What Is an International NGO?

C. Mitchell

An international non-governmental organization is, in its broadest sense, any business or corporation that does business in multiple countries, but is not a part of any government entity. The precise definition of what an international non-governmental organization (NGO) is or is not is rather difficult to pin down. Usually, the term is applied only to organizations that work somehow for social benefit or public health, often in the non-profit sector. The name “international NGO” usually says more about what an organization is not than what it is, though: it is not tied to a government, and is not influenced by any government dealings. Other than that, much is left open for interpretation.

Many non-governmental organizations work with the United Nations to develop humanitarian projects.
Many non-governmental organizations work with the United Nations to develop humanitarian projects.

The United Nations was the first to introduce the concept of NGOs in the mid-1940s. Organizations that fit the UN’s description had been in existence prior to that time, of course. UN recognition served only to provide a common means of describing them. The United Nations’ Economic and Social Council defines an international NGO as “any international organization which is not established by a governmental entity or intergovernmental agreement.”

The difference between a local NGO and international NGOs is the fact that a local NGO is more grassroots-oriented.
The difference between a local NGO and international NGOs is the fact that a local NGO is more grassroots-oriented.

Even this definition is enormously broad. Many private multinational corporations could claim to be included. Most of the time, however, the term is informally reserved for not for-profit, public interest entities.

Amnesty International is an NGO that focuses on human rights, including proper treatment of prisoners.
Amnesty International is an NGO that focuses on human rights, including proper treatment of prisoners.

The main idea behind most international NGOs is that world problems — hunger, poverty, and oppression, to name a few — can be more effectively addressed through collaboration between local aid groups and international supporters than local workers alone. Problems such as these are often too large for domestic NGOs to tackle independently, particularly where resourcing is concerned. Being international enables more support, and better provision of aid in many cases.

International NGOs focus on global issues, such as poverty.
International NGOs focus on global issues, such as poverty.

An international NGO is not prohibited from accepting government money. Many of the world’s wealthiest countries fund the work of international civil society organizations through grants, charitable awards, and program sponsorship. Some international NGOs also work in tandem with political causes, or on issues with political significance to certain governments. Somewhat paradoxically, these activities do not usually jeopardize an entity’s international NGO status.

So long as no government actor plays an influential role in how the organization does business and does not have a say in how or why the organization is structured, the NGO is usually still considered “non-governmental.” The same is true so long as the organization does not align itself directly with any political party. In most cases, the international NGO structure is designed to help shield independent organizations from government control. Government aid and inspiration is usually deemed separate.

An international NGO might focus on relief and clean up efforts of a disaster zone.
An international NGO might focus on relief and clean up efforts of a disaster zone.

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