November 3, 2010: The UN, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in general, are finding that in some parts of the world, providing lots of needed aid is simply not possible. Somalia, Chad, Sudan and Afghanistan, in particular, are poor, heavily armed areas full of aggressive tribesmen who consider stealing from strangers to be perfectly legit. For about a century, aid groups operated under the protection of armed locals or foreign troops, and were able to get on with their good works. Nothing in this past prepared them for the homicidal mayhem they have encountered in Somalia and Afghanistan, and a few other places as well. And a lot of their problems are self-inflicted.
Aid groups are also beginning to confront the harmful side effects of their good works. The worst side effect is how rebels and bandits sustain themselves by stealing food and other aid supplies, as well as robbing the NGO workers themselves. Initially, the main UN complaint was the increasing attacks on aid workers. In recent years, about twenty aid workers a year are killed, and hundreds assaulted and even more robbed. This is a trend that has been on the march upward for several years. Islamic radicals have been particularly active in terrorizing and killing the foreigners who are there to help them. UN aid workers are usually caught between pro-government militias, bandits and anti-government rebels. All see the UN, and other, aid workers as a source of income and supplies. In Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are also problems with Islamic radicals keen on chasing out all non-Moslem foreigners.
At the core of this problem is not the UN, but the concept of NGOs in general. A good example of how this works occurred six years ago, when the Afghan government threatened to expel all NGOs (non-governmental organizations) 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 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.
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), although the Catholic church had been doing similar work for centuries. In the mid-20th century, the UN (and its many aid agencies) became the largest NGO. 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 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 employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism. These foreign NGOs 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 local leaders. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted, or even fought back. Thus the Afghan government officials calling for all NGOs in the country to be shut down. 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. Moreover, the Afghan government wanted to get the aid money direct, so they could steal more of it.
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. They 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 all NGOs out.
In eastern Congo, aid workers have found themselves the primary target of the local bandits and militias that had created the problems that attracted the foreign aid in the first place. NGOs have learned to raise mini-armies when they want to. But in areas where there are peacekeepers, and the NGOs believe they are not being well served, the NGOs will often simply depart, amid a flurry of press releases, to show their displeasure at the security arrangements, or the political goals of the peacekeepers.
But then came Afghanistan and Iraq, 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.
NGOs have formal legal recognition in many countries, and internationally they, as a group, have some standing. NGOs have become a player in international affairs, even though individual NGOs each have their own unique foreign policy. But as a group, they are a power to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, there is no leader of all the NGOs you can negotiate with. Each one has to be dealt with separately. Since NGOs also come from many different countries (although most have staff that speak English), peacekeepers can also run into language and cultural customs problems. NGOs have turned out to be another good idea that, well, got complicated in unexpected ways.
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. Now, concerned about doing more harm (or a lot of harm) than good, NGOs are at least talking about how to deal with some of the dangerous conditions their presence creates.