A feature of the People-Centered Development Forum,   Release Date November 24, 1990

by David C. Korten

In March 1988, ANGOC held a landmark workshop in this conference room on the
theme of NGO Strategic Management. The workshop focused on what was then the
cutting edge issue for Asian NGOs, the movement beyond village level projects to
a concern with focusing the NGO’s resources on clearly defined objectives to
leverage national scale change. We identified democratization as a unifying
concern of NGO action across Asia. We addressed the need for coalition building
at national and subnational levels to combine resources within the NGO sector
toward the definition and pursuit of a shared vision of national development.

The intervening period has been a time of dramatic change for NGOs in Asia
as elsewhere. As we broaden our perspectives we realize that the deepening
poverty, environmental devastation, and violence we see in the villages where we
work are not local phenomena. They are pervasive and global the result of
systemic forces that cannot be resolved by action at the village level alone.
This awareness helps us to put our work in perspective.


Contrary to its promise, economic growth is not alleviating the conditions
that define the unfolding global crisis. Indeed there is reason to believe that
it is the single minded pursuit of growth that is the cause. We face a dilemma.
It has become an article of faith among much of the world’s population that
economic growth is the key to universal prosperity. People, the world over,
expect their leaders to provide it. As the crisis places ever increasing
pressures on them, these same leaders, who seldom have time for serious
reflection, become increasingly obsessed with the need to take whatever action
promises to add to national output statistics in the current year and to fight
any action that threatens them. They fail to see that their actions only add to
the crisis not to its resolution.

The favored short-run policies lead to the concentration of ever greater
economic power in the hands of the state and/or large corporate enterprise, each
of which is in turn evaluated by society primarily on the basis of its
contributions to economic output. In the pursuit of this mandate, these
institutions seek ever greater control over economic resources, which they mine
with an eye only to today’s bottom line usually at the expense of those who are
too weak to protect themselves. The greed of the wealthy is indulged while the
poor and future generations are deprived of the means of meeting their basic
needs and reduced to a struggle for economic survival and stripped of their
basic sense of humanity and community. Poverty, environmental destruction, and
the communal violence that results from a breakdown of the social fabric are all
a direct consequence.

Contrary to prevailing belief, our world is divided not between the
developed and the underdeveloped, but rather between the over- and under-consumers of earth’s available resources. Because these resources are
finite and because total current consumption is at or beyond the ability of
earth’s ecosystem to sustain, we are forced to acknowledge that there is a
direct link between the behavior of the over-consumers and the plight of the
under-consumers. The despair of the latter cannot be overcome without curbing the
greed of the former. The answer lies not in growth, but in a transformation of
the values and institutions that define how we use earth’s bounty and distribute
its benefits.

Human society is locked into a mind-set that places it on a collision course
with the limits of a finite planet and the psychological and social tolerance of
its own members. The task before us is one of breaking humanity out of this
pattern of collective self-destruction. This task takes us far beyond the
traditional role of assisting the poor through village based development
projects. It requires new ways of working and thinking, new organizational
relationships, new strategies, and new skills.


The small size and limited financial resources of most NGOs make them
unlikely challengers of economic and political systems sustained by the
prevailing interests of big government and big business. Yet the environment,
peace, human rights, consumer rights and women’s movements provide convincing
examples of the power of voluntary action to change society. This seeming
paradox can be explained by the fact that the power of voluntary action arises
not from the size and resources of individual voluntary organizations, but
rather from the ability of the voluntary sector to coalesce the actions of
hundreds, thousands, or even millions of citizens through vast and constantly
evolving networks that commonly lack identifiable structures, embrace many
chaotic and conflicting tendencies, and yet act as if in concert to create new
political and institutional realities. These networks are able to encircle,
infiltrate, and even co-opt the resources of opposing bureaucracies. They reach
across sectors to intellectuals, press, community organizations. Once organized,
they can, through electronic communications, rapidly mobilize significant
political forces on a global scale.

Engaging in such processes is a new experience for most development oriented
NGOs. Yet in growing numbers they are joining forces with and learning from the
experience of established social movements. As we learn more about the nature of
true movements, we realize that they are not defined by organizational
structures. They are characterized by values-driven action oriented flows of
voluntary social energy given shape and direction by a broadly shared social
vision. Participation is driven by value commitments rather than by anticipation
of financial or political rewards.

As our understanding grows, we see that strategic networks are the building
blocks of social movements. A strategic network is a temporary alliance of
individuals and organizations through which their resources are combined in
pursuit of shared, defined and consequential goals that strengthen the
movement’s position in relation to major opposing forces. These alliances
commonly reach beyond the formal voluntary sector to engage students, media,
universities, agencies of government, and responsible business organizations. In
many instances they link local, national, and international groups.

Many of the participants in a strategic network may be acting on the basis
of an immediate agenda or interest without perceiving themselves to be part of a
larger social movement. As is true for the larger movement of which strategic
networks are a part, each network may itself be comprised of countless shifting
tactical networks formed around narrower agendas that contribute to the larger
strategic objective.

While the success of strategic networks commonly depends on their ability to
energize spontaneous voluntary action on a considerable scale, they are seldom
in themselves spontaneous creations. Usually one or more individuals or
organizations assume critical and highly self-conscious roles as strategic
network catalysts in their creation, maintenance, and direction. NGO experiences
in the region provide rich insights into the nature of this role.


In Thailand, the campaign against the Nam Choan Dam, which would have
displaced thousands of people and destroyed a major wildlife sanctuary, is an
example of a successful strategic network that is especially helpful in
understanding the role of the strategic network catalyst. One of the
organizations that played such a role in this campaign was the Project for
Ecological Recovery (PER), a small Thai environmental NGO with ten paid staff
members and an annual budget of less than US$35,000. This tiny organization
forged an alliance among thirty-eight grassroots organizations in the threatened
area, student organizations, conservationists, and mass media in Thailand, and
an international network of environmental organizations and journalists. The
alliance ultimately convinced the government to cancel the project.

In the course of this campaign PER organized countless meetings and
seminars, talked with representatives of government, helped keep all the groups
in contact with one another from day to day, organized visits to the dam site by
citizen groups from Bangkok and abroad, acted as a clearinghouse for technical
and campaign information, engaged the media, and worked constantly to broaden
the campaign’s tactics and base of public support.

Each participating group had its own reasons for being engaged. PER
recognized and accepted their differing motivations and helped each to find a
role within the larger coalition consistent with its particular commitment and
strategic resources. Each group was encouraged to tell its own story from its
own perspective, with PER helping each to project the messages to those elements
of the public most likely to be sympathetic to its particular appeal.

  • The local people faced the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. They
    were fighting for their immediate self-interest. PER made them the foundation of
    the campaign. Rather than attempting to form new community groups, it worked
    with whatever groups already existed: traditional councils, housewife groups and
    village scouts. It encouraged different grassroots groups to meet with one
    another to share concerns, develop joint tactics, and form an association all
    the while working with existing structures and forces and keeping its own role
    to a minimum. The local groups staged marches, submitted petitions, applied
    pressure on their elected representatives, and hosted visiting delegations.
  • The students, who represented a leftist perspective, saw the dam as an
    effort to benefit industrial interests at the expense of the rural poor and
    engaged themselves in what they saw as a battle of class interests. They
    arranged demonstrations and publicity events that sometimes involved direct
    confrontations with government.
  • The environmentalists, generally intellectuals and public figures of a more
    conservative political orientation, were primarily concerned with the
    preservation of a unique forest. They were encouraged to analyze the
    environmental dangers and social costs in public forums and press conferences.
    Mutual suspicion of one another’s motives between this group and the students,
    led PER to work with each group separately in its own language rather than
    trying to bring them together for joint strategizing.
  • The journalists and film makers were engaged through seminars, press
    releases, site visits, and letter writing campaigns as professionals whose role
    is to keep the public informed on important issues. They disseminated
    information about the uniqueness of the area to audiences in Thailand and abroad
    and publicized the consequences of the project for people who lived in the area.

The PER’s mode of working is quite different from that of more typical
development oriented NGOs. For example,

  • It maintains a low profile, never using its own name, always projecting the
    image of other groups and highlighting their commitment to the cause.
  • It does not takes on any function that another group can perform, confining
    itself to facilitating linkages and filling temporary gaps not serviced by other
  • It does not funds local groups, preferring to strengthen their
    self-reliance by helping them plan and carry out their own fund raising events,
    such as rock concerts.
  • It does not publish a newsletter. When communicating with a particular
    constituency it uses that group’s newsletters. When it wants to get a message
    out to the public, it uses the mass media. Thus it reaches a far larger audience
    at a fraction of the cost.
  • It keeps itself small and its budget modest, working by activating,
    enabling, amplifying, and focusing existing social forces. It lives by the logic
    that big organizations have to take on large conventional projects to justify
    themselves. They necessarily become competitors with other organizations and
    interests rather than facilitators who measure their own success by their
    effectiveness in helping others to be strong and successful.

PER’s experience suggests a number of useful operating principles for
organizations that serve as strategic network catalysts. (See the box insert on
the following page.)


1. Maintain a low public profile. Emphasize the commitment and contribution
of other organizations to the network’s goals. Measure own success by
effectiveness in making others stronger and more successful contributors to
these goals.

2. Recognize the differing motivations and resources of the groups engaged
in the network.

3. Look to those who have the most direct and compelling interest in the
outcome to provide the sustained leadership.

4. Continuously scan the environment for opportunities to engage new
participants who bring new perspectives and may appeal to additional segments of
the public.

5. Do no take on any function that another group can perform. Facilitate
linkages and fill temporary gaps not serviced by other organizations.

6. Work through existing communication networks and media to reach large
audiences efficiently.

7. Help other groups find their own sources of funds, but don’t become a

8. Keep staff and budget small to assure flexibility, avoid competing
institutional interests, and maintain dependence on the effective action of

9. Use protest actions to position the movement to advance a proactive

PER’s experience with a variety of campaigns against socially and
environmentally harmful development projects has led it to the conclusion that
attacking ill conceived projects is not enough. It now realizes that the
government’s need for dams stems from ill conceived development policies that
fail to account adequately for their residual social and environmental costs. It
must put forward credible alternatives. For example, the dam projects that PER
has successfully fought are being put forward by a government desperately
seeking ways to meet the projected demand for energy, driven by Thailand’s
export-led industrialization strategy. There is need not only for an alternative
energy policy that emphasizes energy conservation and efficiency, but also an
alternative development policy that points to ways to enhance the well-being of
the Thai people without significant dependence on large new centralized power
generation facilities.

Producing and presenting credible alternatives poses a serious new challenge
to PER. Government, business and existing technocratic think-tanks are all
committed to established concepts of development. PER thus sees a need to
develop its own research capacity as it redefines its role from one of resisting
harmful development projects on a case by case basis to one of formulating and
popularizing well thought out and documented alternatives more beneficial to the
long-term interests of Thailand’s people.


Tim Brodhead says that to be a development organization it is essential to
have a theory of poverty that directs us to its underlying causes. Without such
a theory the organization inevitably remains a relief and welfare agency,
responding only to poverty’s most evident symptoms.

Indeed many NGOs concerned with the plight of the poor did begin as relief
and welfare organizations, and many remain so today. They see that people are
unable to meet their basic needs and, without asking why, respond in the most
direct and immediate way by providing food, clothing, health care, and shelter
as required. They engage in first generation strategies.

The more thoughtful NGOs at some point find themselves asking, "Why are
these people poor." They began, at least implicitly, to formulate a theory
of poverty. They attempt to "look upstream," searching for the source
or cause of the problem. Many NGOs that pursue this question conclude that the
problem is local inertia, a sort of self-imposed and by implication
self-correctable powerlessness resulting from lack of organization, political
consciousness, belief in self, credit, and basic skills. Armed with an action
theory that suggests this inertia can be broken through appropriate external
interventions, they set about to intervene with community development programs.
They reorient themselves to second generation strategies.

When the theory of community inertia proved to be inadequate, some of us
looked further upstream. This led to a realization that in large measure the
evident powerlessness of the villager is not self-imposed. Rather it is
externally-imposed and sustained by policies and programs, often originating
from the state and funded by foreign agencies, that deprive the poor of access
to productive resources and maintain them in a state of dependency. Development
projects, such as dams and industrial forest plantations, that displace the poor
from their homes and means of livelihood are among the most obvious examples.
Some NGOs have adjusted their theories accordingly and set about to advocate for
changes in critical policies and to work with government through partnerships
aimed at reorienting its programs in ways that strengthened local control and
initiative. They moved to third generation strategies.

NGOs are now taking another look still further upstream. What they see is
deeply disturbing, i.e., many of the most devastating programs and policies are
a direct consequence of the way human society has come to define development
itself. They are imbedded in a growth-centered development vision and in the
institutions that we have collectively created to pursue it. We are now looking
at the most fundamental driving forces of the global system and coming to
realize the extent to which the poverty, environmental destruction, and communal
violence experienced in the villages of Asia are symptoms of forces that have
locked human society onto a self-destructive path that ultimately threatens the
very survival of human civilization.

Many NGOs have become expert in consciousness raising at the village level.
They defined the problem as one of an inappropriate mind-set. Now we see that
though the problem was correctly defined, its scope was seriously
underestimated. Consciousness change is essential, but not only for the poor
villager. It must be universal, including the power holders of global society.

As we reflect on the events of the past few years, we will see that we have
been engaged in a continuous process of what Hazel Henderson calls "up-streaming,"
reaching beyond the evident consequences of the problem at hand to address its
source. We are finding that this is not a simple matter. Each time we move "upstream"
we find the issues are more complex and the vested interests more powerful. We
feel less confident in our traditional skills and face needs to create ever
wider networks. We are led into increasing involvement with the global context
of our national political and economic systems and pulled into ever larger and
more complex international coalitions.

To achieve changes of the scope and magnitude required, it is necessary to
think of the NGO’s people-centered development alternative not as a village
project, but as a global people’s movement for social transformation. The
strategic networks we will be examining this week are among the countless such
initiatives that are giving this movement it’s vitality and direction. They
represent, however, only a bare beginning. On a global scale thousands more are
needed, each with their own catalysts. Hopefully our deliberations will lead us
to insights into how they may be developed more rapidly and effectively.


There are a number of basic issues to be addressed by those of us who chose
to define our roles as catalysts in the formation and guidance of strategic
networks as elements of a larger movement for global social transformation.

  • From protest to proaction. Engaging major constituencies in protest can
    make an important contribution to strengthening awareness of issues and building
    commitment to activism. Protest is relatively easy to organize as it is usually
    easier to build consensus about what should not be done than about what
    constitutes a positive alternative. At the same time protest actions only pose
    barriers to the negative forces of the growth-centered development vision. Even
    when successful, they do not resolve them.

Eventually there must be attention to building support for a proactive
agenda aimed at transformational change. The question should be continuously in
mind: What do we want in place of what we cannot accept? Each protest action
should be consciously designed to lead toward defining such alternatives and
building supporting constituencies. Perhaps we might explore during this meeting
how this can be accomplished, and how the strategies and tactics of strategic
networks engaged in protest actions differ from those working for proactive

  • Building Citizen Democracy. Democratization is a key theme of NGO
    activity throughout Asia. We have learned, however, that the institutional forms
    of democratic governance are in themselves little more than empty shells. They
    provide citizens with the means to engage in the governance process, but they
    cannot insure that they will be used. Unused, they will inevitably be abused by
    those in power. Our experience is leading us to the realization that "democracy
    is not something we have; it is something we do." Democracy cannot exist
    without citizen action.

Democratization is best thought of as a process of building capacities for
and commitment to citizen action through action. The traditional organization
building agenda of NGOs is a part of this process, but only a part. Strategic
networks are another. Single organizations are rarely successful in taking on
significant policy and institutional change agendas acting entirely on their
own. Where the issues involve significant external political and economic
forces, strategic networking becomes an essential mode of action.

Strategic networks are important training grounds, as well as instruments
of, citizen democracy and should be treated as such. Strategic networking can
also contribute to the essential process of rebuilding a sense of community,
recreating the social structures based on shared values that modern society with
its emphasis on impersonal market transactions and hierarchical organizations
has disrupted. The are a means of helping to break the feelings of alienation
powerlessness that this disruption has left behind.

In a vital democratic system, an individual person or organization may be
engaged simultaneously in a number of strategic networks that involve different
agendas and different combinations of actors. Citizen democracy grows out of the
thickening web of active networks that form around a growing number of needs and

Each strategic network effort should seek consciously to leave behind a more
informed and active citizenry with a strengthened sense of being part of a
local, national, and global community of caring citizens. Though networking
links are often temporary and ephemeral, each time a link dissolves, there
should be left behind a positive memory trace that will make new linkages easier
to form toward the solution of new problems.

  • Forming Alliances Across Social Movements. The NGOs concerned with
    poverty or social justice present an exceedingly weak force in the face of the
    transformation agenda. Remaining isolated and even competitive with one another
    and focusing almost exclusively on micro-level interventions it may be
    stretching the meaning of the term to call them a movement. Fortunately, many
    of them are moving quickly beyond their traditional limitations and are learning
    the ways of strategic networking, often through alliances with organizations
    from movements more experienced in that mode of action.

We are coming to realize that the people-centered development or social
transformation movement is in fact a meta-movement that embraces the proactive
agendas of many existing social movements, including the environment, human
rights, peace, women’s, social justice, and consumer protection movements. The
meta-movement will emerge as a truly significant force for change only as the
participants in its component movements come to recognize the extent to which
the realization of their own agendas depend ultimately on achievement of the
larger transformational agenda. A number of the strategic networking cases to be
discussed in this meeting involve actions that join the interests of two or more
of the component movements. Links between the environment, human rights, and
social justice movements seem to be particularly common. Encouraging and
strengthening these tendencies seems a desirable course of action. We might look
for insights from the cases as to how this can be achieved.

  • Distinguishing Between Activist and Service Provider NGOs. There has been
    a considerable tendency to group together all NGOs concerned with the needs of
    the poor into a single category. They join the same coalition bodies, have the
    same kinds of registration, use the same terms to identify themselves, attend
    the same training programs, often seek funds from the same donors, etc. But are
    they the same?

While still too early to say for sure, there are indications that we may be
seeing a somewhat permanent division among such NGOs between those that chose to
be specialized service providers (elsewhere described as public service
contractors) and those that chose to be social activists working in more
catalytic roles. These two roles require fundamentally different skills and

Service providers have a natural, and probably appropriate, tendency to grow
in size and service area and are more likely to have hierarchical organizational
forms. Their activities feature routine modes of working and they are likely to
shy from controversies that might prove offensive to the donors on which their
survival depends.

The activist organizations are likely to have a smaller staff, though they
may have large membership bodies organized around decentralized local chapters.
They will also tend toward looser, more decentralized structures. Very little of
what they do could be considered routine. They are constantly facing new
challenges. They may not seek political controversy, but are forced to accept it
as part of the territory. Their funding is likely to be fairly precarious and
they are more likely to depend on voluntary contributions of funds and time.

The above distinctions are based more on a theoretical analysis of
differences inherent in the tasks of the service provider and the activist than
on an examination of actual experience. As we examine the cases to be presented
in this workshop, we might be looking for answers to questions such as the
following: What are the characteristics of effective strategic network
catalysts? To what extent have organizations with a consequential service
delivery program been effective in this role? Can these organizations be
effective network participants in other than the catalyst role? What are the
implications? To what extent do the activists organizations feel compelled to
look and act like service provider organizations in order to attract funding and
maintain their necessary acceptability to government? Is it productive to blur
the distinctions between the activists and the service providers? Or does the
lack of a clear distinction hinder our ability both to develop effective
national service delivery systems and effective forums for the practice of
citizen democracy?

NGOs no longer enjoy the luxury of being inconsequential actors at the
periphery of the development stage. Our choices make a serious difference to the
global future. We must take our responsibilities seriously and prepare ourselves
accordingly. We are only beginning to understand the nature of strategic
networks and the critical roles of the catalysts that give them shape and
direction. We must make rapid advances in that understanding, in the development
of our skills as effective catalysts, and in sharing our insights with others
who might assume similar roles.

David C. Korten is President of the People-Centered Development Forum and a
Senior Associate of the Institute for Development Research. The People-Centered
Development Forum is dedicated to advancing a people’s development movement
toward the realization of a people-centered development vision. This paper was
prepared for the Asian Regional Workshop on Strategic Networking for Sustainable
Development and Environmental Action, 26-30 November 1990, Bangkok, Thailand
sponsored by the Asian NGO Coalition, the Institute for Development Research,
the International Union of Consumer Organizations, and the People-Centered
Development Forum. 

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