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Politics: FAQs

We live in the most opinionated age mankind has ever known. Is the result fair? Or just noisy? How does government manage when everyone wants their share of the action – and shouts and agitates for it? (You may enjoy our archive site,

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Campaignerss: popular jewels of democracy, or grandstanding propagandist grit in its machinery?

Q: What is an NGO (non-governmental organisation)?
A: They are many and various: almost any organisation that isn’t official gets called an NGO sometimes. So sometimes (for instance by the UN) businesses and corporations are called NGOs. But more normally, they are campaign groups. But many campaign groups (Oxfam, Doctors Without Frontiers, even Greenpeace) also run projects (aid work, medical work, businesses and so on).

Q: Are campaigners valuable?
A: Modern free societies are hugely vibrant, and in part that’s because of some basic freedoms, especially the right to free association and to free speech. People can come together to argue for any case they like, especially cases “the state” may not like. Campaigners, therefore, are an expression of free society, and they contribute to maintaining society’s freedoms. Arguably, however, they are inclined to a “left-leaning” view of what freedoms matter most.

Q: Are there different sorts of NGO?
A: As we said above, yes, sure. One of the big differences between NGOs is the degree to which they are radical in different ways. Some campaigning NGOs advocate policies which stand no chance of being implemented; others are “incrementalist” and work to move government policy along, one bit at a time. Some NGOs which undertake projects do so alongside governments, and take tax-payers’ money (many aid agencies are like this); others wouldn’t dream of doing so. One distinction is between NGO’s which pursue “insider” or “outsider” strategies.

Q: Why are NGOs so attractive nowadays?
A: Modern people are said to be bored with conventional politics and to prefer to exert pressure through “extra-parliamentary” campaigns. There is a view which suggests this a dangerous modern tendency. Anyway, it operates by exerting influence – often on parliament – through campaigns. This is sometimes called “single issue” politics, and is closely related to something callled “identity politics”.

Q: Are NGOs democratic?
A: They often appear to be, and present themselves as, very democratic: “the voice of the people”. But democracy is defined as decision-making by representatives elected on a one-man-one-vote basis. NGOs seek to influence this process, but they are not themselves usually very democratic. They are not themselves elected to represent anybody and most do not formulate their policy by formal (or any) reference to their membership (which many do not have anyway). Even their admirers sometimes flag up concerns about NGO accountability.

Q: Why are NGOs so trusted?
A: The modern tendency appears to be to mistrust officialdom (and professions and corporations and almost any institutions). Campaign NGOs have exploited this trend and have presented themselves as a force for uncorrupted moral honesty. It often seems that the public accepts this view. But there is evidence which suggests that people’s distrust of institutions and firms does not stand up: when push comes to shove, it is government and firms we turn to. Besides, campaigning NGOs usually have the luxury of pointing out the failures of government and firms, but without themselves running things or suggesting real-world alternatives to existing policy and practice.

Q: Do NGOs tell the truth?
A: Everyone – governments, firms, political parties – is inclined to accentuate the positive in their case. NGOs certainly do. There is evidence, however, that campaign NGOs are less challenged by those they criticise (politicians and businesses) than they might be. Many people in government and firms feel that there is no mileage in criticising bodies the public holds in high regard. Indeed, goverments and firms have been seeking to accommodate rather than challenge these opponents, rather than point out their use (misue?) of evidence.

Q: Are NGOs good for democracy?
A: Politicians have validity because the people elect them. But they need to be constantly challenged. The NGOs are part of that challenging process, alongside (and often using) the media. But it is an open question whether NGOs do the job as well as they might. They do, after all, have their own agendas.

Q: Are NGOs “vested interests”?
A: Yes. NGO’s often present themselves as fighting “vested interests” (business, government, political parties). But ther have their own interests. They need members, subscriptions. They have staff and leaderships who need a living and increasingly want professional standards of living.

Q: Are NGOs independent?
A: We’ve suggested (above) that some NGOs pride themselves on having nothing to do with government or firms. But it is worth noting that there is a similarity between campaign NGOs (mostly mildly leftish, anti-corporate, anti-technological, anti-growth) which makes them surprisingly samey. In other words, these feisty, populist bodies are surprisingly similar in what they do with their independence.

Q: Are NGOs always populist?
A: This is tricky. Take the example of the car. Almost all NGOs which campaign on the environment will campaign against car-use, and they are popular as they do so. But few people would vote for a givernment that clamped down on car-use, promised to build no more roads and to tax car use more. A sceptic might say: many people like to seem “radical” and “for the environment”, but they don’t want policy to hurt them personally. That’s why politics is different to single-issue campaigning: a politician has to remind voters that government is about what people will vote for and pay for, whilst supporting a campaign can be more about expressing who one would like to be than who one actually is.

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