History of the NGO Sector

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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as we know them today are generally thought to have come into existence around the mid-nineteenth century. It was only about a century later that the importance of NGOs was officially recognized by the United Nations. At the UN Congress in San Francisco in 1968, a provision was made in Article 71 of the Charter of the United Nations framework that qualified NGOs in the field of economic and social development to receive consultative status with the Economic and Social Council.

The development of modern NGOs has largely mirrored that of general world history, particularly after the Industrial Revolution. NGOs have existed in some form or another as far back as 25,000 years ago. Since 1850, more than 100,000 private, not-for-profit organizations with an international focus have been founded. The growth of NGOs really took off after the Second World War, with about 90 international NGOs founded each year, compared with about 10 each year in the 1890s. Only about 30 percent of early international NGOs have survived, although those organizations founded after the wars have had a better survival rate. Many more NGOs with a local, national or regional focus have been created, though like their international counterparts, not all have survived or have been successful.

This article presents an overview of the history of modern day NGOs, with particular emphasis on international organizations. It looks at the different causes that have been championed by NGOs as the events in world history have unfolded, from the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution to the World Wars and through the aftermath of the Cold War. It also looks at the evolution of the structure and purpose of NGOs as they have matured over the years.


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