International non-governmental organizations (NGO) 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.
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.
Another issue which has brought NGOs to develop further is the inefficiency of some top-heavy, global structures. For instance, in 1994, former UN envoy to Somalia Mohamed Sahnoun published a book entitled “Somalia: The Missed Opportunities”, in which he clearly shows that when the United Nations tried to provide humanitarian assistance, they were totally outperformed by NGOs, whose competence and dedication sharply contrasted with the United Nations’ excessive caution and bureaucratic inefficiencies, their main Somalia envoys operating from the safety of their desks in Nairobi. The refusal of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN Secretary General to accept this criticism led to the early end of Mohamed Sahnoun’s mission in Somalia.