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Newsletter 11-02
November 2010

Section 5. Nongovernmental Organization Capacities and Services

NGO Structure, Authority, Standards, and Coordination

Grey Frandsen and Lynn Lawry, M.D.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance, Medicine.
This article was originally published in Chapter 4, The Guide to NGOs for the Military, edited and rewritten Summer 2009.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a legally constituted, non-governmental organization created by natural or legal persons with no participation or representation of any government. In the cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from membership in the organization. Unlike the term "intergovernmental organizational", "non-governmental organization" is a term in general use but is not a legal definition. In many jurisdictions, these types of organization are defined as "civil society organizations" or referred to by other names.

Nongovernmental organizations emerge from communities, civil society organizations, collective activities, religious organizations, universities and individual initiatives. Often started as small volunteer projects, NGOs are sometimes referred to as grassroots organizations, voluntary organizations, charities or nonprofits, all names that denote the voluntary, public service, and community orientation that NGOs have.

In legal and organizational terms, there is little difference between an NGO and a nonprofit or not-for-profit organization in the United States. Nonprofits and NGOs are the same thing, and only when nonprofits extend their activities overseas are they popularly called NGOs or private voluntary organizations (PVOs). The term NGO denotes an organization that is based nationally or locally but that raises money and organizational capacity to participate in international relief and development activities. This, of course, is only sensitive to organizations based in western or donor countries that extend services through NGOs in developing countries. Nonprofit organizations in developing countries are also often called NGOs but are defined as local NGOs when deciphering differences between international and indigenous organizations that work locally.

Types of NGOs

NGO type can be understood by their orientation and level of operation.

NGO type by orientation:

  • Charitable orientation
  • Service orientation
  • Participatory orientation
  • Empowering orientation

NGO type by level of operation:

  • Community-based organization
  • Citywide organization
  • National NGOs
  • International NGOs

NGOs have constituencies and develop specialties or areas of interest in which its programming, solicitations, fundraising and growth is oriented. When NGOs are met in the field, there are wide variances in size, appearance, activity, and expertise. It is crucial to understand that when various NGOs operate in the same emergency, there are large but often subtle differences between them.

NGO Foundations and Structure

NGOs founded in the United States to serve populations outside the United States fall under the same rubric that nationally based and local organizations do. An NGO is an incorporated or organized body that abides by laws, can make contracts, employ people, make legally binding relationships with other entities, and generally operate as a corporation within the country or state of origin. For those NGOs based in the United States, each state has different regulations, although most require that the organization fulfill several requisites:

  • establish and maintain a mission or charter, and articles of incorporation or association;
  • establish a board of directors or trustees that assume responsibility for the organization’s financial, operational and general well-being as well as legal status;
  • establish tax-exempt status from both the federal government Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the appropriate state government entities should the organization want to accept tax-deductible and to remain somewhat free of federal and state taxes themselves;
  • maintain audited and accredited financial records; and
  • remain financially, legally, and organizationally sound, and abide by specific rules or guidelines set forth by federal and state law.

The trend is for NGOs to join or propose coordination mechanisms and as donor pressure continues to mount on NGOs to maintain credible, accountable, and transparent programming while providing effective services, NGOs have created a series of standards and best practices that help to improve the overall quality, consistency, and fluidity of NGO programming worldwide. This is helpful for outside agencies that have to deal with NGOs, for NGOs themselves, and ultimately for the recipients of NGO programming.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee

The IASC is a unique interagency forum for coordination, policy development and decision-making involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners. The IASC was established in June 1992 in response to UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 on the need to strengthen humanitarian assistance. General Assembly Resolution 48/57 affirmed its role as the primary mechanism for interagency coordination of humanitarian assistance.

The IASC develops humanitarian policies, agrees on a clear division of responsibility for the various aspects of humanitarian assistance, identifies and addresses gaps in response, and advocates for effective application of humanitarian principles. Together with Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs (ECHA), the IASC forms the key strategic coordination mechanism among major humanitarian actors.

The objectives of the IASC are six fold: (1) to develop and agree on system-wide humanitarian policies; (2) to allocate responsibilities among agencies in humanitarian programs; (3) to develop and agree on a common ethical framework for all humanitarian activities; (4) to advocate for common humanitarian principles to parties outside the IASC; (5) to identify areas where gaps in mandates or lack of operational capacity exist; and (6) to resolve disputes or disagreement about and between humanitarian agencies on system-wide humanitarian issues.

The following IASC guidelines are available (effective late 2009):

  • Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disaster
  • Women, Girls, Boys & Men: Different Needs - Equal Opportunities. IASC Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action
  • IASC Policy Statement Gender Equality in Humanitarian Action
  • Disaster Preparedness for Effective Response - Guidance and Indicator Package for Implementing Priority Five of the Hyogo Framework
  • IASC advocacy paper Humanitarian Action and Older Persons: An Essential Brief for Humanitarian Actors
  • Checklist for field use of IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings
  • Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defense Assets in Disaster Relief - Oslo Guidelines (Revision 1.1, November 2007)
  • Civil-Military Guidelines and References for Complex Emergencies
  • Guidelines for HIV/AIDS Interventions in Emergency Settings
  • Implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement. Guidance for UN Humanitarian and/or Resident Coordinators and Country Teams
  • Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse
  • Plan of Action and Core Principles of Codes of Conduct on Protection from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in Humanitarian Crisis
  • Respect for Humanitarian Mandates in Conflict Situations
  • Saving Lives Together: A Framework for Improving Security Arrangements Among IGOs, NGOs and UN in the Field
  • Exit Strategy for Humanitarian Actors in the Context of Complex Emergencies

SMART Indicators

SMART is a voluntary, collaborative network of all humanitarian organizations: donors, international and UN agencies, NGOs, universities, research institutes, and governments. It includes organizations and humanitarian practitioners who are leading experts in emergency epidemiology and nutrition, food security, early warning systems, and demography.

SMART addresses the need to standardize methodologies for determining comparative needs based on nutritional status, mortality rate, and food security and establishes comprehensive, collaborative systems to ensure reliable data is used for decision-making and reporting.

SMART was initiated in response to the lack of a coherent understanding of need, in turn attributable to the use of many methodologies, consistent, reliable data for making decisions and reporting, the necessary technical capacity to collect and analyze reliable data and comprehensive, long-term technical support for strategic and sustained capacity building. The goal of SMART is to reform the system-wide emergency responses by ensuring that policy and programming decisions are based on reliable, standardized data and that humanitarian aid is provided to those most in need.

The SMART methodology uses crude death rate (CDR) and nutritional status of children under five as the most vital, basic public health indicators of the severity of a humanitarian crisis. These two indicators are used to monitor the extent to which the relief system is meeting the needs of the population and the overall impact and performance of the humanitarian response. NGOs with certain U.S. government funding are required to report using SMART to retain funding.

NGO Codes of Conduct and Standards

The Principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programs is also a staple reference document for many NGOs. Although not universally accepted, these norms normally are accepted by U.S.-, Canadian-, and European Union–based NGOs and provide the language for what most NGOs feel is their creed or most basic elements of service. The language is general and includes the primary theme that every person deserves and should receive humanitarian assistance when needed. As well, it suggests that aid should be given impartially and without stipulation or restriction, and that beneficiaries are humans and should be treated as such InterAction has a series of PVO standards that each of its member NGOs must follow. These are compiled in an extensive document that serves as a guiding tool for NGO management. The intent was to ensure and strengthen public confidence in the integrity, quality, and effectiveness of member organizations and their programs. The standards cover budgetary allotments, gender balance on governing boards, financial accountability, and hiring practices, and provide a baseline series of standards in management activities to promote professionalism and accountability among the InterAction members.


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