In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nongovernmental Organizations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Civil Society
  • Images of Children in NGO Advocacy

Childhood Studies Nongovernmental Organizations
Anna Holzscheiter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0044


Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are now considered to be the linchpin of grassroots, local, national, and transnational civil society engagement and organization. Their role and importance continue to grow, and academic engagement with NGOs and the specific power they hold is more vibrant than ever. Although NGOs, the various advocacy networks they form, and contentious issues around which they group are certainly not a new phenomenon, their exponential growth since about the 1980s is remarkable, particularly in terms of their increasing internationalization and the ways in which they have become prominent players alongside nation-states in international standard-setting. In this regard, the role of NGOs in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)—the core international treaty enshrining an international notion of childhood and defining the human rights of children—is one of the earliest and most successful examples of NGO involvement in international standard-setting. In the field of child protection and child advocacy, the bulk of research, however, is still concerned with NGOs’ role beyond the political realm, i.e., the core functions that they occupy in society, their role in monitoring implementation of child protection standards and human rights legislation for children, and in contesting policies. NGOs are seen here as crucial actors providing basic services for children and adolescents, working for civic education, and advocating for the rights of children and their visibility in public policy. Recently, academic research on NGOs, which were previously taken to be the “conscience of the world” (see Willets 1996, cited under General Overviews), has experienced a second wave of research that sheds a more critical light on the representativity, legitimacy, and often considerable power that NGOs hold on all levels of societal and political organization. Much of the academic engagement with NGOs has revolved around definitional issues—seeking to define what is “nongovernmental” and trying to make an analytical differentiation between different types of nongovernmental or nonstate actors.

General Overviews

Although a vast body of literature deals with the history, structure, and evolution of national and international civil societies and the specific role of NGOs in these processes, general overviews of NGOs in the field of child protection and children’s rights are rare—at least from an explicitly academic standpoint. Policy papers written by NGOs themselves or other public and private bodies cooperating with NGOs (e.g., the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] or the United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF]) abound, but comprehensive discussions of how NGOs have shaped childhood images and policies throughout the last centuries are hard to find. Kumari and Brooks 2004 and Percy-Smith and Thomas 2010 discuss children’s rights as one of the primary terrains in which NGOs have proven to be highly influential and successful in their advocacy, particularly on an international level. They also reflect specific discussions on civil society advocacy, especially in terms of how children and young people eventually can participate actively in national and international civil society. A recent edited volume (Denov, et al. 2011) emphasizes the seminal contribution of NGOs to cross-cultural dialogue about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and its principles. On a general level, Willets 1996 is considered an earlier classic in research on the role of NGOs in international politics and is probably one of the most cited edited volumes. Brysk 2005 was one of the first studies to look at contributions by NGOs to make the “private” public and to expand the global human rights agenda considerably; this study was also one of the first to discuss children’s rights as one area in which this trend was most visible. Baehr 2009 is valuable because it discusses definitional issues about what exactly characterizes an NGO and where it gets its authority, examining NGO influence on the global child rights discourse as an especially noteworthy example of NGO authority.

  • Baehr, Peter R. Non-Governmental Human Rights Organizations in International Relations. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230233706

    A comprehensive overview of the discussion on what constitutes a nongovernmental organization, how these organizations are structured internally, and how they interact externally with intergovernmental organizations, specifically in the field of human rights. The book is particularly informative in terms of the multiple parameters that influence NGO interaction with governments on an international level. Children’s rights are explicitly addressed in a subchapter as an area in which NGO influence on standard-setting has been and remains remarkable.

  • Brysk, Alison. Human Rights and Private Wrongs: Constructing Norms in Global Civil Society. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Exploring the evolution of human rights legislation, particularly with regard to a gradual encroachment into areas previously considered “private,” such as violence against women or the protection of children from abuse in the family context. Discusses how cross-border civil society activism has successfully constructed “private wrongs” as issues of global concern. Specifically analyzes how global civil society has sought to achieve better human rights protection for migrant children.

  • Collingwood, Vivienne. “Non-Governmental Organisations, Power and Legitimacy in International Society.” Review of International Studies 32 (2006): 439–454.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210506007108

    Globalization has widened the disparity between political ideals and the realities of global power distribution. This article discusses how legitimacy is conferred to transnational NGOs in an era of globalization. The author suggests that the focus needs to shift from the illegitimacy associated with an NGO’s non-state character to how to implement effective restrictions on power in international society.

  • DeMars, William E. NGOs and Transnational Networks: Wild Cards in World Politics. London: Pluto, 2005.

    In the context of NGO proliferation, a debate has emerged regarding their effectiveness and power, with the positive camp claiming NGOs achieve goals and the negative camp claiming that government and corporations dominate. DeMars challenges both perspectives and argues that NGOs are best conceptualized in terms of the transnational advocacy networks they form and are a part of, spurring both international collaboration and conflict, often unintentionally impacting states and societies. The author also anticipates further change in the role of NGOs.

  • Denov, Myriam S., Richard Alexander Maclure, Kathryn M. Campbell, and Dharshini Seneviratne, eds. Children’s Rights and International Development: Lessons and Challenges from the Field. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230119253

    Contributions to this edited volume revolve around singular projects and collaborations in developing countries, in which NGOs and community-based organizations (CBO) worked together in innovative ways, aiming to enhance child protection through participation and empowerment of children and adolescents. The volume’s contributions share the argument that to be cross-culturally relevant, the UNCRC’s principles must be interpreted in flexible and innovative ways in order to make sense in diverse social contexts.

  • Kumari, Ved, and Susan L. Brooks, eds. Creative Child Advocacy: Global Perspectives. New Delhi and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004.

    The book revolves around child advocacy in the legal system. Parts 2 and 4 are of particular interest because they discuss examples of successful NGO advocacy on behalf of children (e.g., in the areas of child labor or juvenile justice). The last part of the book explores how NGOs can be effective in their advocacy, even in highly politicized and restrained settings.

  • Percy-Smith, Barry, and Nigel Thomas, eds. A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation: Perspectives from Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Edited by two well-known scholars who have studied child participation for a considerable time. The volume assembles a range of cutting-edge contributions that discuss sense and nonsense of children’s participation in a variety of settings, both in industrialized and developing countries. The rather brief contributions to the “Approaches to Practice” section offer excellent examples of innovative methods and structures to ascertain meaningful participation of children.

  • Tallberg, Jonas, et al. The Opening Up of International Organizations: Transnational Access in Global Governance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107325135

    Provides a systematic, comprehensive analysis of the opening up of international organizations between 1950 and 2010 to transnational non-state actors (TNAs), which is one of the most profound changes in global governance. Increasing institutional access was given to local NGOs, private actors, and scientific experts to participate in the policymaking process in a diverse range of issue-areas and world regions. Four cases are examined: the Asian Development Bank, the International Whaling Commission, the OSCE, and the Commonwealth, showing the influence of UN conferences and other factors on the openness and dynamism of international organizations. This work attempts to answer various questions, such as how local actors can gain access to and influence global politics, as well as if civil society is the key to resolving democratic weaknesses in global governance.

  • Willets, Peter, ed. The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the U.N. System. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1996.

    The argument that NGOs form the “conscience of the world” as advocates for particularly vulnerable people has become one of the most cited slogans in the literature on nongovernmental organizations. Two of the case studies explicitly deal with children’s issues, exploring the role of NGOs in the drafting and evolution of the Save the Children Fund by the UNCRC from a relief organization to a children’s rights organization.

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