NGOs and governments in a new humanitarian landscape

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
23 June 2003


- Even before the fighting had finished in Iraq, USAID (the American government’s aid agency) had awarded $900 million in contracts to private companies to undertake reconstruction activities

- NGOs are increasingly concerned about their independence from government in the context of nation-building

- A period of consolidation is starting, where big humanitarian groups are likely to merge with and acquire others

- The nature of NGO work and its relation to governments and private companies is being tested, with more questions than answers at present

The Financial Times reported on 13 June 2003 a significant remark of Andrew Natsios, head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He told American NGOs that, if they want to continue to receive funding for overseas relief and development aid, they should emphasise their links to the Bush administration (“NGOs under pressure on relief funds”, Alan Beattie, Financial Times, 13 June 2003). This raises a basic question: are NGOs becoming simply a foreign policy tool of the US and other governments?

This is certainly a moment of great disorientation on the part of practitioners of humanitarian action. There are many examples of their uncertainty. To cite just one, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Unocha) in early 2003 took the unprecedented step of elaborating principles for engagement with the military coalition which was then planning to occupy Iraq.

NGOs have complained about how US soldiers dress and conduct small-scale reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, asserting that aid workers are exposed to dangers as a result of military usurpation of civilian assistance activities. Moreover, even before the fighting had finished in Iraq, USAID had awarded $900 million in contracts to private companies to undertake reconstruction activities; these included refurbishing public health infrastructure and organising popular participation in local government, activities that NGOs have undertaken in other settings.

This raises the question of whether humanitarian action is being privatised. It may be, to some extent, though this is hardly new. USAID contractors have operated for many years, particularly after the demise of the Soviet empire, where they undertook a variety of programmes in the successor states. Efforts were made to nurture civil society, and introduce democracy and the rule of law, with decidedly mixed results.

It is also true that humanitarian NGOs are not necessarily capable of undertaking societal reconstruction tasks; certainly, no one would turn to an NGO to reconstruct a destroyed harbour. But other activities undertaken by private contractors impinge upon areas in which NGOs have been involved.

Yet the newly-resourced efforts for Iraqi reconstruction are in fact the antithesis of privatisation. Rather, these initiatives are supported by significant government funding – in Iraq most notably from USAID. The infusion of large amounts of government funding necessarily raises questions about the independence of NGOs under contract. One NGO official noted the difficulty of managing large governmental contributions on the one hand, and maintaining an ability to act with a degree of independence from government objectives on the other.

Indeed, those NGOs which felt marginalised by USAID’s generous commitment to contractors in Iraq met its officials and urged a ‘set aside’ for reconstruction work. Ultimately, they were successful, and $100 million was reserved for NGOs. But several large NGOs recently decided not to bid for the money and instead suggested that their priority lie elsewhere, notably Africa.

An uneasy partnership

Why is government getting more involved in humanitarian action? According to one US government official, senior decision-makers are much more engaged in the kinds of “small wars” that used to be relegated to obscurity in the grand bipolar confrontation of the cold war. This is the new stuff of foreign policy, where decision-makers are focusing on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq in a way seldom seen before. As a result, they are increasingly unwilling to depend upon the well-intentioned but sometimes undirected efforts of humanitarian NGOs, and are insisting upon a greater degree of accountability and control.

USAID contractors are highly responsive to agency requests. This permits a greater degree of integrated planning, including with the military, in situations of considerable insecurity. NGOs, however, prefer grants, even from governments, as opposed to contracts or cooperative agreements, in order to retain a measure of discretion.

What then is to become of the notion of the neutrality of NGO work? In Afghanistan, NGOs criticise the development of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which were created by the coalition military, and which are being expanded to include civilian and multinational components. PRTs are designed to support the political objectives of the Afghan central government in its quest to establish a functioning state. This is, of course, a partisan political objective supported by humanitarian activity. How can NGOs relate to this initiative without compromising their neutrality? Yet, of course, recovery work through indigenous governmental structures, a traditional development activity, also necessarily strengthens the state.

What are the implications of these recent shifts and pressures? NGOs involved in humanitarian relief are increasingly beginning to recognise that they often stay for many years after addressing immediate emergencies, and consequently they have begun to build the capacity to do development work.

Development NGOs realise the importance of early intervention and increasingly seek to become involved in crisis settings at an earlier stage. These groups compete for a finite, if not diminished, set of financial resources, mainly from governments. Some NGOs, like Medecins sans Frontieres, have been quite successful in diversifying their funding basis and are able to maintain a measure of flexibility. A former chief executive officer of one NGO recently suggested to Arthur Helton that a period of consolidation is opening up, in which large humanitarian groups will merge with and take over others.

New realities, old dilemmas

In the light of this situation of flux, what kind of humanitarian landscape lies ahead? Will it be a situation where a group of increasingly market-minded NGOs combine and compete for substantial funding allotments in those places around the world where rich governments have significant national interests? Or will private sector contractors emerge and use not-for-profit components to seek these funds and undertake this work? One seasoned aid official who has spent years both inside and outside the US government noted that it would not be surprising to see a human rights monitoring contractor emerge to undertake assignments in post-conflict transitional settings.

Will traditional NGOs revert to regions like Africa where external national interests are weak and the humanitarians are largely in charge? Or will these new capacities come to be used even there, signaling a new form of humanitarian action? It would be difficult to create a box full of tools in one place and not use them in other settings at the risk of being charged with racism.

It is clear that there are more questions then answers in this highly transitional stage of humanitarian action. New developments which could radically recast humanitarian action are underway. Some of the dilemmas they provoke are of course old. How these issues are reconciled will determine the conduct of humanitarian action for decades to come.

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