Traditionally, diplomats represent their governments, and are responsible for negotiating, strategizing and maintaining political, economic and social relations. They are very well educated, trained in history, languages and law.

Today, international relations require an even broader multi-disciplinary knowledge and understanding alongside interpersonal skills. After all, negotiation and influence clearly requires knowledge and skill. And yes, even  traditional diplomacy has changed quite significantly over the last one hundred years and more so in the last thirty.

With today’s communications technologies closing the gap between diplomats “on the front lines” and their governmental leaders back home in the Capital, diplomats are more and more a mouthpiece for their government than individuals invested, as they once were, with the full authority to represent their head-of-state.

Now add to this, the many changes underway world-wide where non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of all kinds increasingly play an influential role in international affairs. So now it is just not that much of a stretch to envision those individuals representing their NGOs as effectively taking up a diplomatic role.

So many of the previously clear lines between nations and their governments and influential organizations are blurring in our globalizing world. For more than one reason.

Now if you are to head on over to the UN or to any of its international meetings, commissions, states party conferences or regular session, there are almost always NGOs nearby. And not only at the UN. Many regional inter-governmental organizations also get the attention of NGOs. Often representatives of NGOs find their way to these meetings either because they are brought in as experts by the governments themselves, or because they take initiative and make the effort to be “around” to influence the discussions.

In other words, NGO representatives engage in discussion and negotiations with governments’ diplomats  and officials in order to influence issues of peace, development, environment, politics and justice as well as social and economic affairs. They not only negotiate. They help set agendas. And they work to fast-track issues that they consider are pressing. Plus NGOs are found to be extremely active and often very effective, in holding governments, transnational corporations and other large entities accountable for their actions.

As governance structures continue to change in the twenty-first century, those NGO members who make it their business to connect with, influence, inform, lobby and interact with diplomats and government officials are effectively NGO diplomats. Some do it extremely well. Others… well, sometimes they are present because they are learning, because they want to network with key players, because it seems like they should be there (if they are to make a difference) and in some cases because it makes them feel important. But whatever the reason, NGOs are a permanent part of the international and intergovernmental landscape. It is up to NGO representatives to get even better at what they do if they wish to make a bigger impact and not get lost in the growing sea of NGO involvement.

Of course, impact can be made through activism as well, but sooner or later, if policy change is anywhere in the agenda, there need to also be dedicated, educated and capable NGO diplomats.

Resources on NGO Diplomacy:

  • Report December 2008 Non-governmental Diplomacy Conference, Washington DC
  • NGO Diplomacy ” Edited by Michele M. Betsill and Elisabeth Corell, 2007
  • Advocacy Algorithm: Training for NGO Diplomats
Definition of Diplomat:

1. a person appointed by a national government to conduct official negotiations and maintain political, economic, and social relations with another country or countries.
2. a person who is tactful and skillful in managing delicate situations, handling people, etc.