NGO, Social Meanings, and Politics

Written by Raisa Rahima, Content Writer Intern at Project Child Indonesia

What is the meaning of life? You might want to answer “doing good,” “empowering the unpowered,” “acquiring knowledge,” and so on. To grant this meaning, we cannot separate ourselves from the social realm in which we find a society to help us grant our life meaning. That is why we work in a job or organization that resembles our life meaning, values, and objectives; we need other people to work with us, achieve our goals together, and grant our life meaning.

This is the simple purpose of an NGO (non-governmental organization). An NGO is a private, non-profit, professional organization with a distinctive legal character concerned with public welfare goals. Within this definition, NGOs include philanthropic foundations, church development agencies, academic think-thanks, human rights organizations, and other organizations focusing on gender, health, agricultural development, social welfare, the environment, indigenous people, and more.

By having life meanings, we have our social meanings with  NGOs. Social meaning is defined by ideology. Ideology is related to politics. How come our positive life meanings end up in politics that frequently connotate negativity? Gerard Clarke (1998) said that politics can positively contribute to a country’s development if we comprehend it well.

Politics has two distinct functions. At one level, it is the process by which decisions are made about allocating resources, a process characterized by the constant struggle of communities or groups to get appropriate help. At the second level, politics is the process of defining social meaning and identity through ideology, cultural relations, and symbolic rituals. At this second level, groups cohere sufficiently, as classes, genders, races, ethnic groups, or other social constructs, to participate in struggles for resources.

Thus, to be positively ‘political’, NGOs must first participate in processes designed to create social meaning and attempt to cohere as a group or groups around that social meaning, and second, based on that shared social meaning, participate in the distribution of resources and in the struggle to influence that distribution.

Therefore, we can distinguish between two levels of political engagement in which we might find NGOs. First, active attempts to influence the distribution of resources within the context of a given social meaning (ideology), and second, active attempts to influence social meaning and help social groups cohere.

By this articulation of politics, we can conclude that NGOs are a tool for us all to contribute better to our communities by distributing each social meaning and, in turn, funding the communities to live and spread the social meanings again. Quite positive, right?


Clarke, G. (2006). The Politics of NGOs in Southeast Asia. Routledge.