A non-governmental organization (NGO) is an organization that was not founded by a state and, therefore, is typically independent of governments. Although the definition can technically include for-profit corporations, the term is generally restricted to social, cultural, legal, and environmental advocacy with primarily non-commercial goals. NGOs are usually nonprofit organizations that gain at least a portion of their funding from private sources. Current usage of the term is generally associated with the United Nations, which designates NGO’s.
Because the label “NGO” is considered too broad by some, as it might cover anything that is non-governmental, many NGOs now prefer the term private voluntary organization (PVO).
A 1995 UN report on global governance estimated that there are nearly 29,000 international NGOs. National numbers are even higher: The United States has an estimated 2 million NGOs, most of them formed in the past 30 years. Russia has 65,000 NGOs. Dozens are created daily. In Kenya alone, some 240 NGOs come into existence every year.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the world’s largest group of humanitarian NGO’s.
Though voluntary associations of citizens have been plentiful throughout history, the NGOs seen on the international stage today have mostly formed within the past two centuries. One of the first such organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, was founded in 1863.
The phrase non-governmental organization came into use with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 with provisions in Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter1 for a consultative role for organizations that neither are governments nor member states – see Consultative Status. The definition of international NGO (INGO) is first given in resolution 288 (X) of ECOSOC on February 27, 1950: it is defined as ‘any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty’. The vital role of NGOs and other “major groups” in sustainable development was recognized in Chapter 272 of Agenda 21, leading to revised arrangements for consultative relationship between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.3
Globalization during the 20th century gave rise to the importance of NGOs. Many problems could not be solved within a nation. International treaties and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization were seen as too focused on the interests of capitalist enterprises. In an attempt to counterbalance this trend, NGOs have evolved to emphasize humanitarian issues, developmental aid, and sustainable development. A prominent example of this is the World Social Forum which is a rival convention to the World Economic Forum held annually in January in Davos, Switzerland. The fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005 was attended by representatives from more than 1,000 NGOs.4
Types of NGOs
There are several kinds of NGOs. The following are defined according to the typology used by the World Bank.
Their primary purpose is the design and implementation of development-related projects. One categorization that is frequently used is the division into relief-oriented or development-oriented organizations; they can also be classified according to whether they stress service delivery or participation; or whether they are religious and secular; and whether they are more public or private-oriented. Operational NGOs can be community-based, national or international.
Their primary purpose is to defend or promote a specific cause. As opposed to operational project management, these organizations typically try to raise awareness, acceptance, and knowledge by lobbying, press work and activist events.
Evolutionary stages of development NGOs
Three stages or generations of NGO evolution have been identified by Korten’s (1990) Three Generations of Voluntary Development Action. First, the typical development NGO focuses on relief and welfare and delivers relief services directly to beneficiaries. Examples are the distribution of food, shelter or health services. The NGO notices immediate needs and responds to them. NGOs in the second generation are oriented towards small-scale, self-reliant local development. At this evolutionary stage, NGOs build the capacities of local communities to meet their needs through ‘self-reliant local action’. Korten calls the third generation ‘sustainable systems development’. At this stage, NGOs try to advance changes in policies and institutions at a local, national and international level; they move away from their operational service providing role towards a catalytic role. The NGO is starting to develop from a relief NGO to a development NGO.1
Purpose of NGOs
NGOs exist for a variety of purposes, usually to further the political or social goals of their members. Examples include improving the state of the natural environment, encouraging the observance of human rights, improving the welfare of the disadvantaged, or representing a corporate agenda. However, there are a huge number of such organizations and their goals cover a broad range of political and philosophical positions. This can also easily be applied to private schools and athletic organizations.
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NGOs vary in their methods. Some act primarily as lobbyists, while others conduct programs and activities primarily. For instance, such an NGO as Oxfam, concerned with poverty alleviation, might provide needy people with the equipment and skills they need to find food and clean drinking water.
The International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), founded in 1992, is a global network of more than 60 non-governmental organizations that promote and defend the right to freedom of expression.
Many international NGOs have a consultative status with United Nations agencies relevant to their area of work. As an example, the Third World Network has a consultative status with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In 1946, only 41 NGOs had consultative status with the ECOSOC, but this number had risen to 2,350 in 2003.
There is an increasing awareness that management techniques are crucial to project success in non-governmental organizations.
Management of non-governmental organizations
Two management trends are particularly relevant to NGOs: diversity management and participatory management. Diversity management deals with different cultures in an organization. Intercultural problems are prevalent in Northern NGOs that are engaged in developmental activities in the South. Personnel coming from a rich country are faced with a completely different approach of doing things in the target country. A participatory management style is said to be typical of NGOs. It is intricately tied to the concept of a learning organization: all people within the organization are perceived as sources of knowledge and skills. To develop the organization, individuals have to be able to contribute in the decision-making process and they need to learn.
The relationship between businesses, governments, and NGOs can be quite complex and sometimes antagonistic. Some advocacy NGOs view opposition to the interests of Western governments and large corporations as central to their purpose. Other times, NGOs, governments, and companies will form cooperative, conciliatory partnerships as well.
Not all people working for non-governmental organizations are volunteers. Paid staff members typically receive lower pay than in the commercial private sector. Employees are highly committed to the aims and principles of the organization. The reasons why people volunteer are usually not purely altruistic; they expect to gain skills, experience, and contacts.
There is some dispute as to whether expatriates should be sent to developing countries. Frequently this type of personnel is employed to satisfy a donor, who wants to see the supported project managed by someone from an industrialized country. However, the expertise these employees or volunteers may have can be counterbalanced by a number of factors: the cost of foreigners is typically higher, expatriates have no grassroots connections in the country they are sent to, and local expertise is often undervalued.
The NGO-sector employs a vast number of people. For example, by the end of 1995, CONCERN worldwide, an international Northern NGO working against poverty, employed 174 expatriates and just over 5,000 national staff working in ten developing countries in Africa and Asia, and in Haiti.
Large NGOs may have annual budgets in the millions of dollars. For instance, the budget of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was over $540 million dollars in 1999.5 Human Rights Watch spent and received US$21,7 million in 2003. Funding such large budgets demands significant fundraising efforts on the part of most NGOs. Major sources of NGO funding include membership dues, the sale of goods and services, grants from international institutions or national governments, and private donations. Several EU-grants provide funds accessible to NGOs.
Even though the term ‘non-governmental organization’ implies independence of governments, some NGOs depend heavily on governments for their funding. A quarter of the US$162 million income in 1998 of the famine-relief organization Oxfam was donated by the British government and the EU. The Christian relief and development organization World Vision US collected US$55 million worth of goods in 1998 from the American government. Nobel Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (known in English as Doctors Without Borders) gets 46 percent of its income from government sources.5
NGOs are not legal entities under international law like states are. An exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross which is considered a legal entity under international law because it is based on the Geneva Convention.
Nongovernmental organizations are an heterogenous group, and a large set of specifying acronyms has developed.
INGO stands for international NGO, such as CARE;
BINGO is short for business-oriented international NGO;
RINGO is an abbreviation of religious international NGO such as Catholic Relief Services;
ENGO, short for environmental NGO, such as Global 2000;
GONGOs are government-operated NGOs, which may have been set up by governments to look like NGOs in order to qualify for outside aid;
QUANGOs are quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations, such as the W3C and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which is actually not purely an NGO, since its membership is by nation, and each nation is represented by what the ISO Council determines to be the “most broadly representative” standardization body of a nation. Now, such a body might in fact be a nongovernmental organization–for example, the United States is represented in ISO by the American National Standards Institute, which is independent of the federal government. However, other countries can be represented by national governmental agencies–this is the trend in Europe.
- World Bank Criteria defining NGO
- Mukasa, Sarah. Are expatriate staff necessary in international development NGOs? A case study of an international NGO in Uganda. Publication of the Centre for Civil Society at London School of Economics. 2002, p. 11-13.
- Campbell, P. Management Development and Development Management for Voluntary Organisations, Occasional Paper No. 3, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, Geneva, 1987.
- Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado
- Sins of the secular missionaries. in: The Economist. January 29, 2000.
- Korten, D. Getting to the 21st century: voluntary action and the global agenda. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990, p. 118.
- London School of Economics International Working Paper Series on NGOs
- World Bank Criteria defining NGO
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