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How can NGOs survive democracy?

‘The basic value and philosophy of civic movements lie in respecting diversity.’

Apr 18,2007
For many people, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) used to represent hope. Their morally-based and self-sacrificing civic movements engaged the people’s attention. This brought NGOs force and power, and put them at the forefront of a recent renaissance in public life. These organizations accompanied the rise of the 1987 pro-democracy movement. Today, however, their reputation is somewhat different from that of the past. Many criticize NGOs for lack of flexibility and overreaching authority. Some say they no longer bring people hope. What happened? Park Byeong-ok, the secretary general of the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, a Korean NGO, offered insights in a recent interview. A participant in civic movements for over 20 years, Park recalls the Defeat Campaigns of 2000, which NGOs waged to block people they deemed lacking in qualifications from running in elections. He blames this campaign for bringing political corruption into the organizations.

Q.How many NGOs are there in Korea?
A.According to the almanac of the NGO Times, currently 20,000 organizations are registered. Most of them are welfare NGOs that give humanitarian aid and service. The rest, advocacy NGOs, number 3,000. They speak up about citizens’ rights, the public interest and policy.

There are individuals who claim to be NGOs, and people who are part of many different organizations.
The late 1990s was a period of renaissance for NGOs. They increased in number and quickly spread throughout the peninsula. However, the increase was merely in quantity. Many organizations barely had the minimum qualifications for being an NGO. An example would be a one-person organization. Also, many of them were very superficial ― in other words, they only emphasized benefits for certain groups or individuals. They cloaked themselves with a false identity.

How would you measure the influence of NGOs?
It’s relatively hard to measure their influence since there are only a few examples where the voices of NGOs have actually impacted policies. It’s unusual that none of our NGOs have branched out overseas. But NGOs have great political and social influence. Moreover, they hold similar ideologies and bond well, having participated in the pro-democracy movement together.

Are you claiming that activists have become main actors in civic movements?
Yes, there were such cases during the mid-1990s NGO renaissance.

Do you mean that the uncompromising, authoritarian logic that characterized the 1980s activist movements has been reflected in the modern-day civic movements as well?
It is true that certain activist ideas have been carried over, though to a limited extent. The basic value and philosophy of civic movements lie in respecting diversity. Then comes the importance of communication and compromise. However, none of this can be seen in today’s civic movements. This is why many criticize the organizations for being unilateral. For them, there is only one correct answer. To voice their opinions, organizations that share common values cling together.

Did the Defeat Campaigns bring out NGOs’ political leanings?
While the Kim Dae-jung regime benefited from the Defeat Campaigns, the Grand National Party assailed the campaigners as the government’s Red Guards. The political parties either enjoyed the benefits or criticized them. It was the NGOs that provided them with information.

NGOs are supposed to be neutral. Isn’t it politically incorrect, in fact, corrupt, to support a particular party in order to achieve certain goals?
It’s not wrong to support a particular political party. However, then it should not be called a civic movement, but a political movement. It’s abundantly clear that claiming neutrality (hypocritically) is morally and politically corrupt.

Wasn’t your coalition criticized for not being politically neutral?
Yes. It was during the Kim Young-sam administration. There were two different opinions within our group: one was to help the regime promote a revolution, and the other was to remain critical. As a result, a few went to serve the government, and this made people think the coalition was a pro-government organization. The purpose of an NGO is to keep an eye on the government from the outside. Being part of the revolution itself wasn’t bad, but we have since learned our lesson that participation affects our original intentions.

What do you think about NGOs’ top leaders being involved in politics?
We have no right to block them since they have their freedom. However, their role in maintaining the status quo is an obstacle for NGOs to stably exert influence on society today. Instead it brings criticism.

Is this why a watchdog is needed to keep an eye on the NGOs?
Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. In fact, in the West, the media and various scholars play the role of being watchdogs. The relationship between NGOs and the media is interesting. It’s best that organizations and the media watch each other and respect each one’s role.

In the past, idealistic young men staffed the NGOs. Is that true today?
People who work for NGOs are not civic activists, but rather employees with altruistic motives. People claimed social upheaval as their motivation in the past. Today, they assert self-fulfillment. Many would leave the organizations if they lack professional stability.

With a more complex society, how do NGOs guarantee professionalism?
It’s hard to deal with numerous complex issues. In the past, professors played an important role in raising certain issues with the public. Today, however, civic movements should be more information-oriented. For example, if an organization wants to raise the issue of a real estate bubble, it should provide the public with sources of information and news. Hidden facts and what they mean should be revealed.

Do civic movements need to be consistent in selecting certain issues?
Of course. NGOs cannot cover all the issues. For example, we concentrate 80 percent of our work on economic public welfare issues. It’s natural that the organizations move along with the social issues.

What did you learn in 20 years as a civic movement activist?
NGOs need to be more active, and reveal their identity and purpose to the public. To gain influence, they should communicate with the public. To survive, they should also maintain independence and diversity.


Kim Jong-hyuk JoongAng Ilbo [estyle@joongang.co.kr]


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