There are tens of thousands of international NGOs today, but not all are created equal. A small handful, while working in some of the most dangerous and impoverished places on earth, wield enormous influence—setting aid agendas, shaping policy, and changing the way the world does development.
Headquarters: Dhaka, Bangladesh
2007 budget: $480 million
Major operations: microcredit and poverty alleviation
Founded in 1972 to assist refugees after Bangladeshs war of liberation, BRAC, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, is the worlds largest nongovernmental organization. It boasts a $4.6 billion portfolio in microloans, an army of healthcare volunteers providing care to 80 million Bangladeshis, and a network of 52,000 schools serving 1.5 million students. As one of Bangladeshs largest single employers, BRAC is often referred to as a minigovernment, responsible in part for many of the countrys economic and health gains. It is estimated that, coupled with a government immunization drive, the organizations antidiarrhea efforts in rural Bangladesh have helped cut child mortality for children under 5 from 25 to 7 percent over the past three decades. Its contraception drives and pioneering microlending have also been credited with lowering fertility rates and reducing poverty. Inspired by these results, BRAC recently extended its programs to sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan.STR/AFP/Getty Images
Bill Melinda Gates Foundation
Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.
2007 budget: Of the foundations $37 billion in assets, more than $2 billion in grants was given last year.
Employees: 540, but growing quickly
Major operations: improving global health, eradicating poverty, improving American education
The Gates Foundations work has been called venture philanthropy. It provides grants to innovative organizationswhether dedicated to creating new malaria vaccines, irrigation systems for poor African farmers, or scholarships for inner-city American kidsand pushes for results. The foundations deep pocketsby charter, it must give away at least $3 billion next yearhave allowed it to increasingly set the global-health agenda, with half of its annual outlays dedicated to eradicating diseases in the developing world. Not everyone is happy with the foundations influence, however; the World Health Organizations chief of malaria recently criticized the foundation for stifling dissenting views.Gaye Gerard/Getty Images
Headquarters: Federal Way, Wash.
2007 revenues: $977 million
Major operations: food aid and emergency assistance
One of the worlds largest Christian charities, World Vision is the primary distributor for the U.N. World Food Program, last year delivering 147,000 metric tons of foodthe equivalent of 4,900 semitrucksto nearly three dozen countries. It is also one of the first organizations on the ground in humanitarian emergencies, assisting millions of survivors in more than 80 disasters around the world in 2007. World Vision has recently been at the forefront of efforts to reach victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the devastating earthquake in Chinas Sichuan province. World Visions work with U.S. President George W. Bushs Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, however, has come under fire. The charity has received tens of millions of dollars since 2003 to promote abstinence and other HIV prevention methods in countries such as Haiti, South Africa, and Zambia.TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
Headquarters: Oxford, England
2006-07 expenditures: $704 million
Employees: 6,200 field workers
Major operations: poverty alleviation and debt relief
Founded in 1942, Oxfam is today a confederation of 13 major organizations working in more than 100 countries to fight hunger, promote fair trade, relieve developing country debt, and provide emergency services during disasters. In particular, Oxfam is known for its highly effective public-relations campaignsfrom celebrities getting dumped with coffee and milk to protest unfair agricultural subsidies to its prime role in 2005s Make Poverty History campaign. With a widely recognized brand and a reputation for results, not to mention the organizations Rolodex of celebrities and world leaders, much of Oxfams influence can be felt not only on the ground in poor countries where people depend on its charity to survive, but in rich countries, where it helps drive the publics perception of development.Souheil Reiache/AFP/Getty Images
Mdecins Sans Frontires/Doctors Without Borders
Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
2006-07 expenditures: approximately $770 million
Major operations: establishing healthcare services in poor countries and providing emergency medical care
Doctors Without Borders might be called developments canary in the coal mine: Its volunteer health and aid workers serve in and bring attention to some of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods on Earth, providing lifesaving care when other development agencies cant justify the security concerns or dont want to get embroiled in messy political environments. Serving the sick, the wounded, and the malnourished in more than 90 countries since 1971, the group has come to be known for its independent streak, speaking out against injustice, government-sponsored violence, and development waste.