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What is an NGO
What is an NGO? The acronym NGO stands for non-governmental organization. With only slightly more specificity, an NGO is any organization, usually non-profit, that operates independently of a government.  Contrary to common usage, the NGO title does not necessarily imply the organization works abroad; NGOs can be local, national, or international.

But apart from these literal definitions, what unique roles do NGOs serve that government aid organizations and corporations do not?

The innumerable NGOs that are working on international humanitarian issues suggest that NGOs can adapt quickly and respond to changing needs faster than government organizations which require executive and electoral approval for action. The Global Journal published a list of the top 100 most influential and effective NGOs, acknowledging famous groups such as OxFam, PATH, and Medicins Sans Frontiers.

These groups’ acclaim comes from consistent and well-organized delivery of critically important services such as medical care, environmental education and advocacy, and human rights protection.

But all NGOs are different and some are met with intense criticism for lack of transparency in budgeting or effectual action. When donating money or looking for work in the NGO world, it is always important to do your research about how much of the group’s budget goes to administrative costs and how much goes directly to the cause you care about. The website Charity Navigator is a useful resource for this.

Another important critique of NGOs is that all too often organizations staffed with Americans and Europeans come into developing nations with action plans that don’t fit the local context and end up adversely affecting their target populations. This, however, is not an inherent flaw of NGOs but rather a symptom of failing to acknowledge the importance of local expertise within the NGO framework.

Because NGO funding commonly comes from developed nations, a particularly effective model for NGOs includes using local in-country staff to plan and implement programs on the ground while working with an international board focused on fundraising, outreach, and strategic group planning.

It would be untrue to claim that NGOs are immune to political influence simply because they are not directly connected to governments; NGOs’ funding and even daily operations are subject to political approval.

For example, NGOs working to bring amnesty to political refugees will often face intense political adversity, and even violence during their in-country work. But unlike government organizations, NGOs typically have more flexibility to defy a political status quo to pursue what they believe to be important social change.

– Shelly Grimaldi

Sources: Grant Space, Miratelinc
Photo: The Design Inspiration

harvard_humanitarian_initiative_borgen_project_opt
From medicine to law, admittance to many vocations is attached to undertaking an oath to serve humanity. Conversely, universities and institutions of higher education pride themselves on embodying a collective entity of bright minds dedicated to pursuing knowledge for the sake of serving a higher purpose.

One would be hard pressed to find a school that holds itself to these rigorous standards more than Harvard University, where the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has been making remarkable strides in assisting victims of human rights violations, war, and natural disasters since its establishment on campus grounds in 1999. Taking advantage of Harvard’s sterling reputation in both research and education, the center has combined studies in fields ranging from public health to sociology in its solution-based and interdisciplinary approach to tackling humanitarian crises around the world.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, HHI warned Louisiana and Mississippi residents against consuming potentially contaminated water. The storm had produced perfect conditions for waterborne disease to spread. Thus, it was imperative for federal and state agencies to provide a despondent populace with clean food and water, as well as basic health services, in a quick and efficient manner. Studies funded by HHI, meanwhile, have suggested that a rise in the incidence of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo may be correlated with the withdrawal of UN troops, which provide civilians with protection against rebel forces. Aside from offering expert advice, HHI has helmed technology to better track and prevent such incidents. Its members analyzed U.S. satellite images to uncover the cause of damage to several oil fields in the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan last year. Because these reservoirs were located along the border between the two countries and both held the other accountable for striking first, it was critical for HHI to prevent the formation of further tensions between the two nations by doing a thorough assessment of the evidence at hand.

HHI also has an eye toward human development. Specifically, it aims to foster new leaders in the field of humanitarianism through innovative training programs. By simulating extreme conditions – even going so far as to place students on food rations and creating the occasional kidnapping scenario – HHI is able to better prepare its members to think rationally and act with conviction on the field.

Although HHI has been in existence for only 14 years, its past and present accomplishments suggest that it will remain a stronghold of humanitarianism for decades to come.

– Melrose Huang

Sources: Harvard Humanitarian Institute, The Boston Globe, BBC, Impunity Watch, Harvard School of Public Health
Photo: Harvard Gazette