What is An Nongovernmental Organization (NGO)? (AKA What Is Lena Working With This Week?)

When most people hear ‘the United Nations’ (and this applies to Model UN people too!), most will think: “A place where governments meet together and talk.” Well yes, on a basic level that is what the UN does. But it goes much deeper than that.
The United Nations is composed of 193 ‘Member States’ (nations which have ratified the United Nations Mandate and have been first recommended for membership by the Security Council, then later accepted by the General Assembly vote.) As the UN Charters says, memership “is open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” But Member States only make up a small portion of the representation at the UN; there are two other big groups: permanent observers and civil society.

Permanent Observers: this category includes non-member states, meaning nations that have not been accepted as UN Member States but are recognized by the UN (specifically the Holy See and Palestine; there are also nations not recognized by the UN that are not given status at the UN, namely Taiwan and Kosovo); and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), which are basically organizations that work towards specific issues by acting as a facilitator between governments and civil society  (here is a list of all the different ones).

Civil Society: this is the category that I am working with this week. It includes two groups: Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Both are given ‘observer status’ which can be revoked should a member state object to their classification with the UN (hence why they are not part of the ‘Permemant Observers’ – civil society’s status is not permanent). I would provide a list of CSOs and NGOs working with the UN, but honestly there isn’t a single list. Why? Because each branch of the UN has their own list of CSOs and NGOs which they work with (technically all NGOs/CSOs are issued UN passed through ECOSOC [because of how the UN is organized] but they work with different groups underneath the 6 main bodies of the UN, and each of these groups have different lists of CSOs/NGOs they work with.)

What exactly is an NGO then? Also known as civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are similar to lobbyists groups in the US government. Specifically at the UN: NGOs are organizations which work to advocate for their causes to be addressed on the international stage via the UN, and will work with the UN to advocate for their positions on said causes.  NGOs are non-profit organizations whose staff are largely civilian volunteers who work towards specific goals (some work on poverty, some work on stabilization in post-conflict zones, some work on education; if you can think of an issue the world is facing, there is probably an NGO which addresses the issue.) In the US alone, there is an estimated 1.5 million NGOs. (This link also has a ton of technical information on NGOs if you would like to learn more!)

How are NGOs funded? Normally NGOs are funding through private donors (individuals, foundations, or corportations) and/or grants provided by governments and IGOs. Sometimes NGOs are even be funded by other, larger NGOs. It is imperative for NGOs to fundraise because the projects an NGO will be able to do depends on how much funding the NGO receives. For example, an NGO I volunteered for a few years ago – My Ugandan Child – had a group of people (myself, Karol, and two other volunteers) draft a document of all the possible grants and funds the NGO could apply to in order for MUC to fund its pojects.  Important note – some NGOs will refuse funds from governments or corporations if they feel accepting the donation would impede their ability to remain neurtral.  For more information on how NGOs are funded and how funding sources may affect NGO’s operations, click here.

How do NGOs achieve their goals? There are actually two types of NGOs. The first works on the ground in the areas that need the most help, therefore working directly with civilians (MyWorld works with civilians on the ground in Mexico to increase education about the SDGs while also using their volunteers to complete tasks which help achieve the SDGs). The other type, though, works on the policy level (meaning they work only with the UN or with governments, without having projects that work with civilians.) Important note – it is possible for an NGO to work on both levels. MyWorld, for example, has their work on the ground in Mexico, but also attends UN conferences (like CSocD) to discuss the issues it is addressing on the ground, and works with the local and federal governments to implement policies which better help the implementation of the SDGs.

Summary: NGOs are independent lobbyists groups which work with international organizations and national governments. They can be used to advocate for their causes to be addressed on the international stage via the UN and work with the UN to advocate for their positions on said causes, or they can work on the ground in communities to address their causes through specific projects.

Final note – to be perfectly honest, when I first started writing this post I thought it would be super easy to explain NGOs. But really, NGOs are such a big beast on the international stage; they are super difficult to explain because there are so many different types and they do so many different things. So, if you think I have missed anything or if there is more information that you would like to know, tell me and I’ll fix/add it.

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