The Colgate Scene
March 2005

What is an NGO?

Carolyn Kissane, who teaches Evolution and Operation of Non-Governmental Organizations in the educational studies department, explains. She is also senior program officer, USA, for the NGO Cimera, which works in the area of educational research, civic education, and the media in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

There's no single definition. They've usually been formed by a group of people committed to an idea, often around social change, or in the area of development. As the term suggests, NGOs work outside the government, but they usually have to get approved by, and are sometimes funded by, their own or other governments. They are not-for-profit, have to have a board, and can comprise anywhere from two to thousands of people.

Their mission can be in development, humanitarian relief, advocacy, education, health, or the environment, and their level of operation can be grass-roots and community based, or regional, national, or international.

As an example, Save the Children was founded to provide assistance to the people of Appalachia, and it grew from there. Based in the United States, it is referred to here as a nonprofit, but today it's also a large international NGO. Other well-known NGOs include Amnesty International, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, and OXFAM.

What's fascinating about the NGO world is the attention they get. Governments look to NGOs because they are seen as being closer to the ground, allowing for more participation by the people most affected by development efforts. They recognize that NGOs can provide services more effectively.

A huge number of NGOs developed around the world following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Soviet Union -- because of the idea that we can now create civil society in countries that were believed not to have had civil society before. Kosovo is both a great and potentially contentious example of a post-conflict area where local NGOs established themselves on the ground and where INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) came in to provide assistance when the government was incapacitated.

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