NGO’s Authority: A Discussion in the Global Environmental Governance

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
AuthorChuan Wang,Xiaolong Zou
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(1) 80 –97, 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/0020881720981215
Original Article
NGO’s Authority:
A Discussion in the
Global Environmental
Xiaolong Zou1 and Chuan Wang1
As non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assume incrementally important
roles in global environmental governance, literature regarding their functions
also multiplies. Studies are available about their features, structural advantages
or impacts. However, very few have sufficiently explained what makes them
tick in the international system as non-state actors. In this article, we argue that
NGOs’ important position in global governance lies in its authority. We build our
analysis on sociological institutionalism and the principal–agent models, arguing
that NGOs are independent and autonomous with both inherent authority
and granted authority by sovereign states or inter-governmental organizations
(IGOs). It is through this authority that NGOs could function independently and
autonomously in global governance instead of being the affiliated or appendant
actors of parties. To shed some new light on understanding NGOs in the
international system from a theoretical perspective, we employ cases from
environmental governance domain as evidence for illustration.
NGOs, global environmental governance, sociological institutionalism model,
principal–agent model
Global governance is a continuous process in which various actors of the
international community take co-operative actions in different fields globally. In
order to achieve common goals and promote common interests, they do it through
formal or informal institutional arrangements (Qingcai & Nongshou, 2006).
1School of International & Public Affairs, Institute of National Development & Security Studies,
Jilin University, Changchun, China.
Corresponding author:
Xiaolong Zou, Assistant Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Institute of National
Development & Security Studies, Jilin University, Changchun, Jilin Province 130012, China.
Zou and Wang 81
During this process, the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play an
incrementally visible and significant role in five key areas, namely, ‘information
collection and dissemination’, ‘policy development consultation, ‘policy
implementation’, ‘assessment and monitoring’ and ‘advocacy for environmental
justice’ (Gemmill & Bamidele-Izu, 2002).
Some scholars argue that the key status of NGOs is a response to the trend of
globalization. With weakened consciousness of national boundaries and increasing
transnational problems, the relatively decreased national function in global affairs
brings wider space for development and NGOs activities (Xinlei, 2008). Some
others consider NGOs as the key to remedying the flaws of traditional global
governance in the context of globalization. For example, with NGOs’ participation,
the dilemma caused by ‘positive discriminatory differences’ in global climate
governance is more likely to be settled (Wei, 2018).
Few scholars believe that it is merely because NGOs have certain advantages
over the governments that they gain the important status in global governance.
Jiang Chuan argues that: first, compared with the states, NGOs can represent the
rights, knowledge and power of civil society, emphasizing grassroot social
organizations, people’s participation and local people’s autonomy, and uphold the
bottom-up principle; second, NGOs are not driven by national interests, or not
constrained by sovereign states’ boundaries, or domestic pressure, therefore, they
can devote themselves to solving global problems out of humanitarianism in a
timely and flexible manner (Chuan, 2006).
Somehow, these analyses ignore the independent status of NGOs from the
states, thus failing to offer persuasive explanations on why NGOs have achieved
such irreplaceable status compared to other actors, sometimes even above the
state in certain areas. Even though another school of thought, as illustrated by
Oberthür mention, that the independence and autonomy of NGOs, must not be
formed by inter-governmental agreement, must have expertise and interest
relevant to the international institution, and can express views that are independent
of any state government (Giese, 2017, p. 36). This is, however, nothing but a
factual and objective description of the autonomy of NGOs. Lacking explanations
about the source of NGOs’ authority, the exercise of their influence and acquisition
of its status still lack roots. In this regard, it is intriguing and necessary to seek
further insights to explain why NGOs, as independent actors in the international
system, play such irreplaceable part in the global governance where normally the
sovereign states have more voice or even overwhelming strength.
This article applies not only the state-oriented paradigm to argue NGOs’
undoubted autonomy and its authority in global governance but also apply the
international organization (IO)-oriented paradigm, to seek the source of its
intrinsic authority from its own characteristics. The first section discusses some
theories explaining IOs’ authority, especially the principal–agent (PA) model
and the social institutionalism (SI) model. The second section specializes the
application of these two mainstream theories on the analysis of NGOs’ authority.
The third section provides support for the above-mentioned theoretical
arguments by deducing from the practical status and role of NGO on global
environmental governance.

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