A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a legally constituted, voluntary association of individuals or groups that is neither a governmental agency nor a for-profit enterprise, although it may and often does receive both government and corporate funds. Regardless of funding source, an NGO maintains its status only to the extent that it excludes government representatives from membership or participation. Business representatives, however, may participate, either as staff or directors.
The number of non-governmental organizations has exploded during the last few decades, representing both the channeling of energies and passions into directly addressing and trying to solve single issues about which people care passionately, as well as the recognition of the limitations of government programs in addressing social problems.
Estimates of the number of NGOs throughout the world vary so widely, perhaps as a result of varying definitions, as to render a general figure meaningless, especially in the absence of any overall official data-gathering source. Estimates at the low end specify around 26,000. Estimates at the high end specify hundreds of thousands; Israel alone is said to have 30,000 while Russia may have 277,000, and one estimate in India is between one and two million.
In the United States, where NGOs are exempt from income taxes, the Internal Revenue Service reports that nearly 1,800,000 tax-exempt organizations were in operation in fiscal 2007. In that year alone, 73,000 entities applied for and received government recognition. Even these figures, however, may be misleading as they include labor unions, foundations, and religious organizations including churches, mosques, synagogues and other temples, which are not generally considered NGOs (more commonly referred to in the United States as non-profits or not-for-profits). Counting only charitable, religious, and social welfare groups, the number of NGOs in the United States in 2007 was around 1,260,000.
Regardless of the actual numbers, it is widely acknowledged today that NGOs have been growing so rapidly in recent decades as to have created a "global associational revolution," a "massive upsurge of organized private voluntary activity in virtually every region of the world."
The majority of NGOs operate domestically, within their respective countries. The more broadly known NGOs, however, operate internationally, across country borders. Examples include Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International. The number of these cross-national groups has been estimated at 40,000 in 2001, but is likely higher today.
Collectively, NGOs comprise a socio-economic sector different from, but engaged with, both the profit-making and government sectors. Among the terms applied to this sector are the third sector, the independent sector, the non-profit sector, the voluntary sector, and civil society.
Two primary theories purport to explain the derivation and growth of NGOs: government failure and market failure. Although these terms are usually applied in a strictly economic context, they are relevant in explaining the rise of NGOs. According to both theories, individuals or groups organize self-help or social policy associations when they feel that either the government or the profit-making market, or both, will not or cannot adequately address their concerns, such as poverty, poor or non-existent education, environmental degradation, affordable housing, and a host of other issues.
Other theories include solidarity, or collective empowerment, espoused by analysts in France, and religious admonitions to aid the poor, such as the Judaic notion of tzedaka, the Christian notion of charity, and the Islamic notion of zakat.
Although NGOs are largely a phenomenon of the twentieth century, their origins date back to the eighteenth century, at least in the United States. Confronting a vast land largely lacking the traditional government structures to which they were accustomed, the mainly European immigrants were forced to rely on themselves, collectively, to meet their societal needs for schools, houses of worship, roads and the like. On a famous tour of the fledgling country, Alexis de Tocqueville, the scion of an old landed Norman family, noted that in England, people "often perform great things singly, whereas Americans form associations for the smallest undertakings." He was speaking not only of business enterprises, but of "associations of a thousand other kinds," designed to "give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; they found in this manner hospitals, prisons, schools."
In European countries, NGOs evolved out of social movements over a century ago, in accordance with conditions specific to those nations. In Italy, for example, a major factor was hostility towards, and suspicion of, political parties and government institutions. In Sweden, NGOs formed largely as "protest movements against the bureaucrats, clerics, aristocrats and capitalists that dominated Sweden in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." In France, people "began to castigate the bureaucratic and centralizing leanings of redistributive institutions, perceiving that the inability to reform generated inertia, gridlock and cronyism," as well as "the resilience of powerful inequalities beneath the veil of egalitarianism."
On a global level, the history of international non-governmental organizations may also date back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Active in the anti-slavery movement and the movement for women's suffrage, they had expanded significantly 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 in 1945. Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter permitted a consultative role for organizations which are neither governments nor member states. The definition of "international NGO" is first given in resolution 288 (X) of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations on February 27, 1950: "Any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty." The Council recognized the vital role of the organizations and other "major groups" in sustainable development in Chapter 27 of Agenda 21, which led to significant arrangements for a consultative relationship between the UN and NGOs.
Globalization facilitated the rapid rise of NGOs in the latter part of the 20th century, and the revolution in electronic telecommunications not only reinforced that trend, but fostered growing cooperation among NGOs across national borders. Globalization, resulting from neo-liberal economic policies, led citizens of various countries to perceive of international treaties and international financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund as too centered on the interests of capitalist enterprises, to the detriment of the poor. At the same time, the "telecommunications revolution called attention to the disparities in development between the West and the rest of the world…. Instantaneous global communication meant that popular movements throughout the world could draw inspiration from each other."
An attempt to counterbalance neo-liberal policies may have led to the development of NGOs emphasizing humanitarian issues, developmental aid, and sustainable development. Because many of these groups continue to criticize various international funding agencies and conferences of economic leaders in developed nations, they sometimes unite across countries to develop counter-institutions. A prominent example today is the World Social Forum which formed in 2001 as a rival convention to the World Economic Forum held annually in January in Davos, Switzerland. Such counter-institutions attract a wide following. The fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005, was attended by representatives from more than 1,000 NGOs, or some 20,000 people.
Criticisms of such forums have entailed allegations that participating NGOs take the place of what should belong to popular movements of the poor. Some more radical critics argue that NGOs are often quasi-imperialist in nature, fulfilling a function similar to that of the clergy during the high colonial era of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite their objections, NGO transnational networking is now extensive.
Non-governmental organizations are often classified in terms of their interests and methods. For example, BINGO is an acronym for Business-Oriented International NGO, or big international NGO; ENGO is short for Environmental NGO, such as Global 2000; GONGOs are government-operated NGOs—technically, a contradiction in terms, but which may characterize organizations set up by governments to qualify for outside aid or promote their interests. There are also QUANGOs, or quasi-autonomous NGOs such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which, again, may include some government entities that are deemed to be the "most broadly representative" standardization body of a nation. Finally, there are TANGOs, or NGOs characterized by the technical assistance they offer, and GROs, or grass roots organizations, which in some countries may be simply the term given to NGOs.
The typology used by the World Bank and other international financial agencies such as the Asian Development Bank classifies NGOs as operational and advocacy. The primary purpose of operational NGOs is to provide relief in the form of labor, managerial expertise, products or equipment in development-related projects. Oxfam, for example, concerned with poverty alleviation, might provide equipment and skills to find food and clean drinking water. In contrast, the primary purpose of advocacy NGOs is to defend or promote a specific cause.
Therefore, some NGOs attempt to solve perceived problems directly, such as by building low-income housing or establishing schools. Others attempt to pressure—through lobbying, demonstrations, economic boycotts, propaganda and other means—the government and/or private market into undertaking solutions or at least reforms. In still other cases, NGOs may serve as consultants to both government and business. An example of the latter is the Third World Network, which has a consultative status with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The number of international consultative NGOs has grown manifold; in 1946, only 41 NGOs had consultative status with the ECOSOC; by 2008, this number had risen to 3,187.
Regardless of their classification, NGOs' interests are encyclopedic. They include projects or reforms pertaining to clean water and related urban and rural sanitation issues, transportation, power, public health, mining, and the environment. They are also active in education, agriculture, peace and human rights, among innumerable others.
Although sometimes referred to as voluntary organizations, NGOs often utilize paid staff as well. According to one source, the international NGO sector employed 39.5 million people in 2003.
Large NGOs may have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The budget of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), for example, was over US$540 million in 1999. Financing such large budgets demands significant fundraising efforts. Major sources of NGO funding include the sale of goods and services; grants from international institutions, national governments, foundations and corporations; and private donations, often in the form of membership dues.
Although domestic NGOs are subject to the laws of their respective countries, international NGOs are not subject to international law, as are states. An exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is subject to certain specific matters, mainly relating to the Geneva Convention.
The Council of Europe in Strasbourg drafted the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organizations in 1986. That document 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.
In recent years, many large corporations have increased their corporate social responsibility departments because it is good for business to enhance their public image, and in an attempt to preempt NGO campaigns against certain corporate practices. In some cases, as well, corporations are virtually forced to accommodate NGO demands. "In developing countries, businesses that were used to managing governmental relationships personally now find that they have to contend with large and (comparatively) rich NGOs that can bring pressure to bear on their local governments via influence with donor-country governments that control substantial amounts of revenue coming into the country. Logging rights can no longer be secured over an amicable dinner at the club; now foreign NGOs are able to impinge on business dealings in ways that were unimaginable only a few years before."
Likewise, governments often find it more worthwhile to cooperate with NGOs than to resist them, even in times of war. In December 2007, for example, the U.S. Department of Defense Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs 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.
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