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NGOs in global politics and state sovereignty

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 2392 words Published: 1st Jun 2020

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This discussion examines the increasing influence of NGOs in global politics and focuses specifically on the role of development NGOs and the way in which they have challenged traditional understandings of state sovereignty. The discussion focuses on development NGOs in order to understand how many such organisations have taken on roles which were traditionally seen as the preserve of the nation state, being directly involved in healthcare provision, infrastructure development and educational provision. The discussion begins with a look at the increasing importance of NGOs in international development before highlighting how this has then led to them challenging state providers in terms of influence. The final two sections of the discussion cast a critical eye on the issue and examine the extent to which these developments have directly challenged state sovereignty and also the extent to which this should be seen as a problem.

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The increased role of NGOs in development

The increasing influence of NGOs in global politics is something which has taken off in the post-war years (Weber 2010). Increasingly, the trend has reached such significant proportions that international relations theorists have argued that many traditional theories of international relations such as realism are now no longer relevant in light of these increasingly important global institutions (Weber 2010). As globalisation has gathered pace, and media coverage has become ever more comprehensive the number of NGOs which now have a truly global reach has grown dramatically (Green 2008). Organisations such as Oxfam now have a comprehensive global reach and an institutional and logistical capability which makes them one of the best equipped organisations in the world (Green 2008). Both Green (2008) and Chang (2003) argue that this professionalisation of what were once small charities run largely by well-meaning volunteers (or frequently religious organisations), has fundamentally changed the capabilities of what these organisations are able to achieve. By logical extension, this enhanced capability therefore, gives such organisations a much greater scope and power which inevitably results in enhanced political power and relevance. A key positive is that such organisations are now able to achieve far more than was ever thought possible less than a century ago. However, the downside for some is that this power is frequently not coupled with democratic accountability and responsibility.

Large scale development NGOs and state sovereignty

The controversial element of large scale development NGOs in relation to state sovereignty comes on those occasions in which NGOs provide services which are traditionally seen as the role of the state. In some cases this is not controversial, for example in developing countries which have experienced a major natural disaster where immediate relief is urgently needed. However, in other cases where NGOs are involved in more long term provision of services, their impact on state sovereignty can be seen as being problematic. Perhaps the main reason for this is that they undermine the relationship between state and citizen and frequently undermine the sovereignty of political institutions (Riddel 2014). Whilst this is done with the best of immediate intentions writers such as Riddel (2014) and Houtzager (2006) have argued that the long term impact of this can be damaging both to the actual conditions in the particular country, but also to the political strength and accountability of the state. The argument goes that by taking over services which the state could provide, NGOs undermine the longer term planning and development of the state and effectively make it reliant on NGOs for service provision. Academics such as Houtzager (2006) argue that the only long term method for sustainable development, revolves around a strong and accountable state with genuine political power, and therefore NGOs which undermine this are in his view damaging to the longer term prospects for developing states.

A further area in which NGOs are able to undermine state sovereignty, relates to the way in which NGOs are able to undermine the diplomatic positions of sovereign states by addressing problems or issues directly at source (Thakur 2006). For example, a nation state may invoke economic sanctions on a particular state in order to create diplomatic pressure but NGOs are able to bypass this to a certain extent by taking funds direct from citizens and using them in the way they best see fit. By remaining unaccountable to direct state power they are able to challenge the power of the state in numerous ways.

Overall, it can therefore be seen that, in the vast majority of cases NGOs have never directly challenged state sovereignty but by virtue of their contribution towards a variety of issues, they have gradually eroded the role of the state in many areas. Also in some cases it can be seen that large scale NGOs have at times directly challenged the power of the state through the provision of certain services and their sheer size and capability. Broadly speaking however there is no major evidence put forward by any of the writers examined which would suggest that NGOs have directly challenged or undermined state sovereignty. Rather, the picture which emerges points to one in which state sovereignty and power is undermined by global governance institutions and large corporations, and then the gaps are plugged (or attempts are made to plug them) by myriad forms of NGO. This point is also supported by Eimer (2009).

Critical Reflection

The relationship between the modern political and international landscape and state sovereignty is particularly problematic. The role of supranational institutions such as the United Nations and the EU frequently make the news because of what is seen as their lack of true democratic accountability. However, the arguments made above show how NGOs are also contributing to this challenge on state sovereignty. The extent to which one sees this as a problem, is largely driven by the perspective one takes on the importance of the state as a provider of security and long term support. A key threat of such significant NGO involvement is that in huge numbers of cases the NGO in question is based in a different country to that country which it is attempting to help. This therefore, makes longer term security much harder to obtain from such involvement.

However, in contrast to this view it must also be noted that the vast majority of major NGOs work closely with many governments in attempting to support and develop infrastructures and key provisions (for example health provision) and that the idea that they undermine sovereignty in the state is questionable. This point is highlighted by Eimer (2009) in relation to China with Eimer (2009) highlighting the fact that the Chinese government has actively encouraged growth in the voluntary and NGO sector within China and has even encouraged foreign NGOs to become involved. Eimer (2009 p.1) points out that;

Officials are now actively talking up the role of charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as they hope to harness the newfound enthusiasm amongst the Chinese for giving to charity and volunteering that has appeared since the Sichuan earthquake. Because it has little experience of its own of working with such groups, China plans to use some of Britain’s most famous charities as role models for their own voluntary sector.

For a country with such a strong government as China to actively introduce NGOs and third sector involvement in the country shows that they do not perceive NGOs to represent a threat to sovereignty. Eimer (2009 p.1) highlights points made by Dr. Wang (the Minister in charge of NGOs in China) as directly looking towards major existing NGOs as examples of what can be achieved, arguing that;

Dr. Wang is looking to Britain and charities like Save the Children, which works extensively in China, for examples of how best to boost China’s charity sector. “The way Save the Children operates is a good example for us,” said Dr Wang. “I think we can learn a lot from the UK. For example, the laws relating to charities, the institutions that govern charities and the way they are managed, both large charities and grassroots ones. In the past, charities played a very important role in transforming the UK into a modern society.

However, it must also be acknowledged here that the Chinese government has such a strong power base that there are virtually no institutions on the planet which could challenge them. That said, it does provide some evidence that NGOs do not necessarily undermine sovereignty even where they have major involvement. Indeed, many such as Green (2008) and Chang (2003) argue that even with well-functioning democratic governments in wealthy states there are still areas in which NGOs can improve life for the majority of people without remotely undermining state sovereignty.

It is certainly important to acknowledged that the way in which globalisation has changed the world is unlikely to be reversed any time soon, and there is therefore an important question to be asked as to whether NGOs themselves are to blame for declining state power, or whether or not forces such as large corporations, supranational institutions and other similar entities are more to blame. Certainly NGOs have increased their role whilst state sovereignty has undoubtedly declined but this relationship could very well be as much coincidental as it is a correlation. Given the evidence examined above, it would therefore, seem much more plausible to argue that NGOs have not caused a trend of declining state sovereignty but that their increased involvement in plugging important provisions gaps within many countries has undoubtedly contributed or cemented this trend in place. Fundamentally however, it can be argued that this does not represent a significant issue for the majority of states.

It can therefore be argued, that the rise of NGOs has gone hand in hand with a decline in state sovereignty, particularly in some of the world’s poorest countries but that this decline in state power is unlikely to have been driven by NGOs and is much more likely to have been driven by other international forces. In many ways, the most likely outcome here is that NGOs have stepped in to fill in the gaps in provision, which have been left by the decline of state sovereignty caused by the increased power of institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and major global corporations. This is certainly the view of a number of thinkers including Peet (2003) and Stiglitz (2002).

It can therefore be seen, that the evidence and arguments examined above point more to a situation in which NGOs are not directly responsible for the erosion of state sovereignty in many cases but that they have probably indirectly contributed towards it. There is certainly a problematic relationship between many NGOs and many poorer states in the sense that many NGOs have now become so powerful that they are able to support large parts of state infrastructure in many countries (Green 2008). In addition there is strong evidence that many NGOs have intervened in states and have contradicted the power of the state by introducing policies such as supporting women into jobs (unpopular in some countries) and encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour in many other states through the use of microfinance (Smith 2013).


In conclusion, it can therefore be argued, that the rise in power of NGOs has certainly coincided with declining sovereignty in many of the world’s poorest countries and indeed in some of the wealthiest as well. However, the arguments examined above show that to solely blame NGOs for this decline in sovereignty is likely to be wrong. Indeed, much of the evidence suggests that the decline in sovereignty has been pushed much more by organisations such as global corporations and particularly global governance institutions which have comprehensively challenged state power in many institutions. That said, it must also be acknowledged that many of the larger NGOs have evolved into very powerful institutions which have directly challenged state power. To the extent that this trend is likely to continue, it must therefore be acknowledged, that NGOs have contributed to a decline in state sovereignty but also that they are certainly not the root cause of this decline.


Chang, H-J. (2003). Rethinking Development Economics. London: Anthem Press.

Eimer, D. (2009). China turns to British charities to plug gaps left by communist party. London: The Telegraph. [available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/4526715/China-turns-to-British-charities-to-plug-gaps-left-by-communist-party.html ] (accessed 21/10/2015)

Green, D. (2008). From Poverty to Power. London: Oxfam.

Houtzager, P (2006). Changing Paths: International Development And The New Politics Of Inclusion. Michigan:  University of Michigan Press.

Krasner, S. (2001). Problematic Sovereignty: Contested Rules and Political Possibilities. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Peet, R. (2003). Unholy trinity. Zed Books

Riddel, R. (2014). Does foreign aid really work? An updated assessment. Crawford School of Public Policy: Development Policy Centre.

Smith, B. (2013). Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stiglitz, J. (2002). Globalisation and its discontents. London: W.W.Norton.

Thakur, R. (2006). The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, C. (2010). International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.


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