The following text is an edited version of a speech given at the founding convention of the Joint Action Forum of Indian People against WTO and Anti-People Policies (JAFIP), which took place in Hyderabad (capital of Andhra Pradesh) on the 29th and 30th of April and 1st of May 1998. On the last day of the convention, a demonstration of 1/2 million people against the WTO took place in Hyderabad.

The dynamics of WTO, NGOs and Trade Unions,
and the co-option of civil society
Sergio Hernández


Since its creation in 1995, the WTO has been receiving increasing attention from peoples’ movements and has thus been the object of mounting criticism and attacks. This has led the WTO to seek legitimacy and acceptance by some organisations claiming to represent "civil society", a term which is so broad in its meaning that it hardly designates anything. A "market" has thus been created for NGOs and trade unions to offer their services as "suppliers of legitimacy" for the WTO – the same kind of market that emerged when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) came under mounting criticism from peoples’ movements due to their structural adjustment policies.

On that occasion, the WB rapidly created special funds for NGOs’ programmes, which provoked instant amnesia in previously critical NGOs and also led thousands of opportunistic career-makers to establish their own NGOs in order to get a share of that money. This way, the WB could claim to be working with "civil society", despite the fact that most of these NGOs only represent their own staff. On its side, the IMF’s main strategy to counter criticism consisted in inviting NGOs and certain trade unions to a number of consultations on structural adjustment policies, which changed little in the impact of these policies on the poor but provoked a 180° turn in the critical positions and willingness to mobilise of the NGOs and unions participating in them.

The WTO has rapidly learnt from the WB and the IMF the best techniques to co-opt and use NGOs and certain unions for its own benefit. In this presentation I will first focus on the symbiosis between the WTO and environmental NGOs, and in the second section I will describe the use of unions and development NGOs in the context of the debate about the social clause. But before that, let me make some terminological clarifications, to avoid the ambiguity that exists about the meaning of the term NGO.

It is very difficult to speak about NGOs (and also about trade unions) in general terms, given the huge diversity of entities that one can find under this label. There is not even a universal definition of what an NGO is: the WTO, for instance, seems to understand that Transnational Corporations (TNCs) belong to this category, since they invite TNCs to participate in NGO symposia. Notwithstanding this ambiguity and for the purpose of this paper, I will define NGOs as legally registered membership organisations that claim to be non-profit, speak on behalf of other people (e.g. the poor of the world) or to protect the environment of distant places (usually that of Southern countries), are usually funded, directly or via other NGOs, by government or private sponsors, and usually do not take an open political position. Peoples’ movements, on the other hand, are not necessarily legal or registered, nor do they always have a formal member status, since they often emerge spontaneously out of the anger of peoples affected by governmental policies or capitalist expansion; they are non-profit (and usually either low-budget or non-budget, as opposed to most NGOs), speak on behalf of themselves as affected groups or to protect their most immediate environment, usually do not accept external funding (although some do – but usually avoiding the creation of dependency) and are deeply political in nature. According to these (admittedly imperfect) definitions, trade unions would be closer to peoples’ movements than to NGOs, but unfortunately this is not always the case, as we’ll see later.

One cannot say that NGOs are necessarily bad. I know several NGOs which, although representing only their own staff, are doing brilliant and very important work.1 But one can definitely say that NGOs are substantially more vulnerable and much easier to co-opt than peoples’ movements. Furthermore, NGOs’ legitimacy is extremely weak, and it is simply non-existent when they start speaking on behalf of other people without having been asked to (as most development NGOs do).

Having set the terminological framework, I now enter into the analysis of the dynamics between the WTO and environmental NGOs.

The conservationists’ love affair with the WTO

During the 60s, the 70s and the first half of the 80s, most environmental organisations (at least in Western Europe) held the view that capitalism and centralisation of power were at the root of environmental problems. They took direct action in order to stop mega-projects of capitalist development, and advocated decentralisation and peoples’ control over their immediate environment as a solution to the ecological crisis. Many of them were inspired by the struggles of indigenous peoples and farmers to keep their cultures alive and to set their own development priorities. There were, however, exceptions: the so-called conservationist groups were working only with the objective of "putting fences around nature" and kicking out the indigenous and farming communities that lived there, and were not questioning at all the capitalist system that was originating the ecological problems in the first place.

Due to the increased influence of the anti-capitalist environmental movement, the ruling classes invented the Rio process as a tool to change the environmental discourse, with the help of a disastrous creation: the concept of "sustainable development". The introduction of this concept successfully eliminated most of the political content from the environmental debate. The Northern states started financing environmental NGOs (both in the North and the South) that defended the idea that "free" trade and environmental conservation were compatible, or even mutually supportive. This has led to a situation in which a large share of environmental NGOs agree with the WTO’s claim that "there are environmental benefits associated with the removal of specific trade restrictions [i.e. tariffs] and distortions [i.e. subsidies]".2 The radical discourse of the 60s, 70s and early 80s can only be found among peoples’ movements and very small environmental NGOs.

It was this change of discourse that enabled the WB and the IMF to convert most environmental groups from enemies to providers of legitimacy. The WTO is now going even further: it wants environmental NGOs not only to legitimise it, but even to take an active role in trade liberalisation, helping it to implement its imperialist agenda.

The WTO has been working towards this objective during the last four years with the help of symposia for NGOs. The fourth such symposium took place on the 17-18th of April 1998 in Geneva, under the title "Strengthening Complementarities: Trade, Environment and Development". The main document for this symposium was a note prepared by the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment that portrays "the relationship between removing trade restrictions and distortions and environmental benefits" in a number of sectors, including agriculture, energy, fisheries and forestry.3 This symposium was hence a direct call for help from the WTO to environmental NGOs, an appeal to work together in favour of trade liberalisation and the control of TNCs over some of the most basic sectors of the economy, upon which billions of people depend all over the world.

All these points are well illustrated by WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero’s opening statement of the symposium, in which he told environmental NGOs that "we have gathered here today because we share the same conviction – that by working together we can better reach our shared goal on sustainable development … A new consensus is emerging that trade liberalisation and environmental protection are not only compatible goals – they must be the two sides of the same strategy to achieve sustainable development on a global scale … we need collective action and cooperation, not only by national governments, but by the many international organisations and NGOs represented in this room today."

The help of environmental NGOs will of course prove very useful and convenient in the framework of the Millennium Round (which will probably start in October 1999) and in the context of growing attacks against the WTO on the side of peoples’ movements. In order to secure the support of environmental NGOs for this round, Sir Leon Brittan, Vice-President of the European Commission, recently proposed a high level trade and environmental meeting for this autumn.

The mentioned symposium was organised by the WTO secretariat in collaboration with the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), a creation of some conservationist and environmental NGOs aimed at actively helping the WTO to gain acceptability. Just to give you an idea of the level of co-option of these NGOs by the neoliberal agenda, I will quote several passages of a pamphlet recently published by the ICTSD under the title "Why the World Trade Organisation Needs Environmental NGOs", aimed at convincing the WTO to allow them to play an even more active legitimating role:

A formal WTO role for NGOs would help to … enhance the WTO’s legitimacy as part of the fabric of global governance by broadening the coalition supporting liberalised trade and blunting environmentalist opposition to open markets [page 3] … Enhanced WTO legitimacy will be critical to public support for further trade liberalisation [page 10] … Drawing NGOs into the international trading system will strengthen the WTO as a an institution … By embracing NGOs, the WTO will enhance its credibility, authoritativeness and legitimacy. The result will be a stronger, not weaker, international trade regime [last sentences of the conclusion, page 15]. Aware of the possibility that confrontational peoples’ movements might take the opening of the WTO to NGOs as an opportunity to do actions inside, the ICTSD makes clear its anti-peoples position: "Not all ‘public’ participation is a good thing. NGO observation and the opportunity for contribution to WTO discussions is valuable but manipulation and contortion of decisions by special interest must be avoided" [footnote 13].

If you consider this to be outrageous, then be aware that an Indian NGO (the Consumer Unity and Trust Society, headed by Pradeep Mehta) is among the six founder members of the ICTSD, along with WWF (a transnational conservational NGO headed by Prince Charles), the IUCN (another transnational NGO that has special relations with the World Bank), the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations, the Canada-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano from Ecuador. And Mr. Mehta has no shame whatsoever in speaking on behalf of all Indians, just like the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations has no shame in advocating free trade on behalf of "the poor of the world".

Selling out the working class: the ICFTU and the social clause

As many of you know, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which is the biggest international and intersectorial union confederation and the most important voice of the trade unions at an international level, has been campaigning for several years (with the help of development NGOs) in favour of the introduction of a social clause in the WTO. Before entering the description and discussion of this proposed clause, I will reproduce some extracts of the report of the presentation by ICFTU representatives at the last Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum,4 that will help in clarifying their true identity.

Labour union leaders from national and international unions came to Davos as a group for the fourth consecutive year in 1998 and praised the opportunity for continued dialogue with participants. William Jordan, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), stressed that workers’ groups do not oppose globalisation … John J. Sweeney, President of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), added: "We are not opposed to trade agreements. In fact, we encourage trade." Ursula Engelen-Kefer, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Management, Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German Union Federation], said … [that] unions also have to educate their members about realities. "You can’t tell every worker who wants to have a job that it is a full-time job for life."5 These are the most important organisations that fight for the social clause, and the US is their main ally. Given this starting point, one does not even need to discuss the clause: coming from where it comes, it cannot be good for workers. However, I will do so, since in my opinion much of the support for the social clause is based on lack of knowledge about it.

The basic idea behind the social clause is very simple: it would consist on a new "rule" within the WTO regulatory system which would enable any country to implement WTO-legitimated trade restrictions against countries that fail to comply with the "core conventions" of the International Trade Organisation (ITO). These are the conventions protecting the freedom of association (convention no. 87) and the right to collective bargaining (no. 98), and prohibiting forced labour (no. 29 & 105), child labour (no. 138) and discrimination at the workplace (no 100 & 111). According to the proposal of the ICFTU, the ILO would monitor the compliance of these conventions, and the trade sanctions of the WTO would be used to punish those countries that do not comply.

According to the ICFTU, the social clause would "give teeth" to the ILO (the teeth of the WTO), since the ILO does not have any effective mechanism to enforce its conventions. The ICFTU has used this argument to attract a lot of support for its proposal from many organisations all over the world.

However, the implementation of the social clause, far from offering a useful tool to defend workers’ rights, would give way to the US, the EU and other dominant countries to go back to the worst forms of colonialism. In the next paragraphs I will explore some of the main reasons why the social clause should be outright rejected.

First of all, the social clause offers no solution to the globalisation-driven desperation and dependency that force parents to send their children to work and move people to accept jobs in slavery-like conditions. It puts the blame on the countries where these human rights violations are taking place, instead of persecuting the transnational and national capitalists that take advantage of this situation to maximise the exploitation of the working class. By doing so, it actually increases the poverty at the root of exploitation, since countries that do not comply with the rules would face trade sanctions while being forced to keep their markets open for imports – thus destroying production and provoking misery.

Second, the social clause would play workers in the formal sector (a privileged minority, and the only ones to benefit from the clause) against the workers in the informal sector and the underground economy (the majority). Since the compliance with the clause would be easily monitored only within the formal sector, it is foreseeable that its implementation would encourage an increasing shift of production from the formal sector to illegal sweatshops or domestic work, through subcontracting arrangements. And the level of exploitation and human rights violations is far higher in the underground economy and the informal sector than it is in the formal sector.

Last but not least, the social clause offers a perfect tool for imperialist countries to practice selective protectionism, while keeping full access to the raw materials and markets of the South and the East. If they benefit from exploitation of the working class in the South and the East, they will simply ignore the violation of the ILO conventions and continue importing extremely cheap products produced under inhuman conditions; if the cheap imports run against their interest, they will denounce the exploitation in the ILO and they will receive protection of their markets by the WTO. The social clause would hence bring us back to virtually the same situation that existed during the old colonial days, thanks to the demands of the trade unions. The fact that unions are represented in the ILO does not make any difference in this respect, since union representation at the ILO is almost monopolised by the pro-capitalist ICFTU.


Many NGOs and trade unions are playing an unacceptable role in promoting the WTO and neoliberal policies in general. As part of the preparations to oppose the Millennium Round, we should hence discuss how we can best neutralise these organisations as elements of legitimacy of "free" trade. One good way to do it (at least in the case of some unions) could be through informing the basis of these organisations of the positions that the leadership is taking on their behalf and (in almost all cases) without their informed consent. In other cases, publicly challenging these organisations and their positions will be more effective. Whatever the form chosen, peoples’ movements can play a vital role in destroying the influence of those defending neoliberal policies in the name of the people.


1 Similarly, there are in Europe a number of fascist and racist organisations that one could define as peoples’ movements, according to the above definitions - and I only wish that they will disappear as soon as possible.
2 See “Environmental Benefits of Removing Trade Restrictions and Distortions - Note prepared by the WTO Secretariat”, published by the WTO, page 2.
3 Ibid., page 4.
4 The World Economic Forum is the most important political tool of transnational capital, a club of the 1000 most important TNCs and financial operators. It organises since 28 years its annual meeting at the Swiss resort of Davos, where the political agenda at worldwide level is fixed.
5 The AFL-CIO is the main US union federation, and the dominant voice in the ICFTU. The German Union Federation (DGB) is the most powerful union federation in Europe, and another important voice in the ICFTU.

HTML version by Pressebüro Savanne, 1998-06-06.

We are eager for comments and suggestions!
Back to the Homepage of Pressebüro Savanne.
Diese Seite auf Deutsch.

The dynamics of WTO, NGOs and Trade Unions, and the co-option of civil society / Pressebüro Savanne /
Last updated 1998-06-06