The Winning International NGO

MELBOURNE – It has long been clear that many non-state actors have more influence on international policymaking than a great many sovereign states. No one doubts the impact that major multinational corporations and terrorist organizations can have, for better or worse. But the role of a number of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) has been more significant than is generally recognized, and what makes the best of them tick is worth exploring.

According to current estimates, there are some 40,000 NGOs operating internationally, with the overwhelming majority focusing primarily on health, education, welfare, economics, industry, energy, the environment, human rights, social policy, and governance- and development-related issues. A much smaller number – a few hundred at best – work primarily on peace and security issues, though some primarily human rights-focused organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are influential here.

Those that seek to influence foreign-policy outcomes can be typecast, perhaps unkindly, as “thinkers,” “talkers,” or “doers.” In other words, they tend to be pure think tanks, research institutions, or policy forums (like London’s Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, or the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC); overwhelmingly campaign-focused advocacy organizations (like Human Rights Watch, Enough, Kony 2012, or Global Zero); or field-based, on-the-ground operational organizations engaged in activities like mediation, capacity-building, and confidence-building (like Search for Common Ground, the Community of Sant’Egidio, or Independent Diplomat).

The organization with which I was longest and most closely associated, the International Crisis Group (ICG), is an unusual combination of all three categories. It is field-based in a way that most operational organizations are, but that think tanks and advocacy organizations are not. It focuses, as policy-oriented think tanks do, on analyzing complex conflicts and potential conflicts around the world and identifying workable solutions. It campaigns for the adoption of these solutions, but less at the grassroots and more by direct access to high-level policymakers.