NGOs are usually international organizations that operate independently of, and sometimes in defiance of, governments in order to achieve humanitarian and political goals, push their own agenda or simply to encourage international relations and the flow of information. NGOs are not unique to the twentieth century, for they have existed for over a thousand years. But currently there are over five thousand of them, far more than at any time in the past. Far more than the few dozen or so that existed in 1900. These days, the NGOs have become a major factor in international relations.
In the nineteenth century, the first of the modern NGOs began to appear. These were, like the earlier religious aid groups, humanitarian in their goals, but also had no reluctance to use diplomatic and political muscle to get their way. The Anti-Slavery Society was such an organization and in the early nineteenth century it was instrumental in getting slavery banned in most parts of the world. The society is still around, because slavery has not completely disappeared. A more recognizable organization is the Red Cross (and later Red Crescent) societies. These were first formed in the 1860s to campaign for more humane treatment of prisoners, the wounded and civilian victims of warfare. The Red Cross was instrumental in getting the various Geneva Conventions (the "rules of war") accepted by most major nations. By the twentieth century, the Red Cross was also active in all manner of humanitarian activities. A century ago, the Red Cross was the most effective, powerful and recognized NGO that ever existed. But it was only the beginning.
The massive death and destruction of World War I and II led to an attempts to create a super NGO to prevent future major wars. Thus was born the League of Nations and, by 1945, the United Nations. There was also explosive growth in all kinds of NGOs. By 1960 there were a thousand of them, by 1970 two thousand, by 1980 four thousand. The growth sprang from two major sources; more money and more mass media.
Not all NGOs are dedicated to "emergency aid" in disaster zones. The majority of NGOs are trade organizations, scientific or technical organizations, medical groups or devoted to the regulation or promotion of sports. NGOs cover a wide range of activities. You name it, there's an NGO for it. Religion, culture, labor relations, world affairs, education and all manner of special interests are playing the NGO game. And it's a very serious game.
The mass media made it all possible, for most NGOs live or die by the amount of attention they get in the press. While many NGOs deliver services, the money to keep them going comes from those that see those services being delivered. NGOs are pressure groups, and with so many of them out there hustling for a headline, the pressure has some strange results. Because most of these NGOs have an international outlook, and an agenda, they want to get their point of view across world wide. And many NGOs with a lot in common will pool their resources to put tremendous pressure to do just that. There have been many good examples of how that works, especially late in the century when the number of NGOs became so great. The 1997 international treaty to ban land mines was the result of hundreds of NGOs applying political pressure to do something they wanted. No government by itself could have pulled this off. Because the NGOs were international, not affiliated with any single government, and pushing a humanitarian measure few could oppose (except on the pragmatic grounds that is was unenforceable and likely to be counterproductive), they got their way.
More common is the call by NGOs for military intervention into some war torn area. The NGOs have a vested interest in such intervention, for the United Nations and many wealthy countries hire NGOs to deliver humanitarian services in disaster areas, in order to avoid the risk of government employees getting injured or killed. While other NGOs come in on their own, using funds they have collected, to deliver aid, all NGOs in a crises area still need military protection. Thus it should not have been so surprising to find several hundred NGOs operating in Aceh, or even combat zones like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of the NGOs showing up in a combat zone is spending some of its resources lobbying for government intervention to protect their staff in what is usually a very dangerous areas. The NGOs also know that by getting any media attention for their efforts will not only increase pressure on governments to get more involved, but will make it easier for the NGOs to raise money.
The NGOs have come to be so active in all these trouble spots not just because there are more NGOs, but because there is more trouble out there. Conflicts like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Balkans and in South America grew from 36 in the early 1960s, to 55 in the 1970s, 62 in the 1980s. While the violence has declined, the NGOs have increased.
The NGOs are very media savvy. They know what kind of stories the TV and radio crews are looking for and will provide it in return for a little favorable coverage. The media often found that the NGO staff were the best source of leads and stories in crises zones. The NGOs didn't work for any government, so had less reason to just dish out the official version of what was going on. The NGO staff were pushing their NGO, but the press generally didn't mind that, for the NGOs were doing good works and who could criticize that?
So it's hard to beat up on NGOs. After all, they are doing good works. However, NGOs have a tendency to take better care of themselves, than the people they are supposed to be aiding in a time of great need. Some of the more recent NGOs are basically scams, as criminals and terrorists have found that being an NGO provides great cover for less charitable activities. This was noted recently in Afghanistan, where government officials noted that nearly 2,000 NGOs operating there were more concerned with NGO welfare, than that of the Afghan people.
NGOs also attract a lot of outfits with hidden agendas. You have the anti-globalization organizations, and other outfits where orphaned leftists and anarchists have found a new home. Some of these political NGOs are open about their advocacy, but many keep it hidden. One thing NGO staffers do not hide is the attitude that they are serving a higher purpose and must be given special treatment by any mere government organization.
But now there is a backlash, led by some NGOs themselves. The larger number of NGOs has brought in many incompetent (or just less competent), or even criminal NGOs. So some of the major NGOs are now calling for some regulation. Right now, anyone can play. But the established NGOs, in order to preserve their stature, clout, and cash flow, want to keep a lot of the little players out. Thus it has come full circle, with NGOs forming their own NGO government.
Peacekeepers are increasingly encountering a new kind of problem; feuding NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). We should have seen this one coming, but many were surprised when over 300 NGOs showed up last January, in the wake of the December earthquake and tidal waves that killed over 160,000 people in Aceh (the westernmost area of Indonesia.) Many of the NGOs were soon working at cross-purposes, arguing with each other and, in some cases, being a threat to those they were there to help.