Global Policy Forum

NGOs and Civil Society:


Anthony Judge

Union of International Associations
December 1994


As with the concept of "culture" itself (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952), it is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of "civil society" is understood in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. Robin Guthrie (1994) clarifies the distinction from Anglo-Saxon and French perspectives. Its value may even derive in part from the ambiguity associated with the term as admirably explored by Keith Tester (1992) and Paul Ghils (1992).

A wide variety of modes of association into groups is a reality for some. But social and individual development is not necessarily believed to require the existence of many of them, especially the less common. The nature of the development of individuals and groups to some form of maturity through a variety of social contexts has not yet been effectively defined. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of development within society that does not concentrate on basic human needs. For some cultures and perspectives, however, it is the failure to cultivate the possibility of association in its many forms which reinforces the ills engendered in the world.

The purpose of this paper is to explore ways of moving beyond the limitations of the many particular ways of discussing "civil society". It endeavours to identity broader issues of relevance to public policy formulation in response to the challenge of "civil society" to governance as indicated by Yehezkel Dror (1995).

One of the difficulties is that "civil society" itself is discussed through a variety of terms whose partial equivalence has not been effectively explored. These include: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), voluntary associations, nonprofit sector, not-for-profit sector, charitable organizations, benevolent societies and third sector. Depending on who uses these terms, they may, or may not, include bodies such as labour unions, trade associations, professional societies, or legally unrecognized (and even illegal) bodies such as cartels and crime rings. In many cases it is not what a particular approach includes that is as significant as what is effectively excluded and why (Judge, 1994), as shown in Table 1.

Many modern protagonists fail to recognize that the debate about the nature of "nongovernmental organizations" (NGOs) has been in progress since the beginning of the century. Many of the points concerning the relationship between governmental and nongovernmental organizations have been made many times over -- some of them over a period of decades.

There is therefore merit in reflecting on the collective ability to process these questions in new and fruitful ways. There is a sense in which it is in the interests of many to avoid clarity and conclusion and simply to perpetuate the discussion. And there is the continuing interest of others to arrive at simplistic solutions if possible. The debate is complicated by a degree of unwillingness to recognize some weaknesses in the present arrangements.

Times have changed in that the credibility of all international institutions and programmes is questioned to a greater degree, notably in the case of the United Nations. There is increasing scope for organizations to act independently, especially when any form of collaboration with other bodies, and especially the United Nations, is fraught with unproductive dynamics that constitute an unreasonable drain on resources.

The purpose here is to attempt briefly to indicate the range of contexts within which the debate on "nongovernmental organizations" takes place and which give it different emphases and flavours. It is too readily assumed that the truths emerging from one such context are applicable or relevant to others. "Nongovernmental organization" continues to escape simplistic definitions.


1. Possibilities of the legal approach

It might be assumed that the most straightforward approach to "civil society" is through the legal provisions made for civil action and especially in relation to freedom of association. The challenge for Russia would then be seen as one of adjusting in some way to the criteria defined in this way, as suggested by Table 2 ***. But even "freedom of association" tends to be understood in international law primarily in terms of the right of workers to assemble and form labour unions as defined by an ILO Convention.

This approach would involve a review of national legislation relevant to associations and collective civil action. This is no easy task. The most useful collection, covering the European Union countries plus Switzerland, is that of Elie Alfandari (1990). A second part comments on developments in European Community law in relation to associations. A comparative study of national legislation regarding non- profit organizations in European countries has been made by Carl Hemstrí¶m (1990). A useful brief review of the differences appears in a report by N Fontaine (1986) in relation to the European Parliament's initiative towards a resolution on such bodies. This has been superseded by the work of the Commission of the European Communities (1992) towards the definition of a "European association". This currently takes the form of a proposal for a programme of work "to assist cooperatives, mutual societies, associations and foundations" (1994).

These efforts are the culmination of a long history of some ten initiatives, dating from 1912, to clarify the legal status of international associations. These are summarized, with texts, in a study by the Union of International Associations (1988) which has been involved in several of them. Of these initiatives, only the Council of Europe's European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-governmental Organizations has as yet come into force (in 1991, currently with seven signatures).

Clearly the efforts to define or recognize a European or international association call for the clarification of criteria which may be considered to largely define the nature of civil society, independently of its purely civil and human rights aspects. It may be assumed that in the absence of any systematic comparative review of national legislations in this regard, that the points raised in the international texts are effectively efforts to summarize and harmonize whatever shared understanding there is.

From this perspective there is therefore merit in a systematic comparison of the different initiatives towards international legal recognition of what effectively amounts to a "Western" attempt to define such civil activity in its associative dimension. An issue-by-issue comparison of these initiatives forms part of the study (by this author) for the Union of International Associations (1988) and appears in tabular form (Appendix 3.8). Included in this comparison is the ILO Convention Concerning Freedom of Association and Protection (in force July 1950), and the proposed statute for European Commercial Companies.

A similar approach could be taken by identifying relevant articles in the various human rights treaties. As an experiment, in order to broaden the basis for discussion, it is even possible to use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a template to construct a set of articles relevant to human organizations (Judge, 1971).

Such efforts are undoubtedly necessary and will be a principal focus of other papers at this seminar. But, as Guthrie and Ghils have shown, it is questionable whether they are sufficient to clarify the nature of "civil society", especially where there are concerns about the effective functioning of society. There is always a danger of relying on legislation which emerges from unfortunate compromises or whose implementation is inadequate or lends itself to distorting misinterpretations -- as has proven to be the case with regard to approaches to legal recognition of international NGOs. Nina Belyaeva (1994) makes the point that it is not any single law which can meet the challenge in Russia, but rather there is need for a "whole package of laws, each designed to solve its concrete problem." But to that requirement she adds the additional conditions:

Adequate quality of laws designed to meet concrete needs of society in its different forms Close correspondence of laws, not only as to their meaning, but also to the accuracy of legal wording.

There are however dangers in relying too much on legal initiatives especially when democratic pressure for such legal structures must emerge from widespread understanding based on quite different perspectives. Legislation can contribute to the reinforcement of that understanding, but it cannot evoke it.

2. Effective functioning of society

In his exploration of Civic, civil or servile?, Robin Guthrie (1994) defines Civil Society as:

It is what citizens do together in their own right at the bidding of no higher authority, for the common good, and apart, generally speaking, from direct party political affiliation or alignment. The civil society is not concerned primarily with power, although it may be ranged against the excessive concentration or abuse of power in any quarter.

Beyond the purely legal criteria, Daniel Siegel and Jenny Yancey (1992, p. 15) comment on the potential for creating a deeply rooted network of organizations and institutions that mediate between the citizen and the State: the connective tissue of a democratic culture. Such organizations are seen as serving several essential functions:

Providing a means for expressing and actively addressing the varied and complex needs of society Motivating individuals to act as citizens in all aspects of society rather than bowing to or depending on state power and beneficence Promoting pluralism and diversity in society, such as protecting and strengthening cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic and other identities Creating an alternative to centralized state agencies for providing services with greater independence and flexibility Establishing the mechanisms by which governments and the market can be held accountable by the public

They recognize as a major challenge the need to create legal and fiscal structures to regulate and support what is increasingly being referred to as the "third sector". It can however be argued that the legislation in many Western countries, and especially in developing countries, is not especially supportive of such organizations (Judge, 1976). This derives from a continuing debate over the relevance of the third sector to particular social and other issues and to government initiatives in relation to those issues. This ambiguity, often between (and even within) government ministries, is also reflected at the international level, notably amongst United Nations agencies and their departments.

It is clear that associations are often effectively used as partners by some government agencies. It is also clear that the nature of this relationship, and those it benefits, is continually challenged by both sides. Perhaps the most valuable recent evaluations from the United Nations side are the Report of the Secretary-General (1994) and of the Joint Inspection Unit (1993) -- both of which can usefully interpreted for insights on the challenge at the national level, despite the best of intentions. Issues include (Judge, 1976):

Fiscal support or handicaps, of associations and their personnel; Politicization, by government cooptation (or as front organizations), or in opposition to government initiatives; Conflicting interpretations of civil rights; Fraudulent practices both by associations and by government agencies supporting them (including collusive practices); The nature of unacceptable association objectives and practices (including the challenge of sects); Conflicting perceptions of the role of nonprofit bodies, notably perception of them as propaganda vehicles for government campaigns; Development of patterns of privilege and collusion between certain associations and agencies; Human rights issues raised by associations with restrictive membership (whether by religion, gender, age, education, ethnic origin, or other criteria); The nature of membership and other relationships to international associations (headquartered elsewhere), especially with regard to programmes defined elsewhere; The ability to provide secretariat facilities for international associations with members in other countries, receiving funds from them, and distributing funds to them; The nature of any partnership between associations and government agencies.

It is also clear that a multitude of associations are created and develop quite independent of any reference to government initiatives and support -- and often despite subtle efforts to undermine or handicap them. They provide a vehicle for individual expression, as exemplified by sporting and recreational bodies. Despite opposition from certain Western perspectives, Guthrie quotes Ralf Dahrendorf's, view that in a certain sense civil society sustains itself and does not seem to need the state.

It can be argued that the ongoing debates on these issues are in fact themselves a crucial feature of the nature of civil society. Its nature is then as much defined by the questions that are continually being raised as by the particular answers that are sought and found at any one time, in any particular country, or in relationship to any particular issue or government department.

3. Efficiency and effectiveness approach

Following from the above, and irrespective of the approaches outlined below, there has emerged a tendency to explore the significance of associations in terms of their efficiency or effectiveness. This approach is naturally favoured by government agencies which have some responsibility for the allocation of subsidies to associations. The argument is that unless an association is efficient or effective according to government-established criteria, then it is irrelevant to government action. A particularly tough review of charities in the UK was completed from this perspective in 1994.

Whilst this approach has its place in the allocation of scarce funds, its limitations are apparent when the significance of an association is not captured by simplistic management criteria. From the perspective of their members, and even for those they may serve, many associations operate quite "satisfactorily" at a high level of "inefficiency". Especially when such bodies make extensive use of voluntary personnel and borrowed facilities, they are able to accomplish a great deal. It is often the case that obsession with criteria of efficiency and effectiveness is specifically rejected by voluntary associations sensitive to other features of civil society.

4. Economic approach

Efforts to establish the relevance of nonprofit associations have long been marked by a purely economic perspective. Early thinking amongst intergovernmental development agencies, notably the World Bank, UNDP and OECD, discounted NGOs as of marginal significance to national development. This reinforced national government biases.

With the recognition by UNICEF of the inhuman consequences of "structural adjustment", the role of NGOs in alleviating such "anti-social" effects has been increasingly recognized, especially at the grass-roots level. Recent humanitarian crises in a number of countries, have dramatized the role of NGOs prepared to act under circumstances which forced United Nations agencies, including military forces, to withdraw. Less dramatic examples have been documented in industrialized countries.

The approach of the European Union is still heavily, if not exclusively, marked by the economic perspective. The above- mentioned proposal in the Community for a multi-annual programme of work for cooperatives, mutual societies, associations and foundations (described therein as "enterprises") is justified solely by economic arguments:

"Whereas cooperatives, mutuals and associations occupy a significant place in economic activity in general and in the development of regions..." "Whereas the development of Community policy for cooperatives, mutuals and associations, based on effective competition, is of major importance in terms of boosting the competitiveness of the European economy, job growth, economic and social cohesion in the Community, the further enlargement of the market after 1993, and the development of cooperation with certain non-member countries;"

Decisions at the national level with regard to support for nonprofit associations of any kind are almost solely based on economic criteria -- with their contributions to social welfare being treated in this light as well.

Thinking within United Nations agencies continues to be heavily influenced by the potential relevance of NGOs for development -- itself narrowly defined. Repeated efforts are made to seek proof of this, despite continuing evidence of a remarkable growth in the number of associations, both locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally. Individuals and associations have not been influenced by government efforts to question their relevance to broader and changing understandings of development (as documented, for example, in the UIA's Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential)

Ironically, it is the travel and tourism sector that has least difficulty in recognizing the economic importance of associations and is most interested in promoting their activity. When a large international association holds its meeting in a particular city, bringing together thousands of members from many countries, the economic impact in terms of hotel, travel and tourism is unquestioned -- leading to vigorous efforts to construct congress centres to profit from this opportunity. The Olympic Games is perhaps the most extreme example. However in 1993 there were some 10,921 international meetings (as registered in the International Congress Calendar published by the Union of International Associations) of which 9,227 were not organized by intergovernmental organizations (and of these 6,547 were organized by international NGOs). The number of meetings at the national level is many times greater.

5. Political approach

The role and relevance of nongovernmental associations has long been questioned from a political perspective, even prior to the stress on their economic role. International recognition of this role was first formally recognized through Article 71 of the United Nations Charter although some recognition of their importance had been accorded by the League of Nations. The political impact of organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace requires no comment. The role of bodies like the Club of Rome (Dror, 1995) in helping to frame the challenges of governance at all levels of society is also unquestioned.

Political science as a discipline is concerned with the acquisition and use of power, notably in relationship to the governance of society. The associated discipline of international relations is concerned with equivalent phenomena at the international level, especially with regard to foreign relations. Nongovernmental organizations have traditionally been of marginal interest from these perspectives because they are considered inherently less powerful than the governments with which these disciplines have been obsessed. International organizations when studied at all are considered an extension of the interest in national foreign policy, leading naturally to a focus on intergovernmental organizations. International NGOs, when studied at all, tend to be viewed through a very limited number of fashionable case studies, notably those on the Red Cross. They have been obliged to take account of transnational corporations once it was demonstrated that their effective power far exceeds that of many nation states. Liberation movements and terrorist groups have also necessitated new thinking.

Despite their recognition of the political power of "lobbies" at the national and international level, practitioners of these disciplines consider NGOs to be essentially irrelevant as serious actors in the fields which they study (Judge, 1977). Many of the lobbies are however institutionalized as associations and NGOs. Ironically political scientists, like lawyers, have themselves created national and international NGOs to represent the international interests of political science and international studies -- but apparently without any concern for the relevance or significance of such organizations according to their own criteria.

Through their obsession with power and influence, and a simplistic approach to the complex ecosystem of nongovernmental organizations, political scientists have reinforced the inability of the international community to appreciate how influence is systematically articulated on global issues. Whether at the national or the international level, there is a misguided attempt to demonstrate that NGOs follow the guidance of governmental organizations. On most, if not all, issues it can however be shown that NGOs functioned as look-out institutions warning of problems which governments then reluctantly considered, after as much delay as possible. It is indeed correct that NGOs may then follow the guidance of government organizations, and indeed some may only be capable of following such guidance. But governmental organizations have proven quick to drop issues that can be treated as too controversial or of lower priority. NGOs again then serve to maintain a focus on such issues until those institutions are again prepared to consider them.

Political scientists have also been naive in their treatment of democratic systems as any assessment of the number and quality of studies on corruption in its many forms will show. Prior to the Italian "clean hands" campaign, there were almost no published studies of corruption in democratic societies -- in comparison with a plethora of studies on other topics which can now be seen to be irrelevant by comparison. As suggested elsewhere (Judge, 1994), even criminal networks can be usefully treated as "nongovernmental organizations". Their influence internationally, notably with respect to the illegal drug and arms trade, should have triggered interest on the part of that discipline. Instead it has reinforced a "candy- floss" (pre-Watergate) image of the civil society and its democratic processes -- with a naivety which the current evolution of democracy in Eastern European countries has admirably highlighted. Beyond that one might ask what studies have been undertaken on the power of elitist clubs and secret societies to influence the course of events.

The theoretical interests of political scientists, and the attention accorded to them within the international community, have served to obscure the significance of the continuing proliferation of nongovernmental organizations which have no desire to seek power. Their concern is to articulate their members interests in many fields of human activity, whether it be recreation, science, the arts, religion, or the like. All this political science has served to disparage at a time when international community building and the articulation of values is increasingly perceived as a major issue. The late interest of the discipline in transnational social movements merely serves as a reminder that this discipline's strengths lie in offering explanations about the past not in guiding the evolution of the future and the institutional arrangements required for it.

6. Social approach

The social sciences concerned with other features of associative activity have been remarkably slow in developing interest in this centuries-old phenomenon (cf Dominique Colas, 1992). But the dramatic increase in the numbers of such bodies (Guthrie cites 54,000 associations created in France in 1987, and 4,000 charities created each year in the UK). At the international level the number of NGOs, in which such bodies may be represented, continues to increase as documented in the Yearbook of International Organizations edited by the Union of International Associations. The number of country-to-international NGO links increased from 24,136 in 1960 to 126,655 in 1994.

At the national and local level, associations have come to be seen as part of the community building process, whether it involves social welfare, philanthropic, recreational or other interests. So many associations have been created in response to concrete social needs that since the end of the 1970s social scientists have been obliged to focus on them, or themselves be found to be irrelevant in their understanding of contemporary society. This has lead to the emergence of an academic specialization termed "third sector research".

Such voluntary associations are of course "nongovernmental organizations". Many may be referred to as "NGOs" in other settings. However as voluntary associations they tend not to include other bodies known under the NGO label. Thus it is questionable whether professional, labour, trade, academic or special interest groups would be included as voluntary associations in any "third sector" focus on "NGOs". Third sector research is noteworthy for its total lack of interest in the international NGOs (of which those they study are often members), whatever that might mean within that research framework. However there is much interest in cross-national comparisons of voluntary associations emerging in different countries. The key question is always what is excluded under any label such as "nonprofit" or "NGO".

With rare exceptions, the social sciences, as reinforced by UNESCO (which has a mandate in this area), have never been able to treat nongovernmental organizations as a phenomenon in their own right. Consequently there is no sense of the variety of organizations falling under this label or of the complex social (eco)system which they constitute. Ironically most of the social sciences are admirably represented through a whole range of international NGOs reflecting their various disciplinary concerns. Such bodies have never considered the social function or setting of what they are.

Such attitudes have prevented the emergence of any understanding of what this rich pattern of thousands of organizations represents for the future of the global system. This is especially tragic when there is concern in many countries at the challenge of community building and the construction of a civil society. Their failure is to be seen notably in their inability to respond effectively to the emerging conditions in Eastern Europe -- and to the appeals for assistance and insights from those regions and the developing world.

7. Psycho-cultural approach

The above approaches favoured by government institutions and mainstream academia tend to obscure what might usefully be called a psycho-cultural approach. At best the social sciences, even in their applied form, tend to be concerned with "community building" as an aspect of social welfare, or with the provision of basic needs, and social safety nets. Consequently there is little concern for what would be perceived as the subjective importance of associative activity.

It is clear that the ability of individuals to form associations is a valued human right -- however obscure the concern of the association. It is a form of expression that is vital in an increasingly alienating and atomized society. Membership of associations provides people with opportunities to participate in larger communities, whether or not their are any political implications. It can be vital to the development of an individual sense of identity.

It is ironic that associations of the disabled, of music lovers, of those with particular religious or philosophical beliefs, of obscure scientific specialities, of those concerned with unrecognized values or poorly recognized sports, and the like, should be required to demonstrate their political or economic value in order to justify their existence. The value of such bodies has recently been demonstrated in the case of associations in support of minority ethnic groups in different countries. At the international level this has been most obvious in the case of indigenous peoples. In many of these cases the issue is more cultural identity and its expression -- and the manner in which they are threatened by a variety of social forces - - rather than more conventional social and economic issues.


1. Consultative relationships

Well known to some within the international community is the recognition of certain nongovernmental organizations by various United Nations bodies for "consultative" purposes. ECOSOC and a number of Specialized Agencies of the UN have such systems of relationships, each governed by different sets of regulations and procedures. As a consequence, "NGO" for one such institution is not the same as "NGO" for another -- notably for any statistical purposes. In practical terms this means that an NGO in consultative relationship with one institution may literally not exist for another. This strange phenomenon is due to the legalistic perspective applied to any form of "consultative" relationship. In this sense a nongovernmental organization only acquires existence, for a particular part of the UN system, through being recognized through the procedures of the consultative relationship. The consultative status procedure has been replicated in various forms with intergovernmental systems other than the United Nations.

The regulations governing admission to different levels of consultative status are in principle designed to privilege those NGOs of greatest relevance to the programmes of the intergovernmental institution in question. In practice, and increasingly, such relevance is determined on purely political grounds as part of the wider trade-off between factions amongst the member states. Some very curious bodies thus manage to acquire consultative relationship, whilst other quite genuine bodies fail to do so. Ironically, some intergovernmental bodies unable to relate effectively to major intergovernmental institutions through other channels, actually choose to define themselves as nongovernmental organizations in order to achieve such a relationship -- and are accepted in that capacity.

2. Consultancy relationships

The rigorous approach to consultative relationship is in total contrast to the pragmatism governing any form of "consultancy" practised by intergovernmental institutions (whether or not it has a system of consultative relationships). Thus when in need the secretariats of such institutions are usually free to involve, through a system of sub-contracting, any nongovernmental body they choose (whether or not it "exists" in the above sense, or is appropriately representative). Thus nongovernmental bodies may work under formal contract, in a "consultative" capacity, whether or not they have any "consultative relationship". This is one reason that many nongovernmental organizations find it unnecessary to seek recognition through a system of consultative arrangements. It is also a reason why many other intergovernmental bodies find it unnecessary to develop a system of consultative arrangements. It is equally true that many bodies recognized through such arrangements are never called upon to do contract work, whether or not they are "consulted" as provided by such arrangements. Ironically, from a legal point of view, any such formal contract should only be entered into by the intergovernmental organization with a legally recognized entity (whether or not its existence is recognized by the institution as indicated above) -- but this constraint is not necessarily respected in practice.

3. Public information programmes

Intergovernmental institutions, such as that of the United Nations, devote a considerable proportion of their resources to some form of public relations. In the relevant departments of the institution the role of nongovernmental organizations in disseminating the message to wider publics has long been recognized -- often to the point of considering it their only role. Such departments therefore enter into semi-formal relationships ("Associate" in the case of the UN Department of Public Information) with organizations -- without any reference to whether the organizations have "consultative relationship". In fact it is not clear whether it is necessary for them to prove that they "exist" in any way. Such bodies may be brought together for regular briefing sessions and may even be better and more rapidly informed than those in consultative relationship. Given the budgetary priorities, it is likely that more institutional resources are devoted per organization to such associates than to those in consultative relationship.

4. Conference participation

Intergovernmental institutions frequently invite representatives of "nongovernmental organizations" to their conferences, whether as experts, full participants or observers. Given the level of expertise of some NGOs, such invitations may be necessary to give substantive legitimacy to the intergovernmental conference. Such invitations may be limited to representatives of those bodies in consultative relationship, although they may be extended to those associated with its public relations programme, or they may include or be limited to other bodies considered relevant to the theme or purpose of the event (even to the point of excluding those in consultative relationship). Participation may be arranged with all expenses paid, or even under some consultancy contract. The broad approach to accrediting "NGOs" for the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) has been experienced as extremely challenging to the formal consultative status procedure, because of the precedent it set in opening participation to organizations not previously considered to be "NGOs" by such intergovernmental organizations.

5. Transnational corporations

The United Nations has devoted considerable resources to documenting the questionable activities of "transnational corporations" -- which it distinguishes, in contrast to common practice, from "multinational corporations" (a termed reserved by the UN for intergovernmental for-profit corporations). Transnational corporations are nongovernmental organizations, although they may have governmental stockholders (see organizational hybrids, below). They are of course not "nonprofit" nongovernmental organizations, except when they are ineffective in achieving their objectives. However there is considerable debate about how many "NGOs" are actually "nonprofit-making", especially when they sell publications or services to fund their other activities or are effectively fronts for commercial interests. Transnational corporations have long been viewed negatively by intergovernmental institutions which, on the surface, have few formal relations with them. There are however significant exceptions, notably in the banking world with which the World Bank group is necessarily intimately linked. Given the selective ability to recognize NGOs as "existing", it might be asked how the UN was able to study transnational corporations, which do not have any more international legal existence than NGOs (see below).

Despite their questionable existence, some transnational corporations, like other nongovernmental organizations, are capable of supplying goods and services. International institutions have a need for such goods and services and consequently have found ways to enter into long- and short-term contracts with transnational corporations (or their local subsidiaries) for their supply. Often the transnational corporations most criticized by the UN have been those on which intergovernmental institutions have been most dependent for office and other supplies and services. Ironically member governments are often major stockholders in transnational corporations and consequently are far from being disinterested parties when institutions put out any call for tender (as their acquisitions of computer equipment have always illustrated). International institutions often have very cosy long-term arrangements with travel agencies, banks and catering services as a visit to any secretariat will reveal.

Ironically, so skilled are transnational corporations in their use of the law and their cultivation of political influence, that they can take the form (in some countries) of "nonprofit" organizations -- known variously as "coordination centres" or "distribution centres". This is notably the case where they can arrange for their regional headquarters (for Europe, say) to receive funds from elsewhere "for administrative purposes", whether or not they are disbursed to other countries. The salaries of hundreds of people coordinating the activities of the corporation may be funded in this way because in such a country the corporation manufactures nothing and makes no profits. In this sense they are "nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations". In Belgium there is even a Federation of Coordination Centres benefitting from such facilities and assisting other corporations to acquire such nonprofit status. The criteria of a "coordination centres" are specified by royal decree and even make it possible for administrative units within a profit-making corporation office to acquire such status -- provided that the unit (such as a finance department) does not itself make a profit.

6. Press and media

As part of their public information programme, international institutions necessarily cultivate most assiduously the press, media and wire services. In many cases the media are effectively "nongovernmental organizations", often as divisions of transnational corporations (see above). They may also be divisions of "NGOs", or NGOs in their own right -- whether national or international. There is also the delicate sociological question (see Internet organizations below) of how it is useful to distinguish functionally between an organization (with its membership) and a media service (with its subscribers and audience). From this perspective, how "nongovernmental" is an international press or media service, whether government owned or not?

7. Consultative status NGO conferences

Some of the NGOs in consultative relationship with a particular institution (as in the case of ECOSOC or UNESCO) may meet together occasionally at a conference and elect some form of committee to represent them in their dealings with that institution (although, despite their function, such bodies are not recognized through any consultative relationship). The conference may have its own semi- permanent task forces and working groups. Each such conference necessarily has a particular understanding of the nature of an "NGO" as defined by the particular rules governing relationship with the accrediting institution -- whether or not some of the members of one such conference are also members of another. There has been relatively little coordination between such conferences over the years, whether or not this might have been considered fruitful. Given that such conferences only attract a proportion of the potential membership of those in consultative relationship with the accrediting institution, it might be asked whether the non-participating members reflect some alternative understanding of the nature of an "NGO".

8. "Fundamentalist" NGOs: citizens movements

Amongst nongovernmental organizations with some contact with the intergovernmental organizations and their conferences there has arisen a tendency to distinguish between "elitist" bodies and those which are genuinely "democratic", "peoples organizations" and "citizens movements". From this perspective only the latter are considered "NGOs" worthy of the name. The many conventional bodies serving a variety of other purposes are considered by them to be of little relevance, being more a part of the problem than of the solution.

9. Humanitarian NGOs

The dramatic problems of disasters, wars and underdevelopment have encouraged a specific kind of "NGO" to respond with various forms of aid and relief. These NGOs have, especially with Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, acquired a great deal of prominence in the media. Consequently for many sectors of the public, the media, as well as public institutions, these are the only kind of "NGO" known. Some of these relief and aid bodies are only too happy to reinforce this view by considering no other NGOs as relevant -- especially to the emergencies with which they deal on an hourly basis. This view is encouraged by the fact that many of these relief bodies are national in origin, with little if any claim to being international in their membership or source of funds. They therefore have little reason to associate themselves with other kinds of NGO, such as those typical of the consultative relationship. They often seek to provide aid quite independently of the intergovernmental system, often prior to any willingness of intergovernmental institutions to acknowledge any need for that relief. Somalia highlighted situations in which such NGOs were acting before the UN was aware of the problem, in areas where UN military subsequently did not dare to go, and continued to act after UN forces had been withdrawn because of the level of danger. Bosnia highlighted situations in which the UN refused to provide military protection to nongovernmental relief convoys for fear of endangering the UN military.

10. Field-level NGOs

There was a time when the UN-inspired terminology of "NGO" was only applied to those international bodies in some form of direct relationship with intergovernmental institutions. With the recognition of vital role played by NGOs at grass- roots level, came the recognition of the role of national and local NGOs, especially in developing countries. This had long been argued by international NGOs, since many of these local bodies were represented internationally through them as members. National suspicion towards NGOs sending aid workers from industrialized countries reinforced the tendency within intergovernmental institutions, notably UNDP, to bypass international NGOs and enter into direct relationship with local bodies. International NGOs were perceived as inappropriate partners in many forms of development aid -- despite the crisis in development aid. UNDP Resident Representatives, never enthusiastic about international NGOs (or any NGOs for that matter), were instructed to establish relationships with grass roots organizations within their operating territory. For many intergovernmental development programmes, the notion of "NGOs" was thus extended to grass-roots organizations -- despite the legal problems of recognizing the existence of bodies that were not in consultative status.

11. Semi-autonomous organizations

A significant number of nongovernmental organizations are not created in a way that leaves them totally independent. Some international "nongovernmental organizations" are deliberately set up on government initiative (as was the case in the Communist bloc). Unknown to many of their members, some may be "front" organizations set up by governments or commercial interests for political or other purposes -- even at the international level. Whether or not they are created in this way, they may be provided with offices and subsidies by government throughout their existence, so that although they may have an international board of some kind, they are bound to the country of their origin. A number of intergovernmental institutes exist on the same basis. Intergovernmental organizations may themselves catalyze the creation of an international "nongovernmental organization". This may be followed by provision of office and other facilities (even within the intergovernmental secretariat) together with some form of financial support even on a long-term basis.

12. Staff associations in intergovernmental institutions

It is seldom recognized that the staff of large intergovernmental institutions form associations ranging from staff labour unions, through sporting, dramatic and other interest groups, to some which may have a humanitarian purpose. These bodies are of course "nongovernmental organizations", although few would name them as such, and they themselves would reject the label. They are certainly not intergovernmental organizations by any definition of the term, although in the case of the unions they may acquire a special form of recognition and may be the subject of resolutions and agreements with the intergovernmental body. They are not however part of any consultative relationship arrangement. Extensive facilities may be provided for them. Only as federations of civil servants (from a variety of institutions) do they acquire a status resembling that of more conventional NGOs.

13. Voluntary associations: the third sector

At the neighbourhood, urban, regional and national level, there is a burgeoning of associative activity. Much of this is seen as part of the community building process, whether it involves social welfare, philanthropic, recreational or other interests. Such voluntary associations have become of considerable interest to social scientists leading to the emergence of an academic specialization termed "third sector research". Such voluntary associations are of course "nongovernmental organizations". Many may be referred to as "NGOs" in other settings. However as voluntary associations they tend not to include other bodies known under the NGO label. Thus it is questionable whether professional, labour, trade, academic or special interest groups would be included as voluntary associations in any "third sector" focus on "NGOs". The emphasis on "voluntary" precludes the inclusion of many kinds of body and fails to address the issue of the ways in which even intergovernmental bodies may be considered "voluntary". Third sector research is noteworthy for its total lack of interest in the international NGOs (of which those they study are often members), whatever that might mean within that research framework. However there is much interest in cross-national comparisons of voluntary associations emerging in different countries.

14. Cooperatives and mutual aid societies

The cooperative sector involves millions of people as members of some form of cooperative. Such cooperatives are "nongovernmental organizations" as are mutual aid societies (and "tontines" in Africa). They are also "nonprofit-making" according to some definitions of the term. However, tainted as they are by a commercial interest in satisfying their basic needs, cooperatives are rarely if ever recognized as NGOs, although this is not the case of groupings of cooperatives into federations or associations.

15. Philanthropic foundations

Foundations allocating funds to worthy causes are in most cases "nongovernmental organizations" and are seldom set up to be "profit-making". They are not however commonly recognized as NGOs, although some may even be closely associated with development and relief activity. Few of them are international in their source of funds and decision- making, although many are international in the distribution of their funds. Few are recognized within any consultative status or other arrangement by intergovernmental institutions, although a number of them have been a source of funds for the programmes and meetings of such institutions which may assiduously cultivate them for that purpose. UNESCO has special provisions for relating to "foundation and similar institutions", although in attempting carefully to distinguish them from NGOs creates problems in relation to the understanding in other parts of the UN system (see Insert ***).

16. Trade associations and cartels

Trade associations are groupings of manufacturers and trading groups seeking to protect and further the interest of their economic sector. They are certainly "nongovernmental organizations" and may be considered "nonprofit-making" in that they do not seek to make or distribute a profit to their members. But like labour unions and other professional bodies, they exist in order to further the economic interests of their members -- effectively to ensure that their members reap some kind of financial benefit as a consequence of their membership. It is for this reason that, at least in the case of the trade associations, they are viewed as not being "genuine" NGOs by other bodies in the "NGO community" who do not have this indirect pecuniary interest -- however much such NGOs may otherwise be preoccupied by fund-raising and the compromises it may entail. And whilst trade associations may take the legal form of a nonprofit organization, semi-formal cartels and price-fixing arrangements, may not be institutionalized in any conventional way. However it is often difficult to distinguish functionally between a trade association and a cartel -- since many are deliberately set up to "regulate" their industry, to ensure a "higher quality" of service, which is frequently the justification for the exclusion of potential members perceived as threatening their interests. This tendency can often be seen in professional organizations -- even those purporting to have scientific and similar commitments. As part of the interest of the United Nations in transnational corporations, international cartels and price-fixing arrangements have been the focus of considerable attention even though such arrangements do not "exist" in any legal sense.

17. Lobbies

The secretariats and conferences of intergovernmental institutions are the subject of considerable attention from special interest lobbies, as is the case at the national level. This phenomenon has acquired major proportions in the case of the European Union, especially in Brussels, where they have become one of the major vehicles for "consulting" wider society -- no lobby, no consultation! These lobbies may in fact be set up by trade associations and may be the sole reason for their existence. Lobbies may however be loose coalitions of special interest groups (including more conventional nongovernmental organizations), whether or not they are economically based or have some non-economic, social or other interest. Lobbies may of course be coalitions of government representatives, or be heavily supported by particular governments (see hybrid organizations). Although questionable in the latter case, all lobbies may be considered "nongovernmental organizations" -- although what of cases where intergovernmental alliances act as lobbies and/or voting blocs?

18. Political parties

A political party is a "nongovernmental organization" even when its representatives are elected to government, whether in power or in opposition. Of course it would not be referred to as an "NGO". Political parties of similar tendencies in different countries may combine together internationally, as in the case of the socialists or liberals, to form a body which takes the form of a conventional international NGO. Looser coalitions may take the form of a lobby, or voting bloc, as in the case of the European Parliament. It is questionable how "nongovernmental" these can be considered, even though they are certainly not "intergovernmental".

19. Elitist, secretive clubs

There is a tendency for the key figures of major international and other bodies to form semi-formal international clubs. This is notably the case when such people retire, or lose their formal positions. These clubs are definitely "nongovernmental organizations", although the representative of one endeavoured to label it as a "non-nongovernmental organization". Some of them may include key figures in transnational corporations -- or they may even be restricted to such people. Such organizations have absolutely no need to seek any form of consultative or other status. Indeed they are wont to boast of their ability to gain (immediate) access to key-decision makers, whether from within international institutions or in their member states. These decision-makers may even be members (in their private capacity) of elitist clubs, and consider themselves privileged to be so.

20. Secret societies

The existence of many secret societies has been documented, both prior to recognition of "nongovernmental organizations" and up to the present day. Best known and documented in the West is perhaps freemasonry in its various forms and branches -- involving those at the highest level of society. Related forms are the Muslim brotherhoods, although many of these may resemble religious orders (see below). Such bodies must certainly be considered "nongovernmental organizations" whether or not they accept the label or are accepted as part of the "NGO community", especially when "illegal" (as in the case of Chinese triads and tongs). As with trade associations, whether all of these bodies are "nonprofit- making" is also open to question -- especially when membership is seen as a guarantee of competitive and career advantages.

21. Religious orders and cults

These bodies, and above all those within the framework of the Catholic Church, may be considered as the historical precursors of many nongovernmental organizations. Some date back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Some were responsible for articulating many of the voting and other practices now widespread within the international community. As missionary orders many initiated the first crude forms of "development aid", however questionable this may now be seen to have been. Some, such as Opus Dei, resemble secret societies (see above). They are certainly "nongovernmental organizations", although few would seek to be considered as "NGOs" or would seek institutional recognition by intergovernmental organizations. The early military and hospitaller orders of knights have acquired considerable prestige, to the point that some are even accorded diplomatic status in certain countries. Ironically the relationship of many of them to the Vatican is functionally very similar to the consultative relationship other NGOs have with intergovernmental institutions. Very similar to such orders, but lacking their legitimacy, are the many international groupings of individuals which are frequently labelled as cults and sects -- although some would be considered religious groups and churches. They resemble the religious orders in that they may have a strong hierarchical structure and well-defined practices and rituals. Often they owe their origin to some charismatic individual.

22. International crime rings

Also necessarily secretive by nature are the increasingly international criminal groups of which the mafia (and its other Mediterranean variants), and their East Asian analogues, have been well-publicized. Although they themselves may not be illegal, since they have no "existence" anyway, their activities are very much so, at least in certain jurisdictions. They may like transnational corporations be considered "nongovernmental organizations", even "voluntary associations", although like the corporations any pecuniary interest excludes them from the nonprofit cluster of organizations. However it should be recognized that not all crime rings have strictly pecuniary interests, as is the case of the paedophile networks and terrorist groups (see below) -- which could be seen from some perspectives as legitimate interests that have been driven underground. Their "illegality" is of course a matter of question and degree, especially when compared to the many de facto NGOs which decline to register themselves within the national jurisdictions where they operate.

23. Terrorist groups and liberation movements

Terrorist groups should definitely be considered "nongovernmental organizations" and may well operate internationally with international membership, funding and support. Like many "NGOs" they may receive special support from particular governments and IGOs. As noted above, their "illegality" may be a matter of interpretation, depending on the jurisdiction where the question is raised. Their relationship to political parties, and even intergovernmental organizations, may raise many questions. There is of course a confusion between "liberation movements" and "terrorists groups" depending on perspective. Few liberation movements have avoided the label of "terrorist" group at some stage in their existence. Ironically some "liberation movements" have been funded by more conventional "NGOs" and IGOs, leading to action interpreted as "terrorist" in the countries where they were perpetrated. Intergovernmental organizations have at times adopted exceptionally supportive policies to liberation movements (such as the PLO) -- whether or not they were experienced by others as terrorist groups, and whether or not they could be said to have any legal existence within the terms of the intergovernmental organization.

24. Legally established international NGOs

The initiatives to provide international legal status to nongovernmental organizations date back to the beginning of the century (although religious orders may be said to have had legal status for centuries within the framework of canon law). Most recently these have resulted in a Convention of the Council of Europe which has been ratified by a handful of countries. The European Union has also taken major steps to provide legal status in other member countries for any nongovernmental established in one of its member countries. This has yet to take any tangible form -- and when it does it may apply only to European organizations and not to those with membership in other regions. For all intents and purposes so-called "international nongovernmental organizations" are not legally recognized international entities. They do not exist in any legal sense at the international level. The pretence is cultivated that such bodies having acquired national legal status, for administrative purposes in one country, can be considered as legal entities in other countries. In a few countries the situation is slightly more creative in that special provision may be made for "national" organizations with foreigners on the board. The major exception is Belgium where a specific law allows for the establishment of "international nongovernmental organizations". Like transnational corporations, NGOs cannot yet exist as international legal entities, although they can exist as distinct legal entities in more than one country.

25. Informal organizations and networks

There are many associations of individuals and groups which have been deliberately set up internationally so as not to take the form of a structured organization in any conventional sense. The label "network" is often favoured when such groupings choose to label themselves at all. Although organized according to many interpretations of the term, such groupings are often quite vigorous in claiming that they are not an "organization", although they may well function with greater energy, effectiveness and continuity than many organizations. But clearly, according to a looser definition, they are definitely "nongovernmental organizations". Lacking statutes, however, they are seldom drawn into any form of relationship with intergovernmental organizations. However, within the intergovernmental community, many informal networks of officials and government representatives may be created in order to bypass perceived bureaucratic and procedural inefficiencies. Whether these too are to be considered "nongovernmental organizations" is a matter of debate, although they would undoubtedly resist the label. Informal organizations are often most fruitful when membership is not restricted by conventional categories. In this way they may acquire some of the character of hybrid organizations (see below).

26. Electronic organizations: Internet

Since the late 1970s electronic mail and computer conferencing systems have developed from their purely inter- university and military origins in the USA, to the point of including an estimated 35 million subscribers worldwide on various systems loosely grouped within a framework described as Internet. This is essentially a computer communication protocol allowing many computer systems to link their communication facilities. Within this highly complex system of networks there are literally thousands of "conferences" and discussion groups which functionally differ little from a conventional membership organization -- except that communications are much more rapid and the need for formal structures may be much reduced. Very formal structures may however be provided by software protocols.

Many of these electronic organizations or networks have international participants. Many focus on the same issues as more conventional voluntary organizations. Some of them are highly involved in coordinating response to disasters, whether within countries or around the world, and in the preparation for major United Nations conferences (to the point that much preparatory documentation for such conferences is now circulated, consulted and commented upon through such electronic organizations). Some users are so imbued by the advantages of this form of communication that they consider more conventional organizations as completely obsolete.

Although some of these networks are "governmental", notably those set up by the military, most can be usefully perceived as "nongovernmental organizations" for which legal status is clearly not an issue. For an increasing number of conventional nongovernmental bodies, one immediate strategic issue is to work out ways of transferring some (if not all) of their traditional communication procedures and administration into an electronic environment -- bearing in mind the level of electronic surveillance that such communications have been designed to permit. There is therefore a sense of international organization moving into some form of electronic "orbit" around the "global village". There is also the attendant danger that, whilst very real to themselves, their reality and value to those without such facilities may continue to be quite questionable.

It is possible that many of the more problematic issues concerning the relationship between State and Society will be bypassed within this new communication environment. In fact it could be argued that the mode of operation of the Internet is an extremely good illustration of many of the dimensions of the civil society. References by many authors to the "global village" are an indication of this (***).

27. Transnational social movements

There is increasing recognition that, irrespective of the existence of particular organizations, there are a number of transnational movements which transcend any conventional organizational focus. These include the women's movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, the youth movement, and the like. Internet may itself be seen as such a movement. Many organizations may be associated with each such movement, but the movement is not identified with any particular organization. This is especially important since many such organizations tend to emerge and disappear with some frequency as a result of individual enthusiasms, funding opportunities, personalities and factional squabbles. The unresolved question is the extent to which any such movement can, in its own right, be usefully described as a "nongovernmental organization".

28. International communities

Great attention is increasingly given in the media to the views and actions of the "international community" which appears to imply some clustering of intergovernmental organizations and powerful member states. The "diplomatic community" (as a collectivity) is something that has long been recognized in a loose form with some legal recognition, notably in the facilities accorded to diplomats individually. Within major capital cities there is often an "international community" of people involved in the diplomatic community, international organizations (governmental and nongovernmental; profit-making and nonprofit-making), international cultural activities, and the like. This could be seen as an informal organization -- but necessarily of the nongovernmental variety. But international communities may also acquire a more physical form when people from different countries choose (or are obliged) to live in the same area, as tends to be the case with some diplomatic ghettos or "foreign quarters", which may even be enclosed, as with the campus of an international university. But of much more interest here are those efforts to consciously set up international experimental communities to explore various alternative modes of living, spiritual practice or artistic pursuit. These are often perceived as extremely threatening to the national or local cultures where they are physically based, as has been vividly demonstrated by communities such as Findhorn (Scotland), Rajneesh (Poona and Antelope), and Auroville (India). These too are "nongovernmental organizations".

29. Hybrid (or mixed) organizations

Efforts to define "nongovernmental organization" often naively assume that organizations must necessarily exist in some pure form. In fact there have been many organization, like ICSU and IUCN, which combine several seemingly incompatible characteristics, notably the governmental and nongovernmental dimensions. Thus some organizations, which are not recognized as intergovernmental, have both national government bodies and national nongovernmental bodies as members. This may occur where a particular function is articulated through a government body in one member country, but through a nongovernmental body in another country. Organizations may have a whole range of combinations of profit-making and nonprofit-making activities. They may combine informal and formal structures, permanent and periodic structures. Clearly some may combine legal and quasi-legal activities, notably in the case of "front" organizations.

30. "Self-defined" organizations

For those who make frequent use of the term "NGO" it is easy to forget that many bodies define their organizational realities with other terms. This is typically the case with many professional, technical and scientific bodies. It is also true of labour unions, trade associations and many religious bodies. Although they are "nongovernmental organizations" they tend to refer to themselves as unions, federations, committees or by some special term. They do not identify with the "nongovernmental" dimension, or with "NGO", possibly in some cases because they may have quite close relations to government (as in the case of the hybrid organizations above). Some international scientific bodies are far more concerned with their recognition by the International Council of Scientific Unions than by any intergovernmental consultative status. In this way ICSU functions rather like the Vatican for religious orders -- leaving many scientific bodies as unrecognized, whether they seek such recognition or not. This is also true of sporting federations which acquire wider significance, if they seek it, only when they are recognized by the International Olympic Committee and the General Association of International Sports Federations, not through any relation to the intergovernmental system. Indeed, as the periodic Olympic events demonstrate, it is governments who are hypersensitive to the needs of such nongovernmental bodies. But for self-defined organizations, such wider recognition, whether governmental or nongovernmental, may be largely a matter of indifference provided they can further their particular interests.


1. Desperate oversimplification: butterfly catching It should be clear from the above that no coherent typology of organizations is likely to emerge in the near future. Those with skills in organization studies pursue particular examples of "nongovernmental organizations" in a desperate effort to impose a simplistic label on them and to "fix" them -- rather in the same way as butterfly catchers. The nongovernmental organization phenomenon, in all its variety and richness, continues to evolve and escape such methodologies. The social sciences succeed only in capturing partial understandings, and often only those typical of the past. There is no ability to articulate understandings relevant to the future, especially to the design of new and more appropriate forms of organization.

Any definition of "nongovernmental organization" should therefore not be evaluated on the basis of what it includes, but rather should be tested against what it explicitly or implicitly excludes. The reasons for such exclusion should be highlighted, together with their political implications.

2. The mythical ideal "NGO"

The review of organizational forms above has in many cases highlighted the fact that creators of organizations are effectively under pressure to produce what amounts to an "ideal" or simplistic form. So ideal, that it is useful to ask whether this is not deliberately done in order to guarantee that it would be impossible to achieve.

In focusing on "nongovernmental", it became clear that other dimensions were implicit in any understanding of "NGO". In the case of the intergovernmental system, there is much ambiguity about whether and how an organization should be "international".

An associated issue, is the considerable pressure to ensure that organizations are "representative" -- unless of course they are a source of funding for the intergovernmental organization or its programmes. The criteria of representativity can be pushed to the degree of requiring membership from every country of the world. This requirement may ignore questions as to whether particular intergovernmental organizations themselves respect this principle (as with the case of UNESCO and the absence of countries such as USA and the UK from its membership). There are many specialized intergovernmental organizations without universal membership (it would be ridiculous to expect a landlocked country to be a member of a deep-sea fishing organization).

Then there is the implicit requirement of permanence and continuity. Can an organization exist when it really only takes any form on the occasion of some periodic meeting? But it is not correct that many such meeting series operate functionally, and more effectively, than some organizations?

Another implicit requirement is transparency. To acquire consultative status, organizations are usually required to present their financial report. Unless an organization is transparent, it cannot be included in the implicit definition of NGO.

Also implicitly important is the openness of an organization to membership. There is some question as to whether a "closed" organization should be considered acceptable to the intergovernmental system. This of course raises such questions as male membership in women's organizations, and vice versa, or non-Christian membership of Christian bodies.

Despite the absurdities of the legal system, there is an implicit requirement that the international organization should have some acceptable form of legal status -- even when the legal status defines the organization as being "national". Related to this is of course the expectation that the organization should not be involved in any form of illegal activity, even though promoting some forms of change may itself be defined as illegal under some regimes.

There is also an implicit requirement that an organization should not only be nonprofit-making but also that it should acquire its funds from a representative range of countries - - even when exchange control regulations make this quite problematic for certain member countries. The fact that an organization endeavours to raise funds to survive, by selling publications and services at a profit, is also viewed as suspect.

Combining these criteria makes it virtually impossible to create an NGO that cannot be attacked as tainted or blemished in some way -- as is of course true for most intergovernmental organizations.

Should an international NGO therefore endeavour to obtain consultative status? Perhaps the best answer is that of the 436 organizations represented on all continents, 34% consider that they do not need to seek or acquire any form of consultative status.

3. Multiple legal forms

In creating new organizations there need be little sympathy for the niceties of legal status under particular regimes. Nonprofit organizations need to learn from their commercial brethren, the "transnational corporations" who are also international "outlaws".

Such corporations have learnt to distinguish between their legal form in a particular country and the operational form which transcends national frontiers. Nonprofit organizations have given excessive attention to providing themselves with a single legal form, carefully choosing the country in which to do so, and accepting whatever structural compromises this forced upon them.

If organizations can distinguish between their existence as social realities and their existence as legal realities then they can follow, and improve upon, the approach taken by transnational corporations. In some countries it is possible to have de facto organizations which are not legally registered in any way. In this sense the organization's members must depend upon themselves, rather than any legal regulations, to be self-regulating.

The crucial step is to operate from this social reality, creating legal realities of whatever form, wherever it is appropriate. Since in most cases the social reality does not exist for the law, it is only through some legal "mask" that the organization becomes visible in whatever legal system the organization chooses to operate.

In practice this means that the organization can constitute itself legally in different ways, in different countries, for different purposes. As noted above, transnational corporations can take the form of "nonprofit" organizations in certain countries if this meets their needs. There is no reason why nonprofit organizations should not take a profit- making form where it suits them. In fact some organizations, even within a single country, choose to adopt a triple form of: nonprofit membership organization; foundation; and profit-making corporation. The only bond between them is a cross-linking directorship that guarantees the coherence of the underlying social reality.

The possibility is in fact analogous to that of multiple passport holders who choose which passport to present when they have to deal with any legal system. Since the legal system can only recognize the piece of paper, this creates no problems. Organizations should consider becoming, in effect, "multiple passport holders". If a particular country does not have adequate provision for nonprofit organizations, then set up the organization there as a profit-making corporation. If it requires that only nationals of the country should be on the board, then arrange matters in that way for that country.

Note also that on each occasion that an intergovernmental organization accords recognition to an international NGO, the NGO is in effect being given a separate "passport" and identity. For such recognition is currently the only mechanism through which international NGOs acquire some very weak form of identity within the framework of international law. Governed as they are by separate treaties, the recognition by one intergovernmental body is legally distinct from that by another. Multiple "passport holding" is therefore already a reality for some NGOs with multiple consultative status.

It may be argued that provision of national legal status, where it is supportive rather than deliberately obstructive, provides many guarantees, notably in the event of any abuse of power or funds. Whilst this may be of significance within a particular country, it is quite impractical for an organization operating in a number of countries, whose secretariat and accounts may not even be in the country where it is legally registered. In fact, unless the organization is self-regulating, so that abuse is avoided or internally controlled, it is unlikely that recourse to any national legal system would be worth the effort. And there are few documented cases of successful legal pursuit of abuse within international NGOs.

Of course some countries have taken advantage of the absurdities of the international legal system by setting themselves up as "off-shore havens". Transnational corporations have been very skilled in using the opportunities that these create. Is it not possible that some countries could similarly set themselves up as "havens" for international nonprofit organizations? It could offer a lucrative opportunity for an island economy with no other resources -- provided telecommunication links were good. Note that this is primarily a question of financial transfers, not necessarily a question of having a secretariat there. And even then, as Liechtenstein has so admirably demonstrated, even grocery shops are willing to put up a brass-plate indicating that they are the "headquarters" of some corporation. Why not of an international NGO?

Then there is the question of the name of the organization. Again provided the internal social reality is well- articulated, the organization can even adopt different names in different contexts without creating any threat to its identity.

Faced with an unsympathetic international legal system, international nonprofit organizations should be encouraged to explore these possibilities with the aid of sympathetic lawyers. In fact it might be asked why lawyers (and especially international associations of lawyers with a strong social commitment) have not taken the lead in articulating these possibilities. For make no mistake, these techniques are already used by some nonprofit organizations, notably those with something to hide. But an innovative approach to legal status can be taken without engaging in any procedures that might be considered unethical.

4. Organizational apartheid

The manner in which different types of organization continue to disparage each other is a tragedy. Each kind of organization tends to think of itself as the only really useful organizational form. Other forms are considered as unfortunate obstacles or completely irrelevant.

There is a definite sense in which a system of organizational apartheid has developed. To intergovernmental organizations, NGOs are the "coloured" organizations of the world. The mind set which governed colonial disparagement of coloured peoples has not gone away -- it is embedded in the attitude of intergovernmental organizations to NGOs. There are even parallels in the various forms of condescension practised when NGOs are involved in the activities of intergovernmental organizations.

There is an irony in the dismissive remark of a member of the European Parliament that NGOs all seem to be very "worthy" bodies and therefore inappropriate partners in any intergovernmental initiative. Has the situation reached the point that intergovernmental bodies can only effectively relate to "unworthy" bodies?

Even more tragic is the degree to which, even amongst NGOs, one type of organization considers the other irrelevant or inappropriate -- a phenomenon analogous to ethnic tensions and conflicts. With the emergence of NGO fundamentalism of various flavours -- the possibility of "ethnic cleansing" should not be excluded.

5. What's in a name?

The term "nongovernmental" has been resented by many organizations. It is indeed a manifestation of organizational apartheid -- reminiscent of the "nonwhite" label so frequent in racist societies.

In considering this label, established and reinforced by the UN, it is interesting to recall the way in which "multinational" corporations became defined as "transnational" corporations within the UN system. No multinational corporation considers itself to be a transnational corporation -- but they are largely indifferent to the UN anyway. And perhaps it was a useful ploy to have all the negative assessments about such corporations attached to the label "transnational" rather than to the name with which the multinationals identify amongst themselves and to the non-intergovernmental community. The power of name-calling is considerably undermined if the person does not identify with the name anyway.

So if "NGO" is the result of a UN manipulation of reality analogous to "transnational", the challenge is to discover the name (like "multinational") with which such bodies can identify. The problem may be insoluble, given the level of organizational apartheid practised between organizations -- even between NGOs.

But if it is impossible to abandon the initials "NGO", perhaps it is possible the reframe their significance in a more positive light. One candidate might be "Necessary Governance Organizations" (in French "Organisations Necessaires í  la Gouvernance" (ONGs)). The corresponding reframing of "IGO" might then be "Insufficient Governance Organizations" (which again is better in French as "Organisations insuffisantes pour la gouvernance"). Such reframing borrows from the logic of science where factual evidence may be necessary, but not sufficient, for a complete proof.

Notes: Adaptation of a paper presented to a Seminar on State and Society at the Russian Public Policy Center (Moscow, 6-8 December 1994) under the auspices of the Council of Europe.


The Governmental Support of International Nongovernmental Organizations: surveys / Les Contributions Gouvernementales aux Organisations Internationales nongouvernementales: analyse. 1968, In: International Associations 20, July, pp. 468-473 (English), pp. 477-508 (French).

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Practical Problems in using the Potential of INGO Networks (includes "List of problems hindering INGO action". In: The Future of Transnational Associations from the Standpoint of the New World Order; a general review symposium convened by the UIA. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1976, pp 168-205. (Also printed in abridged form in International Associations, 28, 1976, 12, pp 571-573: document)

International Organizations: diversity, borderline cases, functional substitutes and possible alternatives. 1977 In: [A J R Groom and Paul Taylor (Eds). International Organizations: a conceptual approach] London, Frances Pinter, pp. 78-83. (Slightly revised version under the title: International Organizations: an overview. In: Yearbook of International Organizations Brussels, Union of International Organizations, 1978).

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