The post-Cold War era has witnessed the rise to prominence of many types of nonstate players on the international stage, including international, regional and subregional organizations, trade regimes, multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations. The last group has perhaps drawn the most attention.
In recent months, NGOs have made headlines wherever there has been an international gathering, be it Seattle, Washington or Bangkok, getting blamed for street protests and violence. The recent G8 summit held in Kyushu and Okinawa offered a slightly different image of NGOs, as Japan gave them official recognition with the opening of the Japanese NGO Center for International Cooperation in Okinawa. That move enabled 40 NGOs to coordinate their activities to urge G8 countries to give priority to eliminating poverty and supporting children across the world. They also met Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori just prior to the summit and extracted promises from him to make their views known at the summit.
As international recognition of the important role that NGOs play has grown, they have come under increasing scrutiny. The wide range of NGOs in existence appear to have widely contrasting images ranging from “do-gooders” to “evil.” In certain areas of international life, NGOs have supplemented state functions, overshadowed state actors and even taken governments to task.
Broadly speaking, NGOs can be divided into two categories: the international NGOs of the developed world and the NGOs of the developing world.
International NGOs, such as London-based Oxfam and Amnesty International, are the best-known NGOs: the former for its charitable services and the latter for its monitoring of human-rights abuses.
U.S.-based Greenpeace International, equipped with its own vessels, is better known for its militant environmental views. Paris-based Medicins Sans Frontieres offers medical services in disaster and violent-prone zones across continents, and has already earned laurels, including a Nobel Prize, for its role in saving lives. The missionary activities of many Christian NGOs have also long been well recognized.
The NGOs that have mushroomed in the Third World in recent years have different roots and histories. Some were founded by dynamic individuals with a sense of a service. Entrepreneurial motivation lay behind the start of others.
With hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease and natural disasters on an increase, some NGOs provide emergency services to many people in times of critical need. Others provide credit to those who are socially vulnerable. One reason behind the proliferation of such NGOs is the failure of governments to deliver.
Many NGOs of the developing world receive generous support from wealthy countries and from international financial institutions, especially the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Both these institutions act as intermediaries between the NGOs and state governments, They are also taking a leading role in the promotion of NGOs as new international actors, ensuring that they have a favorable regulatory framework.
These financial institutions and donor governments are also working to improve the working environment of NGOs in the Third World, channeling considerable financial resources to them. Considering this support, the protests by NGOs at some of the annual gatherings of these institutions is ironic.
Various interpretations exist regarding the roles of NGOs. Some support the institutionalization of a global role with links to both the United Nations and the NGOs of the developed world, together with a greater focus on integrity and performance.
The mechanisms, regulatory framework and financial operations of some NGOs have come under attack, especially in developing countries where they are expanding their activities and are assuming many functions and services that have traditionally been provided by governments.
Most of the NGOs in the developing world are not nonprofit organizations. Indeed, many of them have moved far beyond their original frontiers, entering politics and business. Unfortunately, however, they are perceived as largely nonaccountable and nontransparent, and there is insufficient regulatory framework in place to oversee their management.
NGOs can scarcely claim to represent civil society if they are driven by business and profit motives, become political partisans or power brokers and seek to undermine governments that are democratically elected.
Overall, however, they have brought dynamism, involvement, participation and innovation to the international arena. Room exists for improvement in the utilization of NGOs at the grassroots level for social mobilization and environmental protection. For governments that possess democratic credentials, effectiveness and credibility, NGOs can help serve as the state’s eyes, ears and arms in the never-ending effort to provide better governance.
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