The Basics of Non-Governmental Organizations

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NGO stands for "non-governmental organization" and its function can vary widely from service organizations to human-rights advocacy and relief groups. Defined as "an international organization that is not founded by an international treaty" by the United Nations, NGOs work to benefit communities from the local to international levels.

NGOs not only serve as checks-and-balances for government and governmental watchdogs but are crucial cogs in wider governmental initiatives such as relief response to a natural disaster. Without NGOs' long history of rallying communities and creating initiatives around the world, famine, poverty, and disease would be much bigger issues for the world than they already are.

The First NGO

In 1945, the United Nations was first created to act as an intergovernmental agency — that is an agency that mediates between multiple governments. To allow certain international interest groups and non-state agencies to attend the meetings of these powers and ensure an appropriate checks-and-balances system was in place, the U.N. established the term to define them as characteristically non-government.

However, the first international non-government organizations, by this definition, dated back well into the 18th century. By 1904, there were over 1000 established NGOs in the world fighting internationally for everything from the liberation of women and enslaved persons to disarmament.

Rapid globalization led to the quick expansion of the need for these non-government organizations as shared interests between nationalities often overlooked human and environmental rights in favor of profits and power. Recently, even oversight with U.N. initiatives has given rise to an increased need for more humanitarian NGOs in order to compensate for missed opportunities.

Types of NGOs

Non-governmental organizations can be broken down into eight different types within two quantifiers: orientation and level of operation — which have further been delineated into quite an extensive list of acronyms.

In a charitable orientation of an NGO, investors acting as parents — with little input from those benefitting — help initiate activities that meet the basic needs of the poor. Similarly, service orientation involves activities that send in a charitable person to provide family planning, health, and education services to those in need but require their participation in order to be effective.

Conversely, participatory orientation focuses on community involvement in solving their own problems by means of facilitating the planning and implementation of restoring and meeting the needs of that community. Going one step further, the final orientation, empowering orientation, directs activities that provide tools for communities to understand the socio-economic and political factors affecting them and how to utilize their resources to control their own lives.

Non-government organizations can also be broken down by their level of operation — from hyper-localized groups to international advocacy campaigns. In Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), the initiatives focus on smaller, local communities while in City-Wide Organizations (CWOs), organizations like chambers of commerce and coalitions for businesses band together to solve problems that affect entire cities. National NGOs (NGOs) like the YMCA and NRA focus on activism that benefits people across the country while International NGOs (INGOs) like Save the Children and the Rockefeller Foundation act on behalf of the entire world.

These designations, along with several more-specific quantifiers, help international government organizations and local citizens alike determine the intent of these organizations. After all, not all NGOs are supporting good causes — Fortunately, however, most are.

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Johnson, Bridget. "The Basics of Non-Governmental Organizations." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Johnson, Bridget. (2020, August 29). The Basics of Non-Governmental Organizations. Retrieved from Johnson, Bridget. "The Basics of Non-Governmental Organizations." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).