A nongovernmental organization (NGO) is any organization that is not part of government. The term arose in the context of the civil society renaissance of the late 1980s and refers in particular to the class of organizations that in the United States are more commonly termed nonprofits. (See Nonprofit,_not-for-profit, voluntary, independent for some sorting of this question.) Such organizations are sometimes also labeled voluntary or service, or mission-oriented organization that pursue common goods independently of governments. In practice, there is a spectrum of relationships from purely independent NGOs supported entirely by membershps or donations, to NGOs that are recognized as having some level of authority over governments, and quasi-nongovernmental organizations QUANGOs, which were created by a government but have some autonomy and often have some continuing relationship with government (such as nonprofit housing programs in the U.S. with a connection to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
A given NGO might operate completely outside of government; one of the questions is whether governments pay attention to it. The reports of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will gain substantial press attention, especially when critical of governments. Others, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known in the English-speaking world as Doctors Without Borders, are widely recognized as competent yet fiercely independent humanitarian organizations. In humanitarian operations, MSF may cooperate with national or international organizations that are coordinating relief in that operation.
In ordinary usage, the term NGO usually refers to international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), which in recent years have become extremely important in the international system, in diverse areas such as disaster response, immigration and refugee resettlement, economic development and citizen monitoring of governments.
Yet another category covers NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, an NGO but also recognized as having operational oversight over the Geneva Conventions which, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been fundamental to establishing the moral authority of INGOs in the international community. Article 20 of the latter document establishes a universal right of association and several other articles speak directly to the missions of various INGOs.
A number of important INGOs operate under the authority of the United Nations or other recognized bodies, are nongovernmental in the sense of not being under a national government. The UN recently established the United Nations Liaison Service (UNLS) to coordinate relations with international NGOs.
While initially most INGOs originated in the U.S., Great Britain and a small number of other advanced economies, the pattern now is extremely diverse. For example, BRAC originated in Bangladesh, later established affiliates in the United States and Great Britain and then established local programs in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tanzania, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone.