Unhappy over the World Trade Organization's refusal to discuss contentious labor issues at its 1999 meeting in Seattle, activist Mike Waghorne joined tens of thousands of protesters on the streets. The demonstrations, which turned violent, sparked anti-globalization protests around the world.
Nearly six years later, Waghorne is still unhappy with the Geneva-based trade group. But now he can voice his displeasure from a much more comfortable perch.
Waghorne was among 70 outsiders given the chance to grill three candidates last month for the position of WTO director general. It marked the first time in the organization's 10-year history that activists were allowed to have input in the selection process, an event that Waghorne, an officer with labor coalition Public Services International, described as "civil" and a far cry from the fireworks he had expected.
Once relegated to the streets and hallways, social and environmental activists like Waghorne are finding these days that businesses and trade officials are receptive to their concerns. Activists are prompting changes in corporate practices or trade policy, in some cases partnering with their former targets. Representatives of Amnesty International and other groups were even invited into the proceedings of the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland.
"In the old days, it was complete lunacy. There was a moat and a castle, and we were serfs," said Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organizer of the WTO candidates forum. "It is totally different now. We're not inside, but at least we're visiting from other realms of the kingdom."
The effects have been wide- ranging. Organizations including anti-poverty group Oxfam International and consumer group Public Citizen have helped push once-secretive agencies, including the World Bank, to open up their meetings, publish documents on their websites and respond to concerns about the social and environmental effects of their activities.
Greenpeace International persuaded refrigerator maker Whirlpool Corp. to use environmentally friendly insulation. Under pressure from activists, Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Cos. agreed to stop buying lumber from Canada's environmentally sensitive Great Bear rain forest.
Gap Inc. and Nike Inc. have collaborated with labor advocates to clean up sweatshops in Cambodia. Prodded by consumer activists, Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are working with consumer groups to step up recycling of computers and cut down on toxic waste. And activists are collaborating with Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola Co., to name two, to hasten the acceptance of codes of conduct and other measures designed to boost socially responsible corporate behavior.
"When we first started working on codes of conduct back in the 1990s, this was kind of like way out there," said Sister Ruth Rosenbaum, founder of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, an anti-poverty group based in Hartford, Conn. "Now, it is absolutely normal for a company to have a code of conduct."
Activists haven't abandoned their old-fashioned methods of protest, such as street demonstrations and boycotts. But through the years they have adopted new tactics.
"Protests are just one tool in the tool kit," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
"As the threat intensifies, we are pushing ourselves to be smarter, to use new tools to be able to put pressure on these companies in a number of countries simultaneously."
Aided by the Internet, activists can swiftly spread the word about alleged corporate misdeeds and enlist help from like-minded people in other countries. They have become more adept at fundraising; some organizations that once ran on a shoestring have large and global staffs, replete with lawyers, researchers and Web masters
Many have expanded their use of financial tools -- buying company shares and pressing for shareholder resolutions, for example -- honed during the fight against companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s and '80s. Efforts in this arena have gained credibility because grass-roots activist organizations have joined forces with more powerful corporate governance watchdogs like the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the nation's largest public pension fund.
What's behind the change? Public opinion, for one thing.
Nongovernmental organizations, as citizen activist groups are often called, rank as the most trusted institutions in the United States, Europe, Latin America and much of Asia, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of 1,500 global opinion leaders by public relations firm Edelman.
The biggest jump was in the U.S., where the "trust ratings" of NGOs soared to 55% in 2005 from 36% in 2001.