Millions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in operation today around the world. They tend to focus on political or social causes, and while an NGO can get funding from government agencies and/or businesses, they’re meant to operate without government influence. Why do we need these types of organizations? How do they impact society? Here are fifteen reasons why:
#1. They provide medical care
The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed millions of lives (and counting) and strained healthcare systems around the world. While the pandemic’s worst days are likely behind us, it remains a persistent concern alongside mental health and other medical issues. NGOs engage in activities like research and medical services. Doctors Without Borders is one of the largest and most famous NGOs with a presence in 70 countries. The Carter Center, which was founded in 1982 by former president Jimmy Carter, led a campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease. In 1986, there were 3.5 million cases every year. In 2021, there were only 14 reported cases. This success story represents the best of what NGOs are capable of.
#2. They assist during outbreaks and pandemics
NGOs provide all kinds of medical care, but during outbreaks and pandemics like COVID-19, they can be especially vital partners. In a post from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, local NGOs were described as being “at the heart of” reaching people during COVID. This is due to the knowledge of local NGOs and the existing trust they’ve built in the community. During the first wave of COVID, Plan India (part of Plan International) reached 200,000+ families with supplies like dry rations, hygiene kits, and education kits. As the virus persists, the NGO continues its work with food aid, PPE, and education.
#3. They address hunger
Famine occurs when countries or regions get hit with extreme food scarcity. Causes include wars, chronic poverty, natural disasters, and climate change. While famines are rare, millions of people still deal with food insecurity. Around 10% of the world’s population deals with hunger. According to a 2022 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the WFP, there are 20 “hunger hotspots” on the brink of famine. Millions would be affected. Getting enough food is essential to every person’s life, so many NGOs focus on or include hunger relief in their programs. Action Against Hunger’s work includes advocacy, emergency assistance, financial planning for women, small business support, farmers’ cooperatives, and more.
#4. They help provide clean water and sanitation
Clean water and sanitation are so important, they’re Goal 6 in the Sustainable Development Goals. Significant progress has been made, but according to UN data, around two billion people don’t have safely managed drinking water. If the rate of progress doesn’t improve, 2.8 billion won’t have safe sanitation and 1.6 billion won’t have safe drinking water in 2030. Humanitarian NGOs include water and sanitation as part of their activities, but some NGOs have a narrow focus. The UK-based WaterAid, which works in 30+ countries, hopes to reach 400 million people with clean water and sanitation services by 2032.
#5. They help during natural disasters
Famines, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters cause immense damage and suffering. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States endured 15 weather/climate disaster events from January-October 2022, resulting in losses of over $1 billion each. As for death, extreme weather disasters between 2000-2019 caused around 475,000 deaths in more than 160 countries. Most humanitarian NGOs provide emergency services. Direct Relief, which is based in the US but also works internationally, offers services like emergency medical packs, hurricane prep packs, oral rehydration salts, and more. NGOs often work in cooperation with governments and intergovernmental organizations like the UN.
#6. They promote equality and fairness in the legal system
Injustice in the legal system can look like unpunished police brutality, racially-biased court systems, the use of the death penalty to suppress political enemies, and unfair laws. Legal-focused NGOs work to protect victimized people, reform unjust, violent systems, and conduct research. One example is Penal Reform International, which works to protect human rights and make criminal justice systems fair. Areas of focus include the rising number of women affected by criminal justice systems and the unnecessary incarceration of children. The NGO has consultative status with the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and more.
#7. They protect wildlife and biodiversity
The environment is connected in more ways than we can count, so if even one species becomes unhealthy, it has a ripple effect. According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report from 2022, wildlife populations decreased by around 69% in 50 years. Latin America has suffered the most, while global freshwater species have declined by 83%. Why does this matter? The loss of biodiversity harms the planet’s health, including human health. Without a wide range of species, wildlife is more vulnerable to threats and eventually extinction. The more species suffer and decline, the more vulnerable all wildlife becomes. Many environmental NGOs focus on wildlife protection, including The World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
#8. They fight against climate change
In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report. It laid out a troubling picture of the future if the world does not respond to climate change quickly. If global warming reaches 1.5°C within 2021-2040, climate hazards will increase and put ecosystems and humans in serious danger. Health issues, death, environmental destruction, and more will follow. Many NGOs are fighting to raise awareness and present solutions. Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, and Fridays for Future are just a few examples. Activities include advocacy campaigns, research, protests, partnerships, and educational resources.
#9. They help with economic development
Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on “decent work and economic growth.” Without an inclusive, sustainable economy, people suffer harms like poverty, a lack of education, a lack of affordable healthcare, and more. This makes economic development a common focus for NGOs. One of the world’s largest anti-poverty NGOs, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), works in 11 countries. Its activities include banking, microfinance, integrated development (which focuses on pockets of extreme poverty), and urban development. The goal of economic development should be to empower local communities and build sustainability, so countries and regions aren’t dependent on humanitarian aid and emergency relief.
#10. They help protect reproductive rights
Reproductive rights ensure people have the right to decide if and when to have children. Prenatal services, the right to safe childbirth, and the right to abortion are included in reproductive rights. When these rights aren’t protected, individuals, families, and entire communities suffer. NGOs like the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is a legal advocacy organization, work to advance reproductive rights through litigation and court cases. Many humanitarian organizations also have programs for reproductive rights. Plan International works with partners to ensure access to sexual health services and to stop harmful practices like forced marriage.
#11. They advance gender equality
Despite decades of progress, gender equality is still far away. According to a 2022 report from the World Bank, around 2.4 billion women of working age don’t get equal opportunities. Gender-based violence is also a big issue. Around 30% of women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence while around 38% of murdered women are killed by intimate partners. These striking numbers explain why most humanitarian organizations pay special attention to gender equality and the protection of women. NGOs like Womankind Worldwide, Global Fund For Women, and the International Alliance of Women focus on advocacy, funding campaigns, and more.
#12. They protect children
Despite making up around ⅓ of the globe’s population, kids are one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. According to Amnesty International, around 290 million children don’t have their births registered, so they have no legal proof of existence. This makes it much easier to violate their human rights. Over 61 million kids also don’t attend primary school, while around 1 in 6 live in extreme poverty. Save the Children International (based in the UK) is one of the world’s most famous NGOs dedicated to kids. It’s a global membership organization with 30 national members. Its areas of focus include learning, survival, protection, emergencies, and the climate crisis.
#13. They provide education
Education is another major focus for NGOs and for good reason. A lack of education access is linked to things like poverty, gender inequality, poorer health and safety, and more. Girls are still more likely to miss out on education compared to boys; around 129 million girls aren’t in school. Humanitarian NGOs like Save the Children, CARE, and Plan International have programs focused on education, especially for girls. Education International, which is headquartered in Belgium, is a global union federation of teachers’ trade unions. It has a presence in 172 countries.
#14. They protect refugees
The UN defines refugees as people who leave their homes because of persecution of religion, race, nationality, membership in a group, or political opinion. As of May 2022, 100 million people were forcibly displaced. The war in Ukraine and other conflicts were responsible for the increase of 10.7 million from the end of 2021. Refugees face many challenges, including an increased risk of trafficking and sexual violence, so many NGOs focus their efforts on helping refugees. Some examples include Refugees International, the International Rescue Committee, and RefugePoint.
#15. They protect democracy
According to Freedom House’s 2022 report, global freedom has declined in the past 16 years. While only 25 countries that year saw improvements in their democracy, 60 experienced declines. Today, only 20% of the world’s population lives in what Freedom House classifies as a “Free” country. NGOs like Freedom House, Protect Democracy, and Amnesty International play an important role in protecting and promoting democracy. Activities can include advocacy campaigns, research, litigation, training, emergency assistance for human rights defenders, and more.