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U.S. Navy On Alert For Ingratitude
by James Dunnigan
November 15, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

The U.S. Navy is finding that there's a downside to turning up for disaster relief missions. While the navy gets much praise when there's a disaster, and a hospital ship or strike group shows up to lend a hand, it can be a mixed blessing. Local folks will, in the short term, be very happy the fleet's in, and U.S. prestige will soar. But, if we stay too long or do too good a job, give away too much stuff, etc., the local authorities sometimes become unhappy, because we've set too high a standard of skill, honesty, even-handedness, dedication, and the list goes on.

Navy civil affairs officers have already noted that Western aid workers are not universally welcomed. They observe that, the Western employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, and infused with a certain degree of idealism, do bring 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. 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.

The U.S. Navy is careful to just supply aid, and not advice to local authorities. They want to avoid what happened in places like Afghanistan. There, the Afghan government officials recently ordered that all NGOs in the country be shut down. That included Afghan NGOs, who are doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. The government officials were responding to complaints from numerous old school Afghan tribal and religious leaders who were unhappy with all these foreigners, or urban Afghans with funny ideas, upsetting the ancient ways in the countryside.

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 more into diplomats. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization. NGOs that get too heavily into diplomacy are no longer regarded as NG. This has always been a problem, but now it's getting worse as NGOs have become a worldwide presence. The U.S. Navy is afraid of getting painted with the same brush.

This move from delivering aid, to delivering (often unwelcome) ideas, 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. Thus the U.S. Navy wants to keep its relief missions short, and get out before the local authorities start viewing the sailors as a threat.

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