Tell us what they are, not what they aren't

Last week the case was made here that the English language needs a better term for "illegal immigrants." Now I'd like to add another item to the wish list: We need a better term for "nongovernmental organizations," or NGOs.

If migrants - legal or otherwise - are the independent foot-soldiers of the global mobilization, NGOs are armies of another kind. Stalin famously asked of the pope, "How many divisions has he got?" Today's NGOs don't necessarily have any allegiance to the pope - but they certainly represent a challenge to the kind of power that Stalin embodied.

If the press and the lobbyists are the unofficial fourth and fifth branches of America's government, NGOs are the lobbyists of the international agenda. Indeed, groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines often set the international agenda. An outfit like the International Crisis Group in Brussels is the institutional home for leading discussants of hot spots (or ought-to-be-hotter spots) like Indonesia or Sudan.

And yet we refer to these groups generically by a term that tells us mostly what they are not.

Is there a term in the language that is more beige? Let's start with the noun: "Organization" is not a term to make one's heart beat faster, except for possibly the heart of an organizational psychologist about to ink a lucrative consulting contract. Then consider "governmental." If "governmental," with its short vowels and liquid consonants, has any music to it, at best it's the sound of an orderly file drawer being pushed shut with a satisfying "clunk."

"Nongovernmental" is even worse - it's beyond beige, into a sort of gray-beige. I want to say "ultra-beige," but that makes it sound altogether too exciting. "Ultra" at least sounds like something that gets dirt out of the laundry. "Nongovernmental" suggests that file cabinet again, only not quite as orderly: It's hard to keep reliable clerical help in an office whose finances are on a roller coaster from one direct-mail campaign to the next.

"Nongovernmental organization" sounds like such a broad-brush term it could apply to everything from your daughter's Girl Scout troop to your neighbor's bowling league.

The term seems to have originated at the United Nations, which has never met an acronym it didn't like. In fact, the UN comes up with some wonderful ones, especially for its peacekeeping missions, although the "UN" prefix tends to make them sound rather negative. Back in the 1940s there was UNTSO in Israel/Palestine and UNMOGIP on the Indian subcontinent; more recently, projects like the damp-sounding UNASOG in Africa and the incomplete-sounding UNISMET (is unmet?) force in East Timor.

Some of these international organizations favor the term "INGO" - international NGOs, which at least is pronounceable. During the 1970s, the British came up with "quangos," quasi-autonomous NGOs, to refer to various state-funded consultative boards. "Quango" has an exuberant bounce, but that may be because the "Q" makes me think of QANTAS, the Australian airline, with its kangaroo logo.

Whatever we call them, these groups punch way above their weight on the international scene. They helped bring down the Soviet empire. They help keep the American empire in check. They go willingly into places most people won't, except under military orders. They help keep remote branches of the family of man in touch with one another. They move civilization forward. And we need a better name for them.

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