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NGO’s and their role in Public Diplomacy

by on March 27, 2012

USAID is a government agencyThere is a thesis held by some academics that non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) cannot partake in public diplomacy unless they are backed by their governments in some way. I am going to examine this thesis a little deeper, to ascertain whether indeed this is true.  However before I go any further I think it practical I give a working definition of what I believe public diplomacy to be. It can comfortably be said that public diplomacy’s main purpose is to ‘influence the behaviour and policies of foreign governments by influencing the attitudes and opinions of foreign citizens’ (Malone, 1988; Tuch, 1990; Manheim, 1994), or as Dutch scholar, Jan Melissen, says: ‘Public diplomacy is about getting other people on one’s side’[1] .

An NGO’s (good) reputation is reliant on their ability to establish strong relationships within the local communities they are working. Generally, the greater the empowerment awarded to local partners by NGO’s, the stronger the relationship and the more trusted the NGO becomes. Effectively NGO’s undertake an exercise in relationship-building in their host countries. Joseph Nye has argued that relationship-building should hold an important place in public diplomacy: ‘The third dimension of public diplomacy is the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels’ (Nye Jr., 2004). All of these fields and more are covered by NGO’s. NGO’s actions engage numerous tiers of their local host societies, furnishing them with an in depth knowledge of their host country, and providing them with access to local political parties at all levels from grassroots to government.

There are many ways in which a government’s such as the American, which is plagued with credibility issues, can exploit their NGO’s efforts to their advantage when undertaking their public diplomacy strategy. For instance they could place more effort into drawing attention to their NGO’s achievements, their variance and their independence.  This thought is shared by many, including NGO employees themselves. In a 2009 study regarding NGO’s contribution in American public diplomacy, in which fourteen employees from twelve NGO’s were interviewed, one interviewee stated:

“The good NGOs can do a lot of good work in this [public diplomacy] arena without even trying A  possible 'all natural' tactic when using NGO's in  public diplomacyand, in fact, many are already doing it: working in an area long term, keeping the expat staff small, encouraging expats to work themselves out of a job and replace them with locals whenever appropriate, making sure expat staff live on the local economy and not on the diplomatic economy, making sure expat staff speak the language. I know so many instances of American individuals making huge impressions when those conditions are in place. It only takes one to change the opinion of a whole community.” (Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 2008)

Although, some contributors to the study did question the actuality of NGO’s neutrality; with some claiming that an NGO cannot be completely autonomous from its own government when in a host country, irrespective of whether they receive government funding or not. Added to this is the knowledge that most of the participants in the study believed their organisation’s position regarding long term objectives, were in alignment with the US government, where they would differ from their government at times was the path to take in reaching these objectives.

With this knowledge it is hard to believe that an NGO is not acting in the field of public diplomacy, regardless of who is backing them. Baring in mind public diplomacy’s main purpose is to influence the behaviour and policies of foreign governments by influencing the attitudes and opinions of foreign citizens, is it realistic to claim that NGO’s, government backed or not, do not partake in this activity, particularly when considering most NGO’s long term objectives are in line with their governments?

Furthermore how practical is this thesis? In other words are the citizens in host countries aware of this thesis and if so do they abide by it? For example, is an American development NGO working in a foreign country not seen as just that, an American NGO. The fact that they are not funded by their government, I don’t believe will stop local citizens from seeing them as Americans, and forming their opinions of America and American policies based on their experience with the NGO, if so then surely this makes the thesis redundant. Which leads me to the question, is the theory that public diplomacy must be government backed purely academic?

Lastly, is it naïve to believe that governments do not already exploit their NGO’s as described? Consider this, although official stats on NGO’s are difficult to find, it is widely acknowledged that America has the monopoly in the NGO arena. It would be interesting to discover how many NGO’s are funded in some way by their government. I suspect it would be more than we realise. This combined with the knowledge of NGO’s alignment with their governments long term objectives leads me to my final question, are NGO’s an extension of their country of origins foreign policy?



Malone, G. D. 1988. Political Advocacy and Cultural Communication: Organizing the Nation’s Public Diplomacy. London : University Press of America, 1988.

Manheim, J. B. 1994. Strategic Public Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy: The Evolution of Influence. New York; Oxford, UK : Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nye Jr., J . S . 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Succeed in World Politics. New York : Public Affairs, 2004.

Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Zatepilina, O. 2008. 2, s.l. : Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, Vol. 5. 1751-8040.

Tuch, H. N. 1990. Communicating with the World: US Public Diplomacy Overseas. New York: : St Martin’s Press, Institute for the Study of Public Diplomacy., 1990.

[1] Reflections on Public Diplomacy today; speech delivered by Jan Melissen at the conference ‘Public Diplomacy’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, Ankara, 6th February 2006


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One Comment
  1. thebricsarecoming permalink

    Another good report i found on the subject:

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