Send to

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
Int J Health Plann Manage. 1996 Jan-Mar;11(1):19-31.

Non-governmental organizations in international health: past successes, future challenges.

Author information

  • 1Project HOPE, Health Sciences Education Center, Millwood, VA 22646, USA.


Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are increasingly instrumental to the implementation of international health programs. Following an overview of current conditions in global health and the problems that could be targeted by NGOs, this article describes the activities and philosophies of several representative approaches in this sector. The attributes of NGOs that increase their potential effectiveness are discussed, including ability to reach areas of severe need, promotion of local involvement, low cost of operations, adaptiveness and innovation, independence, and sustainability. A summary is provided of major future challenges in international health that may be addressed by NGOs, with particular emphasis on tobacco-related disease, communicable diseases and the AIDS epidemic, maternal mortality and women's health, injury prevention and control, and the need to secure durable financial support.


Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have provided humanitarian assistance (relief, disaster assistance, and food distribution) abroad for at least 100 years. Over the last two decades, they have also worked towards alleviating the causes of poverty and improving the quality of life. NGOs have attributes making them uniquely effective in providing international health services. They can reach areas of great need in both rural and urban areas, particularly helping the poor, the dispossessed, and the isolated. NGOs foster community participation. Since they tend to be committed for the long term, they form close bonds with community groups and institutions, resulting in strong support for their services. NGOs tend to operate at low cost due to mission-minded and committed staff working for a stipend or low wages, use of low cost technology, and streamlined services. They have the flexibility to be adaptive and innovative. NGOs usually are apolitical organizations that have a local nonpartisan status, engendering greater acceptance by government and the community. They strive for outcomes that are sustainable. They have been effective in setting up sustainable primary health care delivery systems. NGOs focus on a variety of areas. Some are dedicated to a single organ system (e.g., the eye, Orbis and Helen Keller International). Others focus on the prevention, treatment, or elimination of a single disease (e.g., guinea worm infection, President Carter's Global 2000 project). The primary mission of Project HOPE is health education, particularly training of health professionals in developing countries to become medical and health care faculty. The French NGO Medecins Sans Frontiere (MSF) focuses on human rights issues and determines interventions based on medical needs whether or not a local government accepts assistance or allows MSF teams to enter. Future challenges facing NGOs include the emerging pandemic of tobacco-related diseases, communicable diseases and the AIDS epidemic, maternal mortality and women's health, injury prevention and control, and sustained financing. NGOs do make a difference in global health.

PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Full text links

    Icon for Wiley
    Loading ...
    Write to the Help Desk