From Maxwell Perspective...

It’s an NGO World . . . and we’re all living in it

They’re not always easy to define, but NGOs — large nonprofit organizations providing humanitarian aid, economic development, disaster relief, and a host of other services around the globe — are increasingly important players on the international scene.

From the blog of Dr. Jeanne Cabeza, a San Diego internist and volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, Port au Prince, Haiti, January 12, 2010:

“I thought I was going to die when the earth shook. I was at the Doctors Without Borders physical rehab center in Port-au-Prince. Five minutes after the quake, people were banging on our door in need of help. Within a few hours, there were hundreds of people waiting for surgery.”

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There were five of them — three doctors, a nurse, and a janitor — who helped with bandages. And they worked all night, scarcely aware of the din in the background — the shouts of rescuers and victims, the relentless pounding of jackhammers boring into rubble. Whenever a victim emerged alive, they could hear victims and rescuers cry: “Long live the Red Cross!”

“There’s no way we could have reached 700 million people without a network of a thousand NGOs.”
— Professor Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme
During these earliest hours of terror, the first responders were members of private organizations known as non-governmental organizations (or “NGOs”) that had established a presence in Haiti before the catastrophe. Within hours, Catholic Relief Services was organizing a system for distributing food and medicine. Red Cross organizations were distributing supplies to the hospitals left standing, and providing the forensic expertise needed to identify the dead. Within days, an airlift brought many more volunteers — thousands of professionals and skilled workers representing 140 countries, the United Nations, and NGOs from around the world. For the NGOs, Haiti was not their first epic mission, nor will it be their last. This is what they do — prepare for and perform vital services across the entire range of human activity.

As executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme from 1992 to 2002, Catherine Bertini, professor of public administration and chair of Maxwell’s International Relations Program, coordinated efforts to end famine in North Korea, avert starvation in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, and ensure food supplies during the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. “In responding to all of these challenges,” Bertini says, “WFP worked in close partnership with NGOs like CARE and Save the Children. We established strategy, priorities, and structure, while they performed the vital food distribution services. There’s no way we could have reached 700 million people in that decade without a network of a thousand NGOs.” 

Since then, NGOs have emerged as key players in international affairs. They are seen as a godsend by those they assist, and agents of good will by publics worldwide. Governments sometimes view them as allies, sometimes as opponents.

NGOs are the subject of a new and growing interest in the academic community, as evidenced by Maxwell’s Transnational NGO Initiative. And they hold a strong and growing appeal for career seekers who crave engagement with the world and the chance to make a difference.



A Varied and Conflicted Universe

NGOs reflect the impulse and effort of like-minded individuals to join together to advance their values, beliefs, and interests. Before World War II, they were known as voluntary associations, charities, and leagues, and they spearheaded great social movements, including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They were first designated “non-governmental organizations” in 1945, in the charter of the United Nations, to distinguish them from governments, intergovernmental organizations, and for-profit groups.

“Their values represent the full spectrum of ideologies.”
— Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, TNGO Initiative
Some NGOs operate within a single nation. Others are active across national boundaries. When their activities are confined to the United States, they are usually called nonprofits or not-for-profits, but may also be identified as interest groups or private voluntary associations. Familiar examples, mostly known by their acronyms, include AARP, ACLU, AMA, the March of Dimes, and VFW. When NGOs operate across international boundaries, they are known in academic circles as transnational NGOs — or, to most people, simply NGOs. Examples are Amnesty International, Engineers Without Borders, Rotary International, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Salvation Army, and the World Council of Churches.

The large majority of NGOs solicit individual donations (while only a few then involve donors, or “members” in organizational decision making). Most transnational NGOs rely on a hierarchical, professionally organized center, with national sections and country offices enjoying varied levels of autonomy and influence on the overall organization. Funding sources also vary greatly across sectors. While many humanitarian relief and development NGOs regularly accept government funds, the work of human rights or other advocacy groups could be compromised if they accepted financial support from governments or corporations.

The NGO universe is diverse by any measure. “Their activities embrace everything from prenatal care to treaty-making,” says Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, the director for education and practitioner engagement of the Moynihan Institute’s TNGO Initiative. “Their values represent the full spectrum of ideologies, from radical anti-globalism to reactionary white supremicism. There are animosities within the sector. Women’s NGOs oppose religious NGOs on questions of sexual and reproductive behavior. Environment and development NGOs have different perspectives on sustainable development.” It would be impossible, she says, to reduce their perspectives to a single, simple NGO archetype.

There is one feature, however, that all NGOs share: their independence. “They don’t have governments on their boards,” Bertini explains. “This gives them tremendous flexibility. It allows them to undertake projects that governments and other organizations can’t consider, let alone perform. It enables them to work alone or in shifting coalitions with the UN, with governments, and with other NGOs — whoever is right for the task.”



The Limits of Power

NGO_mainAfter the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, globalization proceeded furiously, joining economies and peoples as never before, creating unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Multinational corporations saw their markets double within the decade. NGOs grew exponentially, building on their experience in global operations. “They projected themselves into the everyday lives of people everywhere,” says Steven Lux, adjunct professor of public administration and director of executive education in Maxwell. For 12 years, beginning in 1991, Lux worked throughout Southeast Asia in a variety of NGOs, including Thailand’s largest, the Population and Community Development Association. “The demand for professionals in health, conservation, and development was desperate everywhere,” he says.

In the decades since then, the NGO sector has grown rich, powerful — and essential. “NGOs provide a voice and a means of participation for those whose interests have been neglected or ignored. They empower people,” says Bruno-van Vijfeijken. “When it comes to development, they deliver aid more cost-effectively than states or intergovernmental organizations. While doing so, they develop and pilot alternative models of solutions they share with others. Finally, they provide a means for holding governments, intergovernmental organizations, and corporations accountable for their actions. They are a watchdog with a skill for mobilizing public opinion, a powerful force for human rights and civil liberties.”

Because NGOs represent change, it would be surprising if their activities did not create a backlash. Their globalist agenda helped fuel a virulent anti-globalism movement first seen at a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. Their positions on human rights and environmental issues are flashpoints of controversy for decision makers and the public at large. They are charged with meddling in the domestic affairs of nations.

“It’s obvious that NGOs have become more significant players in world affairs,” asserts Hans Peter Schmitz, associate professor of political science and director of the TNGO Initiative. But Schmitz argues that the power of NGOs is tempered by their difficulty in aggregating many voices into one. “Even NGOs that agree among themselves have a serious problem deciding who will speak for the group, who will sit at the table,” he says, “and this has been an inherent handicap.” As NGOs emerge as opinion leaders within civil society, a talent for aggregation could prove critical in their effort to shape the agenda.



A New Dynamic in Civil Society

Civil society is a relatively new term, used by scholars such as Bruno-van Vijfeijken and Lux to describe the arena of public endeavor that NGOs occupy. Civil society is essentially what’s left of society after subtracting government and for-profit organizations. It is grass-roots and community groups, trade unions, professional associations, faith-based organizations, registered charities, and countless others joined by their values. “Civil society is their space. It’s the free market of ideas,” says Lux. “It’s the arena for argument, collaboration, conflict, and reaching consensus.”

“It’s not enough to lay claim to idealism”
— Chance Briggs ’97 MPA, program director, World Vision International
Within civil society, NGOs coalesce with like-minded groups and strive to frame the debate with those who hold contrary views. They mount sophisticated advocacy campaigns designed to mobilize support for their positions at the grass-roots level. Beyond civil society, they form a bridge with government, not only through their lobbying efforts, but through partnerships with departments and agencies in thousands of projects in the field and at the drawing board. They are a bridge to the private sector, as well. Some conservation NGOs join in projects with corporations, or grant their stamp of approval to corporate policies that meet NGO-established norms. In their interaction with government and the private sector, NGOs are civil society’s most effective voice for globalism, as well as its agent.

Some observers claim to see the frail infrastructure of a global civil society emerging or already in place, largely through the efforts of NGOs. “We can’t speak of  ‘a global civil society’ in the absence of a global state,” says Schmitz. “But we might say there are ‘islands’ of civil society, most striking in international law on human rights. The Convention Against Torture, ratified in 1994, was a breakthrough, followed by conventions on children’s rights, child soldiers, land mines, ‘blood diamonds,’ and others. These high treaties and conventions create a semblance of global governance, as well as mechanisms of change. None of them would exist if not for the efforts of NGOs.”

The genius of NGOs for inventing “mechanisms of change” reflects a broader culture of innovation in which leaders have the autonomy to develop alternative ways of getting things done. It is a culture that provides patient, long-term support for systemic solutions over immediate results. And it is the foundation for a strategy of empowerment with a beginning, middle, and end. As program director for World Vision International, Chance Briggs ’97 MPA is guided by that strategy in his current mission in Mozambique.

“It’s not enough to lay claim to idealism,” Briggs says. “We have to prove our case, measuring results in terms of their intended impact. If we build schools, we have to show what they’ve meant for kids. In performing our mission, we have to develop local leaders who will be able to take ownership. This means we must rethink our self-image. Rather than seeing ourselves as service providers, we should begin seeing ourselves as facilitators, lending a helping hand, empowering local leadership, then moving on.”

Through such visionary yet sure-handed approaches as this, NGOs have proved themselves adept in addressing the many concerns sparked by globalization. Through their example of high performance and achievement, they have found supporters in government and the private sector. They propose to use the leverage they have gained to break political deadlock and shape consensus on global emergencies such as climate change. Their skill as facilitators will be put to the test. It could prove decisive.”

— Tom Raynor

Tom Raynor is a freelance writer based in Syracuse. He holds an MIA from Columbia University.
This article appeared in the fall 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail