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Non-Govermental Organizations in Environmental Changes Dissertation

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The global community is becoming increasingly concerned about the environmental changes together with social and economic problems. UNEP (2020) identified 2019 as the year when the past harms to nature have caught up with the present, and humanity had to deal with the significant impact of climate change in forms of weather disasters. In 2020, all the countries felt how environmental problems made the response to COVID-19 pandemic less efficient. Thus, the call for sustainable development became even more urgent as the number of people affected by ecological issues increases.

Sustainable development is a term coined by the UN in the 1980s. The idea behind sustainable development is satisfying the current needs of humanity without interfering with future generations’ ability to meet their needs (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development [UNWCED], 1987). The most recent UN conference on sustainable development identified seventeen goals in different spheres, including economics, equality of opportunity, healthcare issues, and food supply. Achievement of sustainable development is possible only with the engagement of all stakeholders, including universities and other education facilities, financial institutions, government, business, non-government organizations (NGOs) and communities.

Recently, scholars began to realize the growing impact of NGOs on sustainable development. At the same time, the role of relationships between NGOs and communities remains unclear. Thus, the present paper aims to utilize a phenomenological approach to identify functional relationships between NGOs and communities and describe their impact on achieving sustainable development goals. The study uses semi-structured interviews to answer five research questions formulated to acquire a holistic understanding of the relationship between NGOs and the community in building sustainable development.

Environmental Concerns

The global community is experiencing a significant rise in concern about environmental changes. According to the United Nation’s environment report, the global temperature has risen by 1°C compared to the pre-industrial era, causing significant economic losses associated with environmental and weather disasters, such as heatwaves and wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts (UNEP, 2019). UN’s under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director wrote that 2019 was the year “when our past finally caught up with us and science provided an unambiguous call for urgent action” (UNEP, 2020, p. 3). In 2019, the world continued to see the devastating effects of mindless consumption resulting in storms, melting of ice sheets, and floods (UNEP, 2020). Even though most governments understand the importance of reducing the impact on the ecology of the planet, most of them fail to accomplish it. In 2019, only the countries of the European Union (EU) were able to slightly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, while other top greenhouse-gas emitters failed to do so (UNEP, 2019). If the countries continue to ignore global environmental emergency, the number of natural disasters, threats to public health, and biodiversity loss will continue to grow rapidly.

One of the most vivid examples of how human activity affects public health is the COVID-19 pandemic. While a direct link between the disease and climate change was not established, there are clear indirect correlations between the two matters. According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020), climate change made the response to the coronavirus epidemic less efficient. Climate change undermines the state of health of all people worldwide, creating significant pressure on healthcare systems. Moreover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2020) reports that the majority of deaths among COVID-19 patients was caused not by the virus, but by the aggravation of pre-existing conditions, such as severe heart problems, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, sickle cell disease, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Additionally, WHO (2020) mentions that all pandemics originate in wildlife, and increased human pressure on the environment and contact with animals positively affects disease emergence, especially infections.

Another problem affecting the response to COVID-19 is water scarcity caused by global climate change. Around 80% of the global population experience the direct effects of water scarcity (WHO, 2020). Almost 25% of all healthcare facilities on the planet lack basic access to clean water, which directly impacts services provided to over 2 billion people (WHO, 2020). In five years, half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas due to devastating livestock farming, which is responsible for 29% of worldwide water consumption (Greenpeace, 2020). Without sufficient access to water, people are unable to follow basic rules of personal hygiene and receive adequate health care, which supports the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Thus, climate change affects public health in a variety of obvious and subtle ways.

The environmental emergency is also caused by a significant decrease in biodiversity reported by numerous government and non-government organizations. UNEP (2020) states that the average abundance of species has fallen by at least 20% since 1900. In particular, the number of species of amphibians decreased by 2.5%, mammals – by 2%, birds – by 1.75%, reptiles – by 1.1%, and fishes – by 1% (UNEP, 2020). If biodiversity continues to decrease at the current rate, it can be a significant threat to the sustainability of numerous ecosystems, as different species often play unique roles that humans are unable to identify (Lohbeck, Bongers, Martinez‐Ramos, & Poorter, 2016). Even though not all species currently have an equal effect on ecosystems due to varying dominance levels, given the spatial and temporal turnover in species dominance, all species may have a significant impact on ecosystems (Lohbeck et al., 2016). Thus, the global community needs to address the problem of shrinking biodiversity without hesitation to avoid adverse outcomes.

In general, there are ten crucial environmental problems most commonly mentioned by scholars and organizations. They include climate change, pollution and associated health problems, protection of oceans, energy consumption, sustainable food model, protection of biodiversity, sustainable urban development and mobility, water scarcity, overpopulation and waste management, and extreme meteorological phenomena (Abernethy, Maisels, & White, 2016). All these problems are interconnected, and their root cause is human activity. Since the humanity is responsible for environmental changes, the issues mentioned above can be addressed by altering human activity on all levels. UN (2020) calls all the countries for immediate action to protect the planet and slow down or reverse the current processes leading to environmental problems.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is the key to resolving the environmental issues discussed above. In 1987, the UNWCED (1987) defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (para. 27). Sustainable development principles require that more economically advantageous people adopt life-styles within the planet’s ecological means (UNWCED, 1987). The changes should be made in the amount of consumed resources to ensure equity (UNWCED, 1987). In order to achieve sustainable development, UN (2015) set seventeen comprehensive goals associated with 163 targets to achieve by 2030 to address the problems related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. Even though the new agenda that came in effect in 2016 is a set of intergovernmental commitments, in gained support from many actors, such as public policy bodies, NGOs, and many public sectors and private sector organizations (Bebbington & Unerman, 2018). Sustainable development goals are commonly referred to as “the Global Goals” (Bebbington & Unerman, 2018).

The UN’s agenda prioritizes changes associated both with the environment and the global community. All the seventeen goals are briefly outlined below:

  1. No poverty: making economic growth more inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality;
  2. Zero hunger: decreasing food waste and support to local agricultural producers;
  3. Good health and well-being: promotion of vaccination and preventive care;
  4. Accessible education: helping to educate children in communities around the globe;
  5. Gender equality: empowering of women and girls to ensure their equal rights;
  6. Clean water and sanitation: promotion of efficient water use;
  7. Affordable and clean energy: promotion of utilization of only energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs;
  8. Decent work and economic growth: creating job opportunities for youth;
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure: funding projects that provide necessary infrastructure and innovation;
  10. Reduction of inequality: supporting the marginalized and disadvantaged;
  11. Sustainable cities and communities: providing access to basic services, energy, housing, transportation, and more for everyone;
  12. Responsible consumption and production: recycling paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum and using recyclable materials;
  13. Climate action: action to stop global warming;
  14. Preservation of oceans: avoiding pollution of the world’s essential resource;
  15. Preservation of life on land: carefully managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation, and halting biodiversity loss.
  16. Peace justice and strong institutions: building effective, accountable institutions at all levels.
  17. Partnerships: revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development (UN, 2015).

As seen from the goals described above, sustainable development does not mean only environmental sustainability. Instead, the UN’s agenda aims at addressing all the problems that may prevent future generations from meeting their needs. However, even though the idea behind the goals is evident, it is unclear how the UN’s directives should be translated into action. In other words, the role of these goals may seem vague for an unprepared reader. According to Leal Filho et al. (2018), sustainable development goals are important for two central reasons. First, clear articulation of priorities revitalized researchers worldwide to work together to find practical solutions for the fundamental problems before humanity (Leal Filho et al., 2018). Scholars working in one of the seventeen areas mentioned above have improved chances of receiving financial and institutional support to close the current gaps in knowledge that prevent sustainable development (Leal Filho et al., 2018).

Second, the fact that the UN set a relatively tight timeframe for achieving the goals added a sense of urgency to the problem (Leal Filho et al., 2018). This urgency created an imperative not only for researchers but also for policymakers and other actors to put the results of the latest research into use (Leal Filho et al., 2018). Sustainable development goals provided significant incentives for institutions and research teams to collaborate to benefit people, partnerships, justice, prosperity, dignity, and the planet.

The sustainability goals help all stakeholders acquire a unified understanding of the situation and the way to approach it. Even though many leaders understand the negative impact of human development on the environment and the society, they often do not know how climate change, shrinking biodiversity, water scarcity, and poverty are just symptoms of “an inherently unsustainable basic design and mode of operation of society” (Broman & Robèrt, 2017, p. 22). Sustainable development goals help to understand the close interconnections between different problems humanity faces today. According to Broman and Robèrt (2017), a 25-year learning process between scientists and practitioners helped numerous organizations to understand and put themselves strategically towards sustainability. This implies that the UN’s framework helped companies around the world to decrease their negative impact on the environment and the society by embracing innovation, integration of new business models, exploration of new markets, and improving manufacturing efficiency (Broman & Robèrt, 2017). Thus, sustainable development goals are a vital framework that helps address the central problems before humanity.

Achieving the goals set by the UN’s framework is impossible without engaging all the stakeholders to work efficiently together. The complexity and versatility of the seventeen goals mentioned by the UN entail the involvement of a large variety of stakeholder groups. While there are two apparent stakeholders, which are businesses and higher education institutions, scholars name many other stakeholder groups. According to Leal Filho and Brandli (2016), stakeholders are “those who have an interest in a particular decision or course of action, either as individuals or as representatives of a group” (p. 336). In simple words, stakeholders are those who have been in any away affected by the issues. Considering the fact that problems mentioned in the UN’s framework affect every creature on the plane in some way, the stakeholders of sustainable development are all the people. In particular, Leal Filho and Brandli (2016) mention universities and other education facilities, financial institutions, government, business, and communities. In other words, sustainable development is highly dependable upon the partnership between the public and private organizations, together with social entities and NGOs (Wojewnik-Filipkowska & Węgrzyn, 2019).

The benefits of engaging all the stakeholders are evident: it leads to achieving maximum productivity and effectiveness, it ensures equity in decision-making, and it allows the ideas to be tested before implementation (Leal Filho & Brandli, 2016). Without the engagement of all stakeholders, it is impossible to reach the balance of rare and human resources (Wojewnik-Filipkowska & Węgrzyn, 2019). However, there are various barriers that abstract the engagement of all stakeholders at a needed level. First, even though there are many methods for stakeholder engagement, the current engagement process lacks a unified scheme (Leal Filho & Brandli, 2016). Second, groups of stakeholders have varying interests, which may contradict each other leading to a conflict of interest (Kent, 2010). Third, different stakeholders have insufficient capabilities, as the transition to proactive forms of stakeholder management requires additional resources (Rhodes, Bergstrom, Lok, & Cheng, 2014). Fourth, a growing number of stakeholder participation leads to stakeholder fatigue and cynicism (Leal Filho & Brandli, 2016). Fifth, all the steps of governments require disclosure, which may lead to additional risks for them due to intense scrutiny (Kent, 2010). Finally, some stakeholders are challenging to have a direct dialog with for various reasons (Leal Filho & Brandli, 2016). However, these barriers are to be addressed to ensure that all sustainable development goals are achieved.

Changing Role of Governments

While the engagement of all stakeholders is crucial, governments play a central role in facilitating sustainable development. UN (2015) recognizes the critical role of governments in engaging citizens and stakeholders and providing them with relevant information on all aspects of sustainable development. Governments make a significant contribution to achieving the goals set by the UN’s agenda by establishing and implementing water quality policy frameworks and regulating the discharge of pollutants into the environment (UN, 2015). In general, governments’ central roles are policy development, regulation, facilitation, and internal sustainability management (Young & Dhanda, 2013). When developing policies, governments need to set and prioritize realistic goals aligned with the overall strategy to achieve sustainable development (Young & Dhanda, 2013). As facilitators, governments stimulate breakthroughs and set boundaries for other stakeholders by establishing clear criteria for governmental support and creating financial and non-financial incentives (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Under regulation, scholars understand all governments’ initiatives in legislation, administration, and enforcement used to set legal frameworks supporting sustainable development (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Finally, when managing internal sustainability, governments should promote social responsibility among all governmental bodies (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Currently, however, governments started to realize the wide variety of roles they play beyond the central ones described above.

Today, governments must form partnerships with other groups of stakeholders, including NGOs and the private sector. First, when cooperating with other stakeholders, governments need to help set vision and strategy to promote sustainable development (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Second, governments should continuously improve their environmental performance to set an example for other stakeholders (Kent, 2010). Third, governments need to create “open, competitive, and rightly framed markets that would include pricing of goods and services, dismantling subsidies, and taxing waste and pollution” (Young & Dhanda, 2013, p. 217). Fourth, governments should commit to fiscal reforms that amend businesses for their commitment to sustainable development goals (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Finally, governments should understand their role as a catalyst that should promote innovation on all levels, as sustainable development demands much change to be adopted (Young & Dhanda, 2013). Thus, the role of governments is shifting towards close cooperation with different stakeholders.

Non-government Organizations

One of the most controversial stakeholders in sustainable development is NGOs, as their role in sustainable development initiatives is unclear. NGOs include a wide variety of organizations, including private voluntary organizations, civil society organizations, and nonprofit organizations (Young & Dhana, 2013). While during the first sustainable development conferences organized by the UN acknowledged states as primary actors, current research started to accept the idea that the decision-making process is no longer the responsibility of governments (Pacheco-Vega, 2010). NGOs started to play a significant role in international conferences dedicated to sustainable development. NGOs play at least two vital roles in achieving sustainable development goals. First, they help other stakeholders draft resolutions that shape strategic goals and objectives (Pacheco-Vega, 2010). Second, NGOs can influence governments by lobbying sustainable development policies (Pacheco-Vega, 2010). However, evaluating the degree of NGOs’ influence on sustainable development is a challenging task that is yet to be achieved.

NGOs are believed to be one of the most active groups of partners playing supportive roles in the implementation of sustainable development initiatives (Muazu & Abdullahi, 2019). Simultaneously, they are more effective than governments “to get attached with the grass root level developmental initiatives” (Muazu & Abdullahi, 2019, p. 1). While numerous studies failed to evaluate many governments failed to acknowledge and appreciate the impact of NGOs on sustainable development, numerous studies confirm that their impact keeps growing worldwide (Muazu & Abdullahi, 2019). According to Sustainability Degrees (2014), influential NGOs that facilitate that achievement of sustainability goals outlined by the UN are Ceres, Conservation International, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and others. All the organizations have different agenda supporting the achievement of one or several of the seventeen goals.

Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable business practices and solutions by working with companies around the world (Sustainability Degrees, 2014). The vision of the organization is to transform the economy to build a sustainable future (Ceres, 2020). The company developed a unique change theory that aims at moving investors, companies, policymakers, and other influencers to act on four global challenges: climate change, water scarcity and pollution, inequitable workplaces, and outdated capital market systems (Ceres, 2020). The company utilizes Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability as a comprehensive framework for leading change with a special commitment to inclusion and equity (Ceres, 2020).

Conservation International is a multicultural organization working since 1987 to protect nature for people (Conservation International, 2020). The company has an extensive network of offices and partners worldwide that helped preserve more than 6 million square kilometers of sea and land across 70 countries (Conservation International, 2020). The organization’s mission is to empower societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, biodiversity, and well-being of humanity with a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration (Conservation International, 2020).

Doctors without Borders is an international organization that provides emergency care to people affected by global conflicts, epidemics, disasters, or exclusions since 1971 (Sustainability Degrees, 2014). The company operates under the principles of medical ethics, independence, impartiality, neutrality, accountability, and behavioral commitments to address the threats to human health around the globe (Doctors without Borders, 2020). The members of the organization work under dangerous conditions to life, health, and well-being to help people in need of medical help (Doctors without Borders, 2020).

Greenpeace is one of the most famous non-violent direct-action NGOs, with more than 3 million members. The company values courage and immediate action to help achieve all the seventeen sustainable development goals (Greenpeace, 2018). The organization is known for numerous eco-protests focused on climate change, oceans, forests, toxics, nuclear energy, and sustainable agriculture (Sustainability Degrees, 2014).

WWF is one of the oldest NGOs that started working almost 60 years ago (Sustainability Degrees, 2014). The central effort of the organization is to transform markets and policies toward sustainability and make sure that “the value of nature is reflected in decision-making from a local to a global scale” (WWF, 2020, para. 3). The central focus of the organization is to make a difference in climate, food, forests, freshwater, oceans, and wildlife preservation (WWF, 2020).

Relationship between NGOs and Communities

One of the NGOs’ central roles mentioned above is to interact with local communities to achieve sustainable development. Bashir (2016) defines community development as “voluntary participation of local community individuals in a systematic process to bring some desirable improvements, especially health, education, housing, recreation in the targeted community” (p. 124). Today, community development is seen as the central practice in social development as it creates social capital and supports the self-dependency of communities (Bashir, 2016). Therefore, local communities often benefit from participating in the activities and programs designed by NGOs. The benefits can be financial, as local representatives may start working for the NGOs. Thus, NGOs can be seen as potential employers for the representatives of the local community, which contributes to the overall financial sustainability of communities. However, this impact is rather small in comparison with other spheres of influence.

According to Bashir (2016), when interacting with local communities, NGOs seek to achieve the following goals:

  1. Improve the various aspects of community well-being including health, education, housing, and recreation;
  2. Motivate communities to create and implement community-based plans to address their issues;
  3. Help the communities identify their strengths and resources to implement the plans;
  4. Develop community leaders through employment, leadership programs, and participation in volunteer programs.
  5. Build cooperation between communities and governments;
  6. Develop functional community groups and organizations.

However, community development is a laborious endeavor that requires a number of planned interventions strategically aligned to meet the needs of every specific community. The implementation of these interventions is impossible without positive relationships between the NGOs and the community. However, some communities have a strong resentment towards NGOs, which undermines the achievement of sustainability goals. For example, in Afghanistan, citizens have developed a strong resentment to NGOs (Jelinek, 2006). The root cause of negative relationships is often general distrust to foreigners and lack of information about NGOs’ zones of responsibility (Jelinek, 2006). Citizens may blame NGOs for the absence of effective food distribution or the lack of means to assess the needs of the education system, which is the government’s responsibility (Jelinek, 2006). The dysfunctional relationship between community and NGOs prevents effective cooperation and achievement of sustainability goals.

Statement of the Problem

Sustainable development involves multiple stakeholders that need to operate together to achieve the 17 goals outlined in the UN’s agenda. Thus, the roles of every stakeholder need to be clear in order to achieve maximum efficiency of efforts. Currently, the roles of different stakeholders are often unclear, making the collaboration complicated. Therefore, defining the roles of various stakeholders is a matter of increased importance for achieving sustainable development worldwide. Currently, NGOs have a significant impact on all aspects of sustainable development through direct and indirect interaction with governments and communities. Even though the impact of NGOs on sustainable development is a matter of increased attention from scholars, it is unclear how the relationship between NGOs and the community affects sustainable development.

Lack of a clear understanding of the role of relationships between different stakeholders may pose significant problems for policymakers and actors. Without refined knowledge of the matter, NGOs will face difficulty engaging the community to become self-sufficient. Issues like general distrust to foreigners and lack of comprehensive communication plan may lead to decreased efficiency, which can prevent the society from achieving sustainable development goals.

Purpose Statement

The purpose of the present paper is to clarify the relationship between NGOs and the community in building sustainable development using phenomenological design. In order to achieve the purpose, the following objectives were set:

  1. Identify factors that lead to functional relationships between NGOs and communities;
  2. Outline determinants of dysfunctional relationships between NGOs and communities;
  3. Clarify the impact of functional relationships between NGOs and communities on achieving sustainable development;
  4. Determine the impact of dysfunctional relationships between NGOs and communities on achieving sustainable development;
  5. Suggest the goals that NGOs should set to build functional relationships with the communities.

The present research aims at answering the following research questions:

  • RQ1. What are the factors contributing to functional relationships between NGOs and communities in achieving sustainable development?
  • RQ2. What are the factors contributing to dysfunctional relationships between NGOs and communities in achieving sustainable development?
  • RQ3. What is the impact of functional relationships between NGOs and communities on achieving sustainable development?
  • RQ4. What is the impact of dysfunctional relationships between NGOs and communities on achieving sustainable development?
  • RQ5. What steps should NGOs make to achieve functional relationships with communities?

The research questions are answered by conducting semi-structural interviews with authorities in sustainable development and community development. The sample also includes strategy managers and stakeholder managers as well as specialists in NGO research. The study synthesizes the experience of experts to acquire a holistic understanding of the relationship between NGOs and the community in building sustainable development.


  1. Non-governmental organization (NGO) – a private organization that aims at reducing human suffering by addressing one or a combination of sustainable development problems (Bashir, 2016).
  2. Sustainable development – development that meets the humanity needs without compromising the needs of future generations (UNWCED, 1987).
  3. Functional relationship – generally positive relationships that promote effective functioning of all stakeholders.
  4. Dysfunctional relationships – generally negative relationships that obstruct the effective functioning of all stakeholders.


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