The UN is upset at the increasing attacks on
aid workers. In the last year, 25 aid workers were killed, compared to 16 in
the previous year. In the last year, there were a record number of attacks on
aid workers. This included 578 robberies (stealing equipment, cash and personal
belongings), 263 assaults on UN aid workers themselves and 199 vehicles stolen.
This is a trend that has been on the march upward for several years. Islamic
radicals have been particularly active in terrorizing and killing the foreigners
who are there to help them. About half of the recent incidents took place in
Sudan, where UN aid workers are caught between pro-government militias, bandits
and anti-government rebels. All see the UN, and other, aid workers as a source
of income and supplies. In Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are also
problems with Islamic radicals keen on chasing out all non-Moslem foreigners.
At the core of this problem is not the
UN, but the concept of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in general. A good
example of how this works occurred four years, when the Afghan government
threatened to expel all NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from the country.
The NGOs were accused of failing to get aid programs moving, and spending aid
money to further their own ends. The NGOs in Afghanistan controlled over a
billion dollars in foreign aid each year, and the government was simply joining
many Afghans in complaining about the NGOs being more concerned about their own
safety and comfort, than in making the lives of Afghans better.
It's not as simple as that.
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 NGO (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. But in 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 from Western countries that 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 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. 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. Thus the Afghan government officials recently asking that all NGOs
in the country be shut down. That includes 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.
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 fund raising efforts. NGOs
will also ask, or demand, that the UN or other foreign governments send in
peacekeeping troops in 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. They 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 began
to chase the NGOs out.
In eastern Congo, aid workers have
found themselves the primary target of the local bandits and militias that had
created the problems that attracted the foreign aid in the first place. NGOs
have learned to raise mini-armies when they want to. But in areas where there
are peacekeepers, and the NGOs believe they are not being well served, the NGOs
will often simply depart, amid a flurry of press releases, to show their
displeasure at the security arrangements, or the political goals of the
But then came Afghanistan and Iraq, two
places where many local leaders thought it served their interests best if there
were no NGOs at all (except maybe some Islamic ones.) Throughout the world,
NGOs are finding that the world has changed. NGOs will never be the same after
what's happened during the last decade.
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
its getting worse as NGOs have become a worldwide presence.
Peacekeepers have also learned that
they have to deal with NGOs. That means the NGOs cannot always be depended on
to do what the peacekeepers want. NGOs have long struggled with local
government officials, but now peacekeepers frequently get added to the mix.
Some nations give their peacekeepers formal training on how to deal with NGOs,
and some intelligence agencies keep an eye on NGO developments as well.
NGOs have formal legal recognition in
many countries, and internationally they, as a group, have some standing. NGOs
have become a player in international affairs, even though individual NGOs have
their own, independent, outlook on world affairs. But as a group, they are a
power to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, there is no leader of all the NGOs
you can negotiate with. Each one has to be dealt with separately. Since NGOs
also come from many different countries (although most have staff that speak
English), peacekeepers can also run into languages and cultural customs
problems. NGOs have turned out to be another good idea that, well, got
complicated in unexpected ways.
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