History of NGOs from their creation to the new challenges of tomorrow

The founder of the Patagonia brand, Yvon Chouinard, famous for his commitment to the environment, announced on 14 September 2022 his wish to bequeath his company to a trust that will donate all of the brand’s profits to environmental NGOs. While this news is not surprising coming from this figure of environmental protection, it is nevertheless quite astonishing for the head of a company listed on the stock exchange and whose profits are billions of dollars. This announcement provoked a great deal of noise in the media and civil society, raising questions about the ecological emergency and the role of companies in this international crisis: friends or enemies of the fate of our planet?

For more than a decade, NGOs have regularly been at the heart of the news because of their role or their positions. Publicly recognised, solicited and supported, they have become key players in international politics. However, the craze for NGOs is a recent phenomenon, and with the exponential increase in their number, these structures are facing new challenges in relation to their influence.

The appearance of the first NGOs

To understand the trajectory of NGOs, we need to go back to their origins. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society is the first significant structure of which we have a record. It was created in 1839 in Britain by a group of abolitionists who saw the creation of this association as a means of supporting their ideology and transmitting their message. 

At that time, the role of these organisations is often an observer or negotiator. The organisations made their voices heard through publications, lobbying or demonstrations of all kinds. Action, or rather intervention, was left to religious and military institutions. Religious people went into the field to provide help, guidance or support to different communities around the world. At the same time, proselytising activity was taking place in these territories. The military was the second side of this coin, with a self-proclaimed role as a vehicle for peace. The themes of intervention were reduced and the counterpart, whether assumed or not, imposed a hierarchy that is degrading for the populations. This is what can be observed in periods of colonisation. Lobbying was done in the metropolis or the urban centres and the religious and military were present in the field.

A chequered path

The number of NGOs continued to grow in the following century. In 1900, there were 163 NGOs worldwide. By 1945, there were over 1,000 and in 2007, there were more than 60,000. The increase in the number of structures is related to the extension of the fields of activity and the areas of intervention. 

In spite of these figures, it is nevertheless necessary to highlight periods of slowdown and periods of intensification of their activity. Indeed, during periods of conflict or economic crisis, contrary to what one might think, NGOs see their activities slow down considerably. These periods tend to mobilise a large number of people, activities and capital that cannot be invested in these organisations. The smallest or least economically stable structures are therefore forced to stop or reduce their activities. Similarly, periods of economic prosperity and technological development provide a strong stimulus to these organisations, which are able to grow exponentially. After the Second World War, in the context of the Cold War between the USSR and the West, there was an unprecedented enthusiasm for major global causes such as hunger, supported by an economic upturn and unprecedented technological progress. Associations that have linkage with foundations, universities and international organisations were deployed in the field to intervene as close as possible to the populations. It was at this time that the most important French and international associations were created: Amnesty International in 1961, Médecins Sans Frontières in 1971 and Action contre la Faim in 1979.

A key entity in the development of NGOs is the United Nations (UN). The UN is not a world government but supports states in the application of national and international law. The UN is built around 4 objectives: maintaining peace and security, fostering amicable relations between states, achieving international cooperation and harmonising the efforts of nations towards a common goal. NGOs have a leading role in achieving these objectives. Some even have a role as observers or consultants.

A new definition of NGOs in the 21st century

Nowadays, with their successes, NGOs are taking an important place on the international geopolitical arena. The urgency of the climate crisis has also made it possible to enhance the value of their work, both as an actor for change, preservation and reconstruction, and as a whistleblower. 

Thus, companies are increasingly turning to these structures. In France, thanks to new legislation, NGOs are welcoming senior members of companies in order to make a transition with their retirement. Companies benefit from significant tax rebates when they make donations to associations. Links between the non-profit sector and the private sector are encouraged. This is linked to a desire to professionalise NGOs at the global level. With declining reliance on volunteers, NGOs are placing more emphasis on job creation to stabilise their structures and to bring in more skills. Many people are now turning to the non-profit sector in response to the crisis and global events and to give more meaning to their work. 

However, this professionalisation of the sector has resulted in it becoming more like a business. With the growing number of organisations, the democratisation and capitalisation of the activity, abuses are appearing. Some associations propose to build water pumps in villages that do not have safe and secure access to them, but prior studies to guarantee the effectiveness of the infrastructure over time are not carried out, and we end up with pump fields that no longer function after a few months of use.  Similarly, the growing interest of young people in NGO overseas has created a business of impact travel, where the need to send recruits to the field often takes precedence over the real need for local manpower and expertise. 

What is the future for NGOs?

We are therefore at a turning point for the non-profit world. The current development of NGOs is also a consequence of the policies observed at national level. Faced with a retreat by governments on societal issues, associations are making up for the gaps in a context that is leaning more and more towards conservatism. At a time when NGOs are listened to and supported by a large number of people, they have the opportunity to make a difference. In a society on the move, where climate and societal imperatives are forcing us to rethink our way of life, NGOs and associations are formidable actors in building the world of tomorrow; a world that is more just and inclusive. But for this to happen, these structures will have to assert themselves more with the decision-making bodies while consolidating their structures.

Written by Paola Hernandez

Translated by Xiaosu Wang

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