- NGO Diplomacy: The Influence of Nongovernmental Organizations in International Environmental Negotiations
It has been two decades since the scholarly claim that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were wielding significant influence on international environmental laws and institutions was first made. Since then, many studies have attempted to document and understand the role of NGOs in world environmental politics. Betsill and Corell's NGO Diplomacy intends to bring methodological order to determining whether, and under what conditions, NGOs influence the procedures and outcomes of multilateral agreements. Since most of the literature on the role of NGOs is understandably based on case studies, the promise of a common framework with which to analyze and compare NGO influence across these cases is a welcome one.
This framework is the most important contribution of the book. It distinguishes between influence on the process and influence on the outcomes of negotiation. It highlights the impact of NGO efforts on framing the issues, setting the negotiating agenda, and altering the position of key actors in the negotiations. It also asks researchers for the evidence that changes in the behavior of other actors was caused in some way by the information or other communication provided by NGOs. Chapter authors are asked to engage in counterfactual thought experiments to consider whether the outcomes observed could be explained without considering NGO influence. The book includes five cases, each following a common framework: the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the desertification convention, the International Whaling Commission, and forest conservation. NGO Diplomacy is a useful resource for anyone studying NGOs and wanting to contribute to an ongoing academic project.
While a common framework facilitates comparisons across cases and allows conclusions about NGO influence to be made with greater confidence, it can also constrain researchers, causing them to ignore some of a case's most important features. An NGO could have a great deal of influence but not necessarily in the way the NGO wishes. Researchers may want to ask, for example, if in a particular case the NGO influence had the desired effect. Did it influence the outcome toward the NGO's strategic objectives or not? Do some NGOs act more strategically and effectively than others? What accounts for those differences? [End Page 146] The world of environmental policy is replete with unintended consequences: accountability mechanisms that stifle creativity; participatory democracy that ends up transferring responsibilities to local communities without the resources to carry them out.
Given the high stakes of environmental negotiations, it is crucial to understand why we have a climate treaty that fails to protect the climate system, a convention on desertification that documents the expanding desert, a Law of the Sea that can't sustain fisheries or prevent ocean pollution, and countless nonbinding statements of principles of sustainability. One of the most troubling conclusions Betsill and Corell reach in their study of NGO influence is that NGOs are more likely to influence the outputs of international negotiations if they frame their recommendations in language that is congruent with the mainstream neoliberal discourse and does not oppose powerful interests. They found that "NGO influence was highest when the political stakes were lowest" (p. 203). In other words, if NGO recommendations have no impact on the real world they are more likely to be accepted.
In addition to this key finding, the authors draw several tentative conclusions about NGO influence, some counter to widely held assumptions. They contend that NGOs did not gain influence by coordinating positions or strategies, and that NGO influence did not seem to depend on direct access to negotiations; even when excluded from the floor, NGOs were creative and effective in communicating with delegates. Environmental NGOs have their best chance of wielding influence at the early, agenda-setting stage of negotiations but less chance during discussions of specific commitments. Competition among like-minded NGOs may have little effect, but when high-powered lobbyists representing business and industry (included here as fitting the definition of NGOs) get involved they can undermine and overwhelm environmental NGO (ENGO) influence.