Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Nongovernmental Organizations Ngos 3618
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Collaborative efforts among the public have played an important role in shaping the political and social values and hence public policy of the United States. Organizing with others who share a similar vision enhances the potential for change. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) accomplish just that. Established outside of political parties, NGOs are aimed at advocating the public's

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Conservation International 1987 $50,000,000 To preserve and promote awareness about the world's endangered biodiversity. Working with the Cambodian government to create a one-million-acre protected area. Sponsored scientific research of coral reefs off Indonesia. Helped create the world's largest national rain forest.
Izzak Walton League of America 1922 $3,000,000 To protect and promote sustainable resource use. Helped create the Land and Water Fund. Were instrumental in the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Everglades National Park, and Isle Royale National Park.
National Audubon Society 1905 $44,000,000 To restore and protect the natural habitat of birds and other wildlife for the benefit of human interest and biodiversity. Involved the public in bird counts across the United States to track populations. Has opened nature centers to promote understanding of birds.
National Wildlife Federation 1936 $96,000,000 The largest member-supported conservation group working to protect wildlife and ecosystems. Function in forty-six states to promote the protection of species and their environments. Worked in the western United States to prevent urban sprawl and sustainable forestry.
Natural Resources Defense Council 1970 $30,632,992 Using science and law to protect the planet's wildlife and wild places. Worked with the EPA to restrict pesticide use, prevented the development of a large airport near the Florida Everglades, and have helped design a plan to restore Yosemite.
Nature Conservancy 1951 $245,000,000 To protect aquatic and terrestrial habitats for the survival of biodiversity. Own over a thousand preserves and have protected more than fourteen million acres of land in the United States.
Wilderness Society 1935 $14,700,000 Protect the remaining wilderness in the United States by keeping roads, loggers, and oil drilling efforts out of wilderness areas. Helped block oil exploration near Arches National Park, created the Wilderness Act, which was passed in 1964, and the Conservation Act which was passed in 1980.
Wildlife Conservation Society 1895 $95,000,000 Support international survival strategies as well as habitat conservation projects. Formed Jackson Hole Wildlife Park in 1956, led the national campaign to reintroduce bison to the Kansas grasslands, and created the Bronx Zoo.
World Wildlife Fund 1961 $60,000,000 Protect and preserve endangered species. Launched Wildlands and Human Needs projects to address the needs of people living in fragile ecosystems.
Sierra Club 1892 $43,000,000 To educate and enlist people to protect the environment through lawful means, and address key issues including commercial logging, urban sprawl, and water quality. Assisted in preserving the North Grove Calaveras Big Trees, fought to return Yosemite to federal management, and worked to create the National Park Service.
Environmental Defense Fund 1967 $39,000,000 Create solutions to environmental problems including policies to reduce fossil fuels. Won a ban on DDT use, prevented the development of a resort on former state park land that would endanger native species.
Greenpeace USA 1971 $19,266,530 Nonviolent direct action to expose environmental threats. Drew attention to ocean incineration of toxic waste, resulting in a ban of the practice; also, won an end to sperm whale hunting, halted the testing of nuclear arms off Florida.
Friends of the Earth 1969 $3,000,000 To protect Earth from environmental disaster through toxic waste cleanup and groundwater protection. Conducted lab tests proving that genetically altered food not approved for human consumption was being sold, won a federal court case that prevented Army Corps of Engineers from illegally issuing permits for developers to fill in wetlands.

concerns and pressuring governments to do a better job. These organizations may range from a handful of local citizens enacting recycling in their community to a million-member-strong organization with a budget of $20 million.

Agents of Information and Action

NGOs are often nonprofit groups that employ a variety of tactics for achieving awareness among the public and the government. The very nature and structure of NGOs has been advantageous in dealing with pollution issues for several reasons. First, membership within NGOs consists of people with a strong personal commitment to their cause. Second, the focused efforts of NGOs allow their leaders to become specialized. Third, the loose structure of NGOs enables them to respond with greater speed and flexibility than the government.

Throughout the forty years of the modern environmental movement, NGOs have been crucial in bringing visibility to pollution problems affecting both the local and international communities. According to Peter Willets, "Information is the currency of politics, and the ability to move accurate up-to-date information around the globe has been a key factor in the growing strength of environmental groups" (Willets, p. 114). The communication of information has been accelerated through the use of the Internet. In addition, NGOs also rely heavily on publications, media coverage, and conferences to collaborate with one another and to educate the public.

Although reformers of the Settlement House era of the late 1800s and early 1900s organized efforts for change within city neighborhoods, the formation of prominent mainstream organizations such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club are widely considered to be the first major environmental NGOs. Rooted in early-twentieth-century debates over the exploitation of land, these early NGOs lobbied the government by talking with local officials and publishing works on the importance of wilderness. One of the most notable efforts to drum up public support was a series of full-page advertisements taken out by the Sierra Club from 1965 to 1968 in the New York Times vilifying the prospects of building hydroelectric dams in and flooding the Grand Canyon.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are two NGOs with international status that have fought to keep the public informed about pesticides and toxics pollution through direct action techniques. Their practices of physically obstructing or protesting industry has made them popular in the media since the groups' inception in the 1970s. In one particular instance, Friends of the Earth amassed a collection of Schweppes bottles and subsequently dumped them on the company's front steps. Their efforts to send a clear message to the beverage company about waste pollution attracted media coverage and brought about a rise in membership. Similarly, Greenpeace employed confrontational tactics by sailing the vessel Phyllis McCormack towards a French nuclear testing site to halt testing. In another campaign, Greenpeace members put themselves in small boats between whalers and whales.

The Rise of International Networks

By the mid-1980s there were thousands of NGOs. Their success across the globe was encouraging to environmentalists and it was encouraging to a public—both national and international—that had begun to see the importance of NGOs in environmental issues. Danish NGOs won a complete ban on throwaway beverage packaging while Australian NGOs won concessions on mining in their national parks. The use of phosphates in detergents was banned in Switzerland with the help of NGOs. But as pollution became a major factor in the global debate of acid rain, global warming, and ozone depletion, NGOs saw a great need to collaborate internationally.

The discovery of a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica provoked furious action among American NGOs. Apparent disinterest shown toward the issue by European NGOs prompted several U.S. NGOs to send representatives to Europe to discuss the consequences of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the atmosphere. As a result of their meeting, the U.K. branch of Friends of the Earth drew up a campaign to publish its own guide to pollutants. In 1986 Aerosol Connection was a resounding success in communicating to the public how to support non-CFC products. Thousands of people were eager to get their hands on a copy. Raising public awareness weakened the position of the chemical companies in the United Kingdom, because they had controlled most public information about CFCs. The scientific information that NGOs supplied for the debate over CFCs helped speed negotiations on the Montréal Protocol, which called for a ban on CFC use. The experience clearly illustrated the power of NGOs to successfully lobby internationally.

NGOs experienced greater inclusion in the political arena throughout the 1990s. NGO pressure on World Bank policy set a precedent for collaboration by the World Bank with NGOs in the international realm. By challenging the World Bank to support environmentally viable water projects, NGOs exposed an array of existing problems to the media, to the U.S. government, and to congressional staff. Just a week after collaboration with the World Bank, NGOs from across the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth Summit. Twenty years earlier, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm was a major turning point for NGOs. Because only government officials were invited to the conference, NGOs gathered around the conference site to debate their own positions. To help clarify confusion surrounding conference issues, NGOs published a newspaper which they delivered to the media, embassy, and hotels where attendees were staying.

The 1992 Earth Summit

Having learned from the 1972 UN Conference, the planners of the 1992 Earth Summit coordinated a parallel conference for NGOs. Known as the Global Forum, this satellite conference enabled NGOs across the world to network, share research, and evaluate their collective role in protecting the environment. Together, NGOs drafted an extensive collection of treaties including the Earth Charter, a document meant to parallel the Summit's Rio Declaration, an agreement defining the rights and responsibilities of countries. Five years after the 1992 Earth Summit, five hundred NGOs met in New York to judge their progress and push for a redrafting of the Earth Charter. By 2000 a new draft was finalized to express the renewed vision NGOs hoped to fulfill.

By the mid-1990s NGOs had secured an important position in the environmental movement's crusade against pollution. Organizations large and small, striving to eradicate pollution, raised the public's level of awareness. Because pollution is at the same time a local and international problem, NGOs have been essential on all levels. Their dedication to issues and their multifaceted approaches to disseminating information makes them an important asset to the cause they represent and to the legislation they are hoping to influence. International NGO networks only serve to improve the environmental movement as receptivity to NGO work continues to expand worldwide.


Fox, Jonathan, and Brown, L. David. (1998). The Struggle for Accountability: The World Bank, NGOs, and Grassroots Movements. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gottlieb, Robert. (1993). Forcing the Spring. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Hays, Samuel P. (2000). A History of Environmental Politics Since 1945. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hedblad, Alan, ed. (2003). Encyclopedia of Associations, 39th edition. Detroit: Gale Group.

Markham, Adam. (1994). A Brief History of Pollution. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Willets, Peter. (1982). Pressure Groups in the Global System. London: St. Martin's Press.

Internet Resources

CIESIN. "A Summary of the Major Documents Signed at the Earth Summit and Global Forum." Available from .

Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "Coalitions and Affiliations." Available from .

Global Policy. "NGOs." Available from .

Environmental Defense Fund. "Notable Victories." Available from .

Natural Resources Defense Council. "Environmental Legislation." Available from .

Transformational Movement. "Earth Charter." Available from .

United Nations. "UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992)." Available from .

Worldwatch Institute. "WTO Confrontation Shows Growing Power of Activist Groups." Available from .

Christine M. Whitney

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