Peacekeeping: The Downside Of Good Intentions

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January 18, 2020: Nations suffering from chronic violence, lawlessness and massive numbers of refugees are often not that way because of war but because of other factors, including how many foreign aid groups operate, or try to operate there. The NGOs (non-governmental organizations, like the UN or Red Cross and thousands more) tend to have their own ideas of how to handle the situation and the NGO attitudes are often at odds with the locals as well as the foreign nations that provide the cash and goods needed to deal with the mess. One mess often leads to another as the three principals (NGOs, locals and donors) clash over what to do and how to do it. The main problem is there is more to be done than anyone is willing to pay for. To make matters worse there are always disagreements, sometimes violent, over how to apply the aid.

In 2019 the top ten disaster areas contained most of the people in need worldwide, but these nations contained less than five percent of the world population. The ten disaster areas were; Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Venezuela, CAR (Central African Republic), Syria, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia. A major problem has been the reluctance of donors to support relief operations in many of these areas. In short, the problem is that too much of the aid is stolen or unable to reach the people most in need. NGOs have no solution, or at least not one that will either turn off the donors (and their donations) or upset the locals, resulting in more violence and chaos.

Most of these needy nations are not the scene or war, at least not in the traditional sense, but they are suffering from some serious problems. From the outside this appears to be some kind of massive civil disorder. The trigger for the disorder is most often tribalism as in Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, CAR and Somalia. In some of these nations, there is an actual civil war going on, as in Yemen, South Sudan, CAR and Syria. In other cases, the major cause is religious differences as in Yemen, Syria and Nigeria. Another common factor in all these nations is corruption and the inability to create an effective government. Many of these nations are recognized as “failed states” because they have never managed to form a sense of national unity and eventually stable national government. This is common in most African countries as well as Afghanistan and Yemen. NGOs are increasingly feuding with each other about how to handle the growing money shortages they have to deal with. The demand for contributions to buy food and other aid supplies has been increasing faster than donor nations, who supply most of this money, are willing to provide. This is in large part because of growing problems with a lot of the aid being stolen by local bandits and corrupt officials, or diverted to other uses by NGOs.

There are other problems as well. Increasingly people in the countries NGOs deliver aid to complain about the NGOs being more concerned about their own safety and comfort than in making the lives of the locals better. But it's not as simple as that. There are also disagreements within the NGO community about how to deliver aid in areas swarming with bandits, Islamic terrorists and other bad actors. The NGOs that continue to send people to these dangerous areas complain that many NGOs that used to be there with them are now snagging a lot of aid money and moving to some well-guarded urban area to spend the aid money on studies, seminars and research into how to achieve peace and prosperity via diplomacy, negotiation and creative financing. The NGOs still out in the field consider this growing interest in this new “non-contact” with the people needing the aid, approach a craven copout and diversion of desperately needed funds from buying food and emergency services for people.

The NGOs are trying to keep this dispute from becoming a public debate as they all agree that putting these issues into the news would probably reduce contributions even more. 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 NGOs, 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. By 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, who 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 relative 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 over the years. The Western employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism, and that brings 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.

These new activities caused unexpected problems with the local leaders. Development programs disrupt the existing economic and political relationships. This is especially the case if the NGOs try to change the way things are done. 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 local governments will sometimes try to regulate or expel NGOs. That often includes local NGOs, who were doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. In these cases the government is responding to complaints from old school tribal and religious leaders who are unhappy with all these foreigners, or urban locals 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 fundraising efforts. NGOs will also ask, or demand, that the UN or other foreign governments send in peacekeeping troops 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 begin to chase the NGOs out.

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 into diplomats. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization but sometimes they act like government bureaucrats. NGOs that get too heavily into diplomacy are no longer regarded as NGOs. 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 ideas, often unwelcome ones, 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. Another problem is the money given to NGOs to spend on aid for a country is money the local officials would rather have control over. There are two reasons why donors prefer NGOs to have control over the aid. The primary problem is corruption. Money given to the government tends to get stolen. Often more than a third of it disappears into the pockets of government officials, their kin and friends. But letting the donors, and NGOs 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 locals as it means a lot of highly (especially by local standards) paid Western aid workers are supervising whatever is done in the aid receiving nation. The higher NGO pay standards are very visible because the Westerners tend to live much better than locals. The Westerners are also accused of not understanding the needs of locals, but the NGOs are also less prone to devote most of the programs to local traditional (tribal) or senior government officials. The locals would like to gain control of all the aid money, or at least get more of it spent inside the nation receiving the aid, 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.

 


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