International Nongovernmental Organizations

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International Nongovernmental Organizations (INGOs)





International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are not-for-profit voluntary associations operating at the international, transnational, or global level, with members or participants from many countries. They bring together like-minded individuals or associations of individuals to conduct a wide variety of activities across virtually all social domains, from astronomy to football to plant biology to zoo management. Although the best-known INGOs focus on human rights (for example, Amnesty International), the environment (Friends of the Earth), disaster relief (the Red Cross), and the like, most INGOs are found in scientific, technical, business and industry, medical, and professional domains. Sizable numbers are also active in domains such as sports and recreation, development, education, womens rights, and many others. As of 2006, more than 7,000 conventional INGOs were in operation, along with about 20,000 internationally oriented nongovernmental organizations of more limited scope (Union of International Associations 2006).


The earliest modern INGOs appeared toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Examples include the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1839), the Worlds Evangelical Alliance (1846), and the Verein Deutscher Eisenbahnverwaltungen (an association of German railroad companies, 1846). By the 1860s and 1870s new INGOs had been founded in many domains such as ophthalmology, labor, geodesy, international law, dentistry, hotel management, and so on. Hundreds of INGOs were in operation by 1900, and the first compilation of information about INGOs, the initial Annuaire de la vie internationale, listed 374 active organizations in 1909. Many hundreds more, across an expanding range of domains, appeared in the interwar period. Since the postwar period of rapid globalization INGO organizing has soared, with more than a hundred new organizations forming each year.

In the Yearbook of International Organizations, the successor to Annuaire de la vie internationale and the definitive source of information about INGOs, conventional INGOs are defined as (1) federations of INGOs whose members are themselves large INGOs, such as the International Scientific Union and the World Federation of Trade Unions; (2) universal INGOs, with members in at least sixty countries or at least thirty countries on several continents (e.g., International Union Against Cancer, Education International); (3) intercontinental INGOs, with members in many countries on at least two continents (e.g., American Association of Port Authorities, Suzuki Association of the Americas); and (4) regional INGOs, with members in many countries in one continent or region (e.g., European Association for Machine Translation, Pan African Organization for Sustainable Development). A more inclusive set of INGOs includes organizations of many different typesfoundations, research centers, aid and relief organizations, advocacy groups, and so onthat are internationally oriented but are based in or operate from only one or a few countries.

Active conventional INGOs increased from 374 in 1909 to 841 in 1940, to more than 3,000 in 1972, and to more than 7,300 in 2005, with the total for INGOs of all types exceeding 27,000 in 2005 (Union of International Associations 1948). INGO growth has been almost exponential in recent decades. The world wars interrupted INGO formation, but after each war voluntary international nongovernmental organizing immediately recovered. Most of the early INGOs were universal in scope, welcoming members from anywhere in the world and defining their goals in worldwide termsseeking to organize, for example, all the worlds chemical engineers, literary critics, rubber producers, or science librarians. After World War II regional INGOs began to appear in large numbers (Boli and Thomas 1999). The regions at issue include not only geographical areas such as Africa or Latin America, but also cultural regions (e.g., francophone countries or the Islamic world), ecological regions (tropical forest or alpine areas), and so on. In many cases, regional organizations have arisen within the aegis of universal (global) INGOs. For example, the International Organization for Standardization promoted the creation of regional technical standards bodies for Africa, Asia, and other geographical regions, whereas the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing has encouraged the participation of relevant regional organizations (Asian, African, Pan American, South Pacific) as associates in its global endeavors.

Most INGOs founded before World War I were based in Europe or the more developed former European colonies, and INGO participation has always been higher among citizens of developed Western countries than elsewhere. However, in the postwar period the citizens of less developed, non-Western, and non-Christian countries have rapidly increased their participation in and founding of INGOs. This greater inclusiveness has increased dissension and conflict within INGOs, particularly with respect to issues of importance to members from poorer countries. For example, global womens organizations have found it difficult to grapple with issues such as veiling and female genital cutting because some non-Western womens groups embrace such practices and reject Western criticisms of them. Similarly, INGO members from outside the West often insist that social and economic rightsclean water, adequate food, basic health careare more important than the civil and political rights that are usually championed by their Western human rights counterparts.


INGOs are a highly disparate group of transnational organizations engaged in most arenas of human activity. As nonprofit voluntary associations, they rely primarily on donations, member fees, and voluntary labor for their operations. Their goals and activities are neither economic nor political in the usual sense. Instead, they are mostly concerned with information, communication, and practical projects to organize global domains or effect global change (Boli and Thomas 1999). Many are rule-making bodies; for example, some 200 international sports federations make worldwide rules for their respective sports, and hundreds of professional associations make global rules regarding the ethical norms that apply to their members. Some INGOs seek to solve social problems or improve living conditions; others aim to improve technology, advance knowledge, create global standards, protect threatened peoples or species, or induce states, businesses, and individuals to abide by specific norms and principles. Such activities are typical of civil society organizations at the national level, and INGOs are often seen as the core of an increasingly active global civil society (Anheier et al. 2001) that helps temper the power struggles of states and reduce the excesses of large corporations (Florini 2000). Unlike states or corporations, most INGOs focus on the promotion of public goods and the welfare of others. Only a portion of INGOs (a quarter to a third of the total), most of which are business and industry associations, act mainly to promote the interests of their members.

A striking trend in recent decades is the increasing interconnectedness of INGOs. Empowered by advanced communication systems, especially the Internet, INGOs frequently associate in loose networks and coalitions, particularly when tackling broad global problems such as environmental degradation, poverty, human rights violations, and related issues. A prominent example is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of more than 1,400 INGOs that convinced states to establish the 1997 treaty outlawing the manufacture, sale, or use of antipersonnel mines. Many INGOs are only virtual organizations with small staffs supported by tiny budgets, serving as information clearinghouses to help coordinate other INGOs efforts. The most common targets of these networks and coalitions are major intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which are taken to task for promoting neoliberal capitalist policies without regard for social, environmental, and cultural concerns. Large corporations are also frequent targets. INGOs insist that businesses must consider the triple bottom line that adds social and environmental concerns to the traditional focus on profit.

Although INGOs that criticize large companies or global governance organizations such as the IMF and WTO often have antagonistic relationships with their targets, cooperative relationships between INGOs and IGOs are increasingly common (Willets 1996). More than 2,000 INGOs have formal consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and many organizations work with UN agencies on disaster relief, development, education, health, agriculture, and other issues. INGOs are also heavily involved in the operations of technical and regulatory IGOs such as the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Authority. Both conflict and cooperation characterize INGO/IGO relationships at major world summits sponsored by the United Nations on matters such as the environment, human rights, and womens issues. At these summits INGOs gather in the thousands as the voices of global civil society speaking to states about their policies and programs, and conflicts over principles and practicalities are endemic. As increasingly professionalized and expert organizations, however, INGOs are emerging as accepted partners in these global governance fora (Charnovitz 1997).


Because INGOs focus unwelcome attention on the behavior of powerful states, corporations, and intergovernmental organizations, they themselves are subject to attack by their targets. Critics question INGO accountability, representativeness, and transparency. They argue that, unlike political leaders, INGOs are not accountable to identifiable constituencies and their members may not belong to the groups they claim to represent; unlike democratic institutions, INGOs are not entirely open about their internal operations. Critics also charge that INGOs promote irresponsible or unrealistic economic, social, and environmental policies. INGOs respond by invoking broadly legitimated world-cultural principles, standards, and norms as sources of their authority to justify both themselves and their criticisms of powerful global actors. At issue is a global struggle for legitimacy in which INGOs continue to have the edge because they are relatively disinterested and nonpartisan.

Criticism has been especially acute since 2000 regarding large development INGOs operating in the less developed countries. Both the intended beneficiaries of development aid and outside observers take development INGOs to task for numerous failings: inadequate knowledge of the cultures and societies where they operate, reliance on abstract measures of improvement that poorly reflect local realities, insufficient autonomy from donors (especially the official development assistance agencies of powerful Western states), excessive professionalization that raises barriers between INGO officials and local NGO workers, and piecemeal specialization that misses the interconnectedness of local needs and problems. Development INGOs are caught in a double bind: If they act primarily as funders and facilitators of development projects, critics deem their efforts distant, unengaged, and superficial; if they become deeply immersed in local power and stratification structures, critics accuse them of imperialistic meddling. In either mode, they may be castigated for promoting developmentalismthat is, projects, policies, and forms of development that exacerbate existing inequalities and exploitation while serving the economic and political interests of Western countries. Some of the most telling critiques have come from within the development sector itself. Many development INGOs have taken such criticism to heart, searching for better ways of engaging with and relying on the peoples they intend to help, but satisfactory improvements are not easily generated and controversy remains endemic and ubiquitous.

Most INGOs, however, are neither subject to criticism nor involved in clashes of ideology, politics, or legitimacy. They operate in relative obscurity, organizing their specialized domains with considerable autonomy and exercising remarkably effective authority at the global and regional levels.

SEE ALSO Foundations, Charitable


Anheier, Helmut, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor, eds. 2001. Global Civil Society Annual Yearbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boli, John, and George M. Thomas, eds. 1999. Constructing World Culture: International Nongovernmental Organizations Since 1875. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Charnovitz, Steve. 1997. Two Centuries of Participation: NGOs and International Governance. Michigan Journal of International Law 18 (2): 183286.

Florini, Ann, ed. 2000. The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Union of International Associations. 1948. Yearbook of International Organizations. Munich, Germany: Author. 1st ed. 1909.

Willetts, Peter, ed. 1996. The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-governmental Organizations in the UN System. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

John Boli

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Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in international health are as numerous as they are diverse (see Figure 1). They are governed by different types of institutions and have a variety of emphases, both geographically and in terms of a thematic focus. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a global organization that tends to focus mainly on disaster relief, both short-term and long-term. Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is concerned with providing medical care in conflict zones. Save the Children concentrates on children's health and wellbeing, as do a number of other NGOs. Many are faith-based organizations, including World Vision International and Project HOPE. Others, like the Canadian Public Health Association, are affiliated with national organizations.

These and other nongovernmental organizations in the international-health field raise awareness about health issues and concerns worldwide. They strive to maximize the impact and outcome of international-health advocacy through coordination and collaboration.

Janet Hatcher Roberts

(see also: International Health; Pan American Health Organization; UNICEF; World Health Organization )


Basch, P. F. (1990). Textbook of International Health. New York: Oxford University Press.

Herman, R. D., and Associates (1994). The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kerr, M. G. Partnering and Health Development, The Kathmandu Connection. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.


International Nongovernmental Organizations