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Nongovernmental Organizations in International Politics Essay

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Updated: Aug 27th, 2021


The world is changing around us with national boundaries breaking and becoming a small place. A global revolution is changing the world. Traditional command and control structures are being replaced with groups of communities and social networks.

Non-governmental organizations have emerged as one of the most visible forces in developing countries. They have directed their efforts toward social development initiatives by working with disadvantaged groups and communities. They have become one of the three primary institutional sectors of human society alongside government and business (Shamima 2006, 34).

NGOs have a comparative edge over local government agencies. They have been known to promote institutional pluralism by working with government and private agencies. They can work with any marginalized section of society. Their aim has been development strategies that promote responsibility, autonomy and self sufficiency. They have encouraged social responsibility which has been helpful for many sections of society. They also play an important part in global politics to spread democracy and human rights (Shamima 2006, 44).

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NGOs in east and southern Africa for instance have contributed to democracy by preparing poorer sections of society to be represented in the policy making process. Since the membership of NGOs rests on commitment, they are said to possess a greater level of integrity and show greater seriousness of purpose than private and public sector agencies. It can be argued that NGOs constitute crucial pillars of civil society, playing as they do an integrative role while contributing to institutional innovation. NGOs tend to be highly motivated and usually view hardships as a challenge rather than punishment. Unlike business organizations, their smaller sizes, the selective nature of their tasks, and personal leadership allowed them to be innovative and adapt themselves to new circumstances and to experiment and accept risks (Mendelson 2004, pg 29).

Some observers have however advised caution while viewing NGOs. The lack of homogeneity also means that NGOs incorporate different ideologies, approaches and values. In some countries they have been accused of being spy networks and agents of Western imperialism. There is a wide range of NGO types existing in a great diversity of biophysical and socioeconomic conditions which affect their manner of operation and the type of clientele they serve (Mendelson 2004, pg 29).

Their values influence the relationship with their clients from two perspectives. One perspective is concerned with the issue of power in decision making, design, and adequacy. The other relates to how the issue of value preference is managed. Here, considerations of self-determination, interdependence, freedom of choice, dignity and autonomy influence the nature, content, and design of developmental programs. More often than not there has been variance in terms of values and expectations between stakeholders and NGOs, a situation that has led to failure in developmental undertakings. NGOs are said to adopt the ideologies of their sponsoring agencies or states which may not necessarily coincide with those of the stakeholders. The differences in ideology may create hardships in terms of approach, perception, and solutions to the problems of social development.

Ideally, NGOs should come to the aid of the poor on their terms. The poor should state the type and nature of assistance, and define the specific objectives, activities, inputs, outputs and outcomes. In reality, however, NGOs tend to come with a specific agenda. In most instances this does not coincide with the specific needs of the poor. This discrepancy often leads to the problem of divergence (Hillhorst 2004, 34).

Where locals have failed to reject the agenda, they have been turned into passive recipients without leverage to alter any content of the agenda. Besides the problems of lack of fit between the NGOs’ agenda and the felt needs of the poor, there is virtually no participation by the latter which leads to lack of ownership, misdirection of resources, wrong choice of priority areas, lack of sustainability, and poor coverage (Hillhorst 2004, 34).In numerous instances, this has created suspicion about NGOs as self seeking instead of caring for the interests of the poor. Also, this may in part explain why NGOs are regarded to be proxies of their funders. NGOs do what they do not for reasons of altruism at all. They are not in the business of providing charity, though the activities appear humanitarian and lead people to regard them as altruistic. These activities are simply a front which allows them to carry out their hidden agenda which confirms a popular belief that NGOs working with the poor have their own interests to fulfill other than those of the beneficiaries. In this case, therefore, the interests of the poor become secondary. Seemingly, their primary obligation is not to the poor, but to themselves.

The rising influence of NGOs is one of the most significant developments in international affairs over the past 20 years. Social movements have been part of the political and economic landscape for centuries. A range of NGOs, including church and community groups, human rights organizations, and other anti-apartheid activists, built strong networks and pressed US cities and states to divest their public pension funds of companies doing business in South Africa (Hillhorst 2004, 44).This effort, combined with domestic unrest, international governmental pressures, and capital flight, posed a direct, sustained, and ultimately successful challenge to the white minority rule, resulting in the collapse of apartheid (Hillhorst 2004, 44).In the USA, because of the decentralized structure of the US political system, based on federalism and the separation of national powers, access points for NGOs are numerous and include the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the national level, and comparable entities at the state and local levels. It is also important to recognize that the pertinent level of government for decision-making in a particular policy area is often shifting. Although Europe exhibits a ‘quasi-federal’ political structure in that the EU, member states, and local governments are responsible for certain policies, the direction of policy-making over the past two decades is clearly towards the EU level.

The percentage of EU-motivated contentious protests rose rapidly after the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, suggesting the architects of social movements saw new opportunities for influence via the evolving structure of the EU itself.

The expansion of the EU’s policy-making powers has been followed closely by NGOs. The primary actors within the EU – the Commission, Parliament, and Council of Ministers – provide multiple opportunities for access to the policy-making process. The Commission (a quasi-executive branch) is responsible for introducing legislation and administering existing programs, whereas the Parliament and Council possess legislative functions (although the Council is widely regarded as the most powerful of the three entities). For NGOs, the main access points are the Commission and Parliament, and both are attractive for different reasons. NGOs attempt to influence the Council by accessing member state governments in national capitals (DeMars 2005, 46).

Globalization has generated six constraints relevant to NGOs: new forms of global poverty, new waves of complex emergencies, new pressures for greater efficiency and accountability, weak global institutions, a decline in the capacity of national governments, new pressures to respond globally and greater financial competition. The internationalization of humanitarian NGOs enhanced their credibility and authority, and legitimized their ‘voice’ at the global level, recognized as full-fledged representatives in discussions with international organizations. It was this global expansion of NGOs that gave them the right to speak out from the front ranks in international bodies, and to demand a role in making the strategic choices of the European Union and UN agencies.

Substantively, NGOs have been active and successful in the promulgation and enforcement of international environmental law, human rights, labor rights, children’s rights, gender and racial equality struggles, and sustainable development, to mention a few. Nongovernmental organizations engage in issue identification, value setting, and pressure other actors to take or abstain from taking particular causes of action. In particular, NGOs have exerted great influence in negotiations of regimes regarding the protection of oceans, ozone layer, and Antarctica, and have been actively monitoring and exerting pressure on states to comply with their international legal obligations (DeMars 2005, 46).

The tremendous success of NGOs in the environmental movement, in spite of lack of legal personality, is particularly noteworthy. Another remarkable success has been NGOs’ efforts and willingness to assist developing countries, which do not have adequate regulatory infrastructure, to move toward complying with their international environmental obligations. NGOs have been successful in playing this role, in part, because they are in most cases seen as grassroots organizations, which engage people at “the level at which they feel the most immediate effects – their own environmental and economic conditions.” In doing so, NGOs disseminate an ecological sensibility that is neither restricted to governments nor exclusively within the domain of government control (Edwards 2001, 56).

The ability of NGOs to exert influence at the grassroots level acts as a form of governance. By acting at the local level, NGOs help define the parameters of acceptable behavior, which eventually become the basis from which norms are generated.

NGOs can succeed in making their voices heard in global politics if they take care of certain factors. There are many procedures and laws which NGOs have to adhere to. In nuclear arms control talks and many other areas, governments have relied on these to restrict or exclude NGOs with agendas opposing their own national objectives. In more unusual instances, rules and procedures can pave the way for non-state actors to play a role. The Ottawa process leading to the 1997 Convention banning anti-personnel landmines restricted full participation to states with a demonstrated commitment to a strong treaty, and permitted other countries to attend as observers only. This goes a long way to explain the considerable input which some NGOs, notably the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), could have in this case by virtue of their support among the fully participating states (Edwards 2001, 56).

If the aims and agendas of some participating governments overlap with those of aspiring NGOs, the former may naturally be prompted to seek to include representatives of the latter on their own delegations or in an independent role. Problems framed as larger humanitarian, global or societal concerns rather than the affairs of particular governments clearly facilitate the involvement of NGOs, supposedly as representatives of civil society. Technically or scientifically complex issues about which NGOs possess information and expertise which governments do not have, or are not willing or deemed credible to use in an objective manner, also favor their engagement. Reduction of acid rain emission has been successfully negotiated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) (Edwards 2001, 56). Researchers believe that NGOs can play a positive role in international negotiations. There has even been discussion of new types of agency and representation (Edwards 2001, 56).


Guidelines are required to ensure the level of participation of NGOs in international negotiations. A standard criterion must be established to give the NGOs a greater say in international negotiations. Some matters are clear, however. Firstly, at a time when peace and security are threatened by global and humanitarian problems and intra-state conflicts as much as by inter-state disputes, the traditional criteria of statehood and sovereignty governing admission to international negotiating should be expanded. Ignoring NGOs does not make sense on the basis of them not being states.


Shamima Ahmed (2006). NGOs in International Politics . US: Kumarian Press. 34

Sarah E. Mendelson (2004). The Power and Limits of NGOs. London: Columbia University Press. 29.

Dorothea Hilhorst (2004). The Real World of NGOs: Discourses, Diversity and Development. US: Zed Books. 34.

Michael Edwards (2001). Beyond the Magic Bullet: NGO Performance and Accountability in the Post-Cold War World. US: Kumarian Press. 56.

William E. DeMars (2005). NGOs and Transnational Networks: Wild Cards in World Politics. US: Pluto Press. 46.

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