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Non-Governmental Organizations


Murphy-Gregory, H, Non-Governmental Organizations, Understanding Global Politics: Actors and Themes in International Affairs, Routledge, K Larres and R Wittlinger (ed), London, pp. 219-232. ISBN 978-1138682276 (2020) [Research Book Chapter]

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Copyright 2020 Hannah Murphy-Gregory

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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), also variously known as interest groups, nonprofits, pressure groups, civil society groups, or even simply associations, are omnipresent actors in 21st century global politics. Yet it was only in the latter decades of the 20th century that the roles and contributions of NGOs in the global context were recognised by International Relations scholars. According to Boli and Thomas (1999), NGOs and their networks have existed in the international arena for well over a century but their numbers have since grown exponentially. In 1909, they calculate that 176 NGOs operated internationally (Boli and Thomas, 1999). By 2014, the Union of International Associations (2015), a dedicated research institute on international organisations, determined that 25,035 NGOs (including federations, universal membership groups, intercontinental and regionally oriented groups, organisations emanating from places, persons and bodies, plus internationally oriented national organisations) were active participants in global politics, especially in the issue areas of human rights, aid, economic justice, and environmental conservation.

To explain the proliferation of NGOs at the international level, scholars point to advances in information and communications technology and the growing affordability of international travel in recent decades (Chatfield, Pagnucco, and Smith, 1997; Cohen and Rai, 2000; Ruhlman, 2015). But the increased size and diversity of NGOs operating globally is also due to the growing number of transnational policy issues that require a degree of governance beyond the nation-state (Reinicke, 1998; Della Porta and Tarrow, 2005; Alaimo, 2016). For example, public health crises, the global financial system, oceans management, climate change, international trade, and the Antarctic region are all areas where some form of global governance is viewed as essential to help address collective action problems. In turn, the presence of international organisations promotes NGO activity because most organisations allow for formal and/or informal input from NGOs subject to various accreditation processes. For example, a key factor in understanding the increasing numbers of NGOs engaged with trade policy in recent decades is the 1995 advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), an institution with a wide ranging mandate and more effective regulatory and judicial processes than the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which preceded it (Murphy, 2010). Similarly, the 2015 international climate change conference in Paris saw a plethora of NGOs involved in public advocacy and behind-thescenes lobbying of governmental delegations (Green, 2016). Indeed, UN SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon told NGOs at the meeting in Paris that ‘no government, no international organization, can do its work properly without active engagement and support from civil society’ (UN News Centre, 2015).

In spite of their burgeoning numbers and compared with other participants in global politics such as governments and corporations, NGOs are often under-resourced and lack formal authority on the global stage. As such, a primary question for International Relations scholars that continues to guide research on NGOs is: how do ‘small, overworked and underfunded NGOs with little formal authority manage to oversee changes in the practices of nation-states and international organisations?’ (Willetts, 1982, 24). This chapter demonstrates that NGOs are prolific contributors to global politics, undertaking a variety of governance roles from agenda-setting and policy formulation through to implementation. They do so through advocacy campaigns, participation at global institutions alongside governments and even monitoring the compliance of other actors with international agreements. The chapter unpacks the various understandings of NGOs as a category of actor and examines the key approaches that are used to address their roles in global politics. The final section discusses the opportunities and challenges facing NGOs as participants in global politics, including their representativeness and accountability.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:NGOs, World politics, international organisations, non-state actors
Research Division:Human Society
Research Group:Political science
Research Field:International relations
Objective Division:Law, Politics and Community Services
Objective Group:International relations
Objective Field:International organisations
UTAS Author:Murphy-Gregory, H (Dr Hannah Murphy-Gregory)
ID Code:121769
Year Published:2020
Deposited By:Office of the School of Social Sciences
Deposited On:2017-10-13
Last Modified:2019-12-06

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