The paradox of NGO-state relations

Date of Completion

January 2003


Political Science, General




The role that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in international relations is assumed by the dominant paradigms to have an erosive effect on the state. Tensions between liberalism and realism (and their respective variants), however, have resulted in a gap in the literature, as each paradigm almost entirely excludes the possibility that NGO activities can have an effect other than one contributing to the dissolution of state sovereignty. The paradox is that, in some situations, NGOs have a reinforcing effect on the internal and external dimensions of state control, autonomy, and legitimacy, even as private citizens across political borders unite to pursue issues of importance to them. As institutions, NGOs seek to address transnational issues that individual states alone cannot address or choose to ignore. ^ Reconsidering state sovereignty as a concept and acknowledging the inherent biases that influence the dominant paradigms make it possible to construct a more useful and insightful approach for examining the role institutions play in international relations. Conducting a meaningful analysis involving NGOs also entails explicitly defining what constitutes these institutions. Identifying the roles, issues, and actors that influence these organizations provides a better understand of the activities in which NGOs engage, and consequently the effect these activities have on state sovereignty. In what initially appear to be anomalies, NGOs in three cases demonstrate that these institutions can indeed have an effect converse to that expected by the dominant strands in the literature. Case studies that examine NGO participation at the World Trade Organization's Millennium Round Meetings in 1999, handicraft NGOs in Thailand and Bangladesh, and NGO efforts to promote elephant conservation in sub-Saharan Africa expose meaningful ways that these organizations strengthen internal and external state control, autonomy, and legitimacy. The findings of these case studies collectively demonstrate that when a less biased approach to examining sovereignty is taken, the results uncover a wider range of effects than the dominant strands permit. ^