Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

The World Bank defines NGOs as “private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.” NGOs are non-profit organizations independent from government and are usually value-based groups which depend, in whole or in part, on donations and voluntary service. The term NGO came into popular usage at the end of the Second World War, as the United Nations sought to differentiate between inter-governmental specialized agencies and private organizations.

The first international NGO was the Anti-Slavery Society (1839). Other early NGOs grew out of wars, including the Red Cross in the1850s; Save the Children after World War I; and Oxfam and CARE after World War II. Some well-know NGOs include Médecins Sans Frontières (medicine without border), Amnesty International, and World Vision. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now the world’s biggest NGO, with an endowment of $28.8 billion.

Today, some NGOs prefer the term Private Voluntary Organization (PVO), Private Development Organization (PDO), Civil Society Organization (CDO), Community Based Organization (CBO), or Environment and Development Organization (EDO). According to P. J. Simmons, the ultimate goals of non-governmental organizations are to “improve understanding; influence agendas; influence policies; implement policies; and to solve problems absent adequate government action. And they do so through advocacy, information gathering and analysis; information dissemination; generation of ideas and recommendations; monitoring and watchdog role; service delivery; mediation and facilitation; and financing and grant making. NGOs operate at the community level and also at the national, regional, sub-national and international level”

Structure and Types of NGOs

According to Peter Wiletts the structures of NGOs vary considerably. They can be “global hierarchies, with either a relatively strong central authority or a more loose federal arrangement. Alternatively, they may be based in a single country and operate transnationally. With the improvement in communications, more locally-based groups have become active at the national or even the global level. The classic model of an NGO is of a membership organization, co-coordinated in a geographically-defined hierarchy with individuals working in local groups, which co-ordinate in provinces and then has a headquarters in the capital city for the country as a whole.”

The major types of non-governmental organizations, according to J. Clark, are: (1) Relief and Welfare Agencies such as the Catholic Relief Services; (2) Technical Innovation Organizations like the Intermediate Technology Development Group; (3) Public Service Contractors, i.e., the Emergency Social Fund in Bolivia; (4) Popular Development Agencies that deals with self-help projects, i.e. OXFAM; (5) Grassroots Development Agencies like the Self Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, India; and the Advocacy Groups and Networks, i.e. Freedom From Debt Coalition and the Health Action International which campaigns for reforms in the marketing of pharmaceuticals.

The Rise of NGOs

Several factors gave rise to non-governmental organizations in the twentieth century, including:

  • Globalization (the integration and interconnectedness of systems and institutions)
  • Reaction to the failings and shortcomings of international treaties and the Bretton Wood Institutions (WTO, WB and the IMF)
  • Failure of governments to create networks of grassroots organizations in rural areas – cooperative and community development groups
  • The end of the Cold War made it easier for NGOs to operate
  • Communications advances, especially the Internet, have helped create new global communities and bonds between like-minded people across state boundaries
  • Increased resources, growing professionalism and more employment opportunities in NGOs
  • The rise of democracy in Africa and new issues like human rights, environmental degradation and gender equality came to the forefront of public consciousness
  • The shrinking of the nation-state, and Privatization
  • Poverty and vacuum in the financing of social development/community development programs

NGOs: Strengths and Weaknesses

Because the nature and quality of individual NGOs varies greatly, it is extremely difficult to make generalizations about the sector as a whole. Despite this diversity, some specific strength generally associated with the NGO sector includes:

  • strong grassroots links;
  • field-based development expertise;
  • the ability to innovate and adapt;
  • process-oriented approach to development;
  • participatory methodologies and tools;
  • long-term commitment and emphasis on sustainability; and
  • cost-effectiveness.

The most commonly identified weaknesses of the sector include:

  • limited financial and management expertise;
  • limited institutional capacity;
  • low levels of self-sustainability;
  • isolation/lack of inter-organizational communication and/or coordination;
  • small scale interventions; and
  • lack of understanding of the broader social or economic context.

Criticism of NGOs

There has also been criticism on the use of the funding and other monies that NGOs have received or raised. Criticisms range from pointing out that only small percentages go to people in need that a lot goes to recover costs, and some even have been used to pay very high salaries of the people at the top. Ayodele J. Langley also points to other criticisms:

  1. that they are not accountable to host governments
  2. that they do not develop local NGO/Civil Society capacity for effective mobility
  3. that NGOs create dependency and that they are sometimes confrontational
  4. they are increasingly bureaucratic and losing grassroots character
  5. most are too career-oriented
  6. preaches participatory methods but rarely involve host government in their activities
  7. they are selective in the country they go and so there is proliferation certain countries; and
  8. they channel funds in secrecy


NOTE: The information above is culled from several sources. Interested parties may contact me for sources used for this article:

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