NGO meaning: what is a non-governmental organisation, what do they do in emergencies - are they a good thing?

NGOs work tirelessly to help people in need in disaster zones and areas blighted by conflict - but are they always a vessel for good?

NGOs tend to work within the development of human rights, environmentalism, health, or other societal issues (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Increased humanitarian aid for Afghanistan will not be handed to the Taliban, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said.

Aid funding for the country will be increased to £286 million, but will instead be distributed in conjunction with the UN and other NGOs.

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But what exactly is an NGO? What do they do? And are they always a force for good?

Here is everything you need to know.

What is an NGO?

Strictly speaking, there is no hard and fast definition of what a non-governmental organisation (NGO) actually is.

The term was popularised in Article 71 of the newly-formed United Nations Charter in 1945 - broadly speaking, an NGO is a group of persons not connected with the government of any country working, usually voluntarily, towards a common interest.

Most NGOs are non-profit - that is, they are trying to do something other than make money for the people who run them.

NGOs can push towards a common goal in any field, but they are typically associated with issues arising and relating to humanitarianism and social-economic matters, such as human rights, environmentalism, health, or societal development.

Non-governmental organisations date back to at least the late 18th century, and were important to the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements.

As globalisation increased in the 20th century, the importance of NGOs grew in response to international treaties and organisations which focused on capitalist interests.

To counterbalance this trend, NGOs emphasised humanitarian issues, development aid and sustainable development.

What does an NGO do?

(Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

NGOs are - on the whole - a good thing - a group of people not bound by governmental influence working to better the lives of people who need help the most.

On the surface, an NGO might sound like a universally good thing.

But despite NGO’s carrying a fair amount of public trust and not being aligned with any one government, they are not always unbiased.

NGOs can still associate themselves with corporations and lobby on their behalf, and despite being “non-governmental”, can also receive funding from governments if they wish, further muddying the definition.

In some countries, NGOs are almost counter intuitively abundant.

In India for instance, there were estimated to be around 2 million NGOs in 2009. That’s approximately one per 600 citizens, and a rate that far exceeds the number of primary schools and health centres in the nation.

Eric Werker and Faisal Ahmed wrote in Journal of Economic Perspective in 2008 that too many NGOs in a nation - particularly one ruled by a warlord) reduces an NGO’s influence, since it can easily be replaced by another NGO.

Such a high number of organisations also has an impact on resource allocation, with the materials and supplies needed for an NGO to achieve its goals spread thinly and incurring greater expenses for the organisation.

NGOs are also built on their perceived legitimacy and honest commitment to bettering the public’s quality of life, something that is relatively easily gained by being “non-governmental”.

But since that definition is so malleable, it can lead to such organisations not being what they first seem.

Neera Chandhoke wrote in a Journal of World-Systems Research article that “NGOs hardly ever come face to face with the people whose interests and problems they represent”, adding that “are not accountable to the people they represent”.

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