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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 1: The changing nature of business-ngo relations
close this folderNGO Responses to Sustainable Development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDefining NGOs
View the documentThree or Four Waves of Environmental NGOs?
View the documentFour Generations of Development NGOs
View the documentSouthern NGOs
View the documentNGO Diversity and Tension
View the documentCase Studies of Business-NGO Relations

Defining NGOs

The common understanding about NGOs is that they are non-profit as well as non-governmental. However, “non-profit” is not an appropriate descriptor, as it could also include organizations that lobby on behalf of commercial interests, such as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and other trade or industry associations. Furthermore, the non-profit tag would exclude local co-operatives that may seek to make a profit for their members and community, but which are generally considered part of civil society.

Another problem with the term NGO is that it describes a wide range of civil society groups such as people’s associations, membership organizations and service providers. It clearly encompasses a broad range of organizations in terms of size, purpose, funding base and organizational structure. Nevertheless, NGO is now widely used in academic, media and international policy circles as a general term for third-sector or civil society organizations.

Despite the enormous diversity of NGOs worldwide, a general definition of NGOs is nonetheless possible within the context of this discussion. NGOs are civil society groups that have as their primary purpose the promotion of social and/or environmental goals rather than the achievement of economic power in the marketplace or political power through the electoral process. NGOs acquire resources primarily through the “integrative power” of the citizen, whereas governments primarily do so through “threat power” and business organizations primarily through “economic power” (Korten, 1990:97).

NGOs include organizations as diverse as an international, multimillion dollar operation such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and a local farmers’ group such as the Association of Sarva Seva Farms (ASSEFA) in India. In order to distinguish between larger NGOs and less formal, often smaller civil society organizations, we also refer to community, citizen or activist groups. Community or citizen groups indicate locality of membership and purpose. Activist groups reflect primacy of protest over service delivery or policy-level advocacy. In the 1990s, the concept of sustainable development is being embraced in different ways by a variety of NGOs, community, citizen and activist groups in the fields of environment, development and human rights.