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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 folder7. The legal and institutional frameworks within which NGOs operate
View the document(introduction...)
View the document7.1 Freedom to associate
View the document7.2 The political dimension
View the document7.3 The law
View the document7.4 Regulation
View the document7.5 Collective, external and self-regulation

7.2 The political dimension

As previously noted, a key general characteristic of NGOs which enables them to be distinguished from many other organisations operating in civil society is the fact that their objectives focus on disadvantage and/or action on concerns and issues which are detrimental to the well-being of people or society as a whole. Whilst this is a means of broadly distinguishing NGOs from organisations and associations which have more self-serving objectives and activities, there remains the question of how to distinguish NGOs from those other main types of organisation in civil society - political groups, labour unions, businesses and religious organisations - that would also legitimately claim to be serving the interests of society generally.

It is not possible to produce watertight distinctions, either in theory or practice. NGOs, political groups, labour unions, businesses and religious organisations share, albeit to varying degrees, one common feature: a concern with the conduct and affairs of society as a whole. There, in wider society, the causes and potential cures often lie. An NGO involved in work with the poor may seek to influence the price of bread. A religious group may lobby against the national lottery. A business may voice its concern over import restrictions. A labour union may be active in seeking the establishment of a national minimum wage. All five types of organisation thus engage in political action.

In the past the distinctions between these five types of organisation could be characterised broadly as:


- care and welfare;
- labour unions: conditions in employment and the workplace;
- religious organisations: matters relating to faith, human conduct, relationships and morality;
- political groups: overall governance and advancement of society;
- businesses: "the business of business is business" (Henry Ford).

But it is no longer possible to make such distinctions.

Change in society, as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, manifest in the emergence and growing importance of the change and development function of NGOs, has brought them more and more into the arena of societal governance and advancement.

Similarly the enormous changes in economic functioning, employment levels and practices, and conditions in the labour market have brought labour unions and businesses into the same arena. In many countries and among a number of different religions the blurring of boundaries between church, temple, mosque and state has been much in evidence in recent years.

It has also been manifest in public expressions of concern by religious authorities about social and economic affairs, and in the tide of so-called religious fundamentalism or extremism in a number of countries.

As organised labour, businesses and religious organisations have become more and more involved in the governmental and political arena, so too have they become increasingly involved in NGO fields. This does not make them NGOs, as defined in this report, but it does mean that the fact that they are involved to an extent in what have been termed NGO activities needs to be recognised. Reciprocally, NGOs have broadened their concerns into those of the other organisations. Their increasing involvement in the economic field, for example, has seen them becoming involved in businesses, for production, job creation or income-generation purposes. At the same time, business organisations have become more involved in NGO-type activities. In many countries businesses practice as well as preach what they call programmes of "corporate social responsibility". They have done this not just out of a sense of charity or to become involved in the care and welfare of employees, their families and communities. They commonly describe what they are doing and why they are doing it as "enlightened self-interest".

Thus the boundaries between the five principal constituent parts of civil society have all become blurred. It is important to understand this and try to find some clarity about the blurring. As far as NGOs are concerned, two observations can be made:

NGOs engaged in activities that lie at the change and development end of the spectrum are likely to be more political than those that are more engaged in care and welfare work. In addition, some aspects of disadvantage, marginalisation or broader societal concern are more sensitive than others.

An important difference between NGOs and purely political groups is that NGO political activity will frequently stem from a focus on a particular concern. The NGO will focus on securing general public attention in order to bring about change on that concern. The activities of political groups, on the other hand, will frequently stem from a broad general platform of concern for change, on which particular policies and actions may then be based. Their activities will also be partisan.

There are many historical examples in several countries of political groups emerging from NGOs, and vice-versa, and of NGOs playing important roles in the instigation, restoration or extension of democracy.