Monday, February 18, 2013

ENGOs, Civil Society and Post Normal Science

This post comes about as a result of attending a number of meetings consiting mostly of ENGO representatives, ranging from COP (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to commuinity meeting. 

There has been considerable discussion on this blog concerning the communication of climate science to regional politics and stake holders, about climate science as post normal science, and about civil society.  However, one crucial actor in all of this is all but absent in the discussion, namely the role of Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs). Of course, we hear about the IPCC (an ENGO) on this blog but this is comprised of climate scientists and of a scale much larger than I have in mind. Among ENGO’s (sometimes aka environmental think tanks) there are those that are involved in environmental management, lobbying, advocacy, and/or conservation efforts, and other claiming to be conducting applied environmental research, policy analysis, and consultancy, all acting in the best of public interests. These activities occur at regional, national and/or international levels. If this is so, then it is a definite advancement in civil society. (NGOs are claimed to be fastest growing segment of civil society: NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles and Innovations edited by Lisa Jordan and Peter van Tuijl. Kees Biekart. 2007). Most such organizations produce advisory or information reports that are published as non-peer reviewed grey literature, have media campaigns, hold town hall meetings, publish pamphlets for public consumption, etc. Their interests are often based on moral claims. Here we need to make a distinction which I have not yet come across. There are those NGOs that set the goal of reducing (poverty, child labour, human trafficking, etc. )  or increasing (nutrition, education, healthcare, etc.) something that can be measured. But with ENGOs how do we assess the effectiveness of their logbbying, of their advice to policy makers, of their proposed climate change adaptive strategies? With no outcome how can we assess their credibility and utility?

One only has to look at some ENGO activity to confirm the conclusions of Gourevitch, Lake and Gross Stein, 2012 (The Credibility of Transnational NGOs: When Virtue Is Not Enough) ‘...NGOs can actively seek to increase their credibility by actively networking with other NGOs, serving on joint campaign planning boards, co-sponsoring events and activities and so on. The key here is for the organization to be visibly and publicly associated with a shared movement not just to bring about more effective mobilization for social change but also to assure audiences that it is acceptable to other trusted organizations. [...] Indeed, many of the meetings between NGOs that otherwise appear to accomplish little may have great importance in validating the participants in each other’s eyes[...] .’ Think COP talks at the grander scale.

While the truth to power model is often decried in the example of science, this seems to be endorsed in the world of ENGOs. For the most part, their public image is promoted as credible and virtuous, and the sense of virtue and credibility is strengthened when the audience and the ENGO share common values. ENGOs actively shape their own images, their reputations, and hence, their credibility. To the public they present themselves in emotional framings that are intended to communicate commitment to positive social change. Problems arise when an ENGO faces an audience that diverge in the assessment of the interests, as sometimes happens when meetings contain representatives from not only the public and the ENGO but also members of the scientific community.

If climate change is an alpha example of post normal science, in a growing civil society, then we need to question all actors. Concerning ENGOs participating in the confluence we need to ask:

Why do we not reflect on the credibility of the smaller ENGOs?

Who do ENGOs actually represent?

Who addresses their political and power-laden underpinnings?

What should be their role in civil society?

Who allocates and sets their priorities?

Who should they be accountable to and how?

Do they come to emphasize procedure at the expense of substance?

Are they ethical actors?

Who assesses the accuracy of their claims?

Is there a need for external verification of their statements?

To what extent do they uncritically accept and promote information and misinformation simply to justify their existence?