Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Carolyn Stephenson

January 2005

What are Nongovernmental Organizations?

Additional insights into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are generally accepted to be organizations which have not been established by governments or agreements among governments. According to Harold Jacobson, author of one of the established texts in international organization, NGOs, like intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), have regularly scheduled meetings of their members' representatives, specified decision-making procedures, and a permanent staff.[1] Their members are usually individuals and private associations, rather than states, and they may be formally established networks of other organizations. A wide variety of NGOs function in intractable conflicts. These include conflict resolution NGOs, as well as those in humanitarian assistance, development, human rights, peacebuilding, and other areas.

While the term "NGOs" is sometimes used interchangeably with "grassroots organizations," "social movements," "major groups," and "civil society," NGOs are not the same as any of these. Grassroots organizations are generally locally organized groups of individuals which have spring up to empower their members and take action on particular issues of concern to them. Some NGOs are grassroots organizations. But many are not. Social movements are broader and more diffuse than organizations; a social movement encompasses a broad segment of society which is interested in fomenting or resisting social change in some particular issue--area, such as disarmament, environmental, civil rights, or women's movements.[2] A social movement may include NGOs and grassroots organizations. "Major groups" is a term coined at the time of the United Nations 1992 Rio "Earth Summit" as a part of Agenda 21 to encompass the societal sectors which were expected to play roles, in addition to nation-states and intergovernmental organizations, in environment and development. NGOs are identified as one of these sectors, but NGOs overlap with many of the other sectors; there are women's NGOs, farmers' NGOs, labor NGOs, and business NGOs, among others.[3] Finally "civil society" is a term that became popularized at the end of the Cold War to describe what appeared to have been missing in state-dominated societies, broad societal participation in and concern for governance, but not necessarily government. Civil society is thought to be the necessary ingredient for democratic governance to arise. NGOs are one part of civil society.

While it is often argued that NGOs are the voice of the people, representing grassroots democracy, a counter argument is made that NGOs have tended to reinforce, rather than counter, existing power structures, having members and headquarters that are primarily in the rich northern countries.[4] Some also believe that NGO decision-making does not provide for responsible, democratic representation or accountability.

NGOs themselves can be local, national, or international. Sometimes international NGOs are referred to as INGOs. Historically, most NGOs accredited to the UN Economic and Social Council have been international, but contrary to the popular wisdom, even the first group of NGOs accredited to ECOSOC in the 1940s included some national NGOs.

Nongovernmental organizations are not a homogenous group. The long list of acronyms that has accumulated around NGOs can be used to illustrate this. People speak of NGOs, INGOs (international NGOs), BINGOs (business international NGOs), RINGOs (religious international NGOs), ENGOs (environmental NGOs), GONGOs (government-operated NGOs -- which may have been set up by governments to look like NGOs in order to qualify for outside aid), QUANGOs (quasi-nongovernmental organizations -- i.e. those that are at least partially created or supported by states), and many others.

While some other groups are nongovernmental, they are not usually included under the term NGO. The term usually explicitly excludes for-profit corporations, and private contractors, and multinational corporations (MNCs), although associations formed by MNCs, such as the International Chamber of Commerce, are considered NGOs. Similarly, political parties, liberation movements, and terrorist organizations are not usually considered NGOs. Recently, however, some from outside the field of international organization, especially military writers, have begun to refer to terrorist movements as NGOs, some would say in order to discredit NGOs. Peter Willetts, an authority on NGOs, argues in defining NGOs that "a commitment to non-violence is the best respected of the principles defining an NGO."[5]

Why do Non-Governmental Organizations Matter?

In the early 1990s there began to be a recognition of the importance of NGOs. NGOs were found to have closer ties to on-the-ground realities in developing countries and, perhaps more important, to be able to deliver development aid considerably more cheaply than states or intergovernmental organizations.

As the UN Secretary-General's 1998 report stated, "In terms of net transfers, non-governmental organizations collectively constitute the second largest source of development assistance".[6] An article in the New York Times just before the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 cited development successes by NGOs such as the Trickle-Up Program, and stressed their low costs and high impact.[7] NGOs also began to play a role in humanitarian assistance in conjunction with peacekeeping missions. They began to be referred to increasingly in UN resolutions, and some even began to meet informally with members of the UN Security Council to coordinate actions in emergency situations.

Both the number of nongovernmental organizations and their involvement in national and international policy-making have increased tremendously over the last half century and especially the last several decades. At the time of the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 there were 2865 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); by 1990 that number had increased to 13,591.[8] This compared to 3443 international intergovernmental organizations and roughly 200 nation-states. But, more important, in the 1990s there began to be a recognition of the import of the NGO role. In human rights, development, environment, and even disarmament, NGOs had begun to be recognized for their role in influencing public policy at the UN and on-the-ground in nation-states.[9]

NGOs also matter in intractable conflicts. NGOs play a variety of both positive and negative roles, from conflict resolvers doing Track II diplomacy, to development aid and humanitarian assistance, which can exacerbate or reduce conflict, to human rights advocacy, to election monitoring, to disarmament and environment work. Mary Anderson has stressed the importance of both development aid and conflict resolution organizations being sure, first of all, to do no harm.[10]

NGOs and the United Nations

NGOs have come to have an important role in the United Nations system.

Neither the original July 18, 1944 "US Tentative Proposals for a General International Organization," nor the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals put forth by the four major powers (the US, UK, Soviet Union, and China) October 7, 1944, contained any reference to the role of non-governmental organizations, but only to what would become the specialized agencies of the UN system.[11]

However, the US Delegation to the San Francisco Conference included representatives of 42 national organizations as Consultants. These included organizations in the fields of labor, law, agriculture, business, and education, plus women's, church, veterans', and civic organizations. A recommendation by these consultants for a paragraph providing for consultation between NGOs and ECOSOC played into the international dynamics over the representation of international labor unions, and led to the inclusion of Article 71 of the Charter, which allowed for NGOs which said:[12]

The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned.

By the time of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the "Earth Summit" in 1992, some 1420 NGOs were accredited to attend the Rio conference itself, while perhaps 25,000 NGO participants from 9,000 NGOs attended the parallel NGO Global Forum (set up for those NGOs that were interested in, but not accredited to attend the UN Summit itself).


Table 1:
Number of non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council

Year General Special Roster Total
1948 7 32 2 41
1968 12 143 222 377
1991 41 354 533 928
1993 42 376 560 978
1995 69 436 563 1,068
1996 81 499 646 1,126
1997 88 602 666 1,356
Source: UN/ECOSOC. "Work of the Non-Governmental Organizations Section of the Secretariat, Report of the Secretary-General." 8 May 1998 (E/1998/43).

With this increase in interest in consultative status, in 1993 ECOSOC requested a general review of NGO consultative arrangements in order to improve the coherency of rules for NGO participation in UN conferences, as well as the practical arrangements of both the Committee on NGOs and the NGO Section of the Secretariat.[13] On July 25, 1996 the 49th plenary meeting of ECOSOC approved a Resolution 1996/31, updating the arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations. Similar to the two previous resolutions, it provided for general consultative status (organizations concerned with most of the activities of the Council and broadly representative of populations in a large number of countries), special consultative status (internationally known organizations with special competence in a few of the fields of activity of the Council), and roster status (other useful organizations), and allocated different rights to them in attending meetings, speaking, and receiving documents, among others.[14]

ECOSOC, along with the General Assembly and the Secretary-General wrestled with the question of NGO involvement in the UN system throughout the 90s and early 2000s.

Finally, in June 2004, the Secretary-General's Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships issued its report, arguing that the UN should

  • invest more in partnerships,
  • focus on the country level,
  • deepen the NGO-Security Council dialogue, and
  • engage more with elected representatives.

It also suggested a single accreditation process under the General Assembly and a new Under-Secretary-General in charge of a new Office of Constituency Engagement and Partnerships. This office would include not only NGOs and civil society, but elected representatives, business, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.[15] NGO reactions to these proposals varied greatly, from interest in the possibility of more General Assembly access, to fear that this was simply a move to increase the role of business in the UN system.

NGO Action, in and Around the UN, and in the Field

Nongovernmental organizations have used their consultative status at the UN to affect intractable conflict in many ways. They have organized to get the General Assembly and other UN organs to pass resolutions on disarmament, on development, on human rights, and on other subjects related to the underlying sources of conflicts. They have helped to develop new UN institutions and treaties. They have been the instigators of putting new issues on the UN agenda, issues like environment, women's rights, and child soldiers. They have gotten UN bodies to put questions of armament and disarmament before the World Court, and have been important in the development of the International Criminal Court. They have delivered humanitarian assistance and aided refugees, and have worked on development in societies that have recently experienced violent conflict.

For example, The World Court Project, begun in New Zealand in 1986, was largely responsible for getting the World Health Organization and the General Assembly to ask the advisory opinion of the World Court on the legality of nuclear weapons. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which had received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its work on nuclear weapons, sponsored a resolution at its World Congress in 1988. The project spread to the World Congress of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), and to other states, with the aid of newsletter coverage by the Parliamentarians for Global Action.

Using Article 66 of the Charter, which allows other organs, in addition to the UN General Assembly, to request World Court advisory opinions, the IPPNW convinced the World Health Organization to adopt a resolution on the subject on May 14, 1993.[16] After the case went to the Court in September 1993, IALANA and IPPNW drafted model submissions, which were used by some states. The World Court Registrar received citizen delegations with documents and petitions in 1994 and 1995.

Nuclear weapons states and others argued that, not WHO, but the UN General Assembly, was the correct venue for such a question. The Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, the US affiliate of IALANA, pushed for the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly First Committee. Having achieved the support of the Non-Aligned Movement, the resolution was adopted 18 November 1994. In December 1994 the resolution was adopted by the General Assembly. Within days the case arrived at the World Court, who decided to consider the WHO and General Assembly questions separately but simultaneously. The World Court delivered its decision on July 8, 1996, finding threat or use of nuclear weapons contrary to the law of armed conflict, and in particular international humanitarian law, but not concluding in the case of self-defense.

In this case NGOs used access through states and through consultative status with ECOSOC, coupled with legal expertise and social movement organizing, to obtain a result from the International Court of Justice that powerful nuclear states had opposed. This pattern was echoed in several other cases outside the realm of economic and social issues. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly indicated how important the role of NGOs has been with respect to the development of the International Criminal Court and the 1997 land mines treaty.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines so successfully mobilized both states and other NGOs in its network that the Ottawa Convention was signed in December 1997 by a total of 122 governments. In September 1998, Burkina Faso became the 40th country to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty, triggering its entry into force in March 1999, record time for an international treaty. The Ottawa Process launched in October 1996 and concluding with the Convention's opening for signature, won Jody Williams and the ICBL the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. It was a unique cooperation between a core group of likeminded governments and the ICBL NGOs, developed in a series of meetings in Vienna, Bonn, Brussels and Oslo over the course of 1997, outside the UN system, and relying on voting, rather than consensus. The ICBL participated in discussions and negotiations inside, while outside it worked with the media, and raised public awareness, and networked with other NGOs to lobby governments.

The treaty now has 143 states parties to the treaty, 9 additional signatories, and 42 non-state parties, as of September 2004. NGOs continue to encourage signature and ratification of the treaty and monitor compliance

Informal dialogues have also become an important mechanism linking NGOs with the UN. Beginning early in 1995 Jim Paul of the Global Policy Forum and others began to organize the NGO Working Group on the Security Council. This intensified as coordination of humanitarian aid and security questions in complex emergencies led to discussion between Security Council members and certain humanitarian organizations, especially focusing on Africa in 1997. The roughly 30 NGOs representatives form a closed group including six religious NGOs, six human rights NGOs, and a number of humanitarian assistance and development NGOs, as well as two women's groups and others such as a representative of the International Peace Academy, Lawyer's Committee for Nuclear Policy, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, the UN Foundation, World Federalist Movement, and the Hague Appeal for Peace. They have met increasingly, privately and off-the-record, with members of the Security Council, providing field information to members of the Council from crisis areas, as well as providing a link to the public.[17] Until recently, the elected head of the group was the representative of the Quaker United Nations Office, a very small but effective NGO which facilitates delegates' work at the UN and often holds off-the-record dialogues of its own on topics ranging from environmental negotiations to conflicts between divided states. Quakers and Mennonites, both members of the NGO working group, have also done mediation work for a very long time in intractable conflict areas around the world.

Many other NGOs have also worked directly in conflict resolution efforts in the field. The Pugwash and Dartmouth Conferences have been active over many decades, especially on arms control issues and across Cold War boundaries. The Community of Sant'Egidio was important in working in complementary fashion with governments negotiating peace in Mozambique.

The International Crisis Group has monitored for signs of genocide, among its other activities. Search for Common Ground has run dialogues, supported women's peace groups in Burundi, funded radio stations to provide a peace voice.[18] International Alert and the Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER) and many other NGOs worked to develop early warning of conflicts turning violent. Women's groups have also been significant, with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom working on disarmament issues at the UN in Geneva for decades, and in New York being one of the primary groups to work with the Security Council on the development of Resolution 1325 in 2000, on the involvement of women in armed conflict and in peace negotiations.

The roles of NGOs in intractable conflict are multiple, from direct conflict resolution, Track Two diplomacy, and mediation in crisis and long-term conflict areas, to assistance in monitoring elections, to delivery of humanitarian assistance and development aid, to advocacy of human rights and justice, to lobbying governments to develop the long-term conditions which promote international peace and security. Their roles are often, but not always, positive, but they are not usually the primary players in any of these arenas. But without these NGOs, many of the accomplishments of states and international organizations would not have been possible.

[1]Harold K. Jacobson. 1984. Networks of Interdependence: International Organizations and the Global Political System. Second edition. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 4-10.

[2] For definition and discussion of these and other social movements see Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele (eds.), 1997, Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

[3] Section 3, Chapters 23-32, "Strengthening the Role of Major Groups," includes women, children and youth, indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technological community, and farmers. See United Nations Department of Public Information, Earth Summit Agenda 21: the United Nations Programme of Action from Rio. New York: UN DPI/1344, April 1993, pp. 219-245.

[4] See for example Elise Boulding, 1977, Women in the Twentieth Century World. New York: John Wiley, pp. 165-218, for the argument that NGOs represent the voice of the people in a landscape of money and power.

[5] Peter Willetts. "Non-Governmental Organizations," Article in UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Sciences.


[6] Report of the Secretary-General: Arrangements and practices for the interaction of non-governmental organizations in all activities of the United Nations system. A/53/170 (10 July 1998)

[7] Paul Lewis, "Fixing World Crises Isn't Just a Job for Diplomats," New York Times, April 5, 1992, section 4, p 4.

[8] Compiled by author from Yearbook of International Organizations, 1990-91. Table 4, pp. 1665-68.

[9] One of the first major news articles on NGOs at the UN was Paul Lewis, "Fixing World Crises Isn't Just a Job for Diplomats," New York Times, April 5, 1992, section 4, p. 4, which looked at NGOs in the context of the UNCED PrepCom.

[10] Mary Anderson. Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace - or War. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.

[11] See first text in U.S. Department of State, Postwar Foreign Policy Preparation, 1939-1945, Publication 3580 (February 1950) Appendix 38, pp. 595-606.

See second text in "Dumbarton Oaks Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization," in U.S. Department of State, Dumbarton Oaks Documents on International Organization, Publication 2257 (1945), pp 5-16.

[12]For more detailed discussion of the early stages of NGO consultative status in the UN, see Carolyn M. Stephenson, "NGOs and the Principal Organs of the United Nations," in Paul Taylor and A.J.R. Groom (eds.), The United Nations at the Millennium: The Principal Organs. (London: Continuum, 2000), 273-276.

[13] ECOSOC Resolution 1993/80, 30 July 1993.

[14] For more detail on the further development of UN-NGO relations, see Stephenson, 276-294.

[15] Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships, June 21, 2004.


[17] Global Policy Forum, NGO Working Group on the Security Council Information Statement July 2003.

[18] Herding Cats

Use the following to cite this article:
Stephenson, Carolyn . "Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2005 <>.

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