Many aid actors, particularly among governments in developing countries, refer to ‘NGOs’ and their role in international aid and development cooperation. But the phrase ‘NGO’ is contested terminology, and for many has been subsumed within a broader category of ‘civil society organizations’ or ‘CSOs’. This study has chosen to use the term ‘CSO’.
The study uses a definition of CSOs put forward by the 2007–2008 Advisory Group on CSOs and Aid Effectiveness and now adopted by the OECD DAC:-
“[CSOs] can be defined to include all non-market and nonstate organizations outside of the family in which people organize themselves to pursue shared interests in the public domain. Examples include community-based organizations and village associations, environmental groups, women’s rights groups, farmers’ associations, faith-based organizations, labour unions, co-operatives, professional associations, chambers of commerce, independent research institutes and the not-for-profit media.”
CSOs are voluntary organizations with governance and direction coming from citizens or constituency members, without significant government-controlled participation or representation.
The recent ‘Busan Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation’ recognized CSOs as “independent development actors”: “Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a vital role in enabling people to claim their rights, in promoting rights-based approaches, in shaping development policies and partnerships, and in overseeing their implementation".
There are many types of CSOs involved in delivering aid, including faith-based groups, trade unions, professional associations, internationally affiliated organizations with branches in many different countries etc. ‘NGO’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘CSO’, but NGOs should be properly understood as a subset of CSOs involved in development cooperation, albeit often one with no clear boundaries. Constituency-based organizations, such as trade unions or professional associations, for example, often do not self-identify as NGOs, but rather as CSOs.
In the USA, the term generally used to refer to US CSOs involved in international development and humanitarian assistance is Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs). According to USAID, a PVO is “a tax exempt, nonprofit organization that solicits and receives case contributions from the general public and conducts or anticipates conducting international programme activities consistent with US Foreign Policy objectives.” In the USA, the category of CSO sometimes includes for-profit organizations.
International NGOs (INGOs) can be seen as a distinct category among non-state actors, which have been very prominent in development cooperation during the past decade. They constitute a subset of NGOs in which coalitions or families of NGOs, based in various donor and developing countries, have formally associated in an international or global governance structure. These international structures coordinate their ‘NGO family’ programming at the global level. This characteristic changes the INGO’s relationship with a given donor or public in an individual donor country as these organizations develop, finance and promote programmes across donor countries. Some well-known examples are World Vision International, CARE International and Save the Children International.
Rather than delve into a debate on the pros and cons of this terminology, which is a reflection of the diversity of nongovernmental actors (many of whom are not involved in aid delivery), this study has chosen to use ‘CSOs’ as the most inclusive concept.
CSOs include a diverse set of organizations, ranging from small, informal, community-based organizations to the large, high-profile, INGOs working through local partners across the developing world. Their governance structures are equally varied, a function of their mandate and constituency. However, all share a common characteristic: CSOs, by their very nature, are independent of direct government control and management.