Conceptualizing NGO Growth

The past 30 years have seen rapid growth in the activities and awareness of organizations in the nonprofit sector. The rise of these organizations reflects a shift during the 20th century of non-state actors and their roles within the global discourse. At the beginning of the 20th century, the relevance of nongovernmental agencies within global political and policy arenas is evidenced by the lack of mention of them in the League of Nation's charter. They simply were not thought of as institutions able to create or leverage change. Instead, governmental institutions were viewed as the agencies best positioned for making continual change in communities. By mid century, the lack of specific mention of NGOs in the charters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, also suggest the limited role that these organizations had in official global political discourse. However, at the close of the century, they were depended upon by both state and interstate actors such as the World Bank, the UN, and the International Monetary Fund in vital areas related to developmental agenda implementation.

Salamon [1] referred to this rapid emergence of NGOs as important actors on a global scale during the latter years of the 20th century as the global NGO revolution. He argued that it was the result of four crises and two "revolutionary changes." The first of the crises he notes is one around the changing expectations vis-a-vis the welfare state. Government is no longer perceived by many to be able to respond to people's needs, particularly as people find themselves facing questions regarding their continued general well-being. As a result, the concept of the state as the general benefactor of the people is one that no longer exists in as regular a degree as before. The second crisis is one of development. The lack of economic progress in some regions of the world has led to a search for new institutional models to address needs in the areas of food concerns, sanitation, medical access, and other results of growing economic imbalances. The third is a crisis of the environment. Salamon notes that environmental degradation in both wealthy and economically marginalized nations has led to the need for the engagement of citizens in a number of voluntary efforts aimed at addressing environmental needs within their societies. The final crisis Salamon observes is one that confronted the legitimacy of Communist governments from the late 1970s to the late 1980s and ultimately led to a number of governmental transitions of the early 1990s.

In addition to the four crises, Salamon argues that the sector has developed at a rapid scale because of two revolutionary changes that have ultimately shaped the direction of the sector's emergence. The first focuses on advances in global communications. It is easier to communicate with one another, despite where the communicators are situated. In addition to advances in communications technology, increases in literacy rates and global commonalities have impacted communications processes.

The second revolutionary change relates to the economic growth of the 1960s and early 1970s. Ultimately this growth resulted in the creation of a middle-class to respond to many of the social conditions to which the nongovernmental sector might respond. It was ultimately this class that responded to the challenges of the late 1970s and 1980s, which underscored opportunities that were created during this time period and ultimately helped lead to the development of the sector.

Matthews [2] argues that the emergence of these nongovernmental actors is a vital reflection of the realignment of global power structures to a degree unseen since the Treaty of Westphalia and which shaped our current perspective of the state as the vital entity in the global political system. She argues that such a shift is largely the result of the end of the Cold War, and with it, both changing realities around security needs from a notion of security as defined by foreign relations and military perspectives to security as defined by the needs of daily life (i.e., food, safety, shelter). Matthews agrees with Salamon's notion that advances in communications have driven much of the shift in power from government to NGOs. Ultimately, hierarchies, established largely as a result of governmental controls of information flows, have been replaced by networks of nongovernmental networks that have more of a distributed flow of information linked into them.

If the growth and development of NGOs is a by-product of the failings of governments, as pointed out by both Matthews and Salamon, then there are a number of areas to explore on how these organizations have been involved with building a strategy of legitimacy vis-a-vis governmental processes and systems.

From our perspective, such an examination should assume both a descriptive and prescriptive stance. Descriptively, an examination of the evolution of the nonprofit sector should examine the emergence of various trends that impact the development of the sector. Prescriptively, there should be an emphasis on the potential steps that various stakeholders might assume to move forward with their agendas related to the development of the sector. Our exploration assumes a descriptive framework and offers a resulting set of prescriptive recommendations for advancing the abilities of organizations within the nongovernmental sector that are working on environmental development and reform. In the next section, we examine in depth the development of an infrastructure related to global NGO growth in relation to environmental needs. We use as a parallel framework for this examination, the development of the UN system on the environment, with an emphasis on the three major UN environmental meetings between 1972 and 2002. We follow this section with a set of prescriptive recommendations related to the evolution of the sector-with an emphasis on long-term sectoral development.

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