Peacekeeping: NGOs Gone Bad


February 17, 2008: Iraq is the latest country where NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) are under fire, often by the very people they are attempting to help, for wandering too far from their mission. To the public, 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.

But countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many organizations that call themselves NGOs, but are basically a bunch of people, often locals, who are mainly interested in making a profit off foreign aid. The Afghan government caught on to this last year, when they began to investigate, regulate, and often shut down many of the 2,000 NGOs that had appeared over the last decade (especially since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001). Many Afghans saw an opportunity to make some money off these outlanders. By 2005, there were 300 international, and 1,500 Afghan NGOs operating throughout the country.

There are many problems with NGOs, and more are becoming visible to the public. The Western employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, and infused with a certain degree of idealism, do come to disaster areas as a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living, and different, sometimes dangerous (according to the locals) ideas. Several years ago, all 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. Eventually, the Afghan government demanded that all NGOs in the country be shut down. Iraq is considering a similar move. Both nations are particularly keen to rein in local NGOs, who are doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. The government officials were responding to complaints from numerous old school tribal and religious leaders who were unhappy with all these foreigners, or locals with funny ideas, upsetting the ancient ways among many people who are old school in their thinking. The shut-down order in Afghanistan got everyone's attention, and deals were made.

While some of the problems are from Western NGOs, most of the hassles come from local NGOs, and those from Moslem countries. Some of the latter have been found to be fronts for Islamic terrorist organizations. Makes sense, as al Qaeda is basically an NGO with a unique mission.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, there were problems with security firms, that supply thousands of foreign and local guards for local and foreign firms, as well as diplomatic personnel, and foreign government employees. Many of these outfits consider themselves NGOs, and register themselves with the government as such. But many other security firms use their security work as a cover for criminal activities (kidnapping, robbery, contract killing). Some of the firms are also suspected of overbilling their clients, and otherwise being criminal in their behavior. Many NGOs are basically just covers for scam artists.

All this is a big change from what NGOs are meant to be. 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 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. The NGO life 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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