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A cautionary tale from the history of NGOs

The contemporary world features more than twenty thousand international NGOs in almost every field of human activity, including humanitarian assistance, environmental protection, human rights promotion, and technical standardization, amongst numerous other issues. These organizations include household names such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Doctors Without Borders, as well as less well known but sizeable institutions such as the International Cooperative Alliance which claims to represent more than a billion people. Many of these organizations comprise of networks spanning every continent, and their resources in some cases exceed the development assistance budgets of several OECD countries. Given their considerable role in contemporary global affairs, the activities of international NGOs have become subject to growing scrutiny, especially in the wake of a wave of scandals in recent years.

While the scale and reach of international NGOs today may appear to be unprecedented, these organizations have a history spanning many centuries. Up until the late eighteenth century they predominantly consisted of religious orders, but by the mid-nineteenth century international NGOs had been established in a wide array of areas including humanitarianism, anti-slavery activism, feminism, and the promotion of peace. Among the most influential and most globally networked of the international NGOs of the early nineteenth century was the International Shipwreck Society – an intriguing but now largely forgotten organization that sheds light on the potential and limitations of transnational organizations two centuries ago.

Founded in Paris in 1835 ‘with a view to uniting the benevolent of all countries’, the International Shipwreck Society focused primarily on humanitarian assistance to the victims of shipwreck and the rescue of drowning persons. This was a cause that aroused considerable public sympathy given the common occurrence of shipwreck in increasingly crowded seas as global commerce expanded in the early nineteenth century. Thanks to the interconnected nature of Paris and the energetic correspondence of its principal founder the ‘Count of Liancourt’ Auguste Godde, the Society expanded rapidly into a global organization, and by 1837 it had branches in Brazil, China, Mexico, Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, as well as throughout Europe. Its journal, entitled The International, aimed to be ‘a powerful force for stimulating the spirit of charity among all peoples’ and to reach ‘all parts of the globe.’ Journalist Louis Reybaud remarked that ‘no organization made more noise in the columns of publicity or carried out more ingenious experiments’ than the International Shipwreck Society. Such was the organization’s popularity that secretary-general Godde found himself richly furnished with gifts including a diamond ring from Tsar Nicholas I.

The Society’s short life was also the product of the absence of oversight of its work.

Originally located at Place Vendôme 16, opposite what is now the Paris Ritz, the International Shipwreck Society displayed a remarkable capacity to generate large subscriptions from wealthy individuals, who could opt for a range of membership tiers, the highest of which, a Protector, offered for the princely sum of 1000 francs the same status in the organization as numerous European royals and ministers of state. Despite its extraordinary size and wealth, the organization was to meet with a precipitous end in the early 1840s. In Godde’s account, this was due to the machinations of the editor of its journal, Sebastian Palet, who wished to seize control of the organization. The pages of The International, on the other hand, reveal a somewhat different story: not only had Godde been falsely claiming to be a Count and a Knight of the Legion of Honour, he had also been abusing his position as both secretary-general and treasurer for purpose of his enrichment. With the organization splitting between supporters of Palet and Godde, the Society was to disappear by 1843. Godde fled to England where he taught French language lessons and died in 1890 a Poor Brother of Charterhouse.

The extraordinary tale of the International Shipwreck Society reveals not only the remarkably global scale of transnational organizations that had become possible by the 1830s, but also its vulnerability and dependence on the work of a small number of highly interconnected individuals. The work of the International Shipwreck Society was in part made possible by the limited regulatory context of France in the era of the July Monarchy, but the Society’s short life was also the product of the absence of oversight of its work. These issues remain pertinent to today’s international NGOs operating in an increasingly globalized context in which national regulatory mechanisms may be insufficient.

Featured image credit: Shipwreck in the North Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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