Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
From Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice

Almost all types of private organizations that can demonstrate independence from government control and establish an overall mission focusing on a public good can be categorized as a non-governmental organization (NGO). The term non-governmental organization was first coined in 1945 by the United Nations. The term NGO helped the United Nations differentiate in its charter the intergovernmental agencies from private organizations and their respective participation rights. Although the name itself was coined in the 20th century, the idea behind charitable and community organizations has existed throughout history. Their visible impact on policy and their ability to initiate change from the bottom up can be seen from the anti-slavery movement that started in England in the 18th century and gave birth to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Soon after, the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in 1855. Eight years later, the International Committee for the Red Cross was founded and is still one of the most recognized and respected NGOs. Therefore, even before the term NGO came into existence, the concept behind organizations operating independently from government was present.

According to the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the term NGO was the result of the lobbying efforts of a group of private organizations during the San Francisco conference in 1945 that established the United Nations. The original U.N. charter did not refer to any form of cooperation with private organizations. The private organizations that were labeled under the League of Nations in 1910 as the Union of International Associations maintained that in order for the United Nations to be successful it would need to formalize the relationship with government actors and non-governmental organizations. Their lobbying efforts were a success, and the term nongovernmental organization was included in Article 71 of the U.N. charter. For decades the term was restricted to U.N. jargon, but from the 1970s onward NGO began to be a popular term globally.

There is no one set formula for establishing an NGO. There is a wide range of structures that are applied within the internal structure of an NGO. Some are membership organizations and represent thousands of people, while others may bring together the elite or intellectuals of a particular community. The missions cover a broad range of issues, from women’s rights to free elections to the environment to trade unions. Similarly, NGOs are not defined or limited geographically. They can work in a village or a city, rural or urban, at a national or international level. The public good that may be offered by an NGO can be something tangible such as food or blankets or may be more of a service such as legal advice or awareness campaigns. In theory, NGOs are designed to represent the communities they work in. They may represent the interests of the elite in the society or, as is more common in the last decade, the interests of a large constituency. The latter approach is usually referred to among NGO practitioners as grassroots participation.

No matter what the issue, location, or service an NGO may offer, its impact on a national and globally cannot be denied. In fact, many economists have begun to refer to the NGO as a third sector or third wave, distinct in its role and impact from government/military and private/business actors. The third sector has proven to have had a vital economic impact. Through a series of small loans to the poorest of the poor, a local NGO in Bangladesh founded by Muhammad Yunus revolutionized the banking sector. Based on research he conducted in 1976, the Grameen Bank was formulated and has reversed conventional banking practice by removing the need for collateral and proving that a banking system based on mutual trust, accountability, participation, and creativity can be successful. The third sector plays a significant role in a country’s economy, and in some countries where there are large NGO programs, NGOs can play a vital role in creating jobs and stimulating local economies.

Economics is not the only field where NGOs can have a large impact. On a social and political level, many NGOs have been credited with creating major changes on the ground. A coalition of NGOs internationally formed the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and was considered a primary mobilizer for the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997. On a local level, a national NGO, People & Water in Slovakia, campaigned against the construction of a dam on the Torysa River. In 1992, it launched an effective campaign utilizing the media and arena of public debate to highlight their “Blue Alternative,” a more ecological approach to water management in the region. In 1996, the Slovak Ministry of Environment halted the construction of the dam, recommending “greener” alternatives. As a result of NGOs commanding change, many scholars now speak of NGOs as a nonstate actor. This term used in international relations was mainly reserved for powerful transnational corporations, such as Microsoft or Shell. Being labeled as a nonstate actor reflects the growing influence citizens can have on international policy and provides an avenue of participation beyond the formal government.

There are many ways to classify NGOs. One of the classification systems distinguishes between international NGOs (INGOs) and national NGOs (NNGOs). INGOs are simply NGOs that cut across borders and do not operate within one single country. INGOs are formed when a group of individuals from different states come together to work on a common objective in hopes of fulfilling a vision. Popular INGOs include Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International. A more complex definition of INGOs has been outlined by the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in order to determine qualification as a U.N. partner. INGOs have an advantage over national NGOs in gaining access to funding and a larger network. The number of INGOs has significantly increased over the past five decades. According to one estimate, there are now more than 25,000 INGOs compared to 400 less than a century ago.

Although INGOs have increased over the past three decades, the majority of NGOs operate locally within one country. Direct access to local communities gives NNGOs a distinct advantage over INGOs. In addition, they can be seen as a legitimate force on the ground—whether they are working with the elite or the grass roots—their focus on one country provides them with a significant comparative advantage. NNGOs operate in various ways; some have small chapter offices across the country with a main headquarters in the city, while others may focus only on a particular target group (such as women or refugees) or a specific geographic region within the country. The emergence of the popularity of NGOs in the 1990s has resulted in many new terminologies entering into the mainstream. With the expansion of the third sector or third wave, there has been a desire by many to become more specific when talking about these organizations. As a result, in addition to national NGOs, the terms local NGO, civil society organization, and community-based organization have emerged.

It is important to note that in many countries, governments do not view NGOs favorably. They see NGOs as nuisances or even destructive. This is true of both INGOs and NNGOs. Examples of unwelcome INGOs are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which monitor and watch governments. Governments also find unfavorable NNGOs that encourage freedom of speech or free elections. In non-dictatorial countries, governments may look for ways to criticize the NGO. The two easiest avenues of criticism are through the organization’s internal structure and through their funding source. The internal structure of an NGO is particularly important in order to establish a sense of legitimacy and to provide an alternate model of governance. Funding is a crucial element because it not only determines whether the organization will be sustainable in the long run, but it also can determine how truly independent an organization is. Naturally, not all governments see all NGOs in an unfavorable light. In many countries, governments and NGOs have joined forces to help meet the overwhelming needs of the state and the citizens. A good example would be the government’s relationship with NGOs in South Africa.

The complex debate of globalization has made it imperative for NGOs in this era to distinguish themselves from other bodies. According to several opinion polls conducted in the United States and Europe, NGOs are seen as more trustworthy than governments. In addition, there is the popular opinion that NGOs represent “the voice of the people.” In order to maintain this reputation and influence, NGOs recognize that they must be able to maintain a reputation and identity that distinguish them from other groups. Doing so has become increasingly difficult. There has been a growing trend for contractors hired by governments to implement projects and services previously conducted by NGOs. For example, many NGOs have projects that build and renovate schools. Similarly, private construction firms are hired by governments providing foreign aid for the same project. Therefore, such activities are viewed with suspicion among local communities. It is easy for the line between NGO and contractor to become blurred.

In addition, not many distinguish non-government from nonprofit. Almost all NGOs are nonprofit, but not all nonprofits are NGOs. In many countries, these two words have been used interchangeably, and this has caused confusion for potential beneficiaries of NGO programs. Nonprofits include a wide range of organizations that may provide services but are not considered NGOs, such as universities and hospitals. At the same time, some nonprofits that do engage in program or advocacy work similar to that of an NGO may be 100% government-funded. As a result, they will be particularly vulnerable to the funding government’s political agenda. For example, several U.S. nonprofit organizations focusing on democracy and governance projects across the globe report directly to the U.S. Congress. Such organizations are excluded from the NGO definition but can easily be perceived as an NGO in the countries where they operate.

There is no doubt that NGOs are in a position to serve a national and global community. They have been called by the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan the conscience of humanity. At the same time, without the proper monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, NGOs can easily fall into the same traps governments have fallen into—such as corruption, dictatorship, and elitism. Each year the NGO sector raises billions of dollars worldwide, but abstract objectives and overarching mission often make it difficult to measure the success of the programs. For example, $8 billion was raised in just 4 months for the December 2004 Asian tsunami, but strict monitoring and evaluation systems of how this money was spent are largely lacking. In order to preserve the integrity of NGO operations and projects, it is important that international standards and best practices for program implementation and budget monitoring are in place. It is crucial that an independent body be responsible for such oversight, and not a governmental body.

Non-governmental organizations have proven to be an essential component locally and internationally because of states’ inability to meet the demands of their populations. Overpopulation, migration, environmental damages, economic disintegration, and armed conflict are only a few of the overwhelming global challenges that even the greatest state has a limited capacity to respond to. The role of the NGO is not to replace a state by any means. An NGO with a strong mission and vision will identify a gap unfulfilled by the state and, based on a needs assessment, develop a strategy to help fill that gap. Through a network of NGOs, a country can experience a significant positive impact when projects are implemented.

    See also
  • Activism, Social and Political; Activism in Australia and New Zealand; Advocacy; Anti–Death Penalty Movement; Anti-Sweatshop Movement; Anti-Wal-Mart Movement; Civil Society; Debt Relief Movement; Doctors Without Borders; Human Rights Watch; International Campaign to Ban Landmines; Professional Activist Organizations

Further Readings
  • Hilhorst, D. (2003). The real world of NGOs: Discourse, diversity, and development. London: Zed.
  • Hobe, S. (1998, June). Global challenges to statehood: The increasingly important role of nongovernmental organizations. New York: Global Policy Forum. Retrieved January 23, 2006, from
  • Mendelson, S.; Glenn, J, (2002). The power and limits of NGOs. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Paul, J. (2000). NGOs and global policy making. New York: Global Policy Forum. Retrieved January 23, 2006, from
  • Manal Omar
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article nongovernmental organization
    Dictionary of Energy

    There is no commonly-agreed definition of ‘nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs), although the term generally refers to non-profit organizations th

    Full text Article international non-governmental organizations
    International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics

    It is estimated that there are now over 100,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in some capacity for environmental protection. The...

    Full text Article non-governmental organization
    The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

    Independent, service-providing, not-for-profit organization involved in a range of activities, including the provision of aid to less developed count

    See more from Credo