Geert Lovink on Thu, 25 Feb 1999 17:11:11 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Saskia Sassen on PGOs (for N5M3 TV)

Interview with Saskia Sassen on PGOs
For N5M3 TV, taped in De Balie, Amsterdam, January 18th, 1999
By Geert Lovink

GEERT: Saskia, would you agree that there has been a rise in power of
these NGOs, these non-governmental organizations, over the last decades?

SASKIA: Yes, there is. There is abolutely a rise in power. There is also a
rise in power of other kinds of--we could call them
non-governmental--entities, like corporations, certain types of markets.
This is a very important issue.

GEERT: These very specific networks of small organizations--environmental
movements, civil rights initiatives--on the one hand, they sort of embody
the goodwill and the alternative; but there is another side to them. Maybe
unwillingly, they are fullfilling tasks they never wanted to, tasks that
governments did before.

SASKIA: That is also definitely happening. You see, for instance in parts
of Africa, the world of NGOs taking over the governance of certain social
spaces. It could be cities, it could be institutions, things that used to
be in public bureaucracies. And, in fact, you have some African scholars
who will say: What to the outsiders looks like a lack of governance is
actually an alternative kind of governance that is happening through all
these non-governmental organizations. I think it is extremely important
within the world of NGOs to be aware of this distinction. There are many,
many different types of projects here. It is not one world.

GEERT: So let's talk a little bit about health care, or trade unions, even
political parties. Does that encompass the universe of NGOs for you?

SASKIA: I don't know. What has been happening is that the term "NGO" has
been spreading, so that now anything that is non-governmental suddenly
becomes an NGO. I think this is partly a political move: it expands this
world of actors. On the other hand, I think it is an interesting political
move--potentially, at least. But that is just one point to be made here.
The other point is that some NGOs have enormous power, more power than
some governments: the World Council of Churches, and all kinds of other
organizations. There are NGOs that absolutely reproduce existing power
hierarchies, NGOs that struggle at the margins, that don't even know that
we call them NGOs. They're just small groups of people. So there are
NGOs--maybe like the Soros network--that have a very specific project of
installing certain social structures, certain kinds of objectives or
projects and so on, in existing national states or countries. So it's very
difficult to generalize--that much we know. Among the more marginal NGOs,
like those linked with the struggles of 'first nation peoples'--linked,
for example, with the struggles of environmentalists (I don't mean the big
environmental organizations)--have been able, through the Internet or by
other means, to connect across the world and gain strength. As a result,
we now have sort of a new kind of NGO politics that consists of multiple
local initiatives with a difference. The difference is an awareness that
there is a whole range of other local efforts along these lines. There is
a sort of global consciousness of sorts. When we talk about the world of
the NGO today, I think that we're talking about enormous diversity. It
would be a question to discuss strategically whether the world of NGOs is
or isn't the way we should be thinking about these questions. Do we want
to harness the image of this enormously diverse world, or do we really
want to make the distinction. I think different projects will demand
different ways to use or make use of this world of NGOs. But really--NGO
is and almost bureaucratic term at this point, in the sense that it is one
way to categorize. But these entities aren't always so self-conscious or,
if they are, aren't always clear on what it means. Another such term is
'the fourth world'--interesting, yes, but what does it mean?

GEERT: Or 'third-way' systems, 'civic initiatives.'

SASKIA: The 'third sector,' right.

GEERT: Another important issue, may would say, is accountability. One of
the problems of NGOs--especially if they are linked to large international
organizations--is that for people on the ground, and even for governments,
they are no longer accountable for what they do. They can move very
quickly and in many ways can behave like finance capital.

SASKIA: I have three observations, on the spur of the moment. One of them
is that the question of accountability needs to be deconstructed:
accountable to what and for what? In some cases, the fact that some of
these organizations are not accountable is actually better, because it
means that a different kind of political project can be enacted--whereas
if an organiztion is accountable, it often means being accountable to
existing value systems, which in some cases are the very ones best
avoided. However, many of the big NGOs are profoundly accountable--by
which I mean they are accountable in the kinds of ways and to the kinds of
entities one might not want to demand accountability for or to.

Another issue--and it's one I'm struggling with--is the need to invent new
systems of accountability. This is my concern about a lot of the
architecture for governing global finance. There is an architecture, there
are certain standards the players adhere to; and there is transparency,
the famous term 'transparency,' which implies something that's
intrinsically good. But what is it? It is accountability to shareholders
and their short-term profit. But do we always want this kind of
accountability? No--including from global finance--so we're presented with
the challenge of discovering new types of accountability, new ways of
thinking the question of accountability--accountability to a larger public
good, and so on.
So, when I look at this landscape--whether it is the landscape of global
finance, the landscape of these NGOs--I think that a primary agenda is to
invent new systems for accountability and accountability for different
kinds of aims in some of these systems. There's a lot of change happening,
there are major discontinuities--and that means that the older systems
don't always work. We really have to rethink some of these things.

GEERT: And we should not necessarily be accountable to them.

SASKIA: Exactly.

GEERT: In the Next 5 Minutes conference we have come up with the term
'post-governmental organization': it reflects a bit better the actual
structure of these situations and activities. 'Non-governmental' always
refers to the government, parties and the relationship towards local and
national governments. 'Post-governmental organizations,' on the other
hand, have a global aspect and another aspect--of alternative models of
organizing, say, another architecture of networks, more decentralized.

SASKIA: That sounds like a good term. You'll certainly attract some
critics with it--if you use 'post,' there's no way to escape criticism.
But it does suggest something that comes 'after' in a broad sense, in
other words, after the current, not necessarily in accordance with or
defined by the current structure of NGOs. Capturing this discontinuity is
important. It may not make it radically different, but it seems open to
this difference. I don't know if that's what you're after, but that's my

GEERT: Well, it's always tricky, risky, to introduce a term. But, for us,
this possibility and this risk is related to developments in the media
landscape and in computer networks.

SASKIA: You know, in the field of immigration we are now talking about
'post-national citizenship.' I don't think either of these terms,
'post-governmental organization' and 'post-national citizenship,'
necessarily implies, that there is no government, that the government is
no longer there. The national continues to be operative. But there is also
this other form or space within which things can happen.

GEERT: Now, ultimately, this NGO/PGO-topic is about the question of
organization. How do people these days organize themselves? We know that
churches and traditional forms like parties or trade unions are losing
their primacy in this regard. Some say that NGOs are the new way. Maybe
there are other forms, maybe more invisible forms or more fluid forms. How
would you say people should organize themselves these days?

SASKIA: Again, we come back to the Internet. With the Internet there is a
real option to organize in a more fluid way--and also in a
deterritorialized way, or partly deterritorialized way. The possibility of
a local organization is no longer predicated on physical proximity or
spatial proximity: it's now possible to capture different sites in
different parts of the world, while still thinking in terms of local
organizations rather than global organizations. There are issues that
different localities share no matter where they are, and there are other
issues that must be fought on the ground in a particular place. But we
shouldn't think about that in literal terms, on the ground literally: this
can also be accomplished via local networks and so on. That's why some
people are talking less about 'transnational' and more about 'translocal,'
the idea that different 'locals' connect. In many ways, what I deal with
is more translocal than transnational. We have been using this term
'transnational,' but it's only one form of translocality. The notion of
the 'local' is crucial: we need to expand its meaning so that it is not
understood as spatial proximity. But that in itself is a subject for
debate--some people will disagree with it very fiercely.

(Transcribed by Menno Grootveld, edited by Mylene van Noort)

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