As I noted in my essay Power of Moral Sanction, there are many roles in building a democratic society. When properly combined, they can bring significant pressures to bear on public behavior, as well as within institutions under the control or influence of civil society. The problem today is that civil society has lost control of its institutions. Indeed, under globalization, civil society has little influence over the governance of modern states. In some circumstances, this loss of influence with modern states is reflected in the dysfunction of indigenous nations, especially when they are dependent on modern states, or under the thumb of ruthless corporations and international financial institutions.
Given this unhealthy scenario, it is not surprising that some members of civil society — both indigenous and non-indigenous — have abandoned all hope for reform of modern states or the international institutions they erected, and have chosen to vent their dissent through NGOs and other associations. With the proliferation of NGOs in recent decades, their activities, campaigns, meetings and conferences have provided seemingly inexhaustible opportunities to vent, discuss, argue and debate public policies. But while discussion is vital to a democratic process, it is in the reform of policies and their implementation that a democracy can meet our needs. Unfortunately, for those who have become trapped in the parallel world of NGOdom, engaging constructively with governing authorities and institutions is contrary to the orthodoxy of radicalism they have internalized as part of their identity. Whether they are pious poseurs positioning themselves for foundation funding, or ideologues posturing for recognition by their peers, their confusion about their role vis a vis good governance constricts their effectiveness.
The fabric of identity that maintains our sanity, particularly under the duress of creating community within the frantic vertigo of modern life, is not to be treated carelessly. While voluntary and coerced identities might be superficial, they are nonetheless all that many have to hold on to. Until we can create greater opportunities for more authentic and fulfilling lives, this is where some will remain. Unfortunately, the social engineers that deploy philanthropic colonization know this, and often view funding obstructive radical ideologues as another means of defeating indigenous nations in their struggle to democratize international institutions like the UN.
As my colleague Mirjam Hirch wrote, indigenous nations are governing authorities, not NGOs incorporated under the authority of modern states. As Dr. Hirch observes, “The laws of states compete with the laws of nations and it is this very fact that demands changing the way states and the world’s original nations deal with each other. On matters as complex as territorial security, climate change, economic trade, cultural relations, social development, and health management, state and nation cooperation is essential. Instead of subordinating nations, the international community must agree to deal with nations on a plain equal to that of states.”
As she notes, indigenous nations are governing authorities that exercise political and policing powers over nearly 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They also govern nations that make up the bulk of about 3 billion people. By way of contrast, she remarks,
Non-governmental organizations are a class of civil organization that ranks as a subordinate entity to the state. NGOs advise and advocate but cannot decide. They cannot determine policy by political decision. They can only attempt to influence decision-making of governing bodies. When the world’s original nations are treated as NGOs they are denied the proper role of co-equal governing entities. Such denial undermines the world’s ability to solve complex problems.
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