Non-governmental Organizations and International Environmental Institutions:
Questions of Design
Michele M. Betsill1
Prepared for the Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Synthesis Conference,
Bali, Indonesia, 6-9 December 2006.
This paper examines design questions associated with the relationship between non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) and international environmental institutions. Over the past 30
years, NGOs have become increasingly active participants in creating international environmental
institutions, particularly through their involvement in multilateral negotiation processes. Drawing
on a recent study of NGO influence in international environmental negotiations, this paper
considers how NGOs might be designed to enhance their performance in these deliberative
processes, with particular emphasis on the importance of developing relationships with other NGOs
as well as state negotiators. The paper also discusses the implications of the study for the design of
multilateral negotiation processes. It examines arguments about how NGOs can enhance the
performance of international environmental institutions in solving problems by providing
information and conferring legitimacy on decisions reached through the negotiation process. In each
case, I contend that more research is necessary before making specific recommendations about
designing institutions to incorporate NGOs. The paper also considers whether NGOs help
international environmental institutions achieve broader social goals, such as the democratization of
global governance, and suggests that achieving this goal requires both institutional and
This paper engages IDGEC’s research focus on institutional design by examining the
relationship between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international environmental
institutions. This area of the IDGEC research agenda is primarily concerned with identifying
opportunities to enhance the performance of institutions created to solve environmental problems.
Within the IDGEC project, institutions are defined as “…systems of rules, decision-making
procedures, and programs that give rise to social practices, assign roles to the participants in these
practices, and guide interactions among the occupants of the relevant roles” (IDGEC 2005, 27). The
IDGEC project differentiates between institutions and organizations, a distinction which is
important for this paper. Whereas institutions are the “rules of the game,” organizations can be seen
as players within such games. Organizations have a material existence and come in a variety of
forms, including NGOs.
Over the past 30 years, NGOs have become increasingly active participants in creating
international environmental institutions, particularly through their involvement in multilateral
negotiation processes. In terms of design, we might ask how NGOs could be designed to enhance
their performance in the process of creating international environmental institutions. We might also
be interested in whether NGOs enhance the performance of international environmental institutions
in solving environmental problems and achieving broader social goals. If so, then we may want to
reflect on how such institutions could be designed to better incorporate NGOs into their decision
making processes. This paper addresses each of these questions drawing on the findings of a recent
study of NGO influence in international environmental negotiations (Betsill and Corell
The paper begins by introducing the research project and summarizing some of its key
findings about the conditions under which NGOs influence international environmental
negotiations. The second section discusses the implications of these findings for questions of
institutional design. I discuss how NGOs might design themselves to shape these rule-making
processes, emphasizing the importance of developing relationships with other NGOs as well as state
actors. I then consider the role that NGOs play in the performance of international environmental
institutions, in terms of solving environmental problems as well as achieving broader social goals
such as democracy. I conclude by identifying a number of areas for future research on the
relationship between NGOs and international environmental institutions and the design
Before turning to this discussion, I wish to clarify how the term NGO is being used in this
paper. There is often considerable conceptual debate over the defining characteristics of NGOs.
Caldwell (1990, 111) argues that NGOs are “the most diversified and least easily classified”
component of the institutional architecture for environmental policy making. A few scholars use the
term in reference to virtually any non-state actor seeking to influence decision-making at the global
level, although most reserve the term for non-profit organizations that have not been established by
a government. This is consistent with the UN definition of NGOs, which also excludes
organizations that advocate violence, are political parties, and/or do not support UN objectives
(Oberthür et al., 2002; Willetts, 1996b).
There is some debate about whether to include organizations with commercial interests as
NGOs. While individual corporations are generally treated separately, non-profit associations
representing commercial interests (e.g. trade associations and/or coalitions whose members are
corporations) are often referred to as NGOs. This too is consistent with the UN guidelines
mentioned above and emphasizes the commonalities among actors that operate in distinction to the
state. Alternatively, some scholars contend that NGOs represent broad societal concerns rather than
narrow commercial interests (Biliouri, 1999; Fox and Brown, 1998; Mol, 2000). This approach,
which assumes three spheres of human activity where NGOs are distinct from state and market
actors, risks romanticizing NGOs by suggesting that they alone represent what is good for society
and that they do so in all instances. In this paper, I use the term NGO in the broader sense to include
non-profit organizations representing both societal and commercial interests. As noted above, this is
consistent with the usage within the UN, whose rules govern the majority of international
environmental negotiations processes.
NGO Influence in International Environmental Negotiations
Since the mid-1990s, virtually all studies of international environmental negotiations
identify NGOs as central actors, and the literature is full of claims that NGOs make a difference in
these processes. However, single qualitative case studies as employed thus far have limitations in
making claims about NGO influence in any given set of negotiations and in considering the
conditions under which NGOs influence such decision making processes (Arts 1998; Betsill and
Corell 2001; Newell 2000; Yamin 2001; Zürn 1998). In a recent study, we sought to make the study
of NGO influence in international environmental negotiations more systematic (Betsill and Corell,
forthcoming). Specifically, we developed a methodology for assessing NGO influence in
international environmental negotiations that was applied to a number of case studies, and through
comparative analysis, identified a set of conditioning factors that shape the ability of NGOs to
influence such negotiations.
The core of the project consists of an analytical framework for assessing NGO influence,
where influence is seen to have occurred when one actor intentionally communicates to another so
as to alter the latter’s behavior from what would have occurred otherwise. This definition highlights
two dimensions of NGO influence: participation in international negotiations and the subsequent
effects on the behavior of other actors. We argue that influence may be observed in both the
negotiation process (through issue framing, agenda-setting and/or shaping the position of key states)
as well as the outcome (e.g. substantive and procedural elements of the final text). This framework
allows analysts to situate a given case along a spectrum of NGO influence from low, where NGOs
participate in negotiations but without observable effect on the negotiation process or outcome, to
high, where NGOs participation can be linked to specific effects on the negotiating process as well
as the agreement text.
Several contributors applied the analytical framework in a series of case studies of NGO
influence on negotiations related to climate change, biosafety, desertification, whaling and forests.2
We asked each contributor to assess the level of NGO influence in their respective negotiations
(Table 1) and then to identify what they viewed as the key enabling or constraining factors for
NGOs. We noted each of the factors mentioned and examined the eight factors that came up most
frequently across all of the cases: 1) NGO coordination, 2) rules of access, 3) stage of negotiations,
4) political stakes, 5) institutional overlap, 6) NGO competition, 7) alliances with key states, and 8)
level of contention. Our cross-case analysis generated a number of findings (discussed below) on
the conditions of NGO influence.
Table 1. Case studies of NGO influence in international environmental negotiations.
Negotiation Agreement Type of NGOs Level of
Kyoto Protocol 1997 ENGOs Moderate
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety1 2000 ENGOs Moderate/High
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety2 2000 Industry Moderate/High
UN Convention to Combat 1994 Environmental and High
Desertification Social NGOs
International Whaling Commission 1974 Scientists Moderate
New Management Procedure
International Whaling Commission 1982 ENGOs High
International Whaling Commission 1982 Scientists Low
UNCED Forest Principles 1992 ENGOs High
Intergovernmental Panel on Forests 1995-97 ENGOs Moderate/High
Intergovernmental Forum on Forests 1997-2000 ENGOs Moderate/High
United Nations Forum on Forests 2000 ENGOs Low
International Tropical Timber 1983 ENGOs High
International Tropical Timber 1989 ENGOs Moderate
International Tropical Timber 1990 ENGOs Moderate
International Tropical Timber 1994 ENGOs Moderate
World Trade Organization Forest 1999 ENGOs Moderate
Readers should use caution in generalizing these findings beyond our cases. This exercise is
best viewed as a “plausibility probe,” suggesting potential avenues for future research, rather than
as a formal “test” of the conditioning factors given limitations of our approach to case selection. We
selected cases based on the availability and interest of scholars with prior knowledge of NGO
participation in international environmental negotiations and made no determination at the outset on
the appropriateness of the cases for analyzing specific propositions related to conditioning factors
(see George and Bennett 2005). In addition, the majority of our cases examined environmental
NGOs (ENGOs), and more than half of our cases focus on forestry issues. In the future, the issues
raised in the following discussion should be subjected to rigorous analysis based on a more careful
selection of cases.
Among our cases, coordination through umbrella groups had a neutral effect on NGO
influence (Arts 2001 arrived at a similar conclusion). NGOs attained all levels of influence under
conditions of coordination. Of particular note, ENGOs achieved a moderate/high level of influence
in the UNCED Forest Principles negotiations even though their coordination was loose and they had
no unified position on the need for a treaty. This finding highlights the political nature of inter- and
intra-NGO relations. Like states, NGOs are political actors, with their own power relations and
contentious internal debates (Chatterjee and Finger 1994; Duwe 2001; Friedman, Hochstetler, and
Clark 2005; Hochstetler 2002; Jordan and Van Tuijl 2000). Even among NGOs with seemingly
common interests, arriving at a consensus position is frequently mired in controversy linked to
inequalities between large, well-funded international NGOs and smaller grassroots organizations or
different ideas about how global environmental problems should be addressed. I return to this point
below in the discussion of NGOs and democratizing global governance.
Rules of access
There are no standard rules governing NGO participation in international environmental
negotiations. The tendency has been for the international organizations responsible for a particular
negotiation to establish rules for NGO access, often on an ad hoc basis, and there is a great deal of
variation among international bodies (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development
1999). Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, we found that a more restrictive
environment for NGO access did not necessarily constrain the ability of NGOs to influence
international environmental negotiations. Time and again, NGO representatives overcame
restrictions by using alternative strategies, such as communicating with delegates by cell phone,
relying on personal contacts with delegates and/or securing positions on state delegations. At the
same time, securing a “seat at the table” did not necessarily enhance NGO influence. High levels of
influence were most likely when states and secretariat officials took active steps to reach out and
include NGOs in the decision making process (rather than simply tolerate their presence). In these
cases, NGOs were seen as important partners in helping states achieve their interests (see also Arts
2001; Dodds 2001; Kellow 2000; Raustiala 1997).
Stage of negotiations
We found that NGO influence is more likely during the formula phase of multilateral
negotiations, where the focus is on agreeing upon a framework for the talks (Zartman and Berman
1982). In our cases, we found that NGOs often had limited political space in which to maneuver
during the detail stage of negotiations where delegates bargain over specific provisions of the final
text. This was partly due to the fact that state positions on core issues had hardened by then and the
negotiations had become highly politicized, and partly due to the pragmatic tendency to simplify
negotiations at the final stages by reducing the number of people in the room.
We did observe an interesting difference between ENGOs and industry groups that warrants
further investigation. In our cases, instances of ENGO influence over the final text (detail phase)
were always preceded by influence on the negotiating agenda (formula phase), suggesting that for
environmentalists, influence in the early stages of negotiations may be necessary (though by no
means sufficient) for achieving influence in later stages. This pattern did not hold, however, in our
one case involving industry where industry groups had little influence on setting the negotiating
agenda and yet were able to influence the outcome of the negotiations on several issues. Burgiel
attributed this finding to the fact that ENGOs and industry groups had different objectives in the
negotations. Industry groups were primarily concerned with limiting the agreement’s scope and
keeping some issue off the table. In other words, they were less concerned with getting things on
the agenda than with taking them off, which can be accomplished at all stages of the negotiations.
In contrast, ENGOs are often most interested in getting (and keeping) issues on the negotiating
agenda, which may require achieving influence early on since it becomes much harder to get an
issue on the agenda once the negotiations move into their detail phase.
In our cases, we found that levels of NGO influence were linked to the political stakes of
the negotiations, which often change as treaty regimes evolve over time (Spector and Zartman
2003; Széll 1993; Tolba 1998; Zartman 1993). Higher levels of influence were most likely during
the negotiation of initial agreements (sometimes referred to as “framework” agreements or
declarations), which often articulate general principles, establish new organizations and/or decision-
making procedures, but may not require significant behavioral change from member states. In such
cases, the political stakes are relatively low and states may be more willing to give NGO proposals
serious consideration and perhaps to make concessions. NGOs had a more difficult time exerting
influence in post-agreement negotiations aimed at achieving an agreement’s goals or addressing
new conflicts that arise (Spector and Zartman 2003). In these cases, states were negotiating more
specific behavioral commitments (thus raising the political stakes) and appeared to protect their
interests more strongly.
At the same time, it is notable that NGO influence did not disappear altogether in post-
agreement negotiations. One explanation stems from the argument that prospects for cooperation
increase when individuals interact repeatedly (Axelrod 1984). Cooperation between states is
thought to become more likely when they engage in multiple rounds of negotiations on a particular
issue over time. Perhaps the same is true with state-NGO interactions; even when the political
stakes increase for states, they may be more willing to work with NGO representatives if they
already have experience doing so. It may also be that states rely more heavily on some NGOs when
negotiations move to the post-agreement stage, which often involve technical discussions requiring
specialized expertise that state delegates may not possess. States may turn to NGOs for information
about the potential costs/benefits of particular policies or for technical information about how a
policy might be implemented. In other words, NGO influence in post-agreement negotiations,
where political stakes are higher, may be attributable to the fact that states need NGOs to achieve
their objectives (Raustiala 1997). Of course, the advantage only goes to those NGOs with the
Our cases highlight the fact that international environmental negotiations take place in an
increasingly dense network of overlapping regimes and institutions (Rosendal 2001; Selin and
VanDeveer 2003). On several occasions, NGOs influenced a given negotiation process not only by
participating in those negotiations, but also by exerting influence in a related institutional setting.
This suggests that NGOs can enhance their prospects of achieving their goals by “venue shopping”
and looking for an institutional context where they are most likely to have influence. We also found
that institutional overlap with the international trade regime may constrain the ability of ENGOs to
exert influence while enhancing opportunities for NGOs representing business/industry interests.
When ENGOs seek to limit states’ economic activities, contrary to neoliberal economic norms,
opponents often threatened to use the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an alternative venue for
promoting their interests. This limited what ENGOs could demand and achieve in these cases as
they recognized that their chances of influence would be much lower in the WTO, which
environmentalists tend to view as hostile to their interests (Williams and Ford 1999).
Our findings raise some interesting questions related to current debates about creating a
world environment organization. Biermann (2000) argues that a world environment organization
would make environmental policy making more efficient by coordinating international treaty
regimes on disparate issues under one umbrella. This could result in more standardized norms on
decision making procedures, a more streamlined set of negotiating bodies, and more explicit
connections between issue areas. For NGOs, this could mean greater clarity in terms of rules of
access, fewer meetings to attend, and a greater ability to link issues. At the same time, consolidating
global environmental governance might limit the range of institutional options available to NGOs to
influence negotiations on a particular issue area.
Competition from other NGOs
It is often assumed that competition creates a zero-sum game, and that environmental
organizations are at a disadvantage when resource-rich industry groups get involved. However, we
found that the presence of other NGOs did not necessarily constrain the ability of NGOs to
influence international environmental negotiations. Different NGOs frequently pursue separate
agendas so that each group may achieve their respective goals without taking anything away from
other organizations. Moreover, it is important to recall that different types of NGOs (e.g.
environmentalists v. industry groups) employ different strategies and that the institutional context of
negotiations may create different types of opportunities for these groups. Future research comparing
the influence of different types of NGOs in a single set of negotiations would advance our ability to
draw generalizable conclusions about the relationship between competition and NGO influence.
Moreover, it would be useful for analysts to take a much more sophisticated approach to the study
of multilateral negotiations by considering how NGOs interact with one another (as well as states)
and with what effect (Rowlands 2001).
Alliances with key states
In virtually all of our cases, the ability of NGOs to influence international environmental
negotiations was enhanced when they developed alliances with key states and shaped their positions
via domestic or international channels. Even where ENGOs did not shape state positions per se,
their ability to influence negotiations was enhanced when they put forward proposals that resonated
with the interests of key states (see also Arts 2001; Hochstetler 2002). However, our cases also
suggest that the utility of such alliances may depend on the general relationship between states in
the negotiations. Specifically, NGO influence was less likely when the talks were highly polarized
(e.g. along North-South lines) and where neither side was sufficiently strong enough to dominate.
Level of contention
We found that the ability of ENGOs to exert influence was constrained when the issue
under negotiation was perceived as involving entrenched economic interests. In such cases, ENGO
demands that states limit economic activity harmful to the environment were seen to violate the
neoliberal economic norms governing the global economic system. Our findings are consistent with
Bernstein’s (2001, 235) prediction that, “policies that contradict key norms of liberal
environmentalism are more likely to face strong contestation or not even be considered owing to the
prevailing norm complex.” At the same time, such contention may open opportunities for NGOs
representing business/industry interests to exert influence. We also found that ENGOs could
enhance their influence in highly contentious situations by framing their arguments in terms
consistent with a neoliberal economic discourse (see also Williams and Ford 1999).
NGOs and Institutional Design
These findings raise a number of design issues. The first set of issues considers how NGOs
as organizations might design themselves to enhance their performance in the creation and
development of international environmental institutions through multilateral negotiations. In
particular, our cases highlight the importance of the structural context and suggest that NGOs are
enabled or constrained by elements of the setting in which negotiations take place. Thus, NGOs
need to organize themselves to address these structural factors in order to enhance their
performance in the creation and development of international environmental institutions. Second,
our study raises issues related to the design of international environmental institutions and the
incorporation of NGOs into decision making processes. Rather than offer specific design advice, I
introduce some questions about whether designing international institutions to enhance NGO
participation will improve their performance in solving environmental problems and addressing
other social concerns.
In our cross-case analysis, we found the structural context in which international
environmental negotiations take place to be a significant factor in shaping NGO influence. One set
of structural factors underscores the institutional setting, or what social movement scholars refer to
as the political opportunity structure. While there is considerable variation in how scholars define
and operationalize political opportunity structure, McAdam (1996) finds that most emphasize the
formal organizational/legal structure and power relations of a political system at a given time. There
is some debate about whether this concept, which has been developed in the domestic context,
travels to the international arena (Kay 2005; McAdam 1996). However, we agree with Khagram,
Riker and Sikkink (2002) that international institutions have identifiable political opportunity
structures, but rather than construct a single measure of political opportunity structure, we found it
more useful to think of political opportunity structures as clusters of variables and to analyze
whether and how specific aspects of the institutional context shape NGO opportunities for influence
(Gamson and Meyer 1996). We contend that the ability of NGOs to influence international
environmental negotiations may be shaped by both aspects of the formal organizational structure
(rules of access, stage of negotiations, political stakes, institutional overlap) in which the
negotiation takes place and power relations among participating actors (competition from other
NGOs and alliances with key states).
In terms of design, this suggests that NGOs must position themselves to take advantage of
potential openings in the political opportunity structure and/or overcome obstacles. Time again, we
found that NGO influence in international environmental negotiations (and thus on the creation of
international environmental institutions) depends on developing relationships with other actors
involved in the negotiations, such as other NGOs and states. Despite our finding that formal NGO
coordination had a neutral effect on influence, it remains important that NGOs develop networks
with like-minded organizations, particularly those working in different institutional venues given
that these can be used indirectly to advance the NGO agenda. Interestingly, related negotiations in
different institutional settings are often unconnected in terms of the NGO communities that
participate. For example, forest policy is debated in some settings specifically dedicated to forests
(e.g. the United Nations Forum on Forests) as well as in broader contexts related to climate change,
biodiversity and desertification. Despite these linkages, each of these negotiations tends to involve
distinct NGO communities that often fail to effectively communicate with one another (Corell and
Our cases also point to the importance of state-society relations. For NGOs, close
relationships with states not only provides a direct avenue for shaping the negotiating process by
influencing state positions, it also opens up additional opportunities for exerting influence to the
extent that states view NGOs as partners in developing solutions to environmental problems. In our
cases, we found that states are more willing to actively reach out to NGOs and engage them in
meaningful deliberation when such relationships exist, even when the political stakes of the
negotiations increase. Such relationships may be developed at the international level during the
negotiations and/or when delegates return home in between formal negotiating sessions.
These findings are interesting in light of the fact that NGOs expend considerable time,
energy and resources trying to secure formal access to international decision-making processes.
NGO coalitions, such as the Access Initiative and the Public Participation Campaign of the
European Eco Forum, have supported the negotiation of the Aarhus Convention on Access to
Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental
Matters and have engaged in discussions to enhance NGO access in institutions such as the United
Nations Environment Programme and the Commission on Sustainable Development (Dodds 2001;
European Eco Forum 2005; The Access Initiative 2005; UNEP 2001). These activities are based on
an assumption that by securing official opportunities for access to decision-making processes,
NGOs can enhance their ability to influence such processes. Similarly, states seem to equate NGO
access with influence and thus routinely invoke their sovereign privilege to restrict official NGO
participation in negotiations (Clark, Friedman, and Hochstetler 1998; Oberthür et al. 2002; UNEP
2001). Our findings suggest that NGOs must do more than simply force states to open up official
avenues for participation if they hope to enhance their influence. NGO representatives need to build
relationships with state decision makers and international organization officials and make the case
that they can be trusted partners in solving environmental problems.
Our research highlights the fact that NGOs and states interact in complex ways in
multilateral negotiations. Scholars and practitioners commonly assume that NGOs and states
compete against one another in international fora. While this is often the case, our case studies
suggest that NGOs and states also frequently work in alliance with one another (see also Falkner
2003; Gulbrandsen and Andresen 2004). Friedman, Hochstetler and Clark (2005) elaborate on this
complexity in their analysis of state-NGO interactions in UN-sponsored world conferences,
particularly over issues of sovereignty. Over the years, states have opened up new avenues for NGO
participation in negotiating processes, leading some to suggest that NGOs are infringing on state
sovereignty (Mathews 1997). At the same time, states often push back and place limits on NGO
participation at crucial moments in the negotiation process. Friedman and colleagues highlight the
numerous “sovereignty bargains” that characterize state-society relations in multilateral
negotiations. Once again, these findings point to the importance of relationships between NGOs and
Another structural factor that is more cultural than institutional relates to the way issues
under negotiation are framed. Frames may enable or constrain NGOs by creating a demand for
particular types of information, thereby privileging some actors and limiting which proposals
delegates consider seriously. For example, Corell and Betsill (2001) contend it is difficult for
ENGOs to exert influence when environmental problems are linked to economic concerns because
decision makers are more likely to focus on short-term economic costs than longer-term
environmental costs. Similarly, Williams and Ford (1999) found that the prevailing discourse of
free trade within the WTO limited the political space available for ENGOs to promote their
concerns about the environmental consequences of trade. Our findings suggest that NGOs can
enhance prospects for developing relationships with states, and thereby influencing negotiation
processes and outcomes, by framing their arguments in ways that resonate with state decision
makers. In issue areas involving entrenched economic interests, this means that NGOs must
communicate in ways consistent with dominant neoliberal economic norms.
We should acknowledge that what NGOs do to enhance their influence in international
environmental negotiations may limit their performance in other areas of environmental
governance. Multilateral negotiations are but one political arena in which NGOs attempt to shape
international environmental institutions, and scholars increasingly acknowledge that environmental
issues are governed at a variety of tiers and spheres of governance where authority is shared
between state and non-state actors operating on the local, regional, national, transnational and
global scales (Betsill and Bulkeley 2006; Vogler 2003; Young 2002). There may be political costs
involved when NGOs design themselves to enhance their relationships with states. NGOs that take
a liberal environmentalist position in a negotiating context in order to appeal to state decision
makers and/or that engage insider strategies are subject to accusations of co-option and may have a
difficult time mobilizing grassroots constituencies to work for broader social change such as altered
Designing international environmental institutions
Our project on NGO influence in international environmental negotiations also speaks to
broader debates related to the design of environmental institutions. In recent years, there has been
considerable debate about reforming institutions of global governance to better address the
challenges of the twenty-first century. Amidst these discussions, there are myriad calls for
international institutions, including those dealing with the environment, to better incorporate NGOs
into their decision-making processes (UN General Assembly 2004). Such proposals are often
justified by the expectation that NGOs can enhance the performance of international environmental
institutions in terms of solving problems and/or contribute to the broader social goal of
democratizing global governance. In the following discussion, I critically reflect on each of the
arguments for institutional reform and consider the implications for designing multilateral
It is often argued that increasing NGO participation in multilateral environmental
negotiations leads to “better” outcomes. One line of reasoning contends that NGOs improve
decision making by providing valuable information and expertise (Corell 1999; Dodds 2002;
Najam, Minaela and Taiyab, 2006; Susskind et al. 2003). Indeed, our cases highlight the ways that
NGOs often help decision makers navigate the highly complex and technical nature of many
environmental issues. At the same time, our cases point to variation in the extent to which NGO
information and expertise ultimately shape negotiation processes and outcomes. One might expect
that NGO participation leads to better outcomes only when NGOs have high levels of influence. If
this is the case, then perhaps multilateral negotiation processes should be designed to enhance
opportunities for NGO influence. One recommendation might be that the rules of access be revised
to more actively reach out to NGOs and look for more meaningful ways to incorporate them into
deliberations through multistakeholder dialogues for example.
However, even if we enhance opportunities for NGO influence, it remains questionable
whether NGO information necessarily leads to better environmental outcomes in terms of solving
problems. This argument reflects a largely apolitical view of knowledge and information. Our cases
highlight the fact that NGOs provide information in a political context where there are debates
about what constitutes expert knowledge, how it should be interpreted and/or where information is
seen to threaten certain interests. NGOs rarely present a single body of knowledge and information;
most often there are competing claims that must be evaluated against one another. In other words,
translating information provided by NGOs into specific policies is rarely a straightforward matter.
In a study of the relationship between science and policy, Clark et al. (2006) suggests that the value
of information is often as much about the legitimacy of how the information was produced as the
credibility of the information itself. This implies the need to design institutions to provide for a
meaningful process of information exchange rather than simply providing a formal mechanism for
NGOs to share information.
Overall, the link between NGO information and expertise and environmental outcomes
clearly requires additional investigation before we can make specific recommendations about
whether and how to redesign international negotiation processes. Our study did not examine the
relationship between NGO influence and the problem-solving performance of international
environmental institutions. However, we did find that NGO influence was highest when the
political stakes of the negotiations were lowest. In other words, NGO information appears the have
the greatest effect when the negotiations involve limited commitments to behavioral change,
leading us to question whether such influence can ultimately lead to more effective problem-
A related argument for incorporating NGOs into multilateral negotiations reasons that
NGOs confer legitimacy on policy decisions and thus increase the prospect that such policies will
be implemented (Breitmeier 2005; Zürn 2004). There is widespread consensus among scholars and
practitioners that there exists an implementation gap within the current system of global
environmental governance, and this argument suggests that NGOs can help close this gap (Najam,
Minaela and Taiyab, 2006; Victor, Raustiala and Skolnikoff, 1998). However, the link between
NGO participation/influence in international environmental negotiations and policy implementation
requires further investigation before we can propose recommendations for designing multilateral
negotiation processes. First, is legitimacy of function of participation or influence? If the former,
then negotiations should be designed to maximize the number of NGOs involved. If the latter, then
we return to the issue of designing negotiations to enhance NGO influence. Second, Hochstetler
(2002) argues that domestic implementation depends not only on what happened during the
negotiation process but, perhaps more importantly, on whether a state has accepted the relevant
international norms and its domestic capacities (see also Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999). This
returns us to the idea of multilevel governance and suggests the need to address legitimacy concerns
at multiple scales.
Even if NGO participation has limited effect on the performance of international
institutions in solving environmental problems, scholars and policy makers often argue that NGO
participation in multilateral environmental negotiations is desirable because it contributes to the
democratization of global governance (Princen and Finger 1994; Raustiala 1997; Willetts 1996a). In
some respects, our cases confirm that international environmental negotiations have become more
democratic over time in the sense that states cannot legitimately exclude NGOs from decision-
making processes. In all of our cases, states provided some space for NGOs to voice their views.
There was never a question of whether NGOs would be permitted to participate; rather states and
NGOs debated over the specific details of how NGO diplomats would participate. Nevertheless, we
also saw many instances in which states tried to resist NGO demands for participation by placing
limits on the opportunities for NGO participation in order to maintain control over the negotiation
process and limit the ability of NGOs to exert influence, leading us to question how democratic
such processes really are (see also Friedman, Hochstetler, and Clark 2005).
Our cases also highlight the need to take seriously issues of NGO accountability and
representation (Chartier and Deleage 1998; Held 1999; Jordan and Van Tuijl 2000; Pasha and
Blaney 1998). NGOs are highly political and, like states, they have well-defined interests and act
strategically to pursue those interests. When evaluating the effect of NGOs on democracy, it is
important to ask who these groups represent and to what extent they are accountable to their
constituents and/or one another. For example, what are the implications for representation when
NGOs receive significant funding from state-based institutions or if members of the South are
systematically disadvantaged (Chartier and Deleage 1998; Duwe 2001; Kellow 2000; Yamin
2001)? Jordan and Van Tuijl (2000, 2061) poignantly ask how NGOs can democratize institutions
of global governance if they “reflect as much inequality as they are trying to undo?” Suggestions
that some NGOs employ questionable tactics, such as manipulating scientific findings, raise further
questions about accountability (Harper 2001; Jordan 2001; Skodvin and Andresen 2003; Tesh
2000). These issues suggest that democratizing global governance requires design change on at least
two levels. First, international institutions must be designed to be more inclusive of NGO voices
and allow for greater opportunities for NGOs to influence deliberations. Second, NGOs need to be
designed to address their internal accountability and representation.
This paper has addressed one aspect of the relationship between international
environmental institutions and NGOs. I have argued that NGOs contribute to the creation and
development of international environmental institutions through their participation in multilateral
negotiation processes. NGOs influence negotiation processes and outcomes (and thus the design of
international environmental institutions) to varying degrees, depending in large part on the
structural context in which negotiations take place. NGOs can enhance their performance in these
negotiations by developing relationships with other NGOs as well as state delegates. When NGOs
can convince state decision makers that they are important partners in solving environmental
problems, states are more willing to engage NGOs in a meaningful way, which in turn increases
their ability to influence the negotiating process and outcome. The answer to the question of
whether international environmental institutions should be designed to better incorporate NGOs is
more elusive. At present, there is insufficient evidence to support the claim that NGOs lead to better
environmental outcomes either by providing information or conferring legitimacy on decision
making processes. Moreover, it is questionable whether NGO involvement in multilateral
negotiations processes contributes to the democratization of global environmental governance.
It should be noted that this paper has only scratched the surface of design questions that
could be addressed related to NGOs and international environmental institutions. As noted above,
this paper has focused on the role that NGOs play in the context of multilateral negotiation
processes, which are seen to be an important site for the creation and development of international
environmental institutions. If we understand institutions to be the rules of the game, we must
acknowledge that the rules are shaped in many other ways. It is possible that multilateral
negotiations are becoming less central in the development of international environmental
institutions as new forms of governance emerge in the private sector for example and at other levels
of social organization. Future research should also investigate the relationship between NGOs and
these other forms of environmental governance and consider the design implications.
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Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Colorado State University and
Visiting Fellow (2006-07), Institute for the Study of Society and the Environment, National Center for
Atmospheric Research. Postal address: Department of Political Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins,
CO 80523, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The authors of the case studies were Michele Betsill (climate change), Stas Burgiel (biosafety),
Elisabeth Corell (desertification), Tora Skodvin and Steinar Andresen (whaling) and David Humphreys (forests).