September 17, 2009: Once more, NGOs (non-governmental organizations, like the UN or Red Cross) in Afghanistan are upset because military units are doing relief work. Getting the troops more involved with road building, establishing schools and delivering food and medical aid, is part of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But the NGOs fear that this will make NGO workers look like allies of the American troops, and more vulnerable to attack. NGOs throughout Afghanistan are upset at the increasing attacks on aid workers, and believe the new U.S. strategy will only make it worse. But a lot of these NGO problems are self-inflicted, and it's difficult to get the NGOs to accept this.
In the last few years, there's been a sharp increase in attacks on NGO for political reasons. Over two-thirds of the attacks on NGO staff are now politically motivated. This trend has been growing for the last decade, ever since the UN decided, at the urging of many other NGOs, to adopt political goals for their aid missions. This was in recognition of the fact that most aid operations were needed because there was a local political problem. That was nothing new, but the rapid proliferation of NGOs in the late 20th century was. All these idealistic new aid workers were not content to just comfort the afflicted and feed the starving. These new aid workers wanted to solve problems, not just provide first aid. But with the political agenda came enemies, enemies with guns and a murderous attitude.
Aid workers have always had to worry about bandits, and those who opposed aid for other reasons (like not wanting to see an enemy tribe get fed). But the new political agendas meant that, as soon as the aid groups showed up, they had taken sides, and had some clearly defined friends, and enemies. This tended to embolden the bandits and other lowlifes, for the aid workers had now lost the saintly aura that had previously provided a lot of protection. This loss was not really noticed until it was gone.
So now, each year thousands of aid workers are robbed, beaten, raped, kidnapped and murdered. Islamic radicals have been particularly active in terrorizing and killing the foreigners who are there to help them. At the core of this problem is not the UN, or even its, "let's get political" attitude. No, the big new problem was the evolving concept of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in general. A good example of how this works occurred five years ago, when the Afghan government threatened to expel all NGOs from the country. The NGOs were accused of failing to get aid programs moving, and spending aid money to further their own ends. The NGOs in Afghanistan then controlled over a billion dollars in foreign aid each year, and the government was simply joining many Afghans in complaining about the NGOs being more concerned about their own safety and comfort, than in making the lives of Afghans better. But it's not as simple as that.
NGOs are, for the most part, charitable organizations that take money from individuals, organizations and governments, and use it for charitable work in foreign countries. The Red Cross is one of the oldest, and best known NGO (dating back to the 19th century). In the mid-20th century, the UN became the largest NGO. Actually, the Catholic church could be considered one of the first major NGOs, as it organized large scale charity efforts over a thousand years ago. But in the late 20th century, the number of NGOs grew explosively. Now there are thousands of them, providing work for hundreds of thousands of people. The NGO elite are well educated people, usually from Western countries that solicit donations, or go off to disaster areas and apply money, equipment and supplies to alleviate some natural or man-made disaster. Governments have been so impressed by the efficiency of NGOs that they have contracted them to perform foreign aid and disaster relief work that was once done by government employees.
Problems, however, have developed. The Western employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism, and bring to disaster areas a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living and different ideas. Several decades ago, the main thing these outsiders brought with them was food and medical care. The people on the receiving end were pretty desperate, and grateful for the help. But NGOs have branched out into development and social programs. This has caused unexpected problems with the local leadership. Development programs disrupt the existing economic, and political, relations. The local leaders are often not happy with this, as the NGOs are not always willing to work closely with the existing power structure. While the local worthies may be exploitative, and even corrupt, they are local, and they do know more about popular attitudes and ideals than the foreigners. NGOs with social programs (education, especially educating women, new lifestyle choices and more power for people who don't usually have much) often run into conflict with the local leadership. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted, or even fought back. Thus the Afghan government officials asked that all NGOs in the country be shut down five years ago. That included Afghan NGOs, who were doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. The government officials were responding to complaints from numerous old school Afghan tribal and religious leaders who were unhappy with all these foreigners, or urban Afghans with funny ideas, upsetting the ancient ways in the countryside.
NGOs are not military organizations, but they can fight back. They do this mainly through the media, because they also use favorable media coverage to propel their fund raising efforts. NGOs will also ask, or demand, that the UN or other foreign governments send in peacekeeping troops in to protect the NGOs from hostile locals. This had disastrous effects in Somalia during the early 1990s. Some NGOs remained, or came back, to Somalia after the peacekeepers left. These NGOs learned how to cope on their own, although with increasing difficulty. The NGOs hired local muscle for protection, as well as cutting deals with the local warlords. But eventually the local Islamic radicals became upset at the alien ideas these Western do-gooders brought with them, and began to chase the NGOs out.
Afghanistan and Iraq are two places where many local leaders thought it served their interests best if there were no NGOs at all (except maybe some Islamic ones.) Throughout the world, NGOs are finding that the world has changed. NGOs will never be the same after what's happened during the last decade.
There are few parts of the world that don't know about NGOs, who runs them and what these organizations do. NGOs are no longer seen as just charitable foreigners come to help. The local leadership often sees the NGOs as a potential threat. While the material aid the NGOs bring is appreciated, the different ideas are not. And there are more NGOs showing up with more agenda than physical aid. So NGOs have become more adept at dealing with local power brokers. But that turns them more into diplomats. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization. NGOs that get too heavily into diplomacy are no longer regarded as NG. This has always been a problem, but now it's getting worse as NGOs have become a worldwide presence. And the decade old UN policy of deliberately politicizing aid efforts has turned the aid workers from angels of mercy to political targets.
This move from delivering aid, to delivering (often unwelcome) ideas, has put all NGOs at risk. The NGOs have become players in a worldwide civil war between local traditional ideas, and the more transnational concepts that trigger violent reactions in many parts of the world.
Although the Afghan government sorted out its NGO disputes five years ago, new problems developed. This time around, the Afghan government is not happy with the fact that, of $38 billion provided by foreign nations for reconstruction, only 16 percent of it is under the control of the government. There are two reasons for this. The primary problem is corruption. Money given to the government tends to get stolen. More than a third of it disappears into the pockets of government officials, their kin and friends. But letting the donors, and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations, like the Red Cross), handle the money also sees about the same portion lost. This is because these donations often come with requirements that much of the money be spent on goods and services from the donor nation. This particularly bothers the Afghans as it means a lot of highly (especially by Afghan standards) paid Western aid workers are supervising whatever is done in Afghanistan. The higher NGO pay standards are very visible because the Westerners tend to live much better than Afghans. The Westerners are also accused of not understanding the needs of Afghans, but the NGOs are also less prone to devote most of the programs to the tribes of senior government officials. The Afghans would like to gain control of all the aid money, or at least get more of it spent inside Afghanistan, but have not had much success.
All of this just adds to the growing hostility towards NGOs, and the violence it generates. No one has a solution that doesn't involve bribes or local mercenaries, and the problem just keeps getting worse.