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The definitive description of a non-government organisation

THE definition of a non-governmental organisation is a legally constituted organisation that operates independently from any government. NGO is a term usually used by governments to refer to entities that have no government status – but in the context of Cambodia, one of the most donated-to countries in the world, NGOs are generally perceived as being of service in one way or another to the poor and marginalised citizens, through health services, vocational training, agricultural or infrastructure development, family and social services or other human-benefiting or humanitarian work.

Because of Cambodia’s turbulent history, owing to a combination of factors including the nation’s geographical location between the two larger powers of Thailand and Vietnam, together with the history of foreign intervention beginning with the French Protectorate, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge period and the civil war and liberation in 1979 – it is widely recognised that NGOs have been essential in stabilising Cambodia’s population.

While it may be somewhat discomforting for local people to be asked to tolerate well-funded foreigners running around getting involved in poor people’s lives, even the most ardent of Cambodian nationalists must agree that NGOs have played essential roles in stabilising the population following the removal of the Pol Pot regime.

Most NGOs operating in Cambodia work closely with the government, creating a kind of mutual dependency in which the funding and expertise provided by the NGOs are deeply appreciated by state officials – especially at the village level.

Today, more than 30 years after Cambodia opened to NGOs, as the Cambodian population becomes increasingly stabilised, more than US$100 million per year in funding is distributed among the NGOs operating here.  

In cases where NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO usually maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from membership in the organisation. Thus, government aid money could be donated to an NGO from China, Japan, the United States, Germany or South Korea, for example, and the NGO could still retain its non-government status.

In most cases, representatives of the Cambodian government have a mutually beneficial relationship with NGOs which gather the funding and develop ideas about how to get benefits, training and improvements to needy sectors of the population.

NGOs need cooperation from government officials at all levels to get the work done in the provinces, so while there may be some jockeying for advantage, the relationships are often mutually supportive, as in the case of the Kampong Speu Governor’s office and the NGOs working on sanitation projects.

The term NGO is usually applied only to organisations that pursue some wider social aim that has political aspects, but that is not overtly political organisations. Unlike the term “intergovernmental organisation”, the term “non-governmental organisation” has no generally agreed legal definition. In many jurisdictions, these types of groups are called “civil society organisations” or referred to by other names.

According to the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia in its 2010 Review of the NGO Sector in Cambodia, 72 percent of NGOs in Cambodia are local and 28 percent are international NGOs. There are an estimated 2,000 LNGOs and more than 300 INGOs operating in Cambodia today.

In terms of size and financial strength, some of the world’s biggest NGOs are involved humanitarian work such as Oxfam, CARE, World Vision and Save the Children – all large organizations with significant financial clout.

World Vision, for example, had a worldwide annual budget for 2006 of about $2.1 billion. The National Bank of Cambodia estimated Cambodia’s gross domestic product in 2010 at $11.36 billion.

The number of internationally operating NGOs is estimated at 40,000.  The line between an “NGO” a “nonprofit” and “civil society” is often blurred in debates. Yet in the case of Cambodia, it is generally true to regard NGOs as organisations involved somehow in providing benefits to the population.

NGOs are defined by the World Bank as “private organisations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development”.

Common usage varies between countries - for example NGO is commonly used for domestic organisations in Australia that would be referred to as non-profit organisations in the US. Such organisations that operate on the international level are fairly consistently referred to as “non-governmental organisations” in the US and elsewhere.

International non-governmental organisations have a history dating back to at least 1839. It has been estimated that by 1914 there were 1,083 NGOs.

However, the phrase “non-governmental organisation” only came into popular use with the establishment of the United Nations Organisation in 1945 with provisions in Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter for a consultative role for organisations which are neither governments nor member states.

The definition of “International NGO” is first given in resolution 288 (X) of ECOSOC on February 27, 1950: it is defined as “any international organisation that is not founded by an international treaty”. The vital role of NGOs and other “major groups” in sustainable development was recognised in Chapter 27 of Agenda 21, leading to intense arrangements for a consultative relationship between the UN and NGOs.

During the 20th century international treaties and international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation had been criticised as being too focused on the interests of capitalist enterprises. NGOs have developed to emphasise humanitarian issues, developmental aid and sustainable development.

A prominent example of this is the World Social Forum, which is a rival convention to the World Economic Forum held annually in January in Davos, Switzerland. The fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005 was attended by representatives from more than 1,000 NGOs.

There’s a debate that, NGOs take the place of what should belong to popular movements of the poor. Others argue that NGOs are often imperialist in nature, that they sometimes operate in a racist manner in Third World countries and that they fulfill a similar function to that of the clergy during the colonial era. Philosopher Peter Hallward argues that they are an aristocratic form of politics.

Yet, NGOs remain a fact of life in Cambodia and while some of them may have gradually shifted emphasis towards bureaucratic largesse and away from relentless service of the needy – that’s not always the case – the truth is complex and each NGO is individual and shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest.

An NGOs is a legally constituted organisation that operates independently from any government

Understanding the role of NGOs in Cambodia requires individual study of each one. The good news is, in the fullness of time, tactics have been developed and shared through organisations like the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia and NGOs are able to borrow proven techniques from each other about how to make programs for sanitation, health and economic development work within the framework of the local governments.
Apart from “NGO”, often alternative terms are used as for example: independent sector, volunteer sector, civil society, grassroots organisations, transnational social movement organisations, private voluntary organisations, self-help organisations and non-state actors.

Non-governmental organisations are a heterogeneous group. A long list of acronyms has developed around the term “NGO”. There are also numerous classifications of NGOs.The typology the World Bank uses divides them into operational and advocacy.

The primary purpose of an operational NGO is the design and implementation of development-related projects. One frequently used categorisation is the division into relief-oriented versus development-oriented organisations; they can also be classified according to whether they stress service delivery or participation; or whether they are religious or secular; and whether they are more public or private-oriented. Operational NGOs can be community-based, national or international.

The primary purpose of an Advocacy NGO is to defend or promote a specific cause. As opposed to operational project management, these organisations typically try to raise awareness, acceptance and knowledge by lobbying, press work and activist events.

USAID refers to NGOs as private voluntary organisations. Others argue, however, that this definition is problematic because many NGOs are state and corporate funded and manage projects with professional staff.

NGOs exist for a variety of reasons, usually to further the political or social goals of their members or funding providers. Examples include improving the state of the natural environment, encouraging the observance of human rights, improving the welfare of the disadvantaged, or representing a corporate agenda.

However, there are a huge number of such organisations and their goals cover a broad range of political and philosophical positions. This can also easily be applied to private schools and athletic organisations.

The number of internationally operating NGOs is estimated at 40,000. National numbers are even higher: Russia has 277,000 NGOs. India is estimated to have between 1 million and 2 million.

NGOs vary in their methods. Some act primarily as lobbyists, while others primarily conduct programs and activities. For instance, an NGO such as Oxfam, concerned with poverty alleviation, might provide needy people with the equipment and skills to find food and clean drinking water, whereas an NGO like the FFDA helps through investigation and documentation of human rights violations and provides legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. Others, such as the Afghanistan Information Management Services, provide specialised technical products and services to support development activities implemented on the ground by other organisations.

NGOs need healthy relationships with the public to meet their goals. Foundations and charities use sophisticated public relations campaigns to raise funds and employ standard lobbying techniques with governments. Interest groups may be of political importance because of their ability to influence social and political outcomes. A code of ethics was established in 2002 by The World Association of Non Governmental NGOs.

The Cambodian Committee for Cooperation has established a voluntary code of ethics for NGOs operating in Cambodia and requests NGOs adopt self-regulation according to those established guidelines.
There is an increasing awareness that management techniques are crucial to project success in NGOs.

Generally, NGOs that are private have either a community or environmental focus. They address issues such as religion, emergency aid, or humanitarian affairs. They mobilise public support and voluntary contributions for aid, they often have strong links with community groups in developing countries, and they often work in areas where government-to-government aid is not possible. NGOs are accepted as a part of the international relations landscape, and while they influence national and multilateral policy-making, increasingly they are more directly involved in local action.

Not all people working for NGOs are volunteers. There is some dispute as to whether expatriates should be sent to developing countries. Often this type of personnel is employed to satisfy a donor who wants to see the project managed by someone from an industrialised country. However, the expertise these employees or volunteers may be counterbalanced by a number of factors: the cost of foreigners is typically higher, they have no grassroot connections in the country they are sent to, and local expertise is often undervalued.

The NGO sector is an important employer in terms of numbers. For example, by the end of 1995, CONCERN worldwide, an international Northern NGO working against poverty, employed 174 expatriates and just over 5,000 national staff working in 10 developing countries in Africa and Asia and Haiti.

Large NGOs may have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. For instance, the budget of the American Association of Retired Persons’ was more than US$540 million in 1999. Funding such large budgets demands significant fundraising efforts on the part of most NGOs. Major sources of NGO funding are membership dues, the sale of goods and services, grants from international institutions or national governments, and private donations. Several European Union grants provide funds accessible to NGOs.

Even though the term “non-governmental organisation” implies independence from governments, most NGOs depend heavily on governments for their funding. A quarter of the $162 million income in 1998 of the famine-relief organisation Oxfam was donated by the British government and the EU.

The Christian relief and development organisation World Vision collected $55 million worth of goods in 1998 from the American government. Nobel Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (known in the US as Doctors Without Borders) gets 46 percent of its income from government sources.

Some NGOs, such as Greenpeace, do not accept funding from governments

Government funding of NGOs is controversial, since, according to David Rieff, writing in The New Republic, “the whole point of humanitarian intervention was precisely that NGOs and civil society had both a right and an obligation to respond with acts of aid and solidarity to people in need or being subjected to repression or want by the forces that controlled them, whatever the governments concerned might think about the matter”. Some NGOs, such as Greenpeace do not accept funding from governments or intergovernmental organisations.
In a March 2000 report on UN reform priorities, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in favour of international humanitarian intervention, arguing that the international community has a “right to protect” citizens of the world against ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity”.

On the heels of the report, the Canadian government launched the Responsibility to Protect R2PPDF (434 KiB) project, outlining the issue of humanitarian intervention. While the R2P doctrine has wide applications, among the more controversial has been the Canadian government’s use of R2P to justify its intervention and support of the coup in Haiti.

Years after R2P, the World Federalist Movement, an organisation which supports “the creation of democratic global structures accountable to the citizens of the world and calls for the division of international authority among separate agencies”, launched Responsibility to Protect - Engaging Civil Society (R2PCS). A collaboration between the WFM and the Canadian government, this aims to bring NGOs into lockstep with the principles outlined under the original R2P project.

The governments of the countries where an NGO is registered may require reporting or other monitoring and oversight. Funding providers generally require reporting and assessment and such information is not necessarily publicly available. There may also be associations and watchdog organisations that research and publish details on the actions of NGOs working in particular geographic or program areas.

In recent years, many large corporations have increased their corporate social responsibility departments in an attempt to preempt NGO campaigns against certain corporate practices. As the logic goes, if corporations work with NGOs, NGOs will not work against corporations.

The legal form of NGOs is diverse and depends upon homegrown variations in each country’s laws and practices. NGOs are not subjects of international law, as states are. An exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is subject to certain matters, mainly relating to the Geneva Convention.

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg drafted the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organisations in 1986, which sets a common legal basis for the existence and work of NGOs in Europe. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of association, which is a norm for NGOs. Some reasearch courtesy of  www.wikipedia.org.

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