In spite of the confusing nature of NGOs, the theorists who study them seem to be inclined to assess this exacting form of political practice in terms of democratic theory. They try to establish how much NGOs contribute to participatory democracy. There seem to be a more or less equal numbers of enthusiasts and sceptics. In the mid-nineties some were quite excited. But since then the contradictions which are unmistakably clear in the practice of NGOs have led most authors to adopt a position that is midway between the extremes. A number of practical studies have now been carried out on the work of NGOs, their success and failure, the results of their actions and their political significance. Some authors approach NGOs from an entirely different angle. They go past these issues or even turn the questions around, so that the key question becomes: What does the NGO phenomenon mean for our understanding of the state, government and democracy? The key concepts are those of the state, democracy and civil society.
But before we approach this subject more closely it would be wise to look at some recent studies in this field.
The equivocal nature of NGOs
In the beginning many people waited with great expectation to see what would become of NGOs. They thought that NGOs would form a new stage in the development of social movements. And they expected NGOs to follow the labour movement and the new social movements as a form of citizen participation. NGOs were also expected to represent the interests of consumers and the environment at the global level. All these expectations were realistic to some extent, e.g. in so far as some NGOs and their members came from within new social movements. But, when looked at objectively and in social...