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Introduction to Political Science

15.5 Non-state Actors: Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Introduction to Political Science15.5 Non-state Actors: Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain different types and purposes of NGOs.
  • Identify influential NGOs and their areas of emphasis.
  • Discuss the role of NGOs in global governance.
  • Evaluate the contributions of NGOs.

While most people are familiar with the work of the largest IGOs like the UN, NATO, or the EU, they may be less familiar with how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) contribute to global governance. NGOs operate independently of a government or state and are open to the citizens of various countries rather than to the countries themselves. NGOs engage in transnational relations, cross-border interactions that may happen with minimal or no government involvement. In some cases, NGOs collaborate with governments, but often the goals of NGOs and particular governments do not align, and their relationships become conflicted.

The Union of International Associations lists over 8,500 NGOs worldwide; depending on how they are counted, that number may be in the tens of thousands.59 NGOs mobilize individuals around a common concern, and they help facilitate the work of the United Nations and other IGOs. In terms of global governance, NGOs are a part of the global civil society, that is, the arena in which groups come together to engage in collective action in the service of shared interests, values, and goals outside government or profit-based motivations.

What Do NGOs Do?

In most cases, NGOs are designed to address a transnational concern—like the environment, humanitarian issues, health care, economic development, or conflict cessation—that is important to all and necessitates cooperation across borders. Within these broad areas, the majority of NGOs focus on specific issues, such as saving endangered species, conducting anti-malaria programs in tropical zones, or providing small loans to local farmers in South Asia.

Often NGOs are the result of a moral crusade of one or a small group of concerned citizens. For example, Henry Dunant founded the Red Cross in the mid-1800s to aid soldiers injured in war. Some other well-known NGOs include Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund. Some NGOs have thousands of members, while others have only a few hundred, and their budgets and scope of impact are similarly varied. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), with close to 100,000 people on staff, is the largest NGO in the world.

Although NGOs exist in wealthy countries, most of the work of NGOs happens in the poorest and most conflict-torn areas of the world. In developing countries, NGOs often help fulfill needs that the government cannot, like providing access to adequate health care, nutrition, education, sanitation, or potable water. They also play an active role in the aftermath of natural disasters like hurricanes or floods and provide relief in emergency situations such as refugee or famine crises.


What Is an NGO?

Chris Nkuwatsibwe of the Uganda NGO Forum provides a basic explanation of NGOs.

The work of NGOs is expensive. In 2015, the 50 largest humanitarian NGOs alone spent $18 billion annually.60 NGOs receive funding from a variety of sources, including member dues, grants from governments, development banks, and philanthropic foundations. Governments or IGOs may contract NGOs to do specific tasks in a broader development plan, and development, humanitarian, or disaster aid is funneled often through NGOs that have an established presence in the region. The World Bank estimates that over 15 percent of total overseas development aid is channeled through NGOs. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees allocates approximately 40 percent of its budget to over 800 partner NGOs.61 Like government aid agencies in other states, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partners with NGOs to deliver aid and to implement programming.62 People sympathetic to an organization’s mission provide the largest share of most organizations’ budgets.

What Are Some Weaknesses of NGOs?

NGOs can only work where governments accept their presence. Governments in strict authoritarian states like North Korea allow virtually no NGO activity, whereas governments in many other countries place almost no restrictions on NGOs. In recent years, however, more governments have placed restrictions on NGO activities in their states.63 In particular, human rights groups and religiously affiliated organizations meet with resistance in some countries that view them as undermining the government or “national unity.”

NGO Scope of Operation Year Founded Issue Area Website
Greenpeace 3 million members, offices in 40 countries 1971 Largest environmental organization in the world
Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières—MSF) Employs 30,000 and works in more than 70 countries 1971 Medical humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict, natural disasters, epidemics, or health care exclusion
Mercy Corps Works in over 40 countries, reaching 50 million people 1979 Global aid agency, helping people survive crises, escape poverty, and transform communities
Open Society Foundation Works in 120 countries, spends over $1 billion each year 1993 Promotion of democracy around the world
Table 15.2 Sampling of Major Nongovernmental Organizations

Some criticize NGOs for being too narrowly focused on a specific issue rather than working on larger systemic problems. Some contend that NGOs should better coordinate with other actors rather than working in isolation and that reliance on Western donors leads NGOs to focus on projects that are more easily “sold” instead of those that are arguably more critical. NGOs may not be interested in or able to solve the root cause of a particular problem, and hence the solutions they provide may be temporary. Observers scrutinize NGOS, like many nonprofit organizations, for how much of their budgets go toward fundraising, advertising, and overhead rather than to directly helping their stated cause.

What Role Do NGOs Play in Providing Collective Goods?

NGOs have been a presence at the UN since its earliest days, when they successfully lobbied the UN to include the promotion of human rights as part of its mission in the UN Charter.64 Approximately 6,000 NGOs currently have “consultative status” with ECOSOC, which allows them to have input into policy discussions and to access UN documents.

International treaties provide collective goods, and NGOs have had significant input into the formation of most contemporary treaties, including the Paris Agreement (climate change) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. NGOs often form groups that work together to advance common goals—for instance, religious NGOs created the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN (RUN), which has its own meetings and coordinates policies and responses to issues of common concern.65 During the years of negotiations over the Rome Treaty, interested NGOs formed a group called the Coalition for the International Criminal Court to help draft and convince states to ratify the treaty. Two other NGO coalitions, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition, were central in drafting and convincing states to join the Mine Ban Treaty (1997) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2010), respectively.

NGOs have had the most success lobbying for the adoption of international human rights treaties.66 In the 1960s, Peter Benenson formed the influential human rights NGO Amnesty International to pressure governments to release political prisoners.

A person wearing an orange jumpsuit stands in front of a marble building that is decorated with a statue of a seated figure and Greek columns. A black hood completely covers the person's head and face. Behind the person, a uniformed police officer stands on the steps of the building.
Figure 15.10 In 2007, Amnesty International protested the sixth anniversary of the arrival of detainees at the controversial US military prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. (credit: “Black Hood, Orange Jumpsuit, Bored Cop, ‘Authority of Law’ Statue by James Earle Fraser Outside The Third Guantanamo Hearing at The Supreme Court (Washington, DC)” by Takomabibelot/Flickr, Public Domain)

Amnesty International has played an essential role in ensuring the adoption of at least three core international human rights treaties: the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Convention”) (1984), the Rome Treaty (2002), and the Arms Trade Treaty (2014). In 1997, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

How Do NGOs Contribute to Global Governance?

In addition to drafting and convincing states to sign international treaties, NGOs help IGOs and state-based development agencies. They engage in information sharing and advocacy efforts, assist in emergencies, and play a key role in reinforcing the legitimacy of global governance.67

NGOs also help monitor compliance with international treaties, often, as in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under authority granted by the treaties themselves.68 As NGO expert Peter Willets noted, “were it not for NGOs, there would be no international law of human rights and no U.N. machinery to protect them.”69

Due to the nature of their work on the front lines in countries around the world, NGOs often have more information about what is happening in another country than a government or IGO has. This allows NGOs to serve as informal monitors of state behavior. By providing evidence and testimonies, NGOs can draw international attention to situations such as human rights abuses or worsening humanitarian or environmental conditions. Such pressure may cause governments to change their policies or provide critical aid to regions that may have been under-resourced.70

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