Peacekeeping: The Best of Intentions

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November 30, 2007: NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) are increasingly under fire, often by the very people they are attempting to help. The disaster zones in many parts of the world are becoming impossible for even charity organizations to operate in. The level of violence continues to rise, and NGOs are more frequently victims rather than helpers. The NGOs want some protection, and they are not getting it.

The NGOs are upset that wealthy nations aren't doing more. The NGOs are in turn criticized for not noticing what happened when governments tried to intercede in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq. Nothing but abuse from the international community. The NGOs also ignore the fact that they were allowed to proliferate because many of those wealthy countries preferred to subsidize energetic volunteers (NGOs) to do the good works in these disaster zones, rather than send surly government employees. But many of the places where NGOs end up are increasingly seen as lost causes, with NGOs providing hospice care, until the old order finally dies, and something newer, and better arises out of the ashes. The NGOs don't like where this is going.

NGOs are usually international organizations that operate independently of, and sometimes in defiance of, governments in order to achieve humanitarian and political goals, push their own agenda or simply to encourage international relations and the flow of information. NGOs are not unique to the twentieth century, for they have existed for over a thousand years. But currently there are over five thousand of them, far more than at any time in the past. Only a few dozen or so existed in 1900. These days, the NGOs have become a major, although not always decisive, factor in international relations.

In the nineteenth century, the first of the modern NGOs began to appear. These were, like the earlier religious aid groups, humanitarian in their goals, but also had no reluctance to use diplomatic and political muscle to get their way. The Anti-Slavery Society was such an organization and in the early nineteenth century it was instrumental in getting slavery banned in most parts of the world. The society is still around, because slavery has not completely disappeared. A more recognizable organization is the Red Cross (and later Red Crescent) societies. These were first formed in the 1860s to campaign for more humane treatment of prisoners, the wounded and civilian victims of warfare. The Red Cross was instrumental in getting the various Geneva Conventions (the "rules of war") accepted (if not always practiced) by most major nations. By the twentieth century, the Red Cross was also active in all manner of humanitarian activities. A century ago, the Red Cross was the most effective, powerful and recognized NGO that ever existed. But it was only the beginning.

The massive death and destruction of World War I and II led to an attempts to create a super NGO to prevent future major wars. Thus was born the League of Nations in the 1920s, and, by 1945, the United Nations. There was also explosive growth in all kinds of NGOs. By 1960 there were a thousand of them, by 1970 two thousand, by 1980 four thousand. The growth sprang from two major sources; more money and more mass media.

Not all NGOs are dedicated to "emergency aid" in disaster zones. The majority of NGOs are trade organizations, scientific or technical organizations, medical groups or devoted to the regulation or promotion of sports. NGOs cover a wide range of activities. You name it, there's an NGO for it. Religion, culture, labor relations, world affairs, education and all manner of special interests are playing the NGO game. And it's a very serious game.

The mass media made it all possible, for most NGOs live or die by the amount of attention they get in the press. While many NGOs deliver services, the money to keep them going comes from those that see those services being delivered. NGOs are pressure groups, and with so many of them out there hustling for a headline, the pressure has some strange results. Because most of these NGOs have an international outlook, and an agenda, they want to get their point of view across worldwide. And many NGOs with a lot in common, will pool their resources to apply tremendous pressure to do just that. There have been many good examples of how that works, especially late in the last century when the number of NGOs became so great. The 1997 international treaty to ban land mines was the result of hundreds of NGOs applying political pressure to do something they wanted. No government by itself could have pulled this off. Because the NGOs were international, not affiliated with any single government, and pushing a humanitarian measure few could oppose (except on the pragmatic grounds that is was unenforceable and likely to be counterproductive), they got their way. Now the NGOs are trying to impose international regulation on the sale of small arms, which they believe have been chiefly responsible for the death and destruction in many parts of the world.

There's something to that, as the end of the Cold War meant that former communist dictatorships now had millions of surplus AK-47s, and similar weapons, on their hands. It didn't take long for the gunrunners to show up and buy (cheaply) or steal (via bribes) millions of those weapons. Many of them quickly began showing up in Africa. But Africa's problems predated the AK-47 flood. NGOs are rather more reluctant to tackle the ancient and persistent problems of government corruption and tribal animosity. NGOs also do not like to discuss the role they play in prolonging wars, by providing food and other supplies to the armed groups (who basically mug the NGOs for the stuff.)

The NGOs have come to be so active in all these trouble spots not just because there are more NGOs, but because there is more trouble out there. Conflicts like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Balkans and in South America grew from 36 in the early 1960s, to 55 in the 1970s, 62 in the 1980s. While the violence has declined in most of the world, it has increased in Africa. So has the number of NGOs there.

The NGOs are very media savvy. They know what kind of stories the TV and radio crews are looking for and will provide it in return for a little favorable coverage. The media often found that the NGO staff were the best source of leads and stories in crises zones. The NGOs didn't work for any government, so had less reason to just dish out the official version of what was going on. The NGO staff were pushing their NGO, but the press generally didn't mind that, for the NGOs were doing good works and who could criticize that?

So it's hard to beat up on NGOs. However, NGOs have a tendency to take better care of themselves, than the people they are supposed to be aiding in a time of great need. Some of the more recent NGOs are basically scams, as criminals and terrorists have found that being an NGO provides great cover for less charitable activities. This was noted recently in Afghanistan, where government officials recently noted that nearly 2,000 NGOs operating there were more concerned with NGO welfare, than that of the Afghan people. The same claim was made in Sudan. Even though the government there has been doing horrible things to its own people, and harassing NGOs for documenting these abuses, it was still the case that many NGOs were simply scams. Same thing was found in neighboring Chad, and even in Iraq.

NGOs attract a lot of outfits with hidden agendas. You have the anti-globalization organizations, and other outfits where orphaned leftists and anarchists have found a new home. Some of these political NGOs are open about their advocacy, but many keep it hidden. One thing NGO staffers do not hide is the attitude that they are serving a higher purpose and must be given special treatment by any mere government organization.

But now there is a backlash, led by some NGOs themselves. The larger number of NGOs has brought in many incompetent (or just less competent), or even criminal NGOs. So some of the major NGOs are now calling for some regulation. Right now, anyone can play. In places like Iraq, even the terrorists form NGOs, and use them as cover for their operations. Now the established NGOs, in order to preserve their stature, clout, and cash flow, want to keep a lot of the little players out. Thus it has come full circle, with NGOs forming their own NGO government in order to establish some kind of order.

NGOs are also coming to realize that the problems they are trying to help out with, are part of much larger tragedies. The widespread collapse of governments and economies in Africa is one issue most NGOs can agree on. Other big issues, like "globalization" (which is basically blaming "capitalism" for the world's ills) or Islamic terrorism (too scary for most NGOs to deal with), are danced around for political reasons.

 


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