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While Common Parlance now, the term nongovernmental organization (NGO) was not officially coined until 1945 when the United Nation’s (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) clarified its relationship with intergovernmental specialized agencies and international private organizations in the UN Charter. ECOSOC decided that an “international NGO” (INGO) was “any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty.” The UN also determined that NGOs should be given suitable arrangements to be consulted on key issues. The status of NGOs was confirmed in the three conventions arising from the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
It is important to distinguish between NGOs and not-for-profit agencies. Unlike NGOs-which tend to emerge specifically to address certain issues, offer specific services, or advance a cause-nonprofit agencies may also include other organizations, such as museums, universities, and hospitals, service-
based organizations that are not necessarily independent of government or campaigning for a cause. An NGO should not be mistaken as a social movement per se, despite the fact that it may perform an important functional role within such movements.
The term nongovernmental organization implies independence from government, which often enables NGOs to promote, or expose, activities and events in ways a government cannot. NGOs rely heavily on fundraising, grants, and sponsorships to fund their activities. To some NGOs it is important to maintain financial independence from government at all times; Greenpeace does not accept donations from governments or corporations but relies on contributions from individual supporters and foundation grants. Nonetheless, many NGOs depend in part on government funding. For example, the British government and the European Union donated a quarter of Oxfam’s budget (U.S. $162 million) for famine relief in 1998. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) operates with almost 50 percent of its budget coming from government sources.
There are thousands of active NGO organizations operating at local to international scales. According to one estimate, some 37,000 organizations now qualify as international NGOs (with programs and affiliates in a number of countries), up from less than 400 a century ago. Active international organizations include the Red Cross, CARE, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Most NGOs operate within a single country and often function within a purely local setting. Many are essentially neighborhood groups established to promote local issues such as community improvement or street safety.
The 2002 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report notes that nearly one-fifth of the world’s NGOs were formed in the 1990s. A 1995 United Nations report found that the United States has an estimated 2 million NGOs, Russia has 65,000 NGOs, and that in countries such as Kenya, up to 240 new NGOs come into existence every year. NGOs are significant employers. In 1995, CONCERN, which is an international NGO campaigning against poverty, employed 174 expatriates and over 5,000 national staff across ten developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Haiti.
NGOs have wide scope and appeal. Lesser-known acronyms for the different types of NGOs include: INGO: International NGO; BINGO: Business NGO; RINGO: Religious NGO; QANGO: Quasi Autonomous NGO; and ENGO: Environment NGO. Religious NGOs include Caritas International, the World Jewish Congress, and the International Muslim Union; examples of political NGOs include the Inter-parliamentary Union and Socialist International. There are active cultural groups as well, such as International PEN, a literary organization. The activities of Amnesty International in the human rights field, as well as those of Greenpeace in the field of environmental protection, are well known. Many NGOs, such as the WWF and Friends of the Earth (FoE), investigate issues that affect human and environmental welfare, and often the nexus between the two.
In the human rights and environmental field, NGOs have served as agents of change and forces for the public good for the protection of human and environmental welfare. Amnesty International and WWF, while international NGOs, operate by working locally to achieve specific goals in specific regions. FoE recognizes that human rights and social justice and environmental issues are intertwined and need to be addressed together. FoE operates as a federation of autonomous environmental organizations from all over the world, and has a membership of 1.5 million in 70 countries. While FoE campaigns on many issues, it is currently focusing on climate change, which it identifies as the biggest environmental threat to the planet.
While NGO activity is often thought of as picketing, protests, and demonstrations, and some NGOs, such as Greenpeace, do employ spectacular and unilateral actions in order to broadcast their message, many NGOs focus on education, research, or diplomatic work to achieve their goals. NGOs are active on committees, in meetings, and in undertaking detailed studies that help inform and promote policy debate. For example, Earthwatch promotes community involvement and awareness of environmental issues with field research trips.
NGO collaboration, lobbying, and public awareness-building methods, including the effective use of media and scientific research, helped ensure that the Australian Government rezoned the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area to protect 33 percent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) in a network of no-fishing sea sanctuaries, or “green zones.” This was a major achievement, as previously only 4.5 percent of the GBRMP was fully protected from fishing.
NGOs are powerful players in the international policy arena and leverage their access to policy makers to good effect. The NGO-led International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), first initiated in 1992, laid the groundwork for the UN 1997 International Mine Ban Treaty. Over 140 countries throughout the world have since ratified the treaty. Scholars have also argued that NGOs were “particularly effective in hardening the European Union’s position on genetically modified food,” and that NGOs had a major influence on the WTO meeting in Seattle by affecting the negotiating positions of governments. The formation of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (1997) is often credited to the pressure brought to bear on governments by environmental NGOs. Many argue that NGOs have been successful in ensuring that policy debate is now framed in environmental terms and have changed the status of environmental issues from being the domain of a politicized few to being in the general interest of civil society.
Some NGOs are developing partnerships with industry. The Marine Stewardship Council initiative has brought together the WWF and the multinational company Unilever PLC, one of the world’s biggest buyers of frozen fish. Together they have worked to address the global issues of overfishing, and have developed an eco-certification scheme for major fisheries. Over 40 fisheries are part of the MSC program, which constitutes about 3 million tons of seafood. Fourteen of these fisheries, such as the Pacific cod fishery, are now certified by the MSC as having attained a sustainable eco-standard.
The NGO movement, however, has significant critics. Many question the accountability and effectiveness of NGOs. For example, World Vision’s coordination of the relief effort for countries impacted by the December 26, 2004, tsunami in Southeast Asia has been attacked by critics arguing that the millions of dollars of donated monies were not reaching the intended victims.
Many NGOs working in developing countries are partly funded by their own government and have been criticized as being a front for foreign government policy. Critics argue that this makes NGOs accountable to their funders, not the people they work with. This issue has often been characterized within a debate about “Northern” (i.e., Western) versus “Southern” (developing world) NGOs. For example, many African governments see NGOs from Western countries as Trojan Horses, designed to promote neo-colonialist agendas.
Many developing countries also resent the fact that international NGOs will enter their countries and establish programs, rather than funding local NGO groups to undertake the same work. As such, the arrival of NGOs can be perceived to actually deny local individuals, councils, and industries of employment-and other opportunities that now flow to and from the foreign NGO-while creating upheaval in local power relations in culturally inappropriate ways. Some countries such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and the Sudan have gone so far as to pass laws that effectively limit the operations of foreignfunded NGOs within their borders.
In some cases, NGOs have been accused of ignoring the effects of their activities on other areas. For example, environmental NGO work can focus on biodiversity imperatives at the expense of cultural heritage or social justice needs. In Australia, the biodiversity work of environmental NGOs has been called blinkered in relation to cultural heritage priorities, constituting another form of indigenous dispossession.
NGO dependence on donors also exposes them to criticisms that they are not able to be independent, and thus may be inappropriately partisan. CARE International came under attack for not acting to oppose the war in Iraq, with critics claiming this was due to CARE’s dependence on funding from the U.S. government. Oxfam has been accused of diluting its campaign against poverty in Africa as a result of being too close to the British government.
Overall, while NGOs rarely have formal powers within international or local decision-making structures, they have successfully advanced many human rights, social justice, and environmental agendas. This has included promoting and developing core environmental agreements and policies; strengthening the rights of women, children, and the disabled; advancing indigenous rights; establishing programs to address health, education, and poverty; and significant measures in the area of disarmament and peace negotiations.
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