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A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a legally constituted organization created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any form of government. The term originated from the United Nations (UN), and is normally used to refer to organizations that are not a part of the government and are not conventional for-profit business. In the cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from membership in the organization. The term is usually applied only to organizations that pursue wider social aims that have political aspects, but are not openly political organizations such as political parties.
The number of internationally operating NGOs is estimated at 40,000. National numbers are even higher: Russia has 277,000 NGOs; India is estimated to have around 3.3 million NGOs in year 2009, which is one NGO per less than 400 Indians, and many times the number of primary schools and primary health centres in India.
NGOs are difficult to define and classify, and the term 'NGO' is not used consistently. As a result, there are many different classifications in use. The most common use a framework that includes orientation and level of operation. An NGO's orientation refers to the type of activities it takes on. These activities might include human rights, environmental, or development work. An NGO's level of operation indicates the scale at which an organization works, such as local, international or national. "Confronting the Classification Problem: Toward a Taxonomy of NGOs"
One of the earliest mentions of the acronym "NGO" was in 1945, when the UN was created. The UN, which is an inter-governmental organization, made it possible for certain approved specialized international non-state agencies - or non-governmental organisations - to be awarded observer status at its assemblies and some of its meetings. Later the term became used more widely. Today, according to the UN, any kind of private organization that is independent from government control can be termed an "NGO", provided it is not-profit, non-criminal and not simply an opposition political party.
Professor Peter Willets, from the City University of London, argues the definition of NGOs can be interpreted differently by various organizations and depending on a situation’s context. He defines an NGO as “"an independent voluntary association of people acting together on a continuous basis for some common purpose other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities." In this view, two main types of NGOs are recognized according to the activities they pursue: operational NGOs that deliver services and campaigning NGOs. Although Willets proposes the operational and campaigning NGOs as a tool to differentiate the main activities of these organizations, he also explains that a single NGO may often be engaged in both activities. Many NGOs also see them as mutually reinforcing.
Professor Akira Iriye defines NGO as "a voluntary nonstate, nonprofit, nonreligious, and nonmilitary association."
Some find it helpful to classify NGOs by orientation and/or level of co-operation.
NGO type by orientation
NGO type by level of co-operation
Apart from "NGO", there are many alternative or overlapping terms in use, including: third sector organization (TSO), non-profit organization (NPO), voluntary organization (VO), civil society organization (CSO), grassroots organization (GO), social movement organization (SMO), private voluntary organization (PVO), self-help organization (SHO) and non-state actors (NSAs).
Non-governmental organizations are a heterogeneous group. As a result, a long (and sometimes confusing or comical) list of additional acronyms has developed, including:
USAID refers to NGOs as private voluntary organizations. However, many scholars have argued that this definition is highly problematic as many NGOs are in fact state and corporate funded and managed projects with professional staff.
NGOs exist for a variety of reasons, usually to further the political or social goals of their members or funders. 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.
NGOs are organizations that work in many different fields, but the term is generally associated with those seeking social transformation and improvements in quality of life. Development NGOs is the most highly visible sector, and includes both international and local organizations, as well as those working in humanitarian emergency sector. Many are associated with international aid and voluntary donation, but there are also NGOs that choose not to take funds from donors and try to generate funding in other ways, such as selling handicrafts or charging for services.
Environmental NGOs are another sub-sector, and sometimes overlap with development NGOs. An example is Greenpeace. (see: List of Environmental NGOs). Just like other NGOs networks, transnational environmental networks might acquire a variety of benefits in sharing information with other organizations, campaigning towards an issue, and exchanging contact information. Since Transnational environmental NGOs advocate for different issues like public goods, such as pollution in the air, deforestation of areas and water issues, it is more difficult for them to give their campaigns a human face than NGOs campaigning directly for human rights issues.
Some of the earliest forms of transnational environmental NGOs started to appear after the Second World War with the creation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). After the UN was formed in 1945, more environmental NGO started to emerge in order to address more specific environmental issues. In 1946, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was created with the purpose of advocating and representing scientific issues and collaboration among environmental NGOs. In 1969, the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) was funded to increase and improve collaboration among environmentalists. This collaboration was later reinforced and stimulated with the creation of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program in 1971. In 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, tried to address the issues on Sweden’s plead for international intervention on trans-boundary pollution from other European industrialized nations.
Transnational environmental NGOs have taken on diverse issues around the globe, but one of the best-known cases involving the work of environmental NGO’s can be traced back to Brazil during the 1980s. The United States got involved with deforestation concerns due to the allegations of environmentalists dictating deforestation to be a global concern, and after 1977 the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act added an Environmental and Natural Resources section.
Human rights NGOs may also overlap with those in development, but are another distinct category. Amnesty International is perhaps one of the best-known.
During the early 1980s the Brazilian government created the Polonoreste developing program, which the World Bank agreed to finance. The Polonoreste program aimed to urbanized areas of the Amazon, which were already occupied by local indigenous groups. Rapid deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon called the attention and intervention of UNESCO, who utilized its Program on Man and the Biosphere to advocate against the Polonoreste program, on the grounds of violating the rights of the indigenous groups living in the Amazon. In the case of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, the environment NGOs were able to put pressure on the World Bank to cancel the loans for the Polonoreste program. Due to the leverage that the U.S. has over the bank, in 1985 the World Bank suspended the financial aid to the Polonoreste Program. The work of environmental NGOs in the Brazilian case was successful because there was a point of leverage that made the targeted actor vulnerable to international pressure.
Even though NGOs might have common goals relating to development or environment issues, interests and perspectives are diverse. A distinction can be made between the interests and goals among those NGOs located in industrialized countries—often referred to as the states of the North—and NGOs from nations located in developing countries—referred to as states of the South. There is sometimes tension between them. Southern states blame the developed nations for over-consumption and pollution resulting from industrialization, and for sustaining inequalities in the international economic system
There is also a distinction among groups that take on particular and specific socio-economic issues. The Women’s Environment and Development Organization was created in 1990 with the purpose to advocate for gender inclusion in work related to the Earth Summit. Other groups might focus on issues that include racial minorities and individuals from lower income backgrounds.
Track II dialogue, or Track II diplomacy, is a transnational coordination that involves non-official members of the government including epistemic communities as well as former policymakers or analysts. Track II diplomacy aims to get policymakers and policy analysts to come to a common solution through discussions by unofficial figures of the government. Unlike the Track I diplomacy where government officials, diplomats and elected leaders gather to talk about certain issues, Track II diplomacy consists of experts, scientists, professors and other figures that are not involved in government affairs. The members of Track II diplomacy usually have more freedom to exchange ideas and come up with compromise on their own.
NGOs vary in their methods. Some act primarily as lobbyists, while others primarily conduct programs and activities. For instance, an NGO such as Oxfam, concerned with poverty alleviation, might provide needy people with the equipment and skills to find food and clean drinking water, whereas an NGO like the FFDA helps through investigation and documentation of human rights violations and provides legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. Others, such as Afghanistan Information Management Services, provide specialized technical products and services to support development activities implemented on the ground by other organizations.
NGOs were intended to fill a gap in government services, but in countries like India, NGOs are gaining a powerful stronghold in decision making. In the interest of sustainability, most donors require that NGOs demonstrate a relationship with governments. State Governments themselves are vulnerable because they lack strategic planning and vision. They are therefore sometimes tightly bound by a nexus of NGOs, political bodies, commercial organizations and major donors/funders, making decisions that have short term outputs but no long term affect. NGOs in India are under regulated, political, and recipients of large government and international donor funds. NGOs often take up responsibilities outside their skill ambit. Governments have no access to the number of projects or amount of funding received by these NGOs. There is a pressing need to regulate this group while not curtailing their unique role as a supplement to government services.
Operational NGOs seek to "achieve small scale change directly through projects." " They mobilize financial resources, materials and volunteers to create localized programs in the field. They hold large scale fundraising events, apply to governments and organizations for grants and contracts in order to raise money for projects. They often operate in a hierarchical structure; with a main headquarters staffed by professionals who plan projects, create budgets, keep accounts, report, and communicate with operational fieldworkers who work directly on projects Operational NGOs deal with a wide range of issues, but are most often associated with the delivery of services and welfare, emergency relief and environmental issues. Operational NGOs can be further categorized, one frequently used categorization is the division into relief-oriented versus development-oriented organizations; they can also be classified according to whether they stress service delivery or participation; or whether they are religious or secular; and whether they are more public or private-oriented. Operational NGOs can be community-based, national or international. The defining activity of operational NGOs is implementing projects.
Campaigning NGOs seek to "achieve large scale change promoted indirectly through influence of the political system." Campaigning NGOs need an efficient and effective group of professional members who are able to keep supporters informed, and motivated. They must plan and host demonstrations and events that will keep their cause in the media. They must maintain a large informed network of supporters who can be mobilized for events to garner media attention and influence policy changes. The defining activity of campaigning NGOs is holding demonstrations. Campaigning NGOs often deal with issues relating to human rights, women's rights, children's rights. The primary purpose of an Advocacy NGO 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.
It is not uncommon for NGOs to make use of both activities. Many times, operational NGOs will use campaigning techniques if they continually face the same issues in the field that could be remedied through policy changes. At the same time, Campaigning NGOs, like human rights organizations often have programs that assist the individual victims they are trying to help through their advocacy work.
Non-governmental organisations need healthy relationships with the public to meet their goals. Foundations and charities use sophisticated public relations campaigns to raise funds and employ standard lobbying techniques with governments. Interest groups may be of political importance because of their ability to influence social and political outcomes. A code of ethics was established in 2002 by The World Association of Non Governmental NGOs.
There is an increasing awareness that management techniques are crucial to project success in non-governmental organizations. Generally, non-governmental organizations that are private have either a community or environmental focus. They address varieties of issues such as religion, emergency aid, or humanitarian affairs. They mobilize public support and voluntary contributions for aid; they often have strong links with community groups in developing countries, and they often work in areas where government-to-government aid is not possible. NGOs are accepted as a part of the international relations landscape, and while they influence national and multilateral policy-making, increasingly they are more directly involved in local action.
Some NGOs are highly professionalized and rely mainly on paid staff. Others are based around voluntary labour and are less formalized. Not all people working for non-governmental organizations are volunteers.
Many NGOs are associated with the use of international staff working in 'developing' countries, but there are many NGOs in both North and South who rely on local employees or volunteers. 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 be counterbalanced by a number of factors: the cost of foreigners is typically higher, they have no grassroot connections in the country they are sent to, and local expertise is often undervalued.
The NGO sector is an important employer in terms of numbers. 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.
Whether the NGOs are small or large, various NGOs need budgets to operate. The amount of budget that they need would differ from NGOs to NGOs. Unlike small NGOs, large NGOs may have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. For instance, the budget of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was over US$540 million in 1999. Funding such large budgets demands significant fundraising efforts on the part of most NGOs. Major sources of NGO funding are 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 from governments, many 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 United States collected US$55 million worth of goods in 1998 from the American government. Nobel Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (known in the USA as Doctors Without Borders) gets 46% of its income from government sources.
Government funding of NGOs is controversial, since, according to David Rieff, writing in The New Republic, "the whole point of humanitarian intervention was precisely that NGOs and civil society had both a right and an obligation to respond with acts of aid and solidarity to people in need or being subjected to repression or want by the forces that controlled them, whatever the governments concerned might think about the matter." Some NGOs, such as Greenpeace do not accept funding from governments or intergovernmental organizations.
Overhead is the amount of money that is spent on running an NGO rather than on projects. This includes office expenses, salaries, banking and bookkeeping costs. What percentage of overall budget is spent on overhead is often used to judge an NGO with less than 10% being viewed as good. The World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations states that ideally more than 80% should be spent on programs (less than 20% on overhead). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has specific guidelines on how high overhead can be to receive funding based on how the money is to be spent with overhead often needing to be less than 5-7%. While the World Bank typically allows 10%. A high percentage of overhead to total expenditures can make it more difficult to generate funds. High overhead costs may also generate criticism with some claiming the certain NGOs with high overhead are being run simply to benefit the people working for them.
In a March 2000 report on United Nations Reform priorities, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in favor of international humanitarian intervention, arguing that the international community has a "right to protect" citizens of the world against ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity. On the heels of the report, the Canadian government launched the Responsibility to Protect R2P project, outlining the issue of humanitarian intervention. While the R2P doctrine has wide applications, among the more controversial has been the Canadian government's use of R2P to justify its intervention and support of the coup in Haiti. Years after R2P, the World Federalist Movement, an organization which supports "the creation of democratic global structures accountable to the citizens of the world and call for the division of international authority among separate agencies", has launched Responsibility to Protect - Engaging Civil Society (R2PCS). A collaboration between the WFM and the Canadian government, this project aims to bring NGOs into lockstep with the principles outlined under the original R2P project.
The governments of the countries an NGO works or is registered in may require reporting or other monitoring and oversight. Funders generally require reporting and assessment, such information is not necessarily publicly available. There may also be associations and watchdog organizations that research and publish details on the actions of NGOs working in particular geographic or program areas.
In recent years, many large corporations have increased their corporate social responsibility departments in an attempt to preempt NGO campaigns against certain corporate practices. As the logic goes, if corporations work with NGOs, NGOs will not work against corporations.
In December 2007, The United States Department of Defense Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) S. Ward Casscells established an International Health Division under Force Health Protection & Readiness. Part of International Health's mission is to communicate with NGOs in areas of mutual interest. Department of Defense Directive 3000.05, in 2005, requires DoD to regard stability-enhancing activities as a mission of importance equal to combat. In compliance with international law, DoD has necessarily built a capacity to improve essential services in areas of conflict such as Iraq, where the customary lead agencies (State Department and USAID) find it difficult to operate. Unlike the "co-option" strategy described for corporations, the OASD(HA) recognizes the neutrality of health as an essential service. International Health cultivates collaborative relationships with NGOs, albeit at arms-length, recognizing their traditional independence, expertise and honest broker status. While the goals of DoD and NGOs may seem incongruent, the DoD's emphasis on stability and security to reduce and prevent conflict suggests, on careful analysis, important mutual interests.
International non-governmental organizations have a history dating back to at least 1839. It has been estimated that by 1914, there were 1083 NGOs. International NGOs were important in the anti-slavery movement and the movement for women's suffrage, and reached a peak at the time of the World Disarmament Conference. However, the phrase "non-governmental organization" only came into popular use with the establishment of the United Nations Organization in 1945 with provisions in Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter for a consultative role for organizations which are neither 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 27 of Agenda 21, leading to intense arrangements for a consultative relationship between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. It has been observed that the number of INGO founded or dissolved matches the general "state of the world", rising in periods of growth and declining in periods of crisis.
Rapid development of the non-governmental sector occurred in western countries as a result of the processes of restructuring of the welfare state. Further globalization of that process occurred after the fall of the communist system and was an important part of the Washington consensus.
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 centred mainly on the interests of capitalist enterprises. In an attempt to counterbalance this trend, NGOs have developed 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. In terms of environmental issues and sustainable development, the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 was the first to show the power of international NGOs, when about 2,400 representatives of NGOs came to play a central role in deliberations. Some have argued that in forums like these, NGOs take the place of what should belong to popular movements of the poor. Others argue that NGOs are often imperialist in nature, that they sometimes operate in a racialized manner in third world countries, and that they fulfill a similar function to that of the clergy during the high colonial era. The philosopher Peter Hallward argues that they are an aristocratic form of politics. Whatever the case, NGO transnational networking is now extensive.
The legal form of NGOs is diverse and depends upon homegrown variations in each country's laws and practices. However, four main family groups of NGOs can be found worldwide:
The Council of Europe in Strasbourg drafted the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organizations in 1986, which sets a common legal basis for the existence and work of NGOs in Europe. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of association, which is also a fundamental norm for NGOs.
Stuart Becker provides the following summary of the primary critiques of NGOs:
There’s a debate that, NGOs take the place of what should belong to popular movements of the poor. Others argue that NGOs are often imperialist in nature, that they sometimes operate in a racist manner in Third World countries and that they fulfill a similar function to that of the clergy during the colonial era. Philosopher Peter Hallward argues that they are an aristocratic form of politics."
Issa G. Shivji is one of Africa's leading experts on law and development issues as an author and academic. His critique on NGOs is found in two essays: "Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa" and "Reflections on NGOs in Tanzania: What we are, what we are not and what we ought to be". Shivji argues that despite the good intentions of NGO leaders and activists, he is critical of the "objective effects of actions, regardless of their intentions". Shivji argues also that the sudden rise of NGOs are part of a neoliberal paradigm rather than pure altruistic motivations. He is critical of the current manifestations of NGOs wanting to change the world without understanding it, and that the imperial relationship continues today with the rise of NGOs.
Jessica Mathews once wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1997: "For all their strengths, NGOs are special interests. The best of them ... often suffer from tunnel vision, judging every public act by how it affects their particular interest". Since NGOs do have to worry about policy trade-offs, the overall impact of their cause might bring more harm to society.
Vijay Prashad argues that from the 1970s "The World Bank, under Robert McNamara, championed the NGO as an alternative to the state, leaving intact global and regional relations of power and production."
Another criticism of NGOs is that they are being designed and used as extensions of the normal foreign-policy instruments of certain Western countries and groups of countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin made this accusation at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007, concluding that these NGOs "are formally independent but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control." Also, Michael Bond wrote "Most large NGOs, such as Oxfam, the Red Cross, Cafod and Action Aid, are striving to make their aid provision more sustainable. But some, mostly in the US, are still exporting the ideologies of their backers."  Indeed, whether the NGOs are adiding for evangelical purposes or their ideological intentions, various NGOs are examined and accused of their nature.
There has also been the overwhelming disaster of NGOs using white lies or misinformed advise to enact their campaigns. In other words, NGOs have been quite ignorant about critical issues because, as chief scientist at Greenpeace Doug Parr claims, these organizations have lost their efforts in being trully scientific and are now more self-interested. Rather than operating through science so as to be rationally and effectively practical, NGOs are now abusing the utilization of science in order to gain their own advantages. In the beginning, as Parr indicated, there was "'a tendency among our critics to say that science is the only decision-making tool . . . but political and commerical interests are using science as a cover for getting their way.'" At the same time, NGOs have shown themselves not to be very cooperative with other groups, as the previous policy-maker for the German branch of Friends of the Earth Jens Katjek acknowledged. "If NGOs want the best for the environment, he says, they have to learn to compromise."
The issue of the legitimacy of NGOs raises a series of important questions. This is one of the most important assets possessed by an NGO, it is gained through a perception that they are an “independent voice”. Their representation also emerges as an important question. Who bestows responsibilities to NGOs or INGOs and how do they gain the representation of citizens and civil society is still not scrutinized thoroughly. For instance, in the article, it is stated, "To put the point starkly: are the citizens of countries of the South and their needs represented in global civil society, or are citizens as well as their needs constructed by practices of representation? And when we realize that INGOs hardly ever come face to face with the people whose interests and problems they represent, or that they are not accountable to the people they represent, matters become even more troublesome." 
Moreover, the legitimacy and the accountability of NGOs on the point of their true nature are also emerging as important issues. Various perceptions and images on NGOs are provided, and usually implemented in an image as 'non-state actors' or 'influential representatives of civil society that advocate the citizen.' Accountability may be able to provide this and also be able to assist activities by providing focus and direction As non-state actors with considerable influence over the governance in many areas, concerns have been expressed over the extent to which they represent the views of the public and the extent to which they allow the public to hold them to account.
The origin of funding can have serious implications for the legitimacy of NGOs. In recent decades NGOs have increased their numbers and range of activities to a level where they have become increasingly dependent on a limited number of donors. Consequently competition has increased for funding, as have the expectations of the donors themselves. This runs the risk of donors adding conditions which can threaten the independence of NGOs, an over-dependence on official aid has the potential to dilute “the willingness of NGOs to speak out on issues which are unpopular with governments”. In these situations NGOs are being held accountable by their donors, which can erode rather than enhance their legitimacy, a difficult challenge to overcome. Some commentators have also argued that the changes in where NGOs receive their funding has ultimately altered their functions.
NGOs have also been challenged on the grounds that they do not necessarily represent the needs of the developing world, through diminishing the so-called “Southern Voice”. Some postulate that the North-South division exists in the arena of NGOs. They question the equality of the relationships between Northern and Southern parts of the same NGOs as well as the relationships between Southern and Northern NGOs working in partnerships. This suggests a division of labour may develop, with the North taking the lead in advocacy and resource mobilisation whilst the South engages in service delivery in the developing world. The potential implications of this may mean that the needs of the developing world are not addressed appropriately as Northern NGOs do not properly consult or participate in partnerships. The real danger in this situation is that western views may take the front seat and assign unrepresentative priorities.
The scale and variety of activities in which NGOs participate has grown rapidly since the 1980s, witnessing particular expansion in the 1990s. This has presented NGOs with need to balance the pressures of centralisation and decentralisation. By centralising NGOs, particularly those that operate at an international level, they can assign a common theme or set of goals. Conversely it is also advantageous to decentralise as this increases the chances of an NGO behaving flexibly and effectively to localised issues.
More useful are regional histories and analyses of the experience of NGOs. Specific works (although this is by no means an exhaustive list) include:
The de facto reference resource for information and statistics on International NGOs (INGOs) and other transnational organisational forms is the Yearbook of International Organizations, produced by the Union of International Associations.
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