Like economic globalization, transnational civil society is often seen as a recent phenomenon. From the worldwide protests of the Occupy Movement, to environmental advocacy campaigns ahead of RIO+20, and multi-faceted development programs implemented on a global scale, it is tempting to assume we live in an entirely new era of NGO activity. Yet in contrast to conventional wisdom, international NGOs have a long and turbulent history, which has often placed these actors at the center of key transformations shaping international society over the last two centuries.

The diversity and reach of the more than 20,000 international NGOs operating today is difficult to overestimate. It encompasses the human rights activism of Amnesty International in 150 countries, the development work of the 120,000 staff of BRAC touching the lives of 126 million, and the participation of approximately one billion people in the member organizations of the International Co-operative Alliance. The breadth of activities stretches from the settlement by the Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce of more disputes than the International Court of Justice, to the alternative globalization envisaged by the World Social Forums and pan-Islamic activism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, international NGOs have far deeper roots than is commonly assumed. The term itself – ‘nongovernmental organizations’ – entered common usage via the United Nations (UN) Charter at the end of World War II. But even before the onset of the modern era, religious orders, missionary groups, merchant hanses and scientific societies engaged in activities crossing continents. Many of these bodies – including Roman Catholic monastic orders and Sufi tariqahs – survive to the present day. It was in the context of the Enlightenment idealism, revolutionary upheavals and East-West contacts of the late 18th century, however, that the sphere of international NGOs was to be truly transformed. Indeed, the wave of protests in 2011 – from the Arab uprisings, to Indian anti-corruption demonstrations and Occupy Wall Street – are evocative of the much earlier wave of revolutions in the Atlantic world, encompassing the American, French and Haitian revolutions. Activists such as Tom Paine, and international networks of masonic and secret societies, helped promote revolution from one country to another. A Universal Confederation of the Friends of Truth was established in revolutionary Paris in 1790, with affiliates not only in France, but also in London, Philadelphia, Hamburg, Geneva, Genoa and Utrecht. The confederation was one of many groups at the time to describe its goals as “universal.” European revolutionaries were inspired not only by Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, but also by reports of uprisings in Muslim territories – amongst the texts of the French revolution was a ‘Republican Koran.’

In contrast, nascent humanitarian organizations of the period built upon Chinese experience. Since the 13th century at least, humanitarian associations were active along Chinese rivers. Following the establishment of a Society for the Recovery of the Drowned in Amsterdam in 1767, ‘Humane Societies’ specializing in the rescue and resuscitation of victims of drowning and shipwreck had been founded in every continent by the onset of the 19th century. Whereas the ‘Humane Societies’ aimed to disseminate new techniques of resuscitation, another humanitarian NGO, the Royal Jennerian Society, was established in 1803 to ensure that “Small-pox may be speedily exterminated… ultimately from the whole earth,” by promoting newlydiscovered methods of vaccination. Within two decades, the society had attracted an impressive array of patrons, including 14 European monarchs, the Ottoman Sultan, the Mughal of India, the Pacha of Baghdad, the American President and the Pope. It was claimed at the time that “by its efforts… nearly all parts of the world” had received vaccinations.

Amongst the most influential NGOs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were the many anti-slavery groups established in the Atlantic world in the decades following the formation of the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage in 1775. These organizations influenced not only national legislation such as the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, but also international negotiations. Abolitionist lobbying contributed, for instance, to the issuing of international declarations on the slave trade in the peace congresses following the Napoleonic wars. Another group, the Quakers, had been critical to the development of the abolitionist movement, and were also central to the formation of some of the earliest peace societies that developed in Great Britain and the United States (US) from 1815.

The peace movement has the distinctionof being responsible for the earliest recorded organization to actually describe itself as international. The International Association created in Scotland in 1834 claimed to consist “of those who desire to find just grounds for mutual esteem and respect, – who cherish peace, – and will act upon the grand principle of collecting and disseminating such information as tends to meliorate the individual and social  condition of their fellow creatures.” In the same year, Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini established Young Europe for the promotion of nationalism, and communist revolutionaries united in their first international organization – the League of the Just – based in Paris.

In the context of the proliferating associations of the 1830s, a young Frenchman introducing himself as “the Count of Liancourt,” Caliste-Auguste Godde, decided to set up an ‘International Shipwreck Society’ in 1835, modeled on the earlier Humane Societies and established “with a view touniting the benevolent of all countries.” It proved hugely successful in collecting large subscriptions from members, and was run from Place Vendôme 16, next door to what is now the Paris Ritz. The society potentially contributed to the spread of more than 150 lifesaving societies across every continent, and published a journal, The International, marketed as “the intelligent organ ofall civilized people.” Its activities werenot to last long, however: in 1842 itwas revealed that Godde – who turned out not to be a count, but in fact a provincial doctor from the village of Liancourt – had been using the society to line his own pockets.

Whereas most of the international associations of the 1830s were to prove short-lived, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society established in 1839 has survived to the present day as the oldest international human rights organization, now Anti-Slavery International. Its significance extends beyond this achievement. British anti-slavery sentiment was one factor underpinning Whitehall’s failure to recognize the Confederacy in the 1860s, playing a part in the abolition of slavery in the US. Similarly, the organization’s international Anti Slavery Convention held in London in 1840 was to spark awave of private international congresses leading to the establishment of NGOs in many fields in subsequent decades. The barring of women from the event also spurred two of the excluded delegates– Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott – to convene a women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, a key moment in the development of the international movement for women’s suffrage.

Few individuals were to play a more critical role in the development of international NGOs, however, than Swiss philanthropist Henri Dunant. In 1855, he spearheaded the creation of the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations, notable for its pioneering structure as an international federation of national NGOs. More famously, after witnessing the carnage of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, Dunant went on in 1863 to found the Red Cross movement for the provision of neutral assistance to the wounded in conflict.

In the period from the 1870s to World War I, there was a massive expansion in the number and variety of international NGOs parallel to the second industrial revolution. Among the more than 400 bodies established at this time were organizations as diverse as the Universal Scientific Alliance, the World League for Protection of Animals, the International Council of Women, the International Federation of Trade Unions, the International Cooperative Alliance, the International Olympic Committee, Rotary International and the International Socialist Bureau.

The achievements of international NGOs in the decades preceding the war included successful campaigns for new treaties, such as by the International Literary and Artistic Association in respect of international copyright, and by the International Abolitionist Federation in relation to sex trafficking. In addition, women’s groups were crucial in the dissemination of suffrage activism around the world. New Zealand, for instance, was the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893. There, the suffrage movement was stimulated by the American traveling envoy of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Mary Leavitt.

by Thomas Davies

Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London

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