The term nongovernmental organization (NGO) gained widespread use beginning in 1945, when it was used in the United Nations Charter to clearly distinguish between governmental and private organizations. To be considered an NGO, an organization must be free from government control, non-profit, not considered a political party, and not involved in criminal activity.

While NGOs are, by definition, independent from government, they often engage in political activities and work closely with governments. NGOs are involved in activities related to international development, including relief work, provision of health and human services, advocacy for human rights, and environmental protection. There are several types of NGOs, such as charity organizations, churches, research institutes, community-based organizations, and lobbying groups. Those whose primary focus is on the development and implementation of projects and programs are referred to as operational NGOs, and those whose primary focus is on defending or promoting a certain cause or influencing policies are called advocacy, or campaigning, NGOs. However, both operational and advocacy NGOs have to mobilize financial resources, needed materials, and volunteers in order to achieve their goals and purposes.

NGOs can be divided into three broad categories based on the scope of their work: community-based organizations (CBOs), national organizations, and international organizations. CBOs are usually established by members of a local community to serve their own needs. National organizations are formed to serve people within an entire country, and international organizations are usually headquartered in a developed country and provide services to more than one developing country. CBOs, national organizations, and international organizations may interact and work together. Since the mid-1970s the number of NGOs around the world has increased substantially—by the late twentieth century there were between 6,000 and 30,000 national NGOs and thousands of CBOs (the data on the number of NGOs is, unfortunately, very incomplete).

Laura Nelson


Basch, Paul F. (1999). Textbook of International Health. New York: Oxford University Press.

Internet Resources

Duke University Perkins Library. "Non-Governmental Organizations Research Guide." Available from <>

Willetts, Peter (2002). "What is a Non-Governmental Organization?" Available from <>

World Bank. "NGO World Bank Collaboration." Available from <>