NGOs cover a wide range of actors with varying degrees of independence, depending on the context in which they emerged and their sources of finance. This multiplicity tends to become reinforced with the emergence of new actors in the field of aid and development, whether this applies to NGOs from the Southern hemisphere or actors situated at the crossroads of the commercial and non-commercial sectors.

NGOs (non-governmental organizations) cover a multitude of actors, often involved in a general interest commitment in the domains of international solidarity or rights advocacy. They are therefore often at the vanguard of endeavors to form a worldwide organized civil society, mobilized in support of causes that transcend state borders. Beyond this simplified description, it is important to note the great diversity of NGOs and particularly their degree of independence. The wide range of their activities also results from the emergence of NGOs in the South and the blurring of borders between trade and non-trade sectors.

Multiplicity and standardization of referents

Although NGOs highlight their independence from governments, the reality covers a variety of situations, related both to their areas of intervention (human rights, international solidarity and development, emergencies and conflicts) and the contexts in which they come together (since recognition of the freedom of association and expression is not shared the world over), as well as their modes of coordination (independence from their states of origin) and methods of financing (individual donors, corporations, or public funds).

Freedom of expression and association, 2017-2018

Sources: United Nations,; Freedom House,

Different acronyms have been devised to describe the varying degrees of independence of NGOs. Thus, there are GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations, formed by states to promote their interests, as for example with the Russian organization World Without Nazism); or there are QUANGOs (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations, whose financial support, linked to one principal actor – public or private – casts doubt upon their autonomy; for example, more than 60 % of the budget of the American NGO, CARE, comes from the United States government).

This diversity does not, however, impede the process of standardizing NGO referents and modes of action. This is partly due to their professionalization and partly to their need for recognition and finance. The United Nations participates in this process, particularly through calls for projects launched by the UNPD (United Nations Development Program) or the humanitarian action reform of 2005, both of which tend to standardize NGO models and areas of intervention that are likely to be recognized. NGOs seek the aura of legitimacy that can be provided by UN recognition, as demonstrated by the high number requesting and obtaining consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (4,862 NGOs in 2017).

Emergence of NGOs in the South

At the same time, we are witnessing the emergence of NGOs from the South, which are able to deploy substantial funds and resources. These are now major actors in global aid, despite being less visible. Although they are often formed in order to play a role in their state of origin, they are beginning to extend their activities to other fields, thereby modifying the conventional view of North -based organizations that intervene in the South.

The case of BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) illustrates this process. Founded in Dhaka in 1972, this NGO now has more than 125,000 employees and an annual budget of over 680 million dollars, mainly supplied by micro-enterprises rather than public funds. Initially focused on implementing public health and education programs in the rural areas of Bangladesh, it now plays a role in Afghanistan and in several African countries, where it has become a key actor.

Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) microfinance programs, 2016 

Source: BRAC,

Comment: BRAC, the Bangladeshi NGO, is well-established (it was created in 1972) and is one of the largest (almost 100,000 employees). It has long specialized in microcredit – granting small loans to individuals who are unable to access traditional bank loans – in Bangladesh, where the outstanding debt was 1.6 billion dollars in 2016. Its programs also focus on health, education, and aid to disaster victims, and have become internationalized in Africa and Asia over the past few years.

Lastly, there is a growing overlap between actors from the trade and non-trade sectors; this rejuvenates NGO methods of financing and action, while at the same time complicating our understanding of their degrees of independence.

On the one hand, the emergence of large foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates, with a capital 43.5 billion dollars, has become an essential parameter of NGO financing. For example, the Gates Foundation devotes more than the World Health Organization (WHO) to the fight against malaria and HIV, some of these funds being transferred to NGOs on the ground. The interests of the enterprise and the actions financed by the foundation (for example the distribution of software as part of its educational programs) sometimes overlap, demonstrating the confusion between the two worlds, as do the managerial methods governing the foundation’s action and that of its partners.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2016

Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,

Comment: With an annual budget of over 4 billion dollars, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation carries as much weight as huge international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Although the foundation’s headquarters is in Seattle, it is organized around a global network of offices with programs focusing on multiple aspects of development (education, health, finance, agriculture, hygiene, etc.) in so-called developing countries.

On the other hand, the very action of NGOs is sometimes situated at the intersection between two sectors, for example through the financing of development programs directly inspired by the private sector. This is particularly the case with micro-enterprises and systems of microfinance, which provide 75% of the budget of an NGO like BRAC. NGOs at the junction between two worlds are therefore changing the practices of solidarity as much as those of the private sector.

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