Is The United Nations An NGO? We Explain

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Most people around the world know of the United Nations. They also know its work trying to bring nations together to resolve global disputes and delivering humanitarian and development assistance. However, many people see the UN’s work and assume the organization is an NGO. But is it? Is the United Nations an NGO? And if not, why?

The United Nations is not an NGO. This is because the UN is an international organisation made up of member states. It is a political body and receives its funding through contributions from national governments. This is very different to an NGO.

… but that’s just an overview. In order to fully understand if the UN is an NGO, we need to go a bit deeper.

Why The United Nations Is Not An NGO?

So, we’ve established that the United Nations is not an NGO, but if the UN does much of the same work that NGOs do, why isn’t it classified as one? Actually, there are four main reasons:

  • The UN is made up of member states
  • The UN is a political organisation
  • The UN is funded by member nations
  • The UN is an international organisation

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

The UN Is Made Up Of Member States

A first reason why the United Nations is not an NGO is because is it made up of member states.

There are 193 nations that are members of the UN. These countries not only provide funding for the UN, but also control what the United Nations does. The United Nations can only act if the member states agree. This is very different to an NGO, which does not have member states and can independently.

The UN Is A Political Organization

A second reason why the UN is not an NGO is because it is a political organisation.

As we’ve said, the United Nations is made up of member states. These countries control the UN’s actions. This means the United Nations is far from being independent, and in fact is highly political. The governmental, economic and strategic priorities of UN member states often put as some of the organization’s priorities. This shows the lack of independence of the United Nations.

…on the other hand, NGOs are strictly independent organizations. They are not affiliated with governments or political parties, and work solely in the interests of people in need. This is a clear reason why the United Nations cannot be an NGO.

The UN Is Funded By Member Nations

Another reason why the UN is not an NGO is because its receives its funding from member states.

Every country that is part of the United Nations contributes a set sum towards the organization each year. This amount is determined by the economic size and wealth of a nation. Although the UN does run some charities linked to specialized agencies that the public can donate to, the vast majority of the UN’s funds come from member states.

NGOs raise funds independent of national governments. The majority of NGOs receive donations from the general public, or funds from philanthropic foundations. Some NGOs do receive funding grants from government agencies. However, they must apply for this funding, and remain fully independent organizations. This is very different to how the United Nations is funded.

The UN Is An International Organization

A final reason why the United Nations is not an NGO is because it is designated as an international organisation.

An international organization is defined as:

An international organization or international organization, also known as an intergovernmental organization or an international institution, is a stable set of norms and rules meant to govern the behaviour of states and other actors in the international system.

Wikipedia, 2023

Where as an NGO is defined as:

a non-profit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue.

Oxford Languages, 2023

As we can see, there are very different characterizations for international organizations and NGOs. As the UN was set-up, and is classified, as an international organization, it fits the definition almost entirely. This shows that United Nations is not an NGO.

United Nations Online Courses

If you want to learn more about the United Nations, including what type of organisation it is, we highly recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations in the World offered by SOAS in London. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the UN and its role in the current global order. SOAS is also one of the top universities in the world for international relations and courses related to the UN. Click the link for more information.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) underpin all of the UN’s work. In order to fully understand the United Nations, you need a basic understanding of the SDG. We think the online short course The Sustainable Development Goals – A Global, Transdisciplinary Vision For The Future offered by the University of Copenhagen is one of the best introductions to the SDG. Follow the link to the course’s page.

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands offers an online short course on The Changing Global Order. It includes a specific look at how shifting international power dynamics are affecting the current global system and the United Nations. For those wanting to understand the UN, this online course is a must. We’ve linked to the course’s page.

Are There NGOs In The UN?

There are NGOs that work within the United Nations. However, these organisations remain independent of the UN, and are not part the United Nations system. The United Nations also funds many NGOs, but these organisations still remain separate from the UN.

Although the United Nations is not made up of NGOs, and there are no NGOs within the UN system, the UN is closely linked to the global NGO community.

Several NGOs were involved in the founding of the United Nations. These NGOs provided guidance and inputs on the formation of the UN as an organisation, and also acted as initial partners with it. Ever since, the UN has worked closely with NGOs.

Within the United Nations Charter, it states that the UN will engage with civil society in order to forward it’s aims. Since the United Nations was formed, it has partnered with NGOs across the world. However, these organizations have always remained independent of the UN, and never become part of the United Nations itself.

Does The UN Work With NGOs?

The United Nations works closely with many NGOs. This includes the UN providing funding to NGOs and working with them as implementing partners for many UN projects.

All around the world, the UN partners with NGOs. One of the main ways the United Nations works with NGOs is on the delivery of projects, especially focusing on humanitarian aid, international development and human rights. The UN gives grants to NGOs and sub-contracts them to deliver many UN projects. This increases the efficiency of the United Nations whilst also minimizing its risks. NGOs also generally have greater community acceptance and understand the needs of people better than UN agencies.

As well as contracting NGOs as implementing partners, the United Nations also engages with NGOs for consultations. NGOs especially work with the UN’s Economics and Social Council in order to provide inputs and liaise on many issues. UN decisions in areas such as land mines, small arms controls and human rights have seen NGOs play a pivotal role.

Was The UN Ever An NGO?

The United Nations was founded as an international organization, not as an NGO. The UN has never been classified as an NGO and has always been designated as an international organization made up of member states.

Although the UN has never been an NGO, actually the term ‘NGO’ is closely related to the history of the United Nations. When the United Nations was founded, it was designed so that different external organizations could feed into its decision-making bodies. However, as the Cold War was already beginning by 1945, there was fear on both sides that these organizations could be used to influence or coheres the UN, affecting its neutrality. The designation of a ‘non-governmental organization’ was designed to show these organizations as being independent of any state, and therefore free to work with the UN without the threat of Cold War global politics interfering.

…so, the UN has never been an NGO, but was in fact closely linked to formation of the global NGO community.

If you want to learn more about the United Nations, explore our list of the top UN 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.