What it is: NGOs are independent organisations and agencies set up to organise and carry out projects which, mostly, promote the welfare and development of communities locally, nationally or internationally.

What it means: Over the past half century or so the number of NGOs has grown rapidly, and so have the number and variety of their missions. They are entirely or largely independent of governments. Their funds (raised in a variety of ways) are for the work they do and the people they help, not for commercial gain. NGOs include aid agencies, human rights and ecological campaign groups, organisations helping people who are poor, oppressed or disadvantaged, and research/action groups working for peace and to defuse violence of all kinds. Some NGOs are international, some are national or regional, others may be run locally on a small (but no less significant) scale. Some of the thousands of NGOs have links with the United Nations, and especially UNESCO, whose Director-General in 2000 invited NGOs 'to strengthen their partnership links between themselves, governments, and the UN system, to give meaning to a genuine global movement for a culture of peace'. NGOs have to be well-informed about their field of operation, about governments and laws, and about communicating with people - UN committee members, politicians, advisers and other influential individuals - who may help towards their aims. Some NGOs have become influential worldwide. Amnesty International's mission 'is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses' of human rights. This means demanding fair trials, tough controls on arms exports, an end to the employment of children as soldiers, good treatment of refugees, a ban on torture, and increased education about what 'human rights' mean. Another global NGO is Greenpeace: 'Greenpeace protects nature. We also stand for peace. The two go together. And without social justice, there is no real protection. Exploitation destroys lives.' There are many NGOs working directly for peace: they work to resolve conflicts (both by research and in practical action locally), they campaign for nuclear weapons to be abolished, they protest against war, they assist conscientious objectors, and they teach nonviolence techniques and other kinds of peace education.

Think about it:
(1) Greenpeace says 'Because we accept no funding from governments or corporate interests, we have the freedom to act'.  It's true that NGOs can try new approaches and take risks. But it's also true that although NGOs usually act within the law, they aren't answerable to anyone but themselves - and one of the risks they run is the risk of making mistakes.

(2) It's true that NGOs have more flexibility and can more easily adapt to situations than organisations tied to government policies and budgets. But it's also true that they can encounter restrictions which practical links with government might lift.

(3) It's true that NGO staff can quickly create good relationships with people in situations they are trying to ease. It's also true that what the staff are doing can be misunderstood, or can affect the politics of a situation in ways that may make matters worse.

(4) It's true that NGOs can recruit highly-qualified, highly-motivated people to work in the field - in disaster areas and conflict zones - with fewer restrictions than government agencies.  It's also true that these experts may find themselves frustrated by lack of resources locally, so that hopes are raised but can't be fulfilled.

So - it's true that the NGOs are doing valuable work, and contributing towards the UN's vision of a 'culture of peace'. But surely more work also needs to be done by member states.