Non-governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, or nongovernment organizations, commonly referred to as NGOs, are usually non-profit and sometimes international organizations independent of governments and international governmental organizations (though often funded by governments) that are active in humanitarian, educational, health care, public policy, social, human rights, environmental, and other areas to affect changes according to their objectives. They are thus a subgroup of all organizations founded by citizens, which include clubs and other associations that provide services, benefits, and premises only to members. Sometimes the term is used as a synonym of "civil society organization" to refer to any association founded by citizens, but this is not how the term is normally used in the media or everyday language, as recorded by major dictionaries. The explanation of the term by NGO.org (the non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations) is ambivalent. It first says an NGO is any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level, but then goes on to restrict the meaning in the sense used by most English speakers and the media: Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information.
NGOs are usually funded by donations, but some avoid formal funding altogether and are run primarily by volunteers. NGOs are highly diverse groups of organizations engaged in a wide range of activities, and take different forms in different parts of the world. Some may have charitable status, while others may be registered for tax exemption based on recognition of social purposes. Others may be fronts for political, religious, or other interests. Since the end of World War II, NGOs have had an increasing role in international development, particularly in the fields of humanitarian assistance and poverty alleviation.
The number of NGOs worldwide is estimated to be 10 million. Russia had about 277,000 NGOs in 2008. India is estimated to have had around 2 million NGOs in 2009, just over one NGO per 600 Indians, and many times the number of primary schools and primary health centres in India. China is estimated to have approximately 440,000 officially registered NGOs. About 1.5 million domestic and foreign NGOs operated in the United States in 2017.
The term 'NGO' is not always used consistently. In some countries the term NGO is applied to an organization that in another country would be called an NPO (non-profit organization), and vice versa. Political parties and trade unions are considered NGOs only in some countries. There are many different classifications of NGO in use. The most common focus is on "orientation" and "level of operation". An NGO's orientation refers to the type of activities it takes on. These activities might include human rights, environmental, improving health, or development work. An NGO's level of operation indicates the scale at which an organization works, such as local, regional, national, or international.
The term "non-governmental organization" was first coined in 1945, when the United Nations (UN) was created. The UN, itself an intergovernmental organization, made it possible for certain approved specialized international non-state agencies — i.e., non-governmental organizations — to be awarded observer status at its assemblies and some of its meetings. Later the term became used more widely. Today, according to the UN, any kind of private organization that is independent from government control can be termed an "NGO", provided it is not-for-profit, non-prevention,[clarification needed] but not simply an opposition political party.
One characteristic these diverse organizations share is that their non-profit status means they are not hindered by short-term financial objectives. Accordingly, they are able to devote themselves to issues which occur across longer time horizons, such as climate change, malaria prevention, or a global ban on landmines. Public surveys reveal that NGOs often enjoy a high degree of public trust, which can make them a useful - but not always sufficient - proxy for the concerns of society and stakeholders.
NGO/GRO (governmental-related organizations) types can be understood by their orientation and level of how they operate.
Apart from "NGO", there are alternative or overlapping terms in use, including: third-sector organization (TSO), non-profit organization (NPO), voluntary organization (VO), civil society organization (CSO), grassroots organization (GO), social movement organization (SMO), private voluntary organization (PVO), self-help organization (SHO) and non-state actors (NSAs).
In Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and other Romance languages, the 'mirrored' abbreviation "ONG" is in use, which has the same meaning as "NGO" (for example Organisation non-gouvernementale in French, Organização Não Governamental in Portuguese, Organización no gubernamental in Spanish, or Organizzazione non governativa in Italian).
Governmental-related organizations / non-governmental organizations are a heterogeneous group. As a result, a long list of additional acronyms has developed, including:
USAID refers to NGOs as private voluntary organizations. However, many scholars have argued that this definition is highly problematic as many NGOs are in fact state- or corporate-funded and -managed projects and have professional staff.
GRO/NGOs exist for a variety of reasons, usually to further the political or social goals of their members or founders. Examples include improving the state of the natural environment, encouraging the observance of human rights, improving the welfare of the disadvantaged, or representing a corporate agenda. However, there are a huge number of such organizations and their goals cover a broad range of political and philosophical positions. This can also easily be applied to private schools and athletic organizations.
Track II dialogue, or Track II diplomacy, is transnational coordination that involves non-official members of the government including epistemic communities as well as former policy-makers or analysts. Track II diplomacy aims to get policymakers and policy analysts to come to a common solution through discussions by unofficial means. Unlike the Track I diplomacy where government officials, diplomats and elected leaders gather to talk about certain issues, Track II diplomacy consists of experts, scientists, professors and other figures that are not involved in government affairs. The members of Track II diplomacy usually have more freedom to exchange ideas and come up with compromises on their own.
Generally, NGOs act as implementers, catalysts, and partners. Firstly, NGOs act as implementers in that they mobilize resources in order to provide goods and services to people who are suffering due to a man-made disaster or a natural disaster. Secondly, NGOs act as catalysts in that they drive change. They have the ability to 'inspire, facilitate, or contribute to improved thinking and action to promote change'. Lastly, NGOs often act as partners alongside other organizations in order to tackle problems and address human needs more effectively.
NGOs vary in their methods. Some act primarily as lobbyists, while others primarily conduct programs and activities. For instance, an NGO such as Oxfam, concerned with poverty alleviation, may provide needy people with the equipment and skills to find food and clean drinking water, whereas an NGO like the FFDA helps through investigation and documentation of human rights violations and provides legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. Others, such as the Afghanistan Information Management Services, provide specialized technical products and services to support development activities implemented on the ground by other organizations.
Operational NGOs seek to "achieve small-scale change directly through projects". They mobilize financial resources, materials, and volunteers to create localized programs. They hold large-scale fundraising events and may apply to governments and organizations for grants or contracts to raise money for projects. They often operate in a hierarchical structure; a main headquarters being staffed by professionals who plan projects, create budgets, keep accounts, and report and communicate with operational fieldworkers who work directly on projects. Operational NGOs deal with a wide range of issues, but are most often associated with the delivery of services or environmental issues, emergency relief, and public welfare. Operational NGOs can be further categorized by the division into relief-oriented versus development-oriented organizations; according to whether they stress service delivery or participation; whether they are religious or secular; and whether they are more public- or private-oriented. Although operational NGOs can be community-based, many are national or international. The defining activity of operational NGOs is the implementation of projects.
Campaigning NGOs seek to "achieve large-scale change promoted indirectly through influence of the political system". Campaigning NGOs need an efficient and effective group of professional members who are able to keep supporters informed, and motivated. They must plan and host demonstrations and events that will keep their cause in the media. They must maintain a large informed network of supporters who can be mobilized for events to garner media attention and influence policy changes. The defining activity of campaigning NGOs is holding demonstrations. Campaigning NGOs often deal with issues relating to human rights, women's rights, and children's rights. The primary purpose of an Advocacy NGO is to defend or promote a specific cause. As opposed to operational project management, these organizations typically try to raise awareness, acceptance and knowledge by lobbying, press work and activist event.
It is not uncommon for NGOs to make use of both activities. Many times, operational NGOs will use campaigning techniques if they continually face the same issues in the field that could be remedied through policy changes. At the same time, Campaigning NGOs, like human rights organizations often have programs that assist the individual victims they are trying to help through their advocacy work.
Non-governmental organizations need healthy relationships with the public to meet their goals. Foundations and charities use sophisticated public relations campaigns to raise funds and employ standard lobbying techniques with governments. Interest groups may be of political importance because of their ability to influence social and political outcomes. A code of ethics was established in 2002 by The World Association of Non Governmental Organizations.
There is an increasing awareness that management techniques are crucial to project success in non-governmental organizations. Generally, non-governmental organizations that are private have either a community or environmental focus. They address varieties of issues such as religion, emergency aid, or humanitarian affairs. They mobilize public support and voluntary contributions for aid; they often have strong links with community groups in developing countries, and they often work in areas where government-to-government aid is not possible. NGOs are accepted as a part of the international relations landscape, and while they influence national and multilateral policy-making, increasingly they are more directly involved in local action.
Some NGOs are highly professionalized and rely mainly on paid staff. Others are based around voluntary labour and are less formalized. Not all people working for non-governmental organizations are volunteers.
Many NGOs are associated with the use of international staff working in 'developing' countries, but there are many NGOs in both North and South who rely on local employees or volunteers. There is some dispute as to whether expatriates should be sent to developing countries. Frequently this type of personnel is employed to satisfy a donor who wants to see the supported project managed by someone from an industrialized country. However, the expertise of these employees or volunteers may be counterbalanced by a number of factors: the cost of foreigners is typically higher, they have no grassroot connections in the country they are sent to, and local expertise is often undervalued.
The NGO sector is an essential employer in terms of numbers. For example, by the end of 1995, CONCERN worldwide, an international Northern NGO working against poverty, employed 174 expatriates and just over 5,000 national staff working in ten developing countries in Africa and Asia, and in Haiti.
Whether the NGOs are small or large, various NGOs need budgets to operate. The amount of money that each requires varies depending upon multiple factors, including the size of the operation and the extent of the services provided. Unlike small NGOs, large NGOs may have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. For instance, the budget of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was over US$540 million in 1999. Funding such large budgets demands significant fundraising efforts on the part of most NGOs. Major sources of NGO funding are membership dues, the sale of goods and services, grants from international institutions or national governments, and private donations. Several EU-grants provide funds accessible to NGOs.
Even though the term "non-governmental organization" implies independence from governments, many NGOs depend heavily on governments for their funding. A quarter of the US$162 million income in 1998 of the famine-relief organization Oxfam was donated by the British government and the EU. The Christian relief and development organization World Vision United States collected US$55 million worth of goods in 1998 from the American government.
Government funding of NGOs is controversial, since, according to David Rieff, writing in The New Republic, "the whole point of humanitarian intervention was precisely that NGOs and civil society had both a right and an obligation to respond with acts of aid and solidarity to people in need or being subjected to repression or want by the forces that controlled them, whatever the governments concerned might think about the matter." Some NGOs, such as Greenpeace do not accept funding from governments or intergovernmental organizations.
Overhead is the amount of money that is spent on running an NGO rather than on projects. This includes office expenses, salaries, banking and bookkeeping costs. What percentage of overall budget is spent on overhead is often used to judge an NGO with less than 4% being viewed as good. The World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations states that ideally more than 86% should be spent on programs (less than 20% on overhead). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has specific guidelines on how high overhead can be to receive funding based on how the money is to be spent with overhead often needing to be less than 5-7%. While the World Bank typically allows 37%. A high percentage of overhead to total expenditures can make it more difficult to generate funds. High overhead costs may also generate criticism with some claiming the certain NGOs with high overhead are being run simply to benefit the people working for them.
While overhead costs can be a legitimate concern, a sole focus on them can be counterproductive. Research published by the Urban Institute and the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University have shown how rating agencies create incentives for non-profits to lower and hide overhead costs, which may actually reduce organizational effectiveness by starving organizations of the infrastructure they need to effectively deliver services. A more meaningful rating system would provide, in addition to financial data, a qualitative evaluation of an organization’s transparency and governance: (1) an assessment of program effectiveness; (2) and an evaluation of feedback mechanisms designed for donors and beneficiaries; and (3) such a rating system would also allow rated organizations to respond to an evaluation done by a rating agency. More generally, the popular discourse of non-profit evaluation should move away from financial notions of organizational effectiveness and toward more substantial understandings of programmatic impact.
In the March 2000 report on United Nations Reform priorities, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in favor of international humanitarian intervention, arguing that the international community has a "right to protect" citizens of the world against ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity. On the heels of the report, the Canadian government launched the Responsibility to Protect R2P project, outlining the issue of humanitarian intervention. While the R2P doctrine has wide applications, among the more controversial has been the Canadian government's use of R2P to justify its intervention and support of the coup in Haiti. Years after R2P, the World Federalist Movement, an organization which supports "the creation of democratic global structures accountable to the citizens of the world and call for the division of international authority among separate agencies", has launched Responsibility to Protect - Engaging Civil Society (R2PCS). A collaboration between the WFM and the Canadian government, this project aims to bring NGOs into lockstep with the principles outlined under the original R2P project.
The governments of the countries an NGO works or is registered in may require reporting or other monitoring and oversight. Funders generally require reporting and assessment, such information is not necessarily publicly available. There may also be associations and watchdog organizations that research and publish details on the actions of NGOs working in particular geographic or program areas.
In recent years, many large corporations have increased their corporate social responsibility departments in an attempt to preempt NGO campaigns against certain corporate practices. As the logic goes, if corporations work with NGOs, NGOs will not work against corporations. Greater collaboration between corporations and NGOs creates inherent risks of co-optation for the weaker partner, typically the non-profit involved.
In December 2007, The United States Department of Defense Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) S. Ward Casscells established an International Health Division under Force Health Protection & Readiness. Part of International Health's mission is to communicate with NGOs in areas of mutual interest. Department of Defense Directive 3000.05, in 2005, requires DoD to regard stability-enhancing activities as a mission of importance equal to combat. In compliance with international law, DoD has necessarily built a capacity to improve essential services in areas of conflict such as Iraq, where the customary lead agencies (State Department and USAID) find it difficult to operate. Unlike the "co-option" strategy described for corporations, the OASD(HA) recognizes the neutrality of health as an essential service. International Health cultivates collaborative relationships with NGOs, albeit at arms-length, recognizing their traditional independence, expertise and honest broker status. While the goals of DoD and NGOs may seem incongruent, the DoD's emphasis on stability and security to reduce and prevent conflict suggests, on careful analysis, important mutual interests.
International non-governmental organizations have a history dating back to at least the late eighteenth century. It has been estimated that by 1914, there were 1083 NGOs. International NGOs were important in the anti-slavery movement and the movement for women's suffrage, and reached a peak at the time of the World Disarmament Conference. However, the phrase "non-governmental organization" only came into popular use with the establishment of the United Nations Organization in 1945 with provisions in Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the United Nations Charter for a consultative role for organizations which are neither governments nor member states—see Consultative Status . The definition of "international NGO" (INGO) is first given in resolution 288 (X) of ECOSOC on February 27, 1950: it is defined as "any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty". The vital role of NGOs and other "major groups" in sustainable development was recognized in Chapter 27 of Agenda 21, leading to intense arrangements for a consultative relationship between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. It has been observed that the number of INGO founded or dissolved matches the general "state of the world", rising in periods of growth and declining in periods of crisis.
Rapid development of the non-governmental sector occurred in western countries as a result of the processes of restructuring of the welfare state. Further globalization of that process occurred after the fall of the communist system and was an important part of the Washington consensus.
Globalization during the 20th century gave rise to the importance of NGOs. Many problems could not be solved within a nation. International treaties and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization were centered mainly on the interests of capitalist enterprises. In an attempt to counterbalance this trend, NGOs have developed to emphasize humanitarian issues, developmental aid and sustainable development. A prominent example of this is the World Social Forum, which is a rival convention to the World Economic Forum held annually in January in Davos, Switzerland. The fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005 was attended by representatives from more than 1,000 NGOs. In terms of environmental issues and sustainable development, the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 was the first to show the power of international NGOs, when about 2,400 representatives of NGOs came to play a central role in deliberations. Some have argued that in forums like these, NGOs take the place of what should belong to popular movements of the poor. Whatever the case, NGO transnational networking is now extensive.
The legal form of NGOs is diverse and depends upon homegrown variations in each country's laws and practices. However, four main family groups of NGOs can be found worldwide:
The Council of Europe in Strasbourg drafted the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organizations in 1986, which sets a common legal basis for the existence and work of NGOs in Europe. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of association, which is also a fundamental norm for NGOs.
The laws of NGOs' host countries sharply defines the legal status, identity and powers of NGOs. In China, for instance, the registration of religious organizations is handled in a different manner than other types of NGOs are subject to. While ordinarily NGOs are registered under the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), RNGOs are registered and managed separately, under the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) at the central level, and regionally under the Religious Affairs Bureau. This differentiation in treatment of NGO types is owing to the Chinese government's time-honoured suspicion towards social organizations with Western origins, including Christian organizations. As Jonathan Tam and Reza Hasmath illustrate, the Communist Party of China maintains a suspicion of religion's historical capacity in China to galvanize social movements that threatened or toppled past Chinese governments and dynasties.
Furthermore, it is difficult to attain non-profit status in China, and many NGOs, while registering as businesses, unofficially continue to operate and behave as regular NGOs. Like their foreign NGO counterparts in China, unregistered NGOs are subject to a plethora of unspoken rules and regulations proffered by the central government. Consequently, NGOs' growth can be limited by their own necessary cautiousness in navigating the uncertainty that results from these rules. Tam and Hasmath note that these types of NGOs "encounter challenges and opportunities that are quite different from those encountered by secular NGOs".
Service-delivery NGOs provide public goods and services that governments from developing countries are unable to provide to society, due to lack of resources. Service-delivery NGOs can serve as contractors or collaborate with democratized government agencies to reduce cost associated with public goods. Capacity-building NGOs influence global affairs differently, in the sense that the incorporation of accountability measures in Southern NGOs affect "culture, structure, projects and daily operations". Advocacy and public education NGOs affect global affairs in its ability to modify behavior through the use of ideas. Communication is the weapon of choice used by advocacy and public-education NGOs in order to change people's actions and behaviors. They strategically construct messages to not only shape behavior, but to also socially mobilize communities in promoting social, political, or environmental changes. Movement NGOs mobilizes the public and coordinate large-scale collective activities to significantly push forward activism agenda.
In the post-Cold War era, more NGOs based in developed countries have pursued international outreach and became involved in local and national level social resistance and become relevant to domestic policy change in the developing world. In for the cases where national governments are highly sensitive to external influences via non-state actors, specialized NGOs have been able to find the right partners (e.g., China), building up solid working networks, locating a policy niche and facilitating domestic changes.  As Reza Hasmath has illustrated, in the 21st century NGOs have vastly expanded and diversified their role to influence local and global governance and "[permeate] a multitude of political, economic and socio-cultural contexts". NGOs' relationship with states has accordingly changed, encompassing greater collaboration between state and non-state actors, and due to decentralization and cuts in state budgets, they are capable of delivering a wide range of services. In the backdrop of NGOs' rising influence, the state is no longer solely responsible for the delivery of goods and social services, and as such the establishment of good governance and good practices among NGOs is crucial for their success. In China, the concepts of accountability and good governance of an organization are relatively new- a fact which speaks to the unique experiences of Chinese NGOs and, more broadly, illustrates key differences between local and international NGOs. As Reza Hasmath has illustrated, "the difference can largely be attributed to the experiences of international NGOs working in various countries and drawing extensively on the discourse of good governance practices."
The increased responsibility NGOs have taken on in delivering the welfare and social services that was once the extensive domain of the state is a key feature in the process of economic liberalization in China. Hasmath and Hsu have argued that this liberalization process entails modification of the tools which "the state has adopted to manage the economy and society". The state has shifted from heavy reliance on measures of coercion and propaganda to strengthening ties with social organizations to "enable the state to organize societal interests along the lines of reform".
World NGO Day is observed annually on 27 February. It was officially recognised and declared on 17 April 2010 by 12 countries of the IX Baltic Sea NGO Forum to the 8th Summit of the Baltic Sea States in Vilnius, Lithuania. The World NGO Day was internationally marked and recognised on 28 February 2014 in Helsinki, Finland by Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Former Prime Minister of New Zealand who congratulated with the World NGO Day and highlighted the importance of NGO sector for the UN through her speech.
Issa G. Shivji is one of Africa's leading experts on law and development issues as an author and academic. His critique on NGOs is found in two essays: "Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa" and "Reflections on NGOs in Tanzania: What we are, what we are not and what we ought to be". Shivji argues that despite the good intentions of NGO leaders and activists, he is critical of the "objective effects of actions, regardless of their intentions". Shivji argues also that the sudden rise of NGOs are part of a neoliberal paradigm rather than pure altruistic motivations. He is critical of the current manifestations of NGOs wanting to change the world without understanding it, and that the imperial relationship continues today with the rise of NGOs.
James Pfeiffer, in his case study of NGO involvement in Mozambique, speaks to the negative effects that NGO's have had on areas of health within the country. He argues that over the last decade, NGO's in Mozambique have "fragmented the local health system, undermined local control of health programs, and contributed to growing local social inequality".
He notes further that NGO's can be uncoordinated, creating parallel projects among different organizations, that pull health service workers away from their routine duties in order to serve the interests of the NGO's. This ultimately undermines local primary health care efforts, and takes away the governments' ability to maintain agency over their own health sector. J. Pfeiffer suggested a new model of collaboration between the NGO and the DPS (the Mozambique Provincial Health Directorate). He mentioned the NGO should be 'formally held to standard and adherence within the host country', for example reduce 'showcase' projects and parallel programs that proves to be unsustainable.
Jessica Mathews wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1997: "For all their strengths, NGOs are special interests. The best of them … often suffer from tunnel vision, judging every public act by how it affects their particular interest". Since NGOs do not have to worry about policy trade-offs, the overall impact of their cause might bring more harm to society.
Vijay Prashad argues that from the 1970s "The World Bank, under Robert McNamara, championed the NGO as an alternative to the state, leaving intact global and regional relations of power and production."
Others argue that NGOs are often imperialist in nature, that they sometimes operate in a racialized manner in third world countries, and that they fulfill a similar function to that of the clergy during the high colonial era. The philosopher Peter Hallward argues that they are an aristocratic form of politics. He also points to the fact that NGOs like Action Aid and Christian Aid "effectively condoned the [2004 US backed] coup" against an elected government in Haiti and argues that they are the "humanitarian face of imperialism". Popular movements in the global South such as the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa have sometimes refused to work with NGOs arguing that this will compromise their autonomy. It has also been argued that NGOs often disempower people by allowing funders to push for stability over social justice.
Another criticism of NGOs is that they are being designed and used as extensions of the normal foreign-policy instruments of certain Western countries and groups of countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin made this accusation at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007, concluding that these NGOs "are formally independent but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control". Also, Michael Bond wrote "Most large NGOs, such as Oxfam, the Red Cross, Cafod and Action Aid, are striving to make their aid provision more sustainable. But some, mostly in the US, are still exporting the ideologies of their backers." China has recently introduced legal measures to regulate and reduce the influence of foreign NGOs operating in China. At the same time, as Reza Hasmath has illustrated, the institutional environment in China is changing, and the number of NGOs operating in China has increased rapidly (especially those delivering social services), while the state has retreated particularly in the delivery of welfare provisions.
The representativeness, accountability and legitimacy of NGOs has been questioned especially given that NGOs are not elected by the constituents they wish to represent. In that context, states such as China make significant efforts to monitor and regulate the activities and development of NGOs. Nonetheless, NGOs have increasingly been able to operate without a government sponsoring unit, though this is only true for a small number of NGOs that operate in pre-approved categories, and they continue to face institutional constraints. Similarly, the development work of NGOs abroad has been constrained by the domestic politics and regulatory frameworks of host jurisdictions. This has occurred in spite of the fact that such NGOs enjoy high levels of international development assistance from strong state sponsors such as China.
NGOs can often be seen as furthering the interests of the governments of their home countries in ways that may have undesirable consequences in the host countries. This intertwining of state-NGO aims can have positive impacts, but local discontent in host countries can arise when NGOs are seen as uncritically carrying out the interests of companies from the country of origin. Such problems have been witnessed in the operation of Chinese NGOs in Africa. The vast majority of China's NGOs operating abroad are closely intertwined with the Chinese state as government-organised NGOs (GONGOs). The Chinese state, which sees little differentiation between GONGOs and NGOs (owing largely to their overlap in driving social transformation in Africa), views Chinese NGOs as facilitators of better relations between China and African nations. Similarly, observers of Chinese NGOs see them as a means to "soften China's image abroad, and to an extent rectify some of the damages caused by Chinese investments," which was witnessed in the clash between investors' and local interests in the Zambian copper belt. In addition, Chinese NGOs have been seen as bolstering corporate social responsibility aims, and some critics "suggest that Chinese NGOs have a limited role in actually promoting long-term development projects independent of Chinese commercial interests," as may have been the case when Chinese involvement in Sudan's Merowe Dam project displaced local Sudanese, leading to discontent.
NGOs have also been accused of using white lies or misinformed advise to enact their campaigns, i.e., accusations that NGOs have been ignorant about critical issues because, as chief scientist at Greenpeace Doug Parr said, these organizations appear to have lost their efforts in being truly scientific and now seem to be more self-interested. Rather than operating through science so as to be rationally and effectively practical, NGOs have been accused of abusing the utilization of science to gain their own advantages. In the beginning, as Parr indicated, there was "a tendency among our critics to say that science is the only decision-making tool … but political and commercial interests are using science as a cover for getting their way." At the same time, NGOs can appear to not be cooperative with other groups, according to the previous policy-maker for the German branch of Friends of the Earth, Jens Katjek. "If NGOs want the best for the environment", he says, "they have to learn to compromise."
NGOs have also been questioned as being "too much of a good thing". Eric Werker and Faisal Ahmed bring up three potential critiques of the role of NGOs in developing nations: too many NGOs in a nation—particularly one ruled by a warlord—reduces the NGO's ability to establish a credible threat of removing humanitarian assistance since they can easily be replaced by another NGO; the frequent process of resource allocation and outsourcing to local organizations in international development projects results in high expenses for NGOs and rings into question how much of the resources and money actually goes to the intended beneficiaries at the end of the allocation process; and finally, NGO missions tend to be too paternalistic and expensive, though Werker and Ahmed propose that vouchers are a good way to overcome this obstacle.
The issue of the legitimacy of NGOs raises a series of important questions. Legitimacy is one of the most important assets possessed by an NGO and is gained due to them being perceived as an “independent voice”. Their representation also emerges as an important question. Who bestows responsibilities to NGOs or INGOs and how do they gain the representation of citizens and civil society is still not scrutinized thoroughly. For instance, in the article, it is stated, "To put the point starkly: are the citizens of countries of the South and their needs represented in global civil society, or are citizens as well as their needs constructed by practices of representation? And when we realize that INGOs hardly ever come face to face with the people whose interests and problems they represent, or that they are not accountable to the people they represent, matters become even more troublesome."
The origin of funding can have serious implications for the legitimacy of NGOs. In recent decades NGOs have increased their numbers and range of activities to a level where they have become increasingly dependent on a limited number of donors. Consequently, competition has increased for funding, as have the expectations of the donors themselves. This runs the risk of donors adding conditions which can threaten the independence of NGOs; for example, an over-dependence on official aid has the potential to dilute “the willingness of NGOs to speak out on issues which are unpopular with governments”. In these situations NGOs are being held accountable by their donors, which can erode rather than enhance their legitimacy, a difficult challenge to overcome. Some commentators have also argued that the changes in NGO funding sources has ultimately altered their functions.
NGOs have also been challenged on the grounds that they do not necessarily represent the needs of the developing world, through diminishing the so-called “Southern Voice”. Some postulate that the North–South divide exists in the arena of NGOs. They question the equality of the relationships between Northern and Southern parts of the same NGOs as well as the relationships between Southern and Northern NGOs working in partnerships. This suggests a division of labour may develop, with the North taking the lead in advocacy and resource mobilisation whilst the South engages in service delivery in the developing world. The potential implications of this may mean the needs of the developing world are not addressed appropriately as Northern NGOs do not properly consult or participate in partnerships. The real danger in this situation is that western views may take the front seat and assign unrepresentative priorities.
The flood of NGOs has also been accused of damaging the public sector in multiple developing countries, e.g. accusations that NGO mismanagement has resulted in the breakdown of public health care systems. Instead of promoting equity and alleviating poverty, NGOs have been under scrutiny for contributing to socioeconomic inequality and disempowering services in the public sector of third world countries.
The scale and variety of activities in which NGOs participate has grown rapidly since the 1980s, witnessing particular expansion in the 1990s. This has presented NGOs with a need to balance the pressures of centralisation and decentralisation. By centralising NGOs, particularly those that operate at an international level, they can assign a common theme or set of goals. Conversely it may also be advantageous to decentralise as this can increase the chances of an NGO responding more flexibly and effectively to localised issues by implementing projects which are modest in scale, easily monitored, produce immediate benefits and where all involved know that corruption will be punished.