 programme (1997-2000) [more], and was successfully evaluated for development-related enhancement by the World Bank's InfoDev programme [more].

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