Are NGOs Actually A Good Thing? We Find Out

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There are hundreds of NGOs – non-governmental organizations, working around the world. From large and famous international NGOs, to small community groups working locally. NGOs aim to help people living in poverty, or those affected by crises, conflicts or disasters. However, NGOs also come in for a lot of criticism. So, are NGOs actually any good?

NGOs are definitely good. They provide impartial and unbiased assistance to people in need. They are also independent of governments, so can often work where the state cannot, whilst also being able to advocate and campaign on critical issues.

… but that’s just an overview. If we’re going to understand why NGOs are a good thing, we need go into a bit more detail.

Are NGOs Really Beneficial?

As we’ve said, NGOs can be hugely beneficial, especially to the communities they provide assistance to. There are a few key reasons why NGOs are good, these include that they:

  • Help people living in poverty.
  • Respond to crises and disasters
  • Provide assistance when governments cannot
  • Offer impartial and unbiased assistance
  • Advocate for different causes

Now let’s look at each of these in turn…

Help People Living in Poverty

A first reason why NGOs are good is because they help people living in poverty.

Globally, 698 million people live in destitution. Many are stuck in the ‘poverty trap’, unable to lift themselves out of poverty. NGOs do great work around the world assisting people who live in poverty and helping them to improve their living conditions. Both large global NGOs, and small local organizations, do amazing work helping people stuck in poverty. This is a major reason why NGOs are so beneficial.

Respond To Crises And Disasters

A second reason why NGOs are good is because they respond to crises and disasters.

Each year millions of people around the world are affected by crises and disasters. Floods, earthquakes, droughts and extreme weather can cause widespread death and destruction. Many communities struggle to recover from disasters and most poorer countries lack the resources to provide aid. NGOs do great work helping communities recover from disasters. NGOs are also good because they help disaster prone areas become better prepared.

Provide Assistance When Governments Cannot

A third reason why NGOs are good is because they provide aid when governments cannot.

As we’ve said, many poor countries lack the resources needed to lift people out of poverty or help communities when they are affected by disasters. Both local NGOs, and large international organizations, are hugely beneficial because they can help people in need when governments are unable to. Without NGOs doing great work, many people around the world would not receive assistance.

Offer Impartial And Unbiased Assistance

One important reason why NGOs are good is because they are neutral and offer impartial assistance to those in need.

NGOs abide by the core humanitarian principles – these are humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. This means NGOs are independent of government and politics and provide aid to people regardless of their affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. As a result, NGOs are seen as neutral parties in conflicts and are able to give aid to anyone who needs it. This is a major reason why NGOs are good.

Advocate For Different Causes

A final reason why NGOs are beneficial is because they can be strong advocates for causes and draw attention to events.

One of the best things NGOs do is advocate for long-term and systemic change. This could be campaigning for land mine or cluster munition bans, or drawing attention to famines in forgotten parts of the world. NGOs are uniquely placed to advocate for marginalized groups and work to create change that can tackle the root causes of conflicts and disasters. This is an important reason why NGOs are good.

What Good Work Do NGOs Do?

So, we’ve established that NGOs are definitely a good thing. Now, let’s go over the actual work NGOs do, and look at a few examples as to why NGOs are beneficial. Some examples of the good work NGOs do include:

  • Providing education
  • Improving access to healthcare
  • Working on food security and nutrition
  • Providing shelter
  • Offering protection

Let’s take a quick look at each of these…

Providing Education

One of the hugely beneficial things NGOs do is provide education to children who would otherwise not be able to go to school.

There are 244 million children round the world do not receive an education. This is either because the state does not provide an education or their parents cannot afford the school fees. NGOs are good because they do vital work to tackle this issue. In many poorer countries NGOs either run schools or provide assistance to children who otherwise would miss out on an education.

Improving Access To Healthcare

Another good thing that NGOs do is run healthcare clinics in places where people often go without medical attention.

In many developing countries, people living in poverty are unable to access healthcare. Like with education, this is either because the state does not provide medical facilities or because they cannot afford to pay for healthcare. NGOs do great work running free clinics in poverty-stricken areas. They also do amazing work in disaster zones providing medical care to people in need.

Working On Food Security And Nutrition

A further example of the good NGOs do is the famine relief and nutrition programmes they run.

Globally there are 828 million people that are food insecure. This means they either lack the food they need to survive, or are at risk of losing access to nutritious food. Children are especially at-risk during food insecurity crises and there are currently 45 million malnourished children globally. NGOs are good because they do vital work to address food insecurity, childhood nutrition and fight famines around the world.

Providing Shelter

An important example of the good work NGOs do is in providing shelter.

When disasters strike or communities are hit by conflict, huge numbers of people can lose their homes. There are also millions of people around the world living in poverty who cannot afford decent housing. NGO’s do great work providing shelter to people who need it – either those living in destitution or impacted by crises, disaster or war.

Offering Protection

A final example of the good work that NGOs do is in protecting vulnerable people during crises.

Certain groups in society, such as women, children, the elderly or persons with disabilities, are especially vulnerable. When crises hit their communities, the protection that society often provides can diminish or be removed. NGOs are hugely beneficial because they run programmes providing protection to vulnerable people during disasters, conflicts and crises, until such as a time that their community can recover.

NGO Online Courses

If you want to know more about NGOs, we highly recommend the online course Introduction to NGO Management. It goes over how NGOs operate and introduces students to the unique aspects of the NGO sector. Follow the link for more information.

Another online course we highly recommend for those wanting to know more about NGOs is How To Design and Fund International Development NGO Projects. Anyone working for an NGO needs a basic understanding of how NGO projects are set-up, and how to input to funding proposals. Click the link to get more information on the course.

If you are looking to work for an NGO, we highly recommend the online course International Humanitarian and Development Careers. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the NGO sector and gives a clear breakdown of the skills needed to get an NGO job. It also provides valuable information on how to successfully apply for positions within NGOs. Click the link to be taken to the course’s page.

Why Do Some People Think NGOs Are Not Good?

Although most people agree that NGOs do good work, you will meet some people that criticise NGOs. It’s true that the NGO sector is not perfect, and there are definitely some bad NGOs, but why do some people criticise NGOs in general?

Some people think NGOs are not good because they deliver services to people in need that should be delivered by the state. Others don’t think NGOs are beneficial because they think many fail to use their resources properly or the help the people most in need.

There are a wide range of criticism of NGOs, however a major one is that NGOs allow governments to relinquish their responsibility to their people because NGOs step in when governments do not.

Another reason why some think NGOs are not good is because they feel NGOs do not use their resource effectively. A common criticism of NGOs is that they waste money on HQ staff, offices and other running costs and do not spend enough of their donations on directly helping people.

How Could NGOs Be Better?

Most people agree that NGOs do good work. However, there are a number of genuine criticisms that can be made of the NGO sector. So, how could NGOs do even better work? How could the NGO sector improve?

NGOs can do better by improving coordination, diversifying their funding and focusing more on localisation.

Those who criticise NGOs highlight a range of issues, but really, most agree there are probably three main ways NGOs can do better. The first is in improving coordination.

When disasters strike, or in areas of extreme poverty, often many NGOs work. Ideally, these NGOs should coordinate their efforts to avoid duplication, gaps and competition. However, the NGO sector is not as good at this as it should be.

A second area where NGOs can do better is in diversifying their funding.

International NGOs rely too heavily on large grants from institutional donors such as Western governments, the UN or the EU. Local NGOs rely too much on forming partnerships with international NGOs to receive funding. Both of these issues mean that NGOs are too constricted in how they work as they can only operate in areas where funding is provided. NGOs need to develop more flexible funding if they are truly to do good work.

A third way that NGOs can improve is through further localization.

Localization in the NGO sector means focusing more heavily on local actors. This can be providing more funding and flexibility to local NGOs, or international NGOs employing more local staff, especially in senior positions, and relying less on expatriates. Localization is key for the NGO sector as it improves efficiency, accountability and helps to tailor an NGOs response to the genuine needs of the local people.

If you want to know more about NGOs, explore our page on the top NGO online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.