What Makes NGOs Legitimate? An analysis of Amnesty International UK's, Greenpeace UK's and Cafod's legitimacy claims in the UK national context

  • Erla Thrandardottir

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) claim legitimacy in the UK national context with the aim of increasing the understanding of how NGOs' access to power is justified. The thesis argues that the limits of current theories on NGOs and legitimacy do not enable proper scrutiny of the organisational complexities involved and proposes that Beetham's approach to legitimacy is more fruitful. A Beethamite analysis is based on scrutinising NGOs' legitimacy-in-context. This involves examining NGOs' normative structures and internal organisation of power in order to explain and assess their legitimacy claims. It explores the legitimacy claims of three UK NGOs by applying a Beethamite analysis to interrogate their legitimacy claims. The NGOs that are my unit of analysis are enmeshed in complex organisational hierarchies that extend beyond the UK territory. Understanding the internal organisation of power in these hierarchies is important for identifying legitimacy sources that underpin NGOs' legitimacy claims. The three NGOs are Amnesty International UK, Greenpeace UK and Cafod. The case study of Amnesty International UK shows how the legitimation of power is justified internally where the members of the UK section legitimise the representational powers of the International Secretariat. This is contrasted with the normative sources of legitimacy that are more commonly used to justify Amnesty International UK's legitimacy claims and which ignore members as an important source of authority. The analysis in the case study of Greenpeace UK demonstrates how it is a representative unit of Greenpeace International. It also highlights how scientific knowledge has become a legitimacy source that justifies Greenpeace UK's legitimacy claims with implications for how to assess their legitimacy claims. The case study of Cafod analyses how Cafod claims legitimacy as a Catholic agency and how it is institutionally embedded in the Holy See. Cafod is primarily a social agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The case study demonstrates how Cafod's sources of legitimacy are primarily Catholic and that this causes legitimacy problems when Cafod uses secular rather than theological sources of legitimacy to justify its policies. One of the main conclusions of the thesis is that a differentiated approach is needed for analysing NGOs' legitimacy claims, one that takes into consideration the context of NGOs' legitimacy claims, their internal process of legitimation and their sources of legitimacy, when assessing their access to power. The lack of an appropriate regulatory framework, and in particular the systematic exclusion of politically oriented NGOs by UK regulators, hinders the advancement of proper assessment and understanding of NGOs' role in society.
Date of Award31 Dec 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMichael Moran (Supervisor) & Rorden Wilkinson (Supervisor)


  • Catholic Church
  • Cafod
  • Greenpeace
  • Amnesty International
  • Legitimacy
  • NGOs

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