Non-governmental organizations are rapidly growing all over the world. Supporters laud them as the "conscience of humanity," critics revile them as "puppets" of foreign states.
Non-governmental organizations are often called secular missionaries. Like religious charities in the 19th century, modern-day non-profit or non-governmental organizations are chiefly dedicated to alleviating humanitarian, social and educational problems of the less fortunate in society. Many of them are religious-based, but most are not.
They are often viewed as a by-product of Western cultures. In recent years, thousands of NGOs have sprung up in all parts of the world. Experts say India has at least a million, Russia 400,000 and in Kenya, some 240 NGOs are now formed each year.
The Third Sector
Economists often refer to NGOs as the "Third Sector," distinguishing them from government and private business operations. In some developed countries, this sector provides millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity.
In the United States, for example, an estimated two million non-profit organizations employ more than 11 million workers, between seven and eight percent of the nation's workforce, and draw upon more than six million volunteers.
But NGO experts, among them Pamela Aall of the United States Institute of Peace, note that the large number of non-profit organizations in the U.S. is a reflection of American's deeply held values of individual initiative and social responsibility. She says the presence of NGOs ensures depth and resilience in civil society.
"It allows citizens voices to be heard. It allows citizens to take responsibility for how their society is performing and allows citizens to talk to their government in organized ways. And in an open system, there are organized ways -- even on very difficult issues," says Aall.
Many leaders in the non-profit sector agree that their organizations are a vital part of society. "We think that what makes a great community is good government, a good business environment where good jobs get created and, then, a good voluntary sector," says Brian Gallagher, President and CEO of the United Way of America, one of the nation's oldest private volunteer organizations - - founded by two priests and a rabbi in 1887.
"We work with local volunteers, businesses and faith leaders to identify a community's most critical human issues. It could be education, it could be lack of affordable housing or teenage drug and alcohol abuse," says Gallagher. "We work together with different interests in the community to devise strategies to try to alleviate some of those problems. We raise money and then we fund projects and programs that deal with those issues."
More than a century since its inception, the United Way has grown into an organization with 1,300 affiliates across the country, with a volunteer force of a million people and four billion dollars in annual donations.
Brian Gallagher says that the challenges of globalization are changing the way his organization works. "We are obviously a part of the global market place. So we're not picking up anymore where government left off. We are driving innovation. For instance, we used to fund shelters. Now we are creating housing strategies and education strategies," says Gallagher.
Like many other large American NGOs, the United Way has a global reach. It has three thousand affiliates in 46 countries as diverse as Russia, China, India, Uganda, Brazil and Hungary.
A Critical Eye Toward NGOs
But not all NGO activities are so highly lauded. Voluntary organizations are often criticized when they take money from businesses, large foundations and prosperous individuals. Critics argue that in order to please their benefactors, NGOs may stray from their mandate to serve the broader public good.
Many political scientists, including Justin Logan of the Cato Institute in Washington, say this is also true of NGOs that accept government grants. "In recent years, particularly in the past 10 or 15 years, there has been an increasing role of what I would not call non-governmental organizations, but sort of quasi-governmental organizations. I think it really does raise questions in the minds of people around the world about whether or not, for example, an institution would advance a worthy political goal if it were at odds with U.S. national interests abroad."
Logan argues that groups that receive government funding to promote democracy often invite accusations of being an arm of the state. "There is a necessary distinction between the work of, say, the Open Society Institute [a private foundation for democracy building] and on other hand some of the institutions that are more affiliated with the U.S. government. And with respect to the latter, I think that there is really some lack of clarity about the goals and activities of those institutions," says Logan.
But many experts point out that well-established NGOs are sometimes more trusted than governments. An opinion survey done in Germany in 2000, for example, found that a considerably greater number of respondents said they had more confidence in Greenpeace, one of the world's most effective environmental activist groups, than in the German government.
And some analysts note that although NGOs have few powers over international decision-making, some of them, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam are influencing international policy where previously only states played a significant role.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.