NGOs are non-governmental organizations. This means they operate independently from governments. Typically nonprofit groups, many NGOs focus on humanitarian issues such as poverty, gender inequality, and other social injustices. It’s unclear how many NGOs are currently in operation, but just in the United States, there are around 1.5 million NGOs in operation. As organizations that are separate from governments, how do NGOs protect human rights? What roles and responsibilities do they have?
A brief history of NGOs
Before diving into the role of NGOs, it’s useful to understand a bit of their history. While the term “NGO” is fairly recent, the concept isn’t. Early on, religious orders ran most NGOs, but things changed by the mid-19th century. International NGOs focusing on women’s rights, peace, or ending slavery were common. One of the most influential organizations of that time no longer exists, but it has a fascinating history. It was called The International Shipwreck Society. Founded by Auguste Godde in 1835, the Society expanded quickly in its focus on shipwreck victims. By 1837, it had branches in places like the United States, Europe, Brazil, China, and the Ottoman Empire. However, a conflict erupted between the Society’s journal editor and Godde. According to Godde, the editor wanted to control the organization. The journal, however, revealed that Godde had lied about his titles and was exploiting the organization to make himself rich. By 1943, the Society folded.
Another NGO founded around this time endured and is still around today. In 1839, abolitionists formed The Anti-Slavery Society to campaign against slavery. A year later, they held the world’s first anti-slavery convention. Their projects included organizing “slave-free produce” consumer action groups, helping establish the first comprehensive anti-slavery treaty, and campaigning against King Leopold’s slavery system in the Congo Free State. In modern times, the organization (now known as Anti-Slavery International) has successfully participated in efforts to create new anti-slavery legislation. It is considered the world’s oldest human rights organization.
NGOs and the United Nations
The phrase “non-governmental organization” came into being alongside the United Nations in 1945. The UN Charter lays out the relationship between NGOs and the United States. Article 71 reads:
The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned.
Consultative Status is divided into three categories: General Consultative Status (the highest status level that gives organizations the right to deliver oral presentations during the council’s meetings); Special Consultative Status; and Roster. NGOs with the highest consultative status include Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, CARE International, and Amnesty International.
The types of NGOs
The World Bank defines two groups of NGOs: operational NGOs and advocacy NGOs. Operational NGOs focus on designing and implementing development projects. Advocacy NGOs promote causes and try to influence public policy. Within these two broad groups, there’s a handful of acronyms that pop up around the subject of NGOs:
- INGO – an international NGO
- BINGO – a big international NGO or business-friendly NGO
- ENGO – an environmental NGO
- RINGO – a religious international NGO
- GONGO – a government-organized NGO
- CSO – a civil society organization
How do NGOs protect human rights?
Depending on the NGOs’ specific scope of work, these organizations protect human rights in a variety of ways. Here are some of their main purposes:
They hold human rights abusers accountable
Many NGOs, especially advocacy NGOs, focus on exposing human rights violations and holding abusers accountable. Amnesty International is a good example. In 2020, they released a briefing entitled COVID-19 Crackdowns: Police Abuse and the Global Pandemic. Using data from 60 countries, AI documented cases where law enforcement agencies committed human rights abuses under the guise of controlling the disease. The briefing highlighted a series of abuses, such as beatings and killings, discrimination, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and restrictions on peaceful assembly. While some restrictions are necessary during a pandemic, law enforcement had – in AI’s words – “often played a far too prominent role in what is fundamentally a public health issue.”
They lobby for change
Calling for an end to harmful policies and advocating for change are common activities for NGOs. Anti-Slavery International participated in lobbying the League of Nations to act on slavery. In 1926, the League signed The Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery. Slavery and the slave trade were banned, and concrete rules and articles were established. Recently, NGOs have become more influential in the world by playing roles within the UN, governments, and corporations. Ideally, the most influential NGOs should serve as a bridge between grassroots activists and smaller organizations that lack access to the halls of power. By lobbying for policy and law changes, NGOs can help address the root causes of humanitarian and social justice issues.
They provide essential healthcare
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights names a right to health. That right is threatened in many ways, including during crises like natural disasters and conflicts. There are many NGOs focused on providing medical care, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Responsibilities include providing medical, social, and psychological services, as well as educational programs, training, and health advocacy. Certain NGOs may focus on one specific area, such as children’s health, reproductive health, or nutrition. Many partner with local organizations.
They respond quickly to emergencies
When disaster strikes, government support can take a long time and it’s often not sufficient. Many NGOs focus on responding to emergencies with medical care, food, water and sanitation services, and shelter. A presentation by Dr. David .W. Muriuki describes the benefits of NGOs during complex emergencies, which come with challenging levels of political and security risks. NGOs, however, have fewer barriers to overcome. They’re able to mobilize quickly, which often means they are the first actors on the ground. They are also more flexible and adaptable, which puts them at an advantage over governments. NGOs are also able to reach more remote areas and populations faster. The last advantage is that NGOs tend to have a close relationship with the media. This increases public awareness of an emergency, which can encourage donations. When NGOs respond quickly, they’re able to protect human rights like the right to life, safety, health, shelter, and more.
Can NGOs play a harmful role in human rights work?
NGOs play an important part in the protection of human rights, but problems within an organization can have the opposite effect. Critics also aren’t simply raising concerns with individual organizations. The whole NGO world has some systemic problems that need addressing. Here are two examples:
For years, there’s been concern regarding NGOs, transparency, and accountability, especially when it comes to sexual abuse. In 2018, the House of Commons International Development Committee released a report addressing harassment and sexual misconduct allegations. It found “endemic” sexual abuse and exploitation within the international aid sector, ranging from unwanted sexual comments to rape. Major NGOs like Save the Children and Oxfam were implicated.
In 2021, the IDC released a follow-up report. In a survey by the IDC, 73% of respondents believed abuse by aid workers was still a problem. 26% of respondents claimed to have observed suspected sexual exploitation or abuse of aid recipients. Also troublingly, 57% of respondents felt whistle-blowing policies and practices were inadequate. Without consequences for abuse, perpetrators can continue their abuse and jump from organization to organization.
Racism and discrimination
International development, which includes many NGOs and their projects, can manifest as colonialism by another name. Governments have long used humanitarianism as a way to exert their power and influence on countries. The “aid” ends up holding communities back from self-empowerment and sustainability. There are also issues with how organizations treat staff. In 2020, 1,000 former and current Doctors Without Borders staff members wrote a letter accusing the organization of systemic racism. They said MSF (the acronym refers to the org’s French name) was built on “white supremacy” that spread to staff, policies, hiring practices, workplace culture, and the programs themselves.
MSF has addressed the accusations, acknowledging that “progress is nowhere fast enough.” They also acknowledged that governance and where the positions of power lie within the organization don’t reflect the organization’s diversity. In 2022, MSF released a progress report listing initiatives to combat institutional racism and discrimination. Whether MSF will become a successful example of an organization embracing accountability and change remains to be seen. For now, it’s a clear example of how NGOs that undeniably do important work can also contribute to harm.
NGOs have a responsibility to protect human rights, but problems (some systemic) within organizations can threaten the very rights those NGOs seek to protect. That doesn’t mean NGOs should be thrown out. In an article on how “well-meaning NGOs” can end up causing harm by replicating government services, researchers said their takeaway was not to avoid funding NGOs, but for NGOs and governments to coordinate better. Even in the face of evidence showing NGOs ’ downsides, the researchers also pointed to evidence showing “sustainable, positive impact on people’s lives.” That’s what needs to be replicated by every NGO in existence. When NGOs successfully perform their role, their positive impacts are clear.