Most analysts say non-governmental organizations play important roles in world affairs, ranging from resolving civil conflicts to safeguarding the environment.
Most foreign policy experts refer to leading transnational NGOs as "non-state actors," acknowledging their growing clout in the international arena. They point out that in recent years many NGOs have successfully promoted new environmental agreements, strengthened women's rights, and championed important arms control and disarmament measures.
NGOs can also form effective alliances. In 1997, a coalition of more than 350 NGOs pushed the international community to agree on a treaty against the use of landmines. Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights monitoring group based in the United States, was one of the leaders of that effort.
The organization began nearly 30 years ago by exposing the abuses of the Soviet Bloc and combating human rights violations in Latin America. It helped bring Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's Charles Taylor to justice.
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in New York, says, "Our job is to try to defend human rights around the world. We do that by exposing the human rights abuses of governments and rebel groups. And these reports are used to pressure governments to respect human rights through stigmatizing them or shaming them before their public and their peers, through generating economic or diplomatic pressure on abusive governments and, in extreme cases, by trying to prosecute officials who have been responsible for the most serious human rights crimes."
Human Rights Watch works with partners in 70 countries. In the United States, it monitors issues of race discrimination, and the status of immigrants and prison inmates. Kenneth Roth says the biggest challenge his organization faces today is the disrespect for human rights that sometimes accompanies efforts to fight terrorism.
"Governments have recognized that if they simply wave the flag of counter-terrorism, that that gives them latitude to ignore international human rights requirements. The human rights movement is being able to push back and insist that respecting human rights is not only the right thing to do in fighting terrorism, but is also the more effective way to go about combating terrorism," says Roth.
NGOs Go Global
Specialists who study NGOs say that organizations like Human Rights Watch, which is dedicated to universal ideals like justice and equality for all, may start in an individual country, but very soon become global. But according to Pamela Aall of the United States Institute of Peace, even a smaller NGO can exert important diplomatic influence. She says that in 1992 an Italian charity group, Sant'Egidio, helped stop 13 years of civil war in Mozambique.
"They were basically asked to witness the talks. After sitting in the room and offering some helpful suggestions, they got a more active role in facilitating the talks," says Aall. "This is a really quite remarkable case of a small private organization taking on a role that we really associate with the government or the UN. The NGO developed very good relationships with both parties and became a trusted interlocutor."
Aall says conflict resolution groups are a safety valve against reemergence of violence. "If people feel they are being heard and if they can promote their views, even if they don't actually win the debate, they are much less likely to take up arms. It is one of the strongest tools of conflict prevention and reconciliation. This can only be a volunteer action -- you can't legislate reconciliation."
In recent years, economic globalization has given more weight to NGOs dedicated to promoting market-oriented reforms. John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Center for International Private Enterprise, or CIPE, says volunteer organizations like his believe democratic and economic reforms are two sides of the same coin.
"In many places like in all of Eastern Europe, it was the political reforms that led to the economic reforms in the sense that the political process was totally closed. You couldn't do anything. So getting that open was the first step. In other countries, Afghanistan, for example, getting some of the fundamental economic laws in place is what enables people to have the ability to participate in the political process. You can't separate the two," says Sullivan.
CIPE was founded in 1983 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation with some three million members, and it has affiliates all over the world. Initially, the group was focused on countries in Latin America that were transitioning to democracy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, CIPE concentrated on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since the mid-1990s, it has been working in the Middle East and increasingly in Africa.
John Sullivan says CIPE tries to team up with like-minded counterparts around the world."We don't go to a country and say this is what we think you ought to do. Rather, we go to a country and try to find a partner that we can work with. And they are the ones that lay out the agenda of what needs to be done and where the reform process needs to go."
Sullivan says that in an ever more globalized world, NGOs like his will play increasingly important roles in transferring knowledge and expertise.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.