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close this bookThe Courier N░ 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentNGOs
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View the documentThe dreaming dromedaries of the desert meet the bothered bureaucrats of Brussels
View the documentThe ethics of collecting money
View the documentNGOs torn between subordination and independence
View the documentNGOs - subcontractors or innovators in unstable situations
View the documentEmergencies and development

NGOs - subcontractors or innovators in unstable situations

by Nicholas Stockton

This short paper sets out to de. monstrate how the emergence of a media-dependent, international rescue and crisis management industry is degrading the quality of humanitarian space. This transformation has been heralded by the deregulation of the humanitarian theatre and the creation of a market in which a proliferation of diverse agencies compete for contracts. In this new market, the humanitarian mandates of intergovernmental bodies are muddled with a myriad of contracted goods and services. Humanitarian action is, there. fore, expressed in a Gordian knot of financial contracts, well beyond the reach of international humanitarian law and accountability. The commercial necessity to portray contractual achievement, harnessed by the Northern political demand for triumphant televisual humanitarian interventions, helps to fashion a contract culture where 'success' is imperative. Thus, even while the collective impact of the new humanitarian industry falls below established international minimum standards, accountability for this, by apparent mutual agreement, goes unremarked and disregarded.

Conventional humanitarianism

Humanitarianism is probably best understood by reference to the body of international law that defines human rights in the specific context of conflict. This mainly consists of the Geneva Convention and later Protocols, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and, in Africa, the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention. Together, these place obligations for the protection of civil populations upon governments, and upon two specialised inter-governmental institutions: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)-which is not, as some believe, an NGO - and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Humanitarian law mandates these organisations to monitor the performance of signatory stat", and the associated statutory instruments provide some technical standards against which to judge humanitarian performance.

These legal instruments range from qualitative rights, such as protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, to quantified standards on food, water, health and shelter. In the post-Second World War period, when most of these standards were negotiated, contemporary opinion held that proper standards of accountability and control could only be met by government agencies. Therefore, humanitarian action became the near-exclusive domain of governments and intergovernmental authorities. In principle, accountability for meeting minimum standards was, at that time, a relatively straightforward matter. First, the actors in humanitarian crises were few, and 'audit trails' were short. Second, these agencies operated under, and were explicitly named in, international treaties.

The humanitarian market

The emergence of the new humanitarian industry is a direct result of the ideological hegemony of the new right in the post cold war era. On the demand side, Bernard Kouchner's formulation of the 'right of interference' and the popularisation of Paolo Freire's 'theory of con-scientisation', were symbolic of the growing assertiveness of the private relief and development sectors. On the supply side, the introduction of commercial competitive tendering in most official aid programmes financed the massive growth in the NGO sector, particularly in the social service and welfare field.

This growth was encouraged by many Northern donors to help fill the vacuum created by cuts in social welfare services resulting from economic adjustment policies. The retreat of the state from guaranteeing national health, education and welfare norms (including emergency relief), has created numerous opportunities for the private sector, especially at the community level.

It is at this local level where NGOs claim comparative advantage over governments, that life chances are increasingly determined, and where civil loyalties therefore gravitate. NGO credibility in 'community-based' service provision is frequently earned at the expense of central government's perceived legitimacy. It is ironic that the proliferation of ethnically-defined livelihood conflicts probably derives, in part at least, from the political success of NGOs in strengthening 'civil society' at the communal level, compounded by their failure to meet rising aspirations in the economic sphere.

As nation states have divested themselves of their operational welfare role, many have emphasised their residual security functions, and have resorted to terror and violence to stay in power. Under these circumstances, armed insurgency may be seen as the only available means of political expression and economic advancement. Subsistence resource wars, often identified with ethnic loyalties, have created an explosion in political violence and human suffering. From ten wars in 1959, there are now over 50 being waged. From less than 10 million refugees in 1980, the world now has more than 23 million. In response to this, a significant shift from development to emergency aid has occurred. From less than $200 million in 1971, emergency aid spending by OECD countries had expanded to $2.6 billion by 1992. The UN consolidated appeal for Rwanda in 1994 alone raised over $1 billion.

This is big business and the competition between the humanitarian NGOs and between human rights organisations is intense. The designer flags, tee-shirts, watches, flak jackets and other branded apparel of the new humanitarian workers jostling for television profile, testify to this.

Markets versus mandates

Markets are, in theory, regulated by consumer choice. In humanitarian emergencies, the 'consumers' are often destitute, and excluded from planning and coordination meetings. 'Choice', from the perspective of the intended beneficiary, is academic. If refugees and other disaster victims are unable to exercise consumer sovereignty, market-driven humanitarianism is certainly responsive to meeting the needs of other categories of 'consumer', such as major donors and army commanders. This can be illustrated by contrasting the operational approaches of mandate and market-driven humanitarian organisations.

The French word, 'unicite', is the concept used by the ICRC in circumscribing their operational jurisdiction. It is used to define territory in which the ICRC is 'uniquely' able to operate. Thus, where international NGOs gain entry to conflict zones under the recent phenomenon of integrated UN/NGO negotiated access programmes (such as Operation Lifeline in Sudan, and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia), the ICRC's principle of 'unicite' would indicate their own withdrawal. In the absence of the ICRC, it is more likely that breaches of the Geneva Conventions can be perpetrated with impunity, since NGOs have no legal status in international humanitarian law, no mandate, no leverage and no experience in the matter of protecting prisoners of war, visiting military detainees and so on.

The very process of negotiating UN/NGO access to conflict zones also confers legitimacy upon warring parties and coincidentally facilitates the incorporation of relief aid into military strategies. Given the media profile that NGOs seek, it is obvious why aspiring insurgents prefer the international NGOs to the publicity-wary ICRC. Furthermore, in pursuit of televised humanitarian success, Northern politicians are much less likely to finance the traditionally tight-lipped ICRC than the publicity-hungry new humanitarian contractors.

The market-led introduction of NGOs into the space formerly occupied solely by the ICRC undermines the chances of holding Geneva Convention signatories to account. In addition, 'negotiated access' replaces the formula of relief determined by need, with a political negotiation between two warring parties. Such interventions may well reinforce the capacity of parties to wage war and may also offer an incentive to starve captive civilian populations to bolster a negotiating position.

It also appears that the power of the NGO lobby is now so great that it is further eroding the quality of humanitarian space through its well-developed lobbying ability. In this regard, ad hoc UN resolutions often demand far less than the victims of war and persecution are actually entitled to under the Geneva and Refugee Conventions. Instead, the protection of humanitarian agencies is the justification for military intervention, and this sometimes becomes the major expense in humanitarian operations.

Erosion of accountability, and the 'culture of success'

One peculiar dimension of the humanitarian industry is the interdependence of the contracting parties, and the ever-present risk of market exclusion. For example, the official aid establishment projected public outrage at any suggestion that refugee mortality rates in Goma during July 1994 (at that point running at ten times the level designated by the World Health Organisation as 'catastrophic'), were an indictment of the international community. Thus, whilst organisational mandates may reflect higher purposes and outward goals, the greater need to project images of success can subvert the quality of public debate about humanitarian action, even in the midst of the most appalling human tragedy witnessed for many years.

Another dimension of the new humanitarian imperative to dress up failure as success is reflected in the recent trend to introduce developmentalist concepts into the emergency relief domain. Humanitarian projects are defined, measured and judged by achievable goals such as clinics built, human rights monitors deployed, doctors deployed, mine awareness kits distributed, gender awareness workshops nun, litres of water distributed, and so on. By concentrating upon the fulfilment of contracted inputs and outputs rather than upon actual humanitarian outcome, the industry is able to demonstrate contractual success even within spectacularly unfulfilled mandates. This approach coincidentally offers a way of accommodating and legitimating a long-term role for NGOs in the conflict zone.

NGOs-humanitarian cure or curse?

Nobody who witnessed the cholera camps in Goma could reasonably doubt that the humanitarian NGOs represent a profound expression of human compassion. Nevertheless, there is surely a deep paradox in the rapid expansion of the humanitarian industry and the simultaneous decline in refugee welfare and protection standards.

Certainly the absence of an independent inspectorate of humanitarian intervention does allow maverick organisations to exploit the new market more easily, and this diminishes all agencies. In this respect, the recently published NGO Code of Conduct is a worthy initiative of self-regulation. However, in view of the widespread erosion of existing minimum standards, and commonplace defiance of international humanitarian law, there can be very little hope that the Code of Conduct will significantly alter matters on its own. Ironically, the concept of a 'culture of impunity' that is used to describe the political and moral economy of the Rwandese refugee camps, could equally be employed to describe the modern humanitarian aid industry; donors, NGOs and all.