NGO Reflection

Graduate Studies Reflection Essay for JHR 501: Intro to Social Justice (12/13/2010)

NGOsTerrorism, torture, slavery, poverty, discrimination, violence, and prisoners of conscious…these are the human rights abuses that millions, if not billions, of people suffer from on a daily basis. Does any hope for justice exist for all of these suffering people?

Many feel that NGOs, private organizations operating across borders whose primary goals are political, social, or cultural, are the most viable solution to spreading awareness, providing aid, and inspiring others to act in a manner that brings the world further from these abuses and closer to justice. According to Public Services International, “The NGO sector is now the eighth largest economy in the world — worth over $1 trillion a year globally. It employs nearly 19 million paid workers, not to mention countless volunteers. NGOs spend about $US15 billion on development each year, about the same as the World Bank.[1]  Popular belief is that NGOs are philanthropist bodies that act on pure benevolence to help the people that are most in need in this world.  While this type of strategy would be ideal, author Clifford Bob believes it is not quite the real picture. He asks the thought provoking question “how and why do a handful of local challengers become global célèbres while scores of others remain isolated and obscure?”[2] In his book “The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism” Bob outlines a framework of five forces that determine whether or not a community or cause receives NGO support:

  • Winning NGO support is neither easy nor automatic but instead competitive and uncertain
  • The development and retention of support are best conceived not as philanthropic gestures but as exchanges based on the relative power of each party to the transaction
  • Competition for NGO intervention occurs in a context of economic, political, and organizational inequality that systematically advantages some challengers over others
  • Despite these structural biases, the choices of insurgents – how they market themselves – matter
  • Because of this market dynamic, the effects of assistance are more ambiguous than is often acknowledged[3]

Based on Bob’s description, the field of NGOs sounds more like an industry of corporations than a collection of humanitarian institutions. To further analyze this framework, I will analyze one of the most successful, well-renowned NGOs in the world: Amnesty International.

Amnesty International was founded in 1961, and has since generated a following of 2.8 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights. On their website, Amnesty states that their mission is to ”conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice  for those whose rights have been violated.”[4] Further, their vision is “for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.”[5] In terms of types of human rights abuses, Amnesty is researching and acting to prevent quite a few. Some examples of key initiatives they are involved with include:

  • Stop violence against women
  • Defend the rights and dignity of those trapped in poverty
  • Abolish the death penalty
  • Oppose torture and combat terror with justice
  • Free prisoners of conscience
  • Protect the rights of refugees and migrants
  • Regulate the global arms trade[6]

This list is not exhaustive, as Amnesty is yet involved with several more causes in nearly every country across the globe. With so many followers and so much support, it would appear that the reach of a large NGO like Amnesty International is almost limitless, as they seemingly tap into every human rights abuse you could think of. However, this is not the case, as Bob explains “even the most prominent of [NGOs] complain they cannot meet local needs.”[7] Bob cites statements from Human Rights Watch and the International Foundation for Election Systems that indicate that the current demand for support against human rights abuses far exceeds even what large NGOs can provide, and the same is likely from Amnesty. Relevant to this matter is another concept that Bob touches on, explaining how the type of assistance groups in need receive can be gauged by “breadth and depth.” Bob discusses how breadth refers to the number of NGOs supporting the cause, while depth refers to the amount of backing an NGO provides.[8] With large NGOs like Amnesty, this notion can be flipped around; looking at the breadth of causes the organization supports compared to the depth in which they support those causes. In Amnesty’s case, while they’re not obviously involved in every type of human rights abuse in the world, their breadth is quite expansive. As a result, Bob’s framework discussed earlier may not strongly apply to the types of causes Amnesty.   However, using his framework to examine the depth in which Amnesty supports these causes is worth investigating. As Bob explains, large organizations like Amnesty are seen as “gatekeepers,” whose decisions to support a movement can activate other movements as well as influence the strategies of those movements.[9] The degree to which a large organization like Amnesty decides to support a cause can greatly influence the amount of support that cause receives worldwide. So we know Amnesty supports a number of causes, but which do they support the most? And the least?

When analyzing each of the various topics that Amnesty is involved with, whether it’s conducting research, spreading awareness, or attempting to gain further support to prevent future violations, there certainly seems to be a distinction between which causes it supports at a surface level and other that it supports much deeper. For example, as of today (December 13th, 2010) two of the top three headlines on their website were involving freedom of expression, Nobel Peace Prize winner and political prisoner Liu Xiabobo as well as the organizational attacks resulting from the Wiki Leaks. Furthermore, within the “Spotlight” section of the website, half of the pages featured were regarding some sort of promotion of non-violence. Bob explains how this is typical of many NGOs, as they typically “support insurgencies that use ‘acceptable’ means in pursuit of their goals” because they most “value peaceful protest as a necessary tool of political protest but shun violence.”[10] Upon further review of Amnesty’s website, the page of their site that allows viewers to “Learn About Human Rights by Topic” offers some insight as well. While some of the topics, such as the Death Penalty, Countering Terror with Justice, Individuals at Risk, Maternal Health, and Human Rights Education have their own separate pages with a wealth of additional resources, research, and opportunities to take action, several other topics only consist of a more basic, standardized page that includes definitions, facts, and news updates. While each of the latter pages seems to contain quite a bit of useful information, the depth is clearly not a much. There are several factors within Bob’s framework that seem to be at play in determining which topics get the most depth. For example, one of the topics that has gotten a lot of notoriety within Amnesty is “Individuals at Risk.” As Bob explains, “NGOs and the media are primed to apotheosize individuals who…come to personify a movement.”[11]  This is especially true amongst those with Humanitarian awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize.[12] Political prisoners, such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Liu Xiaobo of China seem to be evidence that Amnesty utilizes the strategy of promoting movements where they can highlight a specific person at risk. Another major contributing factor to how much support a cause will receive discussed by Bob is the amount of international standing it has.[13] In the case of Amnesty International, supporting the abolition of the death penalty seems to fit into this category. As stated earlier, this is one of the areas Amnesty focuses on most, dedicating a specific section of additional resources to the cause. To support Bob’s theory, on the “Abolish the Death Penalty” homepage, Amnesty states “More than two-thirds of the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. While 58 countries retained the death penalty in 2009, most did not use it.”[14] Clearly, one of the major reasons that Amnesty is so supportive of this cause is because there are only a few countries opposing the abolition of the death penalty, while most of the rest of the world support it. This makes it much more likely that Amnesty’s image is not at risk within the international community and increases the chances that they can make an impact within this cause.

In conclusion, NGOs are most certainly doing some great work. However, to think that all NGOs operate under a purely altruistic nature seems to be incredibly naïve. The example of Amnesty International shows that many of the strategic decisions that are made involve influences of power and marketing. The real question is “do the ends justify the means”…a topic for another paper!

[1] Public Services International;

[2] Clifford, Bos (2005). The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism. Cambridge University Press

[3] IBID, Bob PP. 4-6

[4] Amnesty International;

[5] Amnesty International;

[6] Amnesty International;

[7] IBID, Bob PP. 18

[8] IBID, Bob PP. 10

[9] IBID, Bob PP. 18

[10] IBID, Bob PP. 36-37

[11] IBID, Bob PP. 47

[12] IBID, Bob PP. 44

[13] IBID, Bob PP. 43

[14] Amnesty International;

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