|NGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)|
|Part I: NGOs: what they are and what they do|
|2. The historical context|
Many governments have welcomed and worked with NGOs involved in change and development activities, not least because they recognise that they are both manifestations of democracy and work to extend democratic practices, especially among the disadvantaged and marginalised. At the same time the changes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s have fuelled a debate among many NGOs about their role and function. New global issues and trends have catapulted NGOs onto centre stage, often according them a major role in dealing with new social, economic, political and environmental concerns. This has been particularly challenging for those NGOs which have been active in awareness-raising, social organisation, conscientisation and advocating change to the status quo. The roles played by or accorded to NGOs in the Rio Earth Summit, the Cairo Population Summit, the Copenhagen Social Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women all attest to the importance accorded to them on these major issues of current concern, as does the fact that they will be playing full and active roles in the new United Nations Aids Agency being established in 1996.
NGOs have been particularly active in promoting debates about women and development, and more recently, gender and development. The latter recognises that women and men have different social experiences, and that development planning and decision-making processes in all fields must take account of these differences.
Broadly speaking therefore, a "new breed" of NGOs has emerged over the past few decades, spawned by growing concerns about the environment, the effects of globalised economics and trade, population, civil and human rights, poverty, the needs of people with disabilities, unemployment, gender issues, the rights of indigenous peoples, the HIV/Aids pandemic... the list is endless.
Thus, the role played by NGOs in working with and supporting governments and intergovernmental international authorities has come to be complemented by the role of questioning and challenging them.
The spectrum of emerging relationships between governments and NGOs is broad. In some places, and on some issues, there is open hostility. In other places, and on other issues, recognition of NGO achievements is tempered by resistance to allow them to participate in affairs which are seen as the preserve of governments or intergovernmental authorities. But on many issues and subjects there is at worst accommodation and at best active understanding and partnership. Most governments recognise that as long as NGOs operate within the law, their activities are legitimate, including those which may at times be discomforting.