The growth of NGOs in the last three decades has been a significant feature of political life. Few matters of public policy pass without an NGO spokesperson advocating a position. They have, in some regards, become the official opposition.
Historically, associations of private individuals have gathered for public purposes, usually to provide a service not available from the state, well before the establishment of democratic government. They have preceded, and now complement, the growth of services available from the welfare state. Many are church-based and concentrate on the needs of individuals for assistance, typically in welfare, health and education.
In more recent times, a new class of NGOs has arisen which focuses directly on changing public policy. Though membership-based, they are unlike the representative interest groups of employer and employees, which provide both service to membership and public advocacy on behalf of their members. The new NGOs consist, typically, of middle-class activists who want government to reallocate resources or change laws according to activists’ view of the good society.
In some respects, the phenomenal growth of civil activism as represented by NGOs reflects restlessness with the inadequacies of government to remake the world in a way acceptable to the activists. In this regard, NGO activism is a challenge to representative democracy; it regards itself as a new form of democracy.
If NGO activism is to take its place within democratic society, it presumably has to be accountable for its actions. How this is to be achieved, and the nature of the relationship between government and civil society as represented by NGOs, is the subject of this Backgrounder.