Michael Polman on Thu, 26 Mar 1998 18:10:13 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> [revisiting certain questions]

[Patrice Riemens <patrice@xs4all.nl> passed this along to provide,
 among other things, a bit of historical perspective on questions
 surrounding NGOs, funding sources, etc., etc. Share end enjoy.-T] 


The article below was published in the Interdoc Newsletter in 1991
as a response to the emerging frustration among NGOs in Europe not
able to respond to the "End of History" ideology of the neo-liberals.

The role of many NGOs was shifting as a result of the radical changes
in Europe. The emerging Internet - formally known as the Global 
Electronic Village, in this paper the word Internet does not occur -,
started to become a technological and communication platform. Antenna
became on May 1 in 1991 an Internet linked E-mail system. The fact 
that we linked ourselves via the University and co-operated with NGO's,
local governments and local companies, who contributed to our self-finance -
Antenna never accepted subsidies -, made us aware of the potential of 
our mode of operation. This article was ment as encouragement to others.

I felt that bringing it up again in the current discussions on the use
of Internet by NGOs, it could show that the issues at stake are not new
and that in my opinion NGOs need to face the challence of meeting the 
needs in the public domain in stead of the needs of the donor agencies.

The UNCED to be held one year later projected already its shadow on
the nature of the work of NGOs. The trend of responding to the agenda
of the UN and the paralel trends of the funders willingness to finance
continues up to date. Yet I feel that new media are still a viable and
sustainable platform that can foster an independent public debate and
can finance public domain activities of the NGOs and their networks.

In 1991 I hoped to activate a debate among NGOs and the NGO mailboxsystems
as to whether they should be aware of their position in the development
of the Global Electronic Village as forefront of the emerging Global
Information Society. Likewise a paper in 1981 on the adoption of 
information and communication technology for NGOs to start networking
- using PCs and modems - was not welcomed very much at that time. But almost
the same paper presented in 1986 to Interdoc encouraged many to become
actively involved in networking technology. It was the start of Antenna.
Perhaps 1996 is again a more appropriate moment for a five year old proposal.

Michael Polman, November 1996.


From: michael@antenna.nl (Michael Polman)
Date: Mon, 23 Sep 91 22:36:06 Eur
Organization: Antenna Foundation in the Netherlands
Subject: NGO Challenge towards global village (article)
Lines: 358

The NGO challenge towards the global village
An essay on electronic media, revolutions and totalitarism     

The world is boiling, history unfolds its dramatic changes in 
full colour on TV and in full text in electronic bulletins.
History seems to be present through an index of messages, 
statements and reports from our global electronic village 
reporting day by day its cascade of events. The linking of 
NGO news services and bulletins on NGO mailbox networks is 
a global platform to report and comment the daily reality of 
people and a critical addition to existing news media.

The electronic NGO networks have not only become global 
platforms for message exchange between NGOs worldwide - 
enabling NGOs to co-operate and communicate on a global scale 
- they also provide nowadays daily reports and statements 
from all regions of this world. Chernobyl, Malaysia, 
Tien-a-men, Iraq and Moscow are all dramatic examples where 
global electronic networks proved they could be reliable and 
independent sources from the grass roots perspective.

CNN-isation or on-line participation?

The full newsload of IPS and also from small NGO news services, 
the reports from NGOs reporting from the turmoils of history,
all indicate that subtitling the CNN-isation of world media is
possible by enabling readers background information from the
perspective of people involved in the daily reality of people.

But the inability to filter or retrieve selectively these hugh
loads of information, creates a similar feeling of overload
and alienation as the commercial CNN-like media are inflicting.

Information is not participation and communication is not 
democracy. Although access to both should be regarded as 
essential human rights, in themselves they lack any direction 
or option for sensibilisation without some form of context or 

NGOs are capable to provide these additional elements which
could upgrade the global electronic village into a platform 
for social change. Unfortunately the necessary reflection 
requires time and adequate models, which both seem to be 
unavailable for the moment. History is avalanching and all
social models, conceptual frameworks and critical ideologies 
seem to have become 'seropositive', most of them isolated 
from society, stigmatised as carriers off the AIDS-syndrom.

Ideological vacuum

The burocratic implementations of socialistic ideologies - 
hoping to provide equality, fraternity and justice via central
control over people and their resources - have shattered many 
dreams that socialism can become a reality, an economic and 
political model and not just another academic utopia. As 
analytical model socialism still provides a powerful tool to 
visualize the main reasons for poverty and human exploitation.

But since it lacks an adequate ability to analise the 
exploitation of nature, the systematic destruction of its 
ecological environment and its resources, it obviously failed 
to function as basic conceptual model for the new social 
movements advocating social change on a range of new issues. 

Where trade unions and the labour movement once were the core 
of one social movement for a better world, now new movements 
assisted and facilitated by many NGOs and their networks are
challenging the economic interests that control world order.

These new movements confronted traditional political parties 
and movements with new issues - like rights of women, black 
and indigenous people and nature itself - and proved them 
that unlimited further economic growth is incompatible with
fundamental human rights and the conservation of nature. 

Global totalitarism

An economic model that respects all rights of humans and 
nature has yet to be invented. All economic models and social 
experiments implemented on the basis of socialist ideologies 
have been stopped or are in the process of extinction. This 
does not mean that human and natural exploitation and the 
violence of hunger, poor health, illiteracy and poverty, have
ceased to exist. More then ever the reality of urban and rural
cultures - either in the North (like the US or UK) or in the 
South - prove that the capitalistic and liberal-economic 
models that feed and protect injustice, inequality and unfair 
competition, are no answer to the needs of people, wether based 
in the gettoes and slums of the North, the South or the East.

But as long as no new serious models are being presented that
contain concrete proposals and policies for economic viability,
democratic and governable politics and ideological values that 
can be reproduced and rooted in a modern global society, any
confrontation or competetion with the new totalitarian global
model of one free market, will be extremely difficult.

UNCED or nonsense 

The UNCED as Earth Summit to reconsile economic development
and environmental responsibility sounds like the ultimate 
challenge for many NGOs to participate in a political 
platform for global managment of development and environment. 

Wether the UNCED is the apple that finally will force these
NGOs to leave their paradise to become mortal organisations 
or a true festival of the empowerment of dreams, has yet to 
be seen. Real is the overwhelming flood of statements, 
activities and proposals by thousands of NGOs hoping to be 
part of the events in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Old ideas are being polished, tested and edited to sound as
historical statements. For this allone hundreds of thousands
of dollars are being spent to reproduce and disseminate.

The lack of realistic economic models - able to confront or
compete the existing global order of transnational 
corportations - will force any plan to be executed within
the economic reality and political framework of the North.
All ideological and political opposition can be neutralized
by demanding a friendly co-existence with economic growth. 
Critical opinions can only be ventilated by the willingness 
of the hegemonic powers of the global free market economy.

The failure of centrally managed and controlled economies in
the East seem to prove the inadequacy and inability of 
effective central control over economic development and the
environment. Ergo economic liberal models of the free market 
and western models for political control and power seem to be 
the 'only' real alternative. Hopes are expressed - like the 
UNCED Earth Summit - that the social and ecological 
responsibilities in these models can be enlarged and guaranteed. 

But this seems incompatible with the reality that in fact 
highly centralised transnational corporations control and 
manage the largest part of world economy and world trade.

Asking them to enlarge their social and ecological 
responsibility is like asking the Communist Parties in the 
East to become true democratic organisations able to save the
economies and environemt they have ruined so destructively.

New platforms for social change

In this essential confrontation of interests and believes
between social movements, national governments and 
transnational corporations, trade unions should and could
play an essential role since by their very nature - platform
of the labour force of which governmental institutions and 
transnational corportations are made off - they represent
a hugh economic component and interest: human labour.

Interdoc as platform of NGOs and NGO networks working for
social change and users of information and communication
technologies, has never developed any political perspective
beyond the common understanding that information exchange,
international co-operation and interdisciplenairy communication
are vital tools for social change. There is no shared analysis
and certainly no shared policies how to implement social 
change. In reality the various implementations are often
incompatible and inconceivable as political fraternities.

But by itself - Interdoc's success in promoting and establishing
global electronic networking - it created a powerful tool that
can be used by any platform willing to politisize networking.

Both traditional social movements like trade unions and 
their international structures as the new social movements
networking on a global scale on black, indigenous, women,
environmental and consumer issues, adopted electronic
networking as vital tool for meeting their political goals.

The global electronic village created by linking NGO mailbox
systems - with eachother and the commercial and academical
counterparts - could become a global arena for political 
co-operation. An unprecedented option for social change.

And for the first time NGOs have formed an important 
stronghold by using modern technologies. Information handling
- their major trade - is being regarded as political and 
economical valuable. Suddenly their global networks are 
greenhouses of appealing homegrown products with access to 
the growing international market of information. 

They managed to politisize the global electronic village by 
their active participation, although the overall majority is 
still unaware of their political and economical potentials.

Democratising the global electronic village

Before such a global platform could be established on a viable
and democratic basis, NGO networks and their mailbox systems
should enable more then now grass root organisations and their 
communities to participate themselves in these global networks. 

NGOs participating in the forefront of historical changes
and developments participate unconsciously in the avant-garde 
of various new social movements. Unwillingly they have become 
the gatekeepers of information and of communication channels. 

It is of utmost importance that NGOs give up their monopolies
over information sources and services and reach out to all
parts of society that can benefit from it or could be 
interested to participate. This could mean loading databases
on important issues like background data on food additives.
Also it would mean providing cheap access to electronic
conferencing and bulletin boards, directories, documentation
and news. Not headline news but the personal reality of the
people confronted with disasters, politics and pollution.

Democratizing information and communication technology is a
necessary step to increase political awareness on a global 
scale. Promoting electronic media, by providing training and 
support and offering appealing services to the communities, 
could change the political arena dramatically

Growing roots in the community

It will be vital for a sustainable viability to anchor 
these new electronic platforms in local communities. Dependency
on international funds - no matter how sympathic they seem -
is a basic threat to the political independence and future.

A viable future of NGOs can not be found in simply merchandizing 
their information, logos and slogans, neither in a membership
organisation that functions in fact as a charity organisation. 

Creating services rather then movements

Taking people serious means providing professional services and 
products, meeting the needs of the people - which sometimes will 
be the reality of the market. Let NGOs prove that they care about 
the people by willing to depend on them for income and as platform.
This maybe could mean involvement of local companies, local 
services and local governments.

NGO networks could enable people to find the information they need 
to take their own decissions, to communicate to other people or
to the right audience or authorities - wether local, regional, 
national or global. That is empowwerement, that is democratization.

Democracy versus adhocracy

People will no longer need an ideological or political avant-garde 
gatekeeping the decission making and available information sources.
Political parties and ideological models will probably no longer 
form the intellectual leadership of people open to support social 
change. Information itself and the context of its content will form 
the basis of people's opinions and policies. 

In fact in a few years more and more demands will made by people 
to participate more directly in the political process via access
to on-line governmental and parliamentairy information. 

At a later stage direct participation as a kind of 'teledemocracy' 
is to be expected. Wether politicians want their voters to be
more involved has to be seen, but certainly 'teledemocracy' will 
not be a realistic alternative since it could empower another elite.

It is very likely future 'democratic' models will be more like 
some form of 'adhocracy': those who feel engaged or committed will 
participate in the development of policies and in the decission 
making process. Others like to be kept informed and have no need
to participate in political or economical decission making.

This means that a central body where formally decissions are being 
made has maybe no longer the highest democratic value. Maybe people
start to participate in those decission making processes which are
linked to their own domain, wether this is a geographical location
or area or topic oriented. The same way as people now express their
concern and committment by browsing on-line networks for news and
discussions. But realistically spoken this decentralized model of
decission making will be too much regarded as unwanted anarchism. 
At least it is good to know there is an alternative model available!

A cyberspace odyssee

If NGO mailbox systems could further grow into platforms for social 
change, it is important to install these systems as close to the
users as possible. Alternative access points, networking mail and
messages between hundreds of hosts, a true mailbox explosion is to
be expected in the next few years. In fact automatic linking of PCs
to networks - to pick-up and process mail and messages - is more and
more being implemented. Helping NGOs to establish this on a global
scale is an important challenge and task for the current systems.

But on an international scale succesfull mailbox systems are 
difficult to be reproduced when they are simply being cloned
without adequate local expertise and links to the social actors
in the national cultural and political context. Too many
systems are too dependent on a 'priesthood of male and pale
techno-wizzards' often only temporary based in a country.

These committed and almost altruistic operating wizzards cannot
be blamed for their kingdoms; in the land of the blind one-eyed 
people are king. The problem is that there are too many blind
'profets' confirming the myth that 'technotopia' is the new land.

Funding agencies have been often financing electronic mail 
adventures that often ended within months after the last
funds were spent or the last consultant left the country.

Information and communication are too important for people
to become mere side-effects of a technocratic model hoping
to link any part on the worldmap. Tele-missionairies are
rapidly spreading the faith that electronic networking is
the ultimate model to avoid 'info-mortality'. Cyberspace as 
'heaven' for post-industrial, post-modern and post-socialist
societies. The global electronic virtual reality as escape
from the discouraging ideologies and declining economies.

Cyberspace is indeed a challenging new frontier for NGOs,
an arena hardly discovered by existing hegemonic powers
and certainly a powerfull battle field were in the future
information and communication will be processed and offered.
Indeed NGOs should create strongholds to protect the vital
interests of grass roots communities and nature itself, but
every step should also be guided by a political awareness
and not just by sheer technological admiration.


Documentation and analysis is often unappealing to a larger
audience, but 'subtitling' the flood of information is a 
challenge that could meet the respect of a wider public and 
maybe offering a necessary more independent and viable 
economic perspecitve.

NGOs should provide via electronic services critical reflections 
on the news, background information and report on all forms of 
emancipatory developments, but also enable people themselves to 
participate and communicate with the rest of the world.

The NGOs worldwide will actively have to help to destroy 
the 'electronic walls' that keep people less or desinformed
on aspects regarding their own environment, economy and 
society. Walls that are rapidly growing between those who
have access to the global electronic village and those that
have to depend on the filtered reality that world media are

The success of TV media like CNN shows that people care to be
informed and to be part of a global village. NGOs could help 
to ensure that people wherever they are based can get access 
to the sources of information and means of communication 
that can empower them to become global social actors in the new 
information age.

Michael Polman, Antenna, september 1991


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