Non-governmental organizations have shot into international controversy recently due to a series of events that have called their integrity and motives into question. A number of governments all over the world - from Serbia to Russia, from Burma to Zimbabwe - have been at odds with western NGOs that they accuse of seeking political goals in their countries. Whereas to westerners, NGOs which aim to promote human rights, democracy and humanitarian aid around the world seem like an unqualified good, they have come to be seen by a range of regimes as an encroachment on their sovereignty.

The root of this conflict lays in the invention of the concepts of human rights and economic development after World War II. We now take for granted the proposition that people all over the world - at least in theory - have the unquestioned right to economic growth and basic human freedoms. You can see our assumptions in the language that we use - words like "underdeveloped" and "reconstruction" (often in places where there was never any "construction" to begin with, such as Somalia) imply a teleology, by which I mean that all countries are seen as inevitably developing towards a certain - democratic, capitalist - point. The goal of NGOs is to address the gap between this theory and the reality of many countries around the world that are impoverished and undemocratic.

Many NGOs work merely to deliver humanitarian aid - food, healthcare, shelter - to people in other countries who would otherwise not get it. That they can do this is the result of the high economic growth in the West, that allows us to redistribute resources to those less fortunate - and also the invention of the theory that says it is our duty to do so, whatever country they reside in. The notion of universal access to the necessities of life is of course one that has never been realized and only recently invented, and it is still alien to many regimes with impoverished populations.

After Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, the regime interpreted the sudden clamour by the West to provide aid as an excuse to meddle in its political affairs, suspecting the West wanted to influence a constitutional referendum that the country was holding. Not only do they fear a direct and malign influence, but clearly the provision of aid by outside powers rather than Burma's generals can only undermine the legitimacy of the regime; for why, the citizenry would naturally ask, can the generals not provide it themselves? And so the junta took time stamping the names of Burma's rulers over sacks of aid when this aid was urgently needed on the ground.

Zimbabwe is another example. In the run up to the second round of the presidential election, Robert Mugabe banned the operation of western aid organizations, accusing them of political activities. But in reality what he fears is anyone but himself having control over the distribution of resources in Zimbabwe - for if he cannot control the distribution of food, then he loses an essential lever by which he can scare and bully the population into supporting him. Hence, we can see how the notion of a universal right to the access of aid is a threat to regimes whose survival depends on denying their citizens these necessities; and not recognizing such a right themselves, they are suspicious of the motives of those who claim to.

This suspicion has grown exponentially due to the increasing role of other types of NGOs, those involved in democracy-promotion abroad. A whole range of western NGOs - often with links to various governments - have been involved in just about every attempted democratic revolution in the last decade, which has made those likely to be the victim of such revolutions extremely wary of the intentions of NGOs. The "colour revolutions" in Eastern Europe, the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, the ejection of Syrian forces from Lebanon in the so-called "Cedar Revolution" - all of these were aided in part by western NGOs which were involved in democracy promotion abroad. The encouragement and use of such groups was a key part of President Bush's "forward strategy for freedom", a doctrine largely unnoticed by the American public but certainly spotted by undemocratic regimes.

On the face of it, this is interference in the affairs of another state by an outside power - but NGOs justify it by invoking the universal right of all to live under a democracy. This, of course, is not a right recognized by undemocratic regimes, and so the operation of such groups is highly controversial. Many westerners are perfectly willing to contemplate action by NGOs in other countries because their work is seen as non-violent, aimed at the grassroots, enabling potential democratic citizens to organize and overcome the constraints of authoritarian political systems - if history is our guide, this seems to be the best way to build a successful democracy.

But recent events have shown us the limits of their capabilities and perhaps surprised some of us, who could not imagine it would be controversial to give food to the starving, wherever they may be. NGOs operate in the face of a large portion of the world that still does not officially recognize the rights they seek to promote, and the frustration they suffer is often heartbreaking. But through their efforts and thanks to the doctrine of human rights, hundreds of millions are fed, educated and healthy where otherwise they would be starving, ignorant, or dead. They face an impossible task to bring these benefits to every individual on the globe, and their work will always be controversial - but faced with a choice between those who would feed and those who would starve, there is only one answer for a humane man to give.