NGOs and Their Role in Human Security

New NGO Pic

By Gavin Davies

Humanitarian efforts have saved countless lives, but have been accused of making bad situations worse. The impact of this duality has grown after the end of the Cold War, when the USSR and the US removed support from their respective spheres of influence and left a power vacuum. With no interest or support coming from other states, individuals organized means for assistance much like that which they had done for local charities. The internationalization of charity work spread, and now there are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) for every need and occasion for relief and development all over the globe (Michael, 2002, p. 4). But as NGOs proliferate, what effects does this have on the world?

Though an important question, the effects of NGOs have is difficult to measure. In order to provide a means of understanding the change NGOs are a part of, I have focused on a specific area that is newer to the NGO sphere of influence: human security. This is an important point of inquiry, because the original goal of NGOs was to enhance human development (creating opportunities, such as developing an education system), which is much different from human security, which aims “to protect the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and human fulfilment” (Commission on Human Security, 2003, p. 4). Quite often, human security threats are intertwined with human development, and so to focus efforts and deal with the subjectivity of “security”, the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report created seven categories of human security: “economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security” (Tadjbakhsh and Chenoy, 2007, p. 16; UNDP, 1994, pp. 24-25).

What are NGOs?

So what is it that security-based NGOs actually do? Primarily, they persuade or lobby over developmental based social and political concerns, and provide basic services in the previously mentioned areas (Richmond, 2003, p. 3). These functions developed rapidly after the Cold War, after the 1992 UNSC resolution that provided protection for NGOs assisting with humanitarian intervention during the Iraq war (Richmond, 2003, p. 4). This was the beginning of human security rather than state security, and provided a new landscape for non-state actors. However, though NGOs have grown in influence in the peace and security sector, there is limited academic research into how exactly NGOs have changed ensuring peace and security in destabilized parts of the world (Richmond, 2003, p. 2).

Despite under-recognition on many fronts, especially of NGOs originating in the global South, “it is often NGOs and not governments or the United Nations agencies, which are the most prominent advocates of international human rights, advocating on behalf of groups including women, children, political activists and AIDS-sufferers” (Michael, 2002, p. 5). A notable example of this is in 1999, when the US made the decision to reallocate most of their aid budgets to Africa through NGOs rather than governments (Michael, 2002, p. 6; Chege, 1999).

NGOs became so important because they have so effectively worked towards filling the cracks in standards of living and quality of life that governments have long ignored or been unable to fix. They are also able to deal with threats to human security may arise outside of the state boundaries which confine government actors and thus are politically difficult to address (Michael, 2002, p. 7). NGOs are able to do this because they can operate in global networks free from state level diplomatic pressures, and have a more specific and fundamental purpose of benefiting humanity. They are also on average more efficient with development aid and human security than aid-receiving governments. A study of women in India who were a part of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) rather than traditional banks, found that “women who had been members of SEWA for longer periods, who had savings accounts in the SEWA Bank, and who contributed a greater share to total family income had a lower incidence of [economic] stress” (Michael, 2002, p. 13; Bhatt, 1998, p. 158).

Critique of NGO work

So if NGOs are a positive force for development, why could the assertion that NGOs should help meet human security challenges be a contentious one? A critique of NGOs is that they have in fact sometimes hindered the self-help capabilities of states, and shape the political environment towards more Western values (Richmond, 2003, p. 5). Also, if they are in conflict areas, they may be using armed escorts, which creates more distance between them and the population (Vaux et al., 2002, p. 15).

Part of the issue here is also that, due in part to systemic economic reconstruction imposed by organizations like the World Bank, development has a new humanitarian logic. It has often become “a neoliberal logic of micro economic explanations that ignore the systemic causes of global poverty and turns humanitarianism into a practice of depoliticized managerialism” (Chouliaraki, 2013, p. 9). This does not mean that NGOs should not have stepped in, or that any international intervention is negative, but that its important to recognize the greater international power relations that shape the independence and capacities of states.

Since it is too late to completely undo these impacts, progress has to come from NGOs cooperating with governments. However, many governments in less developed states have authoritarian tendencies, and often fail to effectively deal with human security issues. These are the milieus that NGOs should be operating in, but doing so often leads to governments either seeing NGO influence as a threat to their sovereignty, or as business competition for funds they could have received (Michael, 2002, p. 21). This funding limitation is a tool used by repressive regimes, because if they can limit funding from external actors, they will get less pressure to change, and less competition for international resources.

There are other issues related to funding. Having to work within parameters of monthly or at most yearly budgets based on contracts or individual donors severely limits the utility of NGOs. The inability to build up savings “affects the ability of NGOs to be flexible, to adopt inventive strategies to combating insecurities and to respond rapidly to emerging threats” (Michael, 2002, p. 19). Also, due to limited budgets, people who work for NGOs are often international volunteers, or people with less experience. This can lead to being unable to relate to cultural norms and networks, and can result in the imposition of values or simply careless behaviour that brings about negative side effects in the long term (Rothschild, 1995, p. 81). The problem therefore is that if there are unequal power relationships between the helpers and helped, that NGOs can further create a space of cultural and economic neo-colonialism.


Despite the complicated nature with state sovereignty and the fiscal restrictions inherent in the NGO business, NGOs will continue to have a large role in global development and human rights, and will most likely increase in influence. Therefore, the goal should be for NGOs to “retain the advantages of their unofficial status without incurring the wrath of sovereign actors…as well as guarding against corruption themselves” (Richmond, 2003, p. 6). NGOs as international actors and human security watch dogs are generally a positive phenomenon.

One way of achieving this goal and providing the oversight necessary to give NGOs even greater efficacy, consistent funding, and oversight, is the creation of a singular forum that NGO actors can convene in to better provide cooperation and communication. There are some organizations that fill a somewhat similar role to this, such as CIVICUS, they aim to help strengthen civil societies around the world and helps NGOs coordinate their funds and efforts (CIVICUS 2011). Building upon this framework would be the ideal solution to help create more stable relationships with donors, and would be the best way to deal with the structural political and fiscal issues that NGOs face.


Bhatt, Ela R. 1998. “Empowering the Poor Through Micro-Finance: The SEWA Bank”. Social Change Through Voluntary Action. M.L. Dantwala, Harsh Sethi and Pravin Visaria (eds). New Delhi: SAGE Publications. pp. 146-161.

Chege, S. 1999 “Donors shift more aid to NGOs”. Africa Recovery, Volume 13, Number 1.

Chouliaraki, L. (2013) The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

CIVICUS (2011) Organizational History [online]. Available from:

Commission on Human Security. 2003. “Human Security Now” [online].

Michael, S. (2002) The Role of NGOs in Human Security. The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. [online]. Available from: (Accessed 1 November 2015).

Richmond, O. 2003, “Introduction: NGOs, Peace and Human Security”, International Peacekeeping, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 2-11.

Rothschild, E. 1995, “What is Security?”, Daedalus, vol. 124, no. 3, pp. 53–98.

Tadjbakhsh, S. and Chenoy, A. M. (2007) Human Security Concepts and Implications. London: Routledge. [online] (Accessed 5 November 2015).

UNDP (1994) Human development report 1994. New York: Oxford University Press for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). [online] (Accessed 30 October 2015).

Vaux, T. et al. (2002) Humanitarian Action and Private Security Companies. London: International Alert. [online] (Accessed 6 November 2015).

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