The ‘N’ stands for ‘Non’.
The question whether or not NGOs can ever be truly independent if they accept funds from government departments is not a new one, and different orgnizations deal with it differently. Some agencies will take whatever funds come their way, and even let themselves be railroaded into sectors, regions, and government-nominated outcomes. Others refuse to touch any government funds at all and rely purely on private donations, precisely to avoid this quandry.
Article four of the Red Cross Code of Conduct (to which most major NGOs are signatory) states that NGOs will endevour not to be used as agents of government foreign policy.
Article three states that we are neutral, and article two states we’re impartial.
Article one states that we hold the Humanitarian Imperative- that is, the need to save lives and relieve human suffering- as our primary motivator for action.
But the moment that we start letting governments tell us how to do our job, we find ourselves in contravention of article four. And by inference, articles three and two. And ultimately, the humanitarian imperative can become sidelined.
This doesn’t always happen. Some government agencies do try and take their lead from UN and NGO statements on where the greatest needs are and what sectors require the most attention. This is a step in the direction of good donorship. Unfortunately it’s not universal.
I’ve recently been learning practically about another challenge when dealing with government agencies, and that has to do with the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
(I give this phenomenon its title and acronym to suggest that it is an entity unto itself, and a social/political construct, as opposed to a universally accepted paradigm. GWOT is a name given to a specific campaign being waged by a conglomerate of western-based political entities and it needs to be recognized as such).
Under the current GWOT paradigm, and courtesy of the Bush Administration’s clever little ‘illegal combatants’ tag, certain groups and organizations have been PNG’d. They’re called ‘terrorists’, and, according to our governments, they’re evil.
If I sound flippant, I’m not really meaning to be. I’m not about to sit here and say that I condone suicide bombings (although by the same token I’m also not about to sit here and say that I condone aerial drone strikes on Pakistani villages either). I fundamentally disagree with the means used by many of these groups to communicate their message or affect the political change they’re chasing. But I also want to point out that the demonization of Islamo-fascist insurgent groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Al-Shabbab, TeT, JI and others- not to mention political insurgent groups such as the largely-defunct (for now) LTTE- occurs at the behest of government spokespeople and the media machine behind them, with society jumping on board without always engaging careful critical analysis.
A few years back I remember seeing a spreadsheet passed across my desk. It was a list of about 950 organizations deemed by the US State Department to be linked in some way to terrorism. They included banks, community groups, charities and support services, as well as the organizations themselves. NGOs wanting to receive money from the US Government had to be sure that they weren’t in any way connected to, working with or providing funds through any of these organizations.
What the polarizing press fails to recognize is that these ‘terror’ groups, while offensive to Western viewers, are insurgency groups party to an armed conflict. Their methods and ideology may differ slightly, but as entities they share a similar space to resistance movements and rebellions the world over and throughout history. Biafra seperatists, Congolese rebel groups, Oliver Cromwell’s roundhats, the French Resistance, Sudan’s SPLM/A, and hundreds more. At one time or another, they’ve all been demonized by the powers they’ve fought, and most, if not all, have used violence in ways that we find ethically questionable. Some- like fighters in the French Resistance who used terror tactics such as kidnappings, assassinations and bombings against both occupying Germans and their capitulating French countryfolk- have been excused by the writers of contemporary history. Others remain damned.
I’m not interested in glorifying the methods used by Al-Qaeda in Iraq or suggesting they are some noble underdog fighting for the welfare of an oppressed mass. My shallow understanding of the Qaeda network leads me to believe they’re a fairly small bunch of violent thugs who’ve managed to garner a bit of a following in a world of globalized media and communications which has gone viral. I trust readers will forgive me when I observe, in context, that the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001 was the greatest media stunt pulled in history.
The current western paradigm from which the majority of international aid agencies are drawn has condemned these groups and created a new category for them within the confines of their own national narratives- US, UK, Australia and others. In the broader narrative of International Humanitarian Law, however- which is the one in which aid agencies operate, and from which the Code of Conduct, among other guiding principles, is drawn from- there is no such thing as an ‘illegal combatant’. They are parties to a conflict. And under IHL, and in the pragmatic realities of day-to-day operation in a hostile environment like Afghanistan or Somalia, NGOs are necessarily going to interact with these groups.
I’ve been witnessing events this past week or two in a few different contexts of this sort. In Pakistan, the ramping up of media attention on the floods has necessarily prompted concern that NGOs might get asked questions around the proliferation of ‘terror’ groups in the conflict-ridden north of the country, and how they ensure that donor funds don’t make it into the hands of ‘terrorists’.
Then in Afghanistan, there’s been a flurry of concern around the tragic killing of 10 IAM workers in that country’s north, ostensibly by the Taliban and ostensibly because they were carrying Bibles and were carrying out religious coercion (an unlikely motive for the killings, as my understanding, reading about the attack, is that they were killed well before any search of their posessions had taken place; the religious angle was simply a convenient narrative to justify to a wider audience what was otherwise a cruel and brutal assault by thugs). It’s important to note, however- and this was a cause for some brow-furrowing by IAM leadership and others- that in fact IAM staff crossed paths routinely with Taliban fighters and would treat their wounded who had eye injuries. This informal standing agreement had led to a tacit understanding that IAM staff would be free to move in and out of these areas unharmed (where they’d been working for more than 40 years) and had been a beautiful example of how articles 2 to 4 of the Code of Conduct can really help NGOs carry out their mission to help.
In Somalia, there’s been discussions going on around NGO operations in south-central Somalia. The area is controlled by the Al-Shabbab group, also considered a terrorist organization (although it has far more sway in southern Somalia- and arguably even legitimacy- than the transitional national government clinging like a limpet to a small patch of besieged ground in Mogadishu). Like the TeT in northern Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Shabbab insurgents are based in and drawn from the communities which they have control and influence over. Their administrators have a presence in villages and towns, and their permission- written or implied- is required to provide aid and assistance.
(This is where International Law falls short and has failed to adapt to a changing environment, of course. In a discussion I don’t have time for here, International Law is constructed around the notion that there is a clear line between combatants and non-combatants. Recent decades have seen that paradigm collapse. As is now well documented through recent conflicts such as Afghanistan (but which has been a reality of warfare for as long as there have been insurgencies), fighter A is also farmer N, and all he needs to do is lock his Kalashnikov in the hatch under the grain barn, pick up his hoe, and he’s gone from combatant to civilian and altered his legal status under International Law.)
It’s a complication that is pertinent but also peripheral to the discussion here.
Where I’m going with this (in a traditionally roundabout way) is to observe that in order to carry out their mission (Article 1- Humanitarian Imperative) aid agencies need to interact with insurgent groups. We simply can’t afford to do what governments do and write them off as illegal, or untouchable, or assign a political value to them. Whatever our personal view of insurgencies (just as with national governments) we can only do our job by at least attempting neutrality and impartiality (recognizing that we can never be perfectly one or the other, even if we have the will).
Aid agencies must not be forced to adhere to government policies around who they can and cannot interact with. It really is that simple. Sure, steps need to be taken to ensure that funding is not being misused- be that by insurgent groups or any other form of corruption which agencies have to deal with on a daily basis.
If that means that governments feel that for reasons of foreign policy (or ‘national security’) they feel they themselves want to ignore the humantiarian imperative and not give to aid agencies who wish to remain neutral and impartial, then so be it. I can’t fault them for that.
But I do object to government agencies putting pressure on NGOs to represent their policies and ideologies at the field level. And I equally call on NGOs to take a stand against such manipulation, and stop being such slaves to the dollar (a naive cry perhaps- but I know there is a fair groundswell of push in that direction at certain levels).
Aid agencies need the freedom to be able to interact with insurgent groups embedded in the communities in which we serve without fearing repurcussions- fiscal or legal- from the donors who make noise about wanting to help the less fortunate. This is a far more insiduous form of tied aid, but it’s there none the less. Recognize it for what it is, embrace it, or step away from it altogether. But let’s all of us stop playing games here.
For more discussion on the construct of terrorism and the threats inherent within, see my earlier post, ‘The Threat of Terrorism’