What exactly is a GONGO?

When I first came across the term GONGO, or “government-organized non-governmental organization”, I was perplexed by the rather oxymoronic combination of the term. Isn’t a non-governmental organization supposed to be non-governmental? How are they different from typical NGOs?

What exactly is a GONGO?

By Vincent Cheng

When I first came across the term GONGO, or “government-organized non-governmental organization”, I was perplexed by the rather oxymoronic combination of the term. Isn’t a non-governmental organization supposed to be non-governmental? How are they different from typical NGOs? And since GONGOs are effectively an extension of the government body, what is their role in the civil society?

First, let’s look at the definitions. Theoretically, GONGOs are typically established, funded, staffed, and governed by the government, hence the “GO”-of GONGO. NGOs, as a contrast, tend to be established independently and are less reliant on government funding. They hire their own staff and are independently run and managed. But when it comes to GONGOs, the distinction between the two becomes blurred. In today’s world, with ever more complex social challenges, collaboration across sectors is important and necessary. This trend also blurs the line between government, and the private and social sectors.

GONGOs are generally created by governments to carry out a certain social or political agenda and have been established across a range of government types. They can play a useful role in society. In Germany, for instance, the government promotes and sponsors citizens’ initiatives and counter-mobilizations against far-right extremist groups under initiatives labeled as “Kampf gegen Rechts” (Fight the Right).[1] These initiatives help to strengthen democracy and the people’s voice.

In Asia, many GONGOs stay away from politics and play more of a social delivery role. GONGOs can be like other NGOs as social service providers, and there are ample examples of that in China. China Youth Development Foundation, which is known for its education programs for rural youth, such as Project Hope, is a case in point. That said, the situation can become a bit tricky when GONGOs dominate the third sector. Because of GONGOs’ principal-agent relationship with the government, GONGOs are more likely to work aligned with government agendas and less likely to be critical of government policies—at least not explicitly.

While there are positive aspects of close alignment with government, GONGOs can also diminish an independent voice as well as solutions that may adhere less closely with government guidelines.

In China, nonprofits intend to carry out charitable activities that fall under the remit of the Charity Law. Certification as charities can be applied if they have a mission of carrying out charitable activities and aim to work on certain permitted areas of social issues. These include poverty alleviation and assistance; care of elders, orphans and the ill, and assistance for the disabled; natural and emergency disaster relief, public health incidents, and other emergencies; promotion of education, science, culture, health, and sports; prevention of environmental risks, and protection and improvement of the environment; and other public interest activities permitted by the law.[2]

It is also worthy to note that China is the biggest procurer of social services from social delivery organizations (SDOs)[3] in Asia. According to the Doing Good Index 2020, 63% of SDOs receive government contracts in China, compared to the Asian average of 26%.[4] For NGOs, while sustained government funding ensures alignment with government priorities and a sustainable income stream, it also means they essentially become de-facto GONGOs. This is something that could have important implications for the development of the third sector, and the wider civil society in China.


[1] Merkel, W. (n.d.). Political regimes and state‐sponsored contentious politics: What’s new? Projects at Harvard. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/mobilized_contention/files/wmerkel_gongos_2.pdf

[2] Ministry of Justice, the People’s Republic of China. (2020, Feb. 14). 中华人民共和国慈善法. [Charity Law of the People’s Republic of China]. http://www.moj.gov.cn/subject/content/2020-02/14/1449_3241663.html

[3] In the Doing Good Index, we use “social delivery organization” (SDO) to refer to organizations that deliver a product or service to address societal needs. We refrain from using the term “nonprofits” because many organizations nowadays include a for-profit or social enterprise arm, and that many of them in Asia are affiliated with the government. For more detail, please refer to page 6 of the Doing Good Index 2020.

[4] Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS). (2020). Doing Good Index 2020 – profiling Asia’s social sector: the path forward. http://wordpress.caps.org/our-research/doing-good-index-2020/


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