Some ten million globally, they are independent but work with governments, sharing the public and social concerns
For many a decade now NGOs, non-governmental organisations, play a supporting role for individual governments and supranational institution in a wide variety of fields including humanitarian, environmental, medical and psycho-social actions, right up to urban reconstruction post-emergencies or the enhancement of cultural and historic monumental values. There are many countries where the NGOs’ activities have become a kind of “second welfare“: economic resources, in depth knowledge of the areas and specific professional skills have placed at the disposal of the public good to provide aid and assistance and not just in the poorer countries. An effort that has become crucial in reaching out to the more vulnerable populations even in richer and more industrialised nations. So much so that research conducted by The Global Journal asserts that there are currently 10 million NGOs in the world today.
The term “Non Government Organisation” first appeared in article 71 of the United Nations Charter, which foresaw the possibility that the Economic and Social Council could consult “non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence.” According to the United Nations Resolution 1996/31 “Any organization that is not established by a governmental entity or intergovernmental agreement shall be considered a non-governmental organization for the purpose of these arrangements, including organizations that accept members designated by governmental authorities, provided that such membership does not interfere with the free expression of views of the organization.”
One can already infer that the relationship between governments and NGO’s is unlikely to be simple or linear because, ultimately, it can’t be, owing to the intrinsic contradiction that generated the relationship in the first place. NGOs claim to be “non-governmental” yet they needs government for both the authorisations required to operate in the area of operation and, more often than not, for funding. Clearly the problem lies in what we feed into the definition “non-governmental”. What do we truly mean by such a negative definition? That it doesn’t act under government control, of course, yet, given that governments provide much of the funding and that without its consent the action of an NGO, however funded, could not take place, the relationship between governments and NGOs is bound to play out in a somewhat grey area, where things are unclear and ambiguous. And that this is case is proven by thousands of examples, including highly dramatic ones where NGO personnel has been mistakenly believed to have been collaborating with the government in power and has thus been confronted with potentially mortal attacks by opposing military forces.
One must therefore go back to the previous question: what in actual fact, beyond the bureaucratic terminology, does one mean by ‘non-governmental’? A first answer could be: it is meant to establish an intermediary role between the government and the “mission” the NGO sets itself. A government’s actions cover a whole variety of tasks, an NGO has one specific objective, on which it is totally focused and for which it even obtains economic funding from private sources. In this perspective the intermediary role suits governments, which can delegate aspects that would otherwise be too costly or complicated – and possibly unpopular – to the NGOs, which in return obtain a certain freedom of movement, access to funding and especially a clear and separate identity.
And in actual fact the negation in the definition of ‘non-governmental’ is not a matter of opposition. It is more about establishing a separation and more importantly ‘independence’. The NGO must underline this separation because the scope of its mission is often the same as the government’s but with a sharper focus and a greater effort. For example, no government will deny that public health is among its priorities yet even in the more developed countries the NGOs often add another level of specialisation, focus and assistance.
In the complex relationship between governments and NGOs we are now witnessing an growing participation of the public, to which both turn but for opposite ends: electoral on the one hand, for financial support and approval on the other. And that’s why NGOs are often publically citing governments for not paying the necessary level of attention to the scope of the mission, while governments regularly try to offload their own operating difficulties and internal policy disagreements on the NGOs. A case in point is the stance taken by the Italian government during the 2017 migratory crisis. In that year a number of NGOs were focused on salvaging migrants in the waters of the Mediterranean, in accordance with the crucial dictates of its mission, and in so doing they were “remedying” the European and Italian inability to effectively save people whose lives were at risk. But these actions triggered forms of social anxiety among the public, fuelled by political forces working against the current government, related to the illegal entry of migrants into Italy and Europe. In order to alleviate this anxiety and save the government from the accusation that the voters might thrust on them, the latter introduced a ‘code of conduct’ for the NGO’s which then made them responsible not so much for ‘saving lives’ – which would have been morally unacceptable – but for ‘importing illegal migration’. This led to a media campaign targeting the NGOs and the public, which up to then had had a great trust in them, now became tentative and hesitant, as if there was something mysterious behind these ‘non-governmental’ entities and – worse still– something ungovernable! This then exposed the intrinsic contradiction that underlies the relationship between governments and NGOs we referred to previously.
What does all this tell us about the future? I am personally very worried that over the coming decades the contradiction is likely to fester. For a number of reasons that we can’t go into here, even democratic governments will face an ever increasing difficulty in ensuring public consent; the era of social media and the development of more direct, global and unmanageable forms of public communication will increase the mistrust in the institutions, and the NGOs will also be caught up in this malaise, or at least the larger and more international ones will. On the other hand there will be a much greater need for them, especially if governments are weakened both politically and technically, in order to face the dramatic challenges such as, by way of example, those posed by global warming. The public, overburdened by contrasting signals, will tend to shift from one position to the other, relying on or distancing itself from the NGOs depending on the situation and the climate.
However, a hope does remain, that in this difficult juxtaposition the public will learn what these NGOs really get up to and what a powerful cultural, political and social opportunity they represent and thus find a way of corralling them as a valid tool to determine future political dynamics. On this point, with a distressing future in the offing, we might find succour in the past. We should perhaps look back to the time when the term NGO had yet to be coined yet the foundations were being laid for their emergence and their actions within modern society. Let’s take the example of Save the Children, which today is the largest international NGO dedicated to protecting children and adolescents.
Almost one hundred years ago, in 1919, a visionary woman, Eglantyne Webb, founded Save the Children. Jebb had already denounced the serious consequences resulting from the British government’s embargo against Austria and Germany, where children were literally dying of hunger. But the British government was firmly set on not providing any aid to the defeated enemy. Jebb was even arrested but in the end her mission got the kind of attention she felt it deserved. In the summer of 1919 she wrote to Pope Benedict XV to ask for the Church’s support against the famine. In response to her appeal, in November of the same year the Pope wrote the Encyclical Paterno Iam Diu, which appealed to all the churches in the world to collect funds for children and the following year, with Encyclical Annus iam Planus est, he publically praised Save the Children for its work. For the first time in history a non-denominational organisation was being promoted and backed in this way by the Catholic Church. And this led to much more. It extended the very concept of “human rights”. At the start of the 20th century “children” were still viewed exclusively with reference to the adult world: they were considered incomplete adults, not persons with specific emotional, psychological and intellectual requirements. Subjects devoid of rights. But in 1923, Jebb, following the events that led to the foundation of Save the Children, drafted the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in order that “The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured”. Jebb sent the Declaration to the Society of Nations, and the text was adopted on 26 September of the following year, with the title Geneva Declaration, which then formed the basis, in 1989, for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Everything started from the compulsory moral need to recognise the pain suffered by the most destitute and vulnerable children, the defeated, beyond any political consideration that the end of the war imposed. It was a ‘non-governmental’ act that led the governments throughout the world to sign the declaration on Child Rights.
So, if a simple appeal against an injustice managed to establish a moral and cultural movement capable of being taken on board by the Catholic Church and subsequently by different governments and churches worldwide, finally giving rise to a major international NGO which, in almost 100 years, has saved millions of children and promoted a new awareness of the rights of children that would not have come to pass otherwise, then we can hope and even believe that in a different situation, which we can hardly envisage today, the NGOs, in spite of unavoidable conflicts with the politics of the time, shall nevertheless manage to represent fundamental values in any debate or social conflict. And let’s hope this at least will hold true in the coming 100 years.
You will find this article in the eastwest paper magazine at newwstand.