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What types of NGOs exist?

NGOs generally fall under one of two categories: international NGOs (INGOs) and “local” NGOs. In the former category are large groups often based in the U.S., Geneva or London but work and have offices around the world. Examples include Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Local NGOs serve a particular region, country, section of a country or municipality and are housed in the region, country or municipality on which they focus. “Local” NGOs range from nationally or regionally-centered NGOs to issue-focused NGOs working only in a particular city. Examples of local NGOs include the Legal Resources Center in Accra, Ghana and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. Many local NGOs, however, work with INGOs and other partners in the international community. INGOs, because of their experience working with press, can often help local NGOs to communicate issues in a manner that can reach a global audience.

Working on international issues in the U.S. versus working abroad

U.S. law students or law graduates can choose between working on international issues while based in the U.S. or working on those international issues while abroad. Law students can choose to work for INGOs in their primary offices, INGO satellite offices, or for local NGOs in other countries. However, many U.S.-based NGOs are not willing to hire law school graduates until they have overseas work experience. Working abroad during law school is almost always a prerequisite to obtaining any type of international NGO job whether U.S.-based or not. In fact, many U.S.-based international NGOs seek those with post-law school experience working abroad. When comparing national and international agencies, differences abound. For example, consider the differences between working at an NGO based in the developing world and an international NGO based within the U.S., the U.K., or Geneva.

NGOs based overseas – including the foreign offices of U.S.-based NGOs – tend to be smaller and lack the resources of those housed in the U.S., London, or Geneva. Overseas NGOs, especially those that are “local,” tend to be more precariously financed and may spend more time fundraising. Local NGOs may also pay less. However, they often offer students and law graduates the opportunity to see the direct results of their work. Some of the local NGOs have a more narrow focus, which allows them to have a bit more of an immediate impact. One HLS graduate who has worked both overseas and in the U.S. said that working abroad is just “more fun.”

What kind of work can you find in NGOs?

The range of work within NGOs is as broad as one finds in other legal work. Attorneys represent client concerns using the array of tools learned in law school and in practice. An attorney may act as “corporate counsel,” assisting an NGO obtain nonprofit and/or taxexempt status, draft bylaws and charters, establish a governing board, handle employee matters, draft and negotiate contracts, and develop policies. Attorneys may interview witnesses and prepare testimony for the International Criminal Court, draft legislation to change immigration and refugee laws or work with small business owners on a sustainable economic development project in a developing country. They may also organize an international conference of environmentalists on global warming or negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to make medicine more readily available to fight deadly diseases around the world. Attorneys may work with the courts to develop procedural protections for the accused in criminal matters or assist judges to incorporate international law into their domestic courts. The possibilities are exciting and limitless. Working for NGOs, attorneys may be part of social, political and economic transformations.

The enormous variety of NGO work creates tremendous opportunities for law students and attorneys. NGOs engage in a wide array of activities that include research, report writing, advocacy, lobbying, fundraising, monitoring conflict situations or policy development, governmental or intergovernmental advising and litigating.

Advocacy is a major focus of NGOs and takes various forms. The recent docket of the U. S. Supreme Court included cases litigated by NGOs as well as numerous amicus curiae briefs submitted on behalf of NGOs. Litigation includes cases such as the case against Unocal Oil Corporation alleging that it was aware of and supported slave labor, murder, rape and forced relocation of villagers by the Burmese military during the construction of an oil pipeline from Burmese oil fields to Thailand; litigation in international criminal tribunes such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR); and environmental litigation.

However, NGO advocacy work also takes less-recognized forms. Advocacy work also includes organizing a “campaign” to correct certain rights violations. For example, sometimes lawsuits will not work – perhaps because courts in the jurisdiction involved are not hospitable – and other tactics are needed to correct governmental or corporate behavior. An example of a “campaign” might include the organizing of a boycott of products manufactured by a company that used child labor in a country where the courts might not adequately recognize child labor laws. Another advocacy tool, closely tied into “campaign” skills, is the use of media. NGOs often use the press to bring public attention to wrongs done by governments or corporations.

What issues do NGOs work on?

NGOs work on a huge array of issues. In fact, if you look at all the issues that domestically-focused nonprofits address, you can almost always find an NGO working on similar issues on an international basis. NGOs who once solely focused on domestic issues have now widened the scope to address these issues internationally. For example, as Barbara Finamore’s narrative demonstrates, the Natural Resources Defense Council has an international practice.

One major area of international practice is human rights. However, in the U.S. we often think of human rights differently than those who live abroad. In the U.S., we tend to think of human rights work as addressing mass atrocities, genocide and political killings by the government. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a broader definition of human rights, including the right to an education and the right to housing. Abroad, the issues that we see as civil rights, education, housing law, and others are often all considered human rights. Some U.S.- based NGOs do work within the U.S. that they consider “human rights work,” such as improving prison conditions.

Some NGOs tackle business practices of particular companies or industries. You need only stop by your local Starbucks and look for the “fair trade” coffee on sale to see the results of a successful campaign by the San Francisco-based NGO Global Exchange. Some organizations focus on economic development, particularly in developing countries. They may help with microbusiness development. For example, one NGO in India helps women set up their own small businesses as a way of helping them achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Other NGOs work on transitional justice or government/law reform issues. HLS students, for example, have worked on laws to preserve an independent judiciary and have helped write the commercial code for countries that lack one. A large number of humanitarian and relief agencies exist and will sometimes employ attorneys. A growing number of NGOs, both U.S.- based and “local,” are working on environmental and public health issues. There are also NGOs that work specifically on women’s issues and NGOs that focus on children’s issues.