NGOs - Beyond State Control

You hear a lot about “NGOs” in the media these days. So what are they and how do they operate?

The letters NGO stand for non-governmental organizations, but not just any organizations outside state control. NGOs are not organized for profit like private businesses, or for a hobby (like cat lovers) or for sports (like a football club). Rather, they are created to work with some serious issue that their members believe is important for the good of the world around them – be it close at home or far away. For example, they might hand out relief aid after an earthquake, like the Red Cross. They might fight for human rights, like Amnesty International. They might fight against global warming, like Bellona, or they might fight against globalization, like Attac. Most people have heard of important NGOs like Amnesty International or the Red Cross. But there are thousands more and most of them are much smaller.

Volunteers for the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity work building new energy efficient houses for low income partner families in Asheville, North Carolina Volunteers for the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity work building new energy efficient houses for low income partner families in Asheville, North Carolina  

Why are there more NGOs today?

NGOs have grown in number, strength and influence in the international community over the past fifty years. Globalization is one important reason for this. Many modern problems cannot be solved within one nation. One important example of this is global warming. The emissions adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere come from factories and cars all over the world. Therefore people who care about the environment have found it necessary to unite across national borders. This is a positive side of globalization. But without a common language to communicate in, NGOs would be far less effective. The common language of most NGOs is English.


Amnesty International Direct influence

English is their preferred language because it also allows NGOs to speak directly to the powers and persons they are attempting to influence. Here is an example of this, a petition in English that Amnesty International asked people to sign and send to the Chinese authorities requesting them to free Liu Xiaobo, a prisoner of conscience and Nobel Peace Prize Winner.


WEN Jiabo Guojia Zongli

The State Council General Office


Your Excellency:

We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about Liu Xiaobo who was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment for “undermining state power” on December 25, 2009. We consider the imprisoning of Liu Xiaobo an attempt to stop him from using his peaceful and legal human rights to call for political and legal reform in China. We call on you to release him immediately.


We urge you to stop using vaguely defined charges of “subversion” to arrest and imprison activists, journalist and internet users. This runs counter to promises made by officials in China’s National Human Rights Action Plan.

Name                                        Signature                                City, State, Country

----------------------------           ------------------------------          --------------------


Petitions like this one, signed by tens of thousands from all over the world can have a greater effect than single governments or international organizations like the United Nations. They show how NGOs have the freedom to go beyond the usual channels of diplomacy and to use methods that are direct and inventive to achieve their goals. Of course, with that freedom comes responsibility. Sometimes people think NGOs go too far – for example, if an NGO deliberately breaks the law with a sit-in demonstration, making the police remove demonstrators by force.


Others distrust NGOs precisely because they are private organizations – who can tell what they do with their resources? Still, the steady increase in the number of NGOs around the world seems to indicate that more and more people feel it is important to express their opinions and make a direct impact on the world outside the usual channels that go through established political parties and governments.




After reading

  1. What do the letters “NGO” stand for?
  2. How are NGOs different from private businesses?
  3. Why have NGOs grown in number and strength over the past decades?
  4. Why has English become the language of many international NGOs?



Work in pairs or groups:

  1. Have any NGOs been in the news recently? In what connection? Do you support what they are doing? Why?
  2. Can you think of arguments against NGOs? If so, give examples.
  3. If you were to start an NGO, what would it be about? Why?
  4. Can you think of any problems that NGOs might do a better job solving than governments or international organizations like the UN?