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World View : Thinking Locally Spreads Globally : An estimated 500,000 'NGOs' provide services and fight for causes as government aid dwindles.


UNITED NATIONS — Just before Hillary Rodham Clinton toured Bangladesh in March, 2,000 extremist Muslims marched in the streets of Dhaka, the capital, not to protest the visit of the First Lady but to demonstrate against most of the development projects on her itinerary.

They were upset that she was honoring the work of grass-roots organizations led by women.

On the two-week trip through South Asia, Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, seemed enthralled by the work of impoverished Asian women organizing themselves into small groups to protect their interests and initiate projects that would improve their woeful incomes.

The Muslim protesters were infuriated by her attention to these humble but revolutionary groups. The men believe that the organizations have lured women away from their traditional homemaking roles in many Islamic societies, including Bangladesh.

"We shall wave torn shoes at her if she tries to promote the non-governmental organizations," threatened Muslim leader Faisal Hug Amini as the First Lady's visit loomed. Showing a shoe is a deep insult in many Asian cultures.

The torn shoes and Clinton's tour reflected one of the most extraordinary yet little noted social and political phenomena of the past two decades--the global proliferation of ordinary women and men organizing to better themselves.

These grass-roots groups provide services, lobby for causes or try to do both. Some organize to build better homes, market crops, improve health, ensure water supplies, provide day care for children, help the poor and implement a host of other community development projects.

Other groups organize to fight for the environment, human rights, population control and a host of other causes.

The private associations are known worldwide by a legalistic mouthful of a name--non-governmental organizations--and its awkward acronym, NGOs. There is no doubt of their new strength and ubiquity. Some authorities estimate that there are now at least 500,000 NGOs in the world.

Some are as large and well known as the Red Cross or Greenpeace or CARE, others as small as the grass-roots groups visited by Hillary Clinton in Bangladesh.

Many specialists believe that all contribute to the strength of what is known as the "civil society"--the independent institutions outside government that help people interact with government and make their will known to officials and politicians.

Developing a civil society, working from the bottom up, is an essential element of democracy, political scientists say.

For this reason, the mushrooming of NGOs is usually regarded as positive, especially in the Third World.

In Ahmadabad, India, for example, Hillary Clinton visited a bank run by the local chapter of the Self-Employed Women's Assn. of India that issues loans as small as a few dollars to poor women so they can buy a cow or a plow and better themselves. Regular banks would ignore them.

Governments are not always sure what to make of NGOs. In Egypt, according to Saad el din Ibrahim, chairman of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, "The government is of two minds about all of these things. In one sense, the government is content that these NGOs, or some of them at least, are picking up the slack, providing services that the government has been forced to cut. On the other hand, it is jealous of their growing autonomy."

The Egyptian government has harassed some NGOs, including the Ibn Khaldoun Center. But Saad, whose center wants to encourage NGOs and strengthen the civil society in Egypt, said: "We are prepared to go through peaceful confrontation with authorities so long as we have a fighting chance. The NGOs should not have the idea that it is a picnic. Having a strong NGO is a struggle, especially in the Third World."

In Peru, budget cutting has prompted NGOs to take over services once provided by government, and the government appears disturbed by the funding of these NGOs by foreign organizations.

"This government's reaction is: All this money is coming, and we have no part in it," said Kris Merschrod, the director in Peru of PACT, a U.S. NGO that encourages the growth of NGOs in the Third World. "Governments are weakest in the delivery of social services. But when NGOs do it, the governments feel a loss of political prestige."

Not all NGOs clearly strengthen democracy. The Michigan Militia, which does not call itself an NGO but could qualify under a broad definition, will probably be investigated by the U.S. Congress soon to determine whether its goals are a danger to society.

"The Michigan Militia is certainly an NGO," said Peter Dobkin Hall of the Yale University Program on Non-Profit Organizations. "They fit into one of the categories of NGOs. Being a voluntary organization doesn't mean that it has to do positive things. The Ku Klux Klan, after all, is a voluntary organization."

Voluntary organizations or voluntary associations are terms that scholars sometimes use to describe NGOs.

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