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close this bookNGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)
close this folderPart I: NGOs: what they are and what they do
close this folder3. NGOs defined
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.1 Diverse current ways of defining NGOs
View the document3.2 Defining ''NGO'' for the purposes of this report.
View the document3.3 Is ''NGO'' the right term?

3.1 Diverse current ways of defining NGOs

The research and consultations carried out in preparing this report revealed that there is wide variation in what the term "non-governmental organisation" or NGO means. The result is a great deal of confusion, and a considerable amount of misunderstanding.

Having only defined the term in broad outline thus far (see paragraph 1.7) this Chapter sets out a more complete definition.

Currently, two approaches to defining NGOs can be found, one broad and the other narrow.

The broad definition holds that every organisation in society which is not part of government, and which operates in civil society, is a non-governmental organisation. Thus this includes such organisations as political groups, labour and trade unions, religious bodies and institutions, guilds, sports clubs, arts and cultural societies, trade associations, chambers of commerce, professional associations, as well as small and large businesses. While the broad definition is based on semantic correctness, it is problematic because it embraces a huge number and variety of diverse organisations.

The narrow definition, derived from recent usage, refers to a specific type of organisation working in the field of development - one which works with people to help them improve their social and economic situation and prospects. This definition is also problematic, because it is both restrictive and broad. Because some take development to exclude welfare and also action on broad social, economic and environmental issues, it can be restrictive. Confusion abounds because there are many different approaches to what is broadly called development work, including some which are contradictory and others which are viewed by some as being the very antithesis of development.

The term is used, for example, by organisations as varied as the World Bank and small scale community-based organisations supporting economic projects for people adversely affected by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Between the two ends of the spectrum the research and consultation that has informed this report has found many diverse definitions. This report offers a practical and workable definition which is based on the main distinctive characteristics of organisations which pursue the general goals stated at paragraph 1.7.