Global Policy Forum

The Rise and Rise of NGOs


By Peter Hall-Jones

Public Services International
May 2006

The NGO sector is now the eighth largest economy in the world — worth over $1 trillion a year globally. It employs nearly 19 million paid workers, not to mention countless volunteers[1]. NGOs spend about $US15 billion on development each year, about the same as the World Bank[2]. But while the NGO movement has been growing rapidly since the 1980s, the union movement has been in decline. Why, and what does this mean for unions and public services?

The links between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions run very deep. It was civil society activism, led by trade unions, which paved the way for the rise of NGOs after WWII. Many of them were directly established by unions[3]. The two work together in powerful coalitions (such as the Global Call to Action against Poverty and the anti-sweatshop movement), and run joint campaigns against free trade agreements and various huge companies (think Wal-Mart). It can be a winning combination, as the anti-apartheid struggle showed ten years ago, and the battle against water privatisation is showing today. In fact the term "social movement unionism" was coined to reflect this wider collaborative approach, which has changed the face of many developing countries, most recently in Georgia and the Ukraine, and previously throughout much of Latin America.

NGOs have often acted as proxies for unions in countries where the labour movement is repressed. Codes of conduct and corporate responsibility are often won through joint pressure, and NGO staff tend to be active members within their unions, just as union staff are often involved with NGO work. Each year the two exchange huge amounts of money in support of each other's projects.

Some countries (such as Ireland and South Africa) are even going beyond tri-partism to include civil society and NGOs as a fourth social partner. The ILO is currently (and hotly) debating a similar step. The United Nations has given advocacy groups an international framework within which to work. Is this an historical opportunity for unions and NGOs to form the ultimate international alliance?

It is not that simple.

Just what is an NGO?

The NGO movement is a complex mishmash of alliances and rivalries; charities and businesses; radicals and conservatives. Funding comes in from all quarters, and it goes back out again in every conceivable direction. The World Bank definition of NGOs is broad enough to include PSI as one of the world's oldest. It also includes most churches. The WTO definition is broader still; broad enough to include industry lobby groups such as the Association of Swiss Bankers and the International Chamber of Commerce[4]. The closer one looks, the more inclined one is to wonder whether the expression "non-governmental organisation" has any significant meaning at all.

The term NGO came into currency at the end of the Second World War, as the United Nations sought to differentiate between inter-governmental specialized agencies and private organisations. But the movement's origins are much older. The first international NGO was probably the Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1839. The anti-slavery movement, which reached its height at the end of the 18th century, was the catalyst for many organisations that followed. Other early NGOs grew out of wars, including the Red Cross in the1850s after the Franco–Italian war; Save the Children after World War I; and Oxfam and CARE after World War II.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now the world's biggest NGO, with an endowment of $28.8 billion. Some NGOs are sophisticated media darlings; others are waging tireless battles in anonymity at grass-roots level. Some, such as Amnesty International, are membership-based, refusing to accept money from governments or political parties. Others are huge profit-making organisations, which exist purely to lobby on behalf of profit-driven interests.

Increasingly, NGOs are becoming tied to governments by way of funding arrangements and contracts for service. In 2001 CARE International received almost 70% of its $US420 million budget from government contributions. A 1998 survey showed that a quarter of Oxfam's income came from the British government and the EU. World Vision in the United States collected US$55 million worth of goods from the US government. In the same year Médecins Sans Frontií¨res got 46% of its income from government sources[5]. Earlier, a six country study of NGO income found that: "fees for services had increased by 52%, and revenue from the public sector by 40%. In the meantime philanthropical income had only increased by 8%[6]".

Perhaps the only thing that can be said with any certainty about the NGO movement is that it represents civil society's most visible response to globalisation.

Historically speaking, the trade union movement started to develop at roughly the same time - in response to the industrial revolution. But the evolution of unions has run a very different course. After 175 years the movement has developed into the world's largest democratic force. Reaching from shop floor level in most sectors of most countries, up through national federations and on to a series of regional and global federations, the peak body, the ICFTU, can justifiably claim to speak for about 155 million people.

There may be a huge area of common interest between the two movements, but industrialisation and globalisation are two very different revolutions. The respective forms which have evolved (and the resulting cultural differences) often lead to difficulties and tensions. As one union leader put it recently, "The NGO movement may be a great force for change, but it cannot say what that change should be."

Paradoxically, this lack of a unified political voice may explain the dramatic growth of NGOs since the 1980s. As the World Bank and IMF forced cuts in public services, NGOs were encouraged to move in to fill the gaps. They were considered: "the preferred channel for service provision, in deliberate substitution for the state". "The World Bank not only encourages member governments to work with NGOs on development projects, but also directly funds the NGO projects. It is reported that, from 1973 to 1988, NGOs were involved in about 15 (World) Bank projects a year. By 1990 that number had jumped to 89, or 40% of all new projects approved.[7]."

There is no particular logic behind this transition; it seems to serve an ideological purpose rather than an economic one. There is no evidence to show that NGO service provision is cheaper than public provision. In fact: "…in the United States, where NGOs have a highly developed role in the provision of services under government contract, they have come under criticism precisely because they inflate program costs, as well as creating new bureaucratic problems of accountability.".[8]

This much is becoming clear: there is no simple formula to explain or develop the relationship between unions and NGOs. Many are natural allies; others are working in complementary areas; but some are almost competitors, thriving on problems which unions are trying to prevent. The best rule of thumb is probably this: don't even try to make generalisations about NGOs; it will only lead to delusions.

Some tips

PSI has worked with NGOs all over the world, at both national and international levels. We played a major role in last year's Global Call to Action against Poverty, and have been heavily involved in the Our World is Not for Sale network, among others. Deputy General Secretary Alan Leather recently co-edited a book on the relationship between NGOs and unions[9], in which he concludes: "there are issues of such significance to civil society, including workers and their organisations, that the only way to tackle them is through the broadest possible coalitions". In this increasingly global environment, NGOs are often the shock troops of civil society. Unions, perhaps, are the nascent alternative.

If the NGO movement can be compared with any other phenomenon, it is probably the networked chaos of the worldwide web. This comparison suggests some pointers on engagement. As with worldwide web pages:

• Don't put too much stock in first impressions.

• Develop a ranking over time by going back more often to ones that work, and less often to those that don't.

• Be open to new ideas - the search process often improves the question.

• Develop mutual links rather than trying to establish shared structures.

As the union movement continues to evolve in the face of globalisation, unions may have more to learn from NGOs than from any other player. As we saw during the unprecedented global actions against poverty in 2005, the best NGOs don't just meet your expectations, they change them.


[1] From The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change, an annual survey of the NGO movementundertaken by SustainAbility in partnership with the United Nations and several other organizations and corporations. This study reveals that many NGOs are now shifting from their traditional confrontational roles to more collaborative interactions with governments and businesses. See

[2] From Caritas Australia's website. See

[3] For an interesting contemporary example of this see

[4] From The rise and role of NGOs in sustainable development, by BSDglobal. See

[5] See

[6] From The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change (see footnote 1).

[7] In 1997, approved World Bank projects in Third World countries involving NGOs were: 84% in South Asia, 61% in Africa, and 60% in Latin America and the Caribbean . Journal of Third World Studies, Spring 2002, by Makoba, J Wagona. See

[8] Development NGOs, the State and Neo-Liberalism: Competition, Partnership or Co-conspiracy by John C. Cross, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, The American University in Cairo (published in Proceedings of the Fourth Annual AUC Research Conference. Office of Graduate Studies and Research, American University in Cairo. July 1997). See

[9] Development NGOs and Labor Unions: Terms of Engagement Ed. Deborah Eade and Alan Leather, Kumarian Press 2005

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