Peter Willetts reflects on his research on NGOs, in the context of BISA’s history

Over the last forty years, BISA has evolved from being a small friendly club to become a large professional organisation. When it started the members were an eclectic mix of individuals, who had a common interest in international “studies,” but no sense of an academic discipline. Some were lawyers, some were philosophers, some focused on regional studies, and some were historians. The majority were interested in questions of peace and war, particularly in the context of the Cold War. There was virtually no theoretical debate, because almost everybody shared Realist assumptions. The English School did emphasise international society rather than anarchy, while idealists hoped for stronger international organisations and Functionalists promoted transnational economic and social cooperation. These three approaches collectively had too few adherents to provide a serious challenge to Realism. In addition, they remained state-centric, they took military power for granted and they were all rationalists. There simply was no room for the study of non-governmental organisations.
I was stimulated by a discussion at the BISA conference in 1979, led by Alan James, asking how we should take forward the study of the United Nations. I went off in a direction he did not approve and asked myself how new issues arrive on the UN’s agenda. My answer was that non-governmental organisations must be the agents of change. At the next BISA conference, I was able to chair a panel with activists from Amnesty, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth outlining how their NGOs had from the start been intrinsically transnational and how their work led them to engage with the UN system. It had become plain to me that the transnational relations of private groups were as central to the study of global politics as pressures groups were central to the study of British or American domestic politics. This proposition dominated my work for the following thirty years. 
The first book, Pressure Groups in the Global System, appeared in 1982. The title was to have been, Pressure Groups in Global Politics, but at the time the Charity Commission was harassing Oxfam for being too “political”. I was told the Oxfam chapter would have to be withdrawn, if I did not remove the word “politics” from the title.  This book concentrated on the nature of the NGOs, their creation, their structure and their activities. I edited my second book on NGOs, at the invitation of the David Davies Institute who had drawn together a study group of practitioners. This focused on the impact NGOs can achieve at various stages in the policy-making process in the UN system. Great effort was made to document what the NGOs sought to achieve, what proposals they had tabled and what had been successful. The sanctimonious title, “The Conscience of the World,” was the price that had to be paid for prestigious co-publication with the Brookings Institution.
At this point in the mid-1990s, it was still possible for many in BISA to regard NGOs as interesting, but peripheral to the study of international relations. One problem was a conspiracy of silence, under which both governments and NGOs felt it was not wise to specify exactly how NGOs had influenced outcomes. A more fundamental problem was the lack of a theoretical basis for explaining how relatively small organisations, lacking military and economic capabilities, could exercise influence. For me, the break-through came in the BISA Environment Study Group. Nobody who studied global environmental politics would dream of doing so without outlining the goals, the lobbying activities and the achievements of NGOs. I decided their influence came from the mobilisation of support for environmental values and wrote a chapter, “Who cares about the environment?,” for the group’s book, The Environment and International Relations, edited by Vogler and Imber (Routledge, 1996). Without knowing the word “constructivism,” the study of NGOs had made me a constructivist.
Upon my retirement in 2008, I finally had the time to write an ambitious overview on Non-Governmental Organisations in World Politics. It was possible to show NGOs had permeated all areas of the UN system, including the Security Council and the global economic institutions; they had changed the nature of international law, by establishing themselves as international legal persons; and (to my surprise) they had revolutionised global communications by being the key initiators of the Internet as a system of global communications for the general public rather than just governments and corporations. My sub-title, “The construction of global governance,” had the double-meaning that NGOs had wrought significant changes in the structures for global political interactions and that this could only be understood through a pluralist, constructivist analysis.
BISA after forty years is now an organisation where such ideas will be taken seriously, a far cry from the limited concerns of the 1970s. There is even a BISA Working Group on NGOs. We do now have the concept of global governance, but we are still a long way from being a discipline that is devoted to the study of global governance.

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BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding


British International Studies Association


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