This paper discusses the issue about non-governmental organisations (NGOs), specifically about the understanding towards them. It presents and discusses basic definitions and facts about NGOs and cites relevant examples that display their influences on public opinion and government policies. Different types of NGOs that stand for different issues have been around for years, trying to serve the people by being the medium that delivers the plea and messages to those who are in authority. Is this an advantage or disadvantage to the society? How much influence does NGOs have on public opinion and government decision-making? This paper, after defining an understanding on NGO, will also try to assess the level of their influences on both the public and the State.
What is an NGO?
According to (1995), an organization may be correctly labelled an NGO if it has four characteristics identified by The Commonwealth Foundation, a London-based NGO study group. An NGO should be: voluntary, independent; not-for-profit; and not self-serving in aims and related values ( 1995). An NGO can also be referred to as a Nonprofit or Not-for-profit Organisation, Independent Sector or the Third Sector, Philanthropic Sector or Charitable Organisation, Civil Society Organisation etc.
NGOs perform important roles in today’s society. The fact that they have been recognized by the UN as important contributes to their credibility and prestige. . (2000) stated that there is already a consensus among the donor community that a strong civil society is crucial to successful development performance. The UN recognizes this, and as Secretary General have stated, “…In today’s world, we depend on each other” ( 2003). The UN basically recognizes, however, that NGOs are the most helpful type of civil societies. He stated that “The extent to which NGOs are able to organize themselves around broad networks focusing on specific issues will have a bearing on the form and impact of their involvement in the work of the Organization” (2004). Furthermore, (2004) stated that civil societies are also key participants in peace-building, reconciliation and transitions to civilian administration. With all this appreciation of the UN on civil society, particularly NGOs, it is important to note that civil societies are not just NGOs but are much broader than that. With their emergence as being helpful in achieving a decent strong society, there is no doubt that their promotion is highly advisable.
According to (2004), civil societies specifically NGOs still lack the capability to operate in their full strength in underdeveloped countries. The UN stated that the increasing participation of NGOs in intergovernmental bodies needs to be addressed. According to the UN, NGOs from developing countries are underrepresented. This is partly a result of the lack of resources of NGOs from developing countries to cover travel and accommodation costs. The UN noticed that level of attendance of NGO representatives from developing countries in standing United Nations meetings is low. This will be remedied by creating a single trust fund that supports the travel and accommodation of accredited NGOs. Accreditation of NGOs is also part of the partnership program of the UN with civil society, and being accredited means winning the support of the Organization.
The extent to which NGOs are able to organize themselves around broad networks focusing on specific issues will have a bearing on the form and impact of their involvement in the work of the UN. (1999) explained that NGOs play important, growing roles in developed and developing countries. They shape policy by exerting pressure on governments and by furnishing technical expertise to policy makers. They foster citizen participation and civic education. They provide leadership training for young people who want to engage in civic life but are uninterested in working through political parties. Furthermore, they promote many individual ideas that lead to peace promotion.
NGOs were deeply involved before and during the creation of the UN (2002). Before the founding of the United Nations, NGOs led the charge in the Geneva conventions of 1864; multilateral labor conventions adopted in 1906, and the International Slavery Convention of 1926; all stemmed from the work of NGOs who infused the international community with a spirit of reform (, 1998).
NGOs have long been held in high esteem particularly those that have been around for some time as well as those whose activities have borne fruit for the betterment of mankind. Examples are the GreenPeace movement which espouses protection and preservation of the natural planet earth through the conservation of natural resource programs, World Wildlife Fund which is similar to GreenPeace but focuses more on the wildlife as unwilling victim of humanity’s increasing civilization and industrialization, the Red Cross and Red Crescent which deal more with casualties of war at the varying stages of armed conflict: intermediation, caring for casualties during the war and post-war rehabilitation both for the warring factions as well as those who are disinterested but directly affected by the war.
Types of NGOs
There are different types of NGOs by orientation. They are: charitable orientation; service orientation; participatory orientation; and empowering orientation ( 1991). Charitable organizations are NGOs that focus on meeting the needs of the poor i.e. distribution of food and clothing, provision of housing, or relief activities on the victims of natural disasters. Service organizations, on the other hand, are those who provide people with health services, family planning lessons, or education services. Participatory groups are those NGOs who participate with local projects by providing cash, materials and other forms of contributions. Finally, empowering organizations focus more on educating the poor about the different social, political and economic factors that affect their lives (1991).
NGOs also vary when it comes to level of operations. There are community-based organizations, city wide organizations, national NGOs and international NGOs (1991).
NGO: a Type of Civil Society
An NGO is basically a type of civil society. (1998) stated that civil society acts as the mediator between the citizen and the state. The model constructed by (2004) clearly illustrates this definition (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Civil Society as a buffer between the state and the individuals
(2004) explained that this model is relevant but more of a rhetorical rather than an analytical model of civil society, and it have led to premature closure and simplification of the civil society concept. But then again, this simplified interpretation offers relevant explanation on how civil society connects the state and the individuals. Individuals of a particular society have but a small voice when they try to communicate and reason with the government alone. This lack of organizational support can lead to the point that most individual’s pleas and ideas are ignored. But through civil society, individuals can have a representative of their pleas or a medium to make their voices heard by the state.
Basically, there are NGOs that focuses on peace and cooperation missions which can communicate and negotiate the ideals of the public similar to theirs to the state. For instance, the Mine Ban Treaty implemented in 1999 was caused by NGOs. According to (2000), the NGOs utilized the Internet as a medium to communicate with both the citizens and the government. International governments were convinced of signing such treaty because of the creation of a wide-ranging coalition against land mines with wide ethnic, geographical, organizational and religious diversity. Land mines can be a disruption of peace as it claims lives intentionally or unintentionally. But with the help of civil society, land mines have been banned, making peace won over disruption.
In addition, civil society also contributes to the empowerment of democracy. According to (1999), an active, diverse civil society discipline the state, ensure that citizens' interests are taken seriously, and foster greater civic and political participation. He cited from that a weak civil society leads to a lack of "civic engagement" and "social trust."
The NGO Influence
It can be said that NGOs today are already established groups that are recognized by the State. NGOs have developed their reputation as groups that have no other concern but the welfare of the citizens, through addressing the different issues that bothers or disrupts the order within the society. As (1995) stated: “The economic, informational and intellectual resources of NGOs have garnered them enough expertise and influence to assume authority in matters that, traditionally, have been solely within the purview of state administration and responsibility”. (1995) argued that the influence of NGOs grew mainly because of their great difference from the State. The first rationale is that compared to the State that performs many functions, with national security as a top priority, NGOs focus on single issues or sets of issues to the exclusion of others. Further, NGOs commit themselves to causes that states' priorities frequently subordinate to other foreign policy interests or ignore entirely. Finally, NGOs’ scope is narrower and their membership is less ideologically diverse than the issues and citizenry to which states are accounted to (1995).
In the study conducted by (2001), it was found that environmental NGOs played a huge role in the Kyoto Protocol. It was concluded that those ENGOs that participated in the protocol convinced United States Vice-President Al Gore to attend the convention, and convinced the EU to hold out reduction targets.
Also, NGOs played an influential role in the Desertification Convention. It pushed the financial mechanism in the convention, such as the national diversification funds (2001). NGOs also helped emphasized theirs and local community participation ( 2001).
However, not all people warmly welcome the strong influence of NGOs. (2000) cited from a magazine editorial that NGOs are strong enough to influence the United Nations, and are in need to be regulated. It stated that NGOs have elevated themselves into a kind of additional consistency of national and international governance that demands all kinds of regulations ( 2000). The editorial strongly suggested the need to regulate the NGOs that are notorious of characteristics such as being unrepresentative, undemocratic and are only concerned with their own personal agenda ( 2000).
Think Tanks behind NGOs
Another way to explain the strong influence of NGOs on public opinion and government policies is the participation of Think Tanks behind them. Think Tanks are basically non-profit research organizations, which engage in public policy analysis and research, and often advocate solutions. Majority of them are oriented to the political ‘right’. Their approach is by checking the staff list and the board of governors. Further, they express their ideas through newspapers and articles (2000).
One example of Think Tanks in Australia is the Samuel Griffith Society, an organization with the aim to: defend the existing Australian constitution; oppose further government centralization of power; redress the balance of power in favor of the States; defend the Parliament against the Executive; and defend the Judiciary (2000).
On another hand, in terms of influencing public opinion, an example of a Think Tank is the Evatt Foundations. It focuses on promoting ideals of labor movement, such as: equality, participation, human right, and social justice (2000).
The HIV/AIDS Issue
The HIV/AIDS issue is one of the specific social issues that several NGOs push. The problem of HIV/AIDS is not just any other health issue because its increase is related to many cultural factors. Several NGOs such as World Vision, Action for AIDS, and many others push different measures to counter the socially related factors that contribute to the increase of people infected with HIV/AIDS.
The Different NGO Approaches on HIV/AIDS
NGOs can be considered as interest groups, which mean groups that are protecting a specific interest such as the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Interest groups have three types – they are: promotional groups; sectional groups; and hybrid groups ( 2000). Promotional groups promote a cause that they think everyone should favor. On the other hand, sectional groups defend the interests of particular groups or sections within the community. Finally, hybrid groups display aspects of both promotional and sectional groups ( 2000).
NGOs on the issue of HIV/AIDS implement different strategies. However, like all other NGOs, they include: publicity activities such as meetings, advertisements, letter to the editors, interviews on television and radio; campaigning in elections in support of the group’s policies; negotiating with other groups or building alliance; attracting members and funds; lobbying and bureaucracy; research and analysis; lobbying ministers; lobbying ministerial staff; hiring professional lobbyists; and resorting into court actions; and the use of mass media (2000)
One example of a specific HIV/AIDS NGO is World Vision. The group incorporates different approaches, but they based all approaches on one single campaign. The main programme of World Vision on the HIV/AIDS issue is its HIV/AIDS Hope Initiative. This programme focuses on three aspects: prevention; care; and advocacy.
This program has a huge potential to influence public opinion and policies concerning HIV/AIDS. First, in the prevention aspect, because it targets to educate specific groups (children 5 to 15 years old; pregnant and breast-feeding mothers; and persons at high risk of infection), the chance that they would change the public opinions of those groups regarding sex and HIV/AIDS will be huge. Further, the way they show care on those who already have the disease will also influence on the perception of how to help people with AIDS. Finally, through their advocacy approach (that is, to urge governments to adopt policies and programs that prevent new infections and care for the infected and the affected), they may influence government policies on HIV/AIDS.
An example of the strong influence of the HIV/AIDS Hope Initiative program of World Vision on public opinion and government policies is its ability to garner cooperation from other stakeholders. In the study of (2005), it was shown that World Vision was able to gain the cooperation of UNAIDS and Thai/Burma government to its programs. One of the respondents stated that World Vision was able to bring Rangoon and Bangkok health officials together and has established meetings between two hospitals across the border together. Furthermore, it was able to garner cooperation from groups such as UNICEF, USAID, Provincial Public Health in Ranong, the District Government in Arumeru, and many other NGOs and other government departments and agencies in different locations.
The World Vision program also garnered volunteers with the communities and has promoted cooperation with the private sectors.
World Vision also stated that their HIV/AIDS programs in Asia improved the local capacity to respond on HIV/AIDS ( 2001). They also found increasing community awareness about HIV/AIDS, and initiated additional activities such as orphan care and helping the poor ( 2001). World Vision can also influence public opinion about sex greatly with its ABC principle in HIV/AIDS prevention: Abstinence outside of marriage; Being faithful within marriage; and Condom use if ever a person won’t practice faithfulness or abstinence.
Another example of an HIV/AIDS NGO is Action for AIDS. AFA also focuses on prevention and awareness. It has four objectives: to provide support and assistance to persons living with HIV and AIDS (PWAs); to increase awareness, education and understanding of AIDS and HIV infection; to combat discrimination and stigmatisation of (PWAs) and their loved ones; and to encourage AIDS-related research activities in Singapore ( 2006).
Compared to World Vision, AFA have more diverse programmes. First, it has the “Anonymous HIV Testing & Counselling Clinic”, which provides pre-and post-test counseling for clients, with test results are available within 20 min of doing the test.
AFA also has a publication called “The ACT”. It deals with medical, social, cultural and personal issues, and reviews and updates AFA's activities. The publication is free to members and volunteers, to schools, libraries, community organisations, medical and dental clinics and hospitals ( 2006).
Another program of AFA is the HIV Education Outreach Program. Here, AFA trained educators who can speak to groups and organizations to help raise AIDS awareness (2006).
AFA also has a Teen Outreach Program which has the purpose of serving a vacuum in the HIV/AIDS educational outreach to out-of-school teenagers. They also have the ‘Be Aware, Be Safe Program’, which is an interactive and informative sessions for youth in school settings.
AFA also has a Woman and Girl Outreach program and a special program for Muslims. The objectives of the programs are to make the target population aware about the basics of HIV/AIDS and to teach them ways on how to avoid getting the disease. AFA also has programs for high-risk heterosexual men, men having sex with men, and women having sex with women (2006).
World Vision and AFA are HIV/AIDS NGOs that both implements hybrid approach. They are hybrid in a sense that they protect and promote a particular cause, which is the awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS, and also protect the interests of groups that has the same aim as theirs. However, there are other HIV/AIDS NGOs that only focuses on one interest group approaches – either sectional or promotional. While such groups have their own strengths, they can be least effective since they have limited means to communicate their objectives through. Because AFA and World Vision are hybrid, they can better push their objectives to the government and to the people. Being a promotional group enables them to promote their cause freely with the use of different mediums, while being sectional enables them to tie with government bodies to enhance the effectiveness of a specific project.
Which Strategy is better?
All interest organization strategies mentioned above have different purposes and level of effectiveness. For instance, publicity activities may be effective if the organization plays the right cards. That is, the effectiveness of this approach may depend only on the popularity of the type of media that the organization will use for publicity. The question is how many people can the medium reach, or how much volume does the medium distribute? Another concern in this type of approach is how effective the contents of the publicity campaign will be. If for instance, the representative who will participate in this publicity is not effective in clearly describing the demands or goals of their organization, then there will be a question of effectiveness – on how well their demands gained sympathy from targeted audience.
Another approach mentioned earlier is the strategy of campaigning in elections. This approach may work if the politician that the organization supports wins the election because their demands will be recognized. However, if the politician they support loses, then there will be less chances of getting their demands noticed. This move can be very risky since it’s a win-lose situation for the NGO.
The means of negotiating or building alliances with other groups is another strategy that interest groups like NGOs use. This approach may be effective as it may create a solid foundation for the organization. Networking may also help the organization learn new things from their partners or access areas that were inaccessible before. However, this may also be a disadvantage because it can brew competition from within the network. It can also limit the operation of the group to the network’s interests or policies.
Attracting members and generating funds is another strategy, basically to keep up the operation of the organization. Members can be used as mediums to preach the aims of the organization, while the funds can be used to produce new campaigns. However, the problem here is making sure that the members are real serious of joining the organization, or are really motivated to join because they fight for a similar cause. Some people join organizations for conformity and may not essentially contribute to the organization’s cause.
Lobbying is another form of strategy that NGOs or interest groups use. Lobbying is basically a means to persuade someone or a group that has more position power to participate or support the cause of the interest group. Lobbying ministers or ministerial staff may help the organization in getting its concerns noticed. However, there is a need here to know which lobbying approach should be used. That is why; there are some NGOs who hire professional lobbyist, whom mostly are former politicians. According to the (2002), an interest group hiring o former top public servant acquires significant advantages because such senior figures know how the system works and how they work it. However, the disadvantage of this is that hiring a former public servant may lead to government scrutiny. This may also introduce concepts of corruption within the NGO, given if the public servant they hired used to be a corrupt one.
Research and analysis is another NGO strategy that can either be effective or not. As mentioned, there are NGOs being led by Think Tanks that purely focus on research and analysis, and present their findings on the government. However, while this strategy may be a good way to convince the public or the government about a particular type of problem, it may also be a problem since most research findings are subjected into scrutiny. Questions about the validity of the research may arise, and as a result, this may prevent the government or the public from taking any action about the particular issue. Furthermore, counter-research on the research undertaken by the organization may also serve as a problem as there will be ambiguity regarding which results are correct or more valid.
Court action is another strategy that may work in favor for the organization. However, due to the fact the court actions are complex and time consuming, such strategy may be a disadvantage to the organization.
Finally, a strategy that NGOs can use is the utilization of mass media. The media may have the greatest advantage above all of the strategies mentioned because of it provide the widest reach ever. Through the use of television, using commercials or shows, billions of audience around the world will be able to watch the campaigns. Radios and newspapers, on the other hand, may also reach people on the national level. On the other hand, the use of Internet may reach a wider scope of audience, but mostly people who are internet savvy. However, the shortfall of this approach is it is too expensive and may have a short lifespan.
The Issue of NGO Credibility
In today’s modern world of information bliss and post-cold war setting, NGOs are playing a critical role in ensuring that the voices of the civil societies are being heard by those who are in the governmental position. For years, NGOs have fought to alleviate poverty, protect human rights, preserve the environment, and provide relief worldwide. However, there are some questions that still need answers that shade heavily the credibility of NGOs. The issue of NGO credibility basically scopes questions such as: how many NGOs actually exist, and what are their agendas? Who runs these groups? Who funds them? And, perhaps most significantly, to whom are NGOs accountable, and how and what influence do they actually have on world politics? ( 2005).
The growth of international funding is one of the issues that greatly relates with the questionable status of NGOs. (2005) pointed out that foreign funding can raise question to NGOs credibility because it can lead to doubt on whether the supported NGOs are being dictated by the donors, specifically directing their goals for personal agendas. The danger here is that NGOs can be exploited through the dictates of these financial providers.
The issue of funding sources contributes to the development of NGOs’ poor public image. The lack of clear financial management rules shadows the credibility of the NGOs, as they lead to money-laundering acts, as well as being used by politicians for their own campaigns or political gains.
Another issue of credibility for NGOs is the question of accountability. NGOs are often not transparent enough for the private sectors and governments to trust. Although it was proven that they can expose accountability issues of government departments or corporations, they themselves have problems of accountability ( 2005).
NGOs have grown into a large scale sub-industry that rivals the very government institutions or departments they attack and this fact subjects them to competition and the laws of competition ( 2005). Governments are starting to question the accountability of NGOs because they feel threatened and they feel that there is a need to assess the status of their critics as well – if they are following the standards of transparency and accountability, the quality of services and products they donate, and many others. Because NGOs are subjected to scrutiny, many complex issues within their organizations are being discovered. For example, NGO (2006) has pointed out a particular funding issue in Finland between financial supporters and NGOs.
The key background of the issue is that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Development Cooperation (here after FDC) of the Finnish Government distributes governmental funds for the "promotion of global security reduction of widespread poverty [and the] promotion of human rights and democracy" in developing countries (2006). However:”… there are a number of organizations who receive money from Finland whose work contradicts the official goals of Finnish development cooperation. Such NGOs also contribute to misinformation and hostile and rejectionist attitudes towards the state of Israel, among the international media, diplomatic and development-organization communities”.
Those who question the credibility of NGOs in terms of accountability also fear the continuous growth of their influence over international bodies. (2006) of NGO Monitor stated: “The hijacking of the Durban anti-racism conference in 2001 by anti-Israel NGOs illustrated the dangers of politically motivated humanitarian groups that derive credibility simply on the basis of mission statements promoting "universal human rights."
Such examples demonstrate that there is a mixed opinion on NGOs, on whether or not they contribute to the welfare of the society. But in order to understand, NGOs must be subjected to scrutiny the same way that they scrutinize the operations of other organizations. However, NGOs can improve their credibility by being transparent either through releasing annual reports of costs, or adopting modern financial management approaches. NGOs should answer the questions ‘for whom’ they are accountable to, and ‘for what’ purpose or purposes ( 2005). (2005) suggested that NGOs should learn to assess the motives behind their donors to allow the opportunity for organizational learning. If the donor is too stringent to undergo assessment, then that donor may not be too sincere or may have other agendas aside from helping or donating. The academic community should also take responsibility in reviewing and assessing such an issue. NGOs should not be tolerated with everything because they are also organizations that should follow the right standards, specifically in terms of transparency and limitations.
This paper concludes that HIV/AIDS hybrid groups that use multi-strategies in campaigns may have the edge over the other groups. The reason for this is because they have more flexibility than the others, more agile, and has more option when pushing support for their campaign. Both promotions and sectional approaches are important for campaigns because it gathers more sympathy from public and governments that are concerned with the issue. It will show the image that the organization is knowledgeable about the interest that it pushes.
Additionally, an organization can be more successful in influencing public opinion or government policies if it utilizes a wide range of campaigns on different types of media, such as television, radio, newspaper and internet. However, because only large international NGOs can afford such budgets, it is concluded in this paper that International NGOs that have promotional and sectional approaches, and utilizes mass media campaigns are the most influential NGOs. Some examples of these NGOs are the World Vision and the UNAIDS. These NGOs have the widest reach of audience, has the most influential lobbyists, and uses other means of strategies that may further expose their campaigns. It is concluded in this paper that budget is important for an NGO since this will allow the utilization of mass media campaigns – an imperative to influence more people and has more positioning power when suggesting policy changes to the government.
However, the irony behind the importance of budget for NGOs is that it blends with the issue of transparency and accountability. On the one hand, generating budget or soliciting donations from various sources may contribute greatly to the campaigns of the NGOs, making them reach as many people as possible around the world. On the other hand, funding sources, depending on how large the amount they contribute, may dictate the very operation of the NGOs, or may have power over control. A budget that is also poorly financially managed may have an adverse effect on the very core of the organization since problems such as corruption or money-laundering schemes may arise. That is why NGOs should resort to programs that will build up their transparency to regain the trusts of the State and their critics. NGOs should build up financial management programs and release reports of their operations for transparency.
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