Peacekeeping: February 19, 2005

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What do twelve Special Forces operators and several hundred NGO (non-governmental organization) workers have in common? Its simple, both groups can get about the same amount of work done in a foreign country. Actually, thats being too generous to the NGOs. The Special Forces do their good works a lot more quickly, and at much less cost. 

The NGOs, as they have taken over the delivery of foreign aid during the last half century, have also become part of the problems they are trying to treat. Despite their description as non-profits and relief workers, the NGOs live from contract to contract. While non-profit, they are not non-revenue. They have to bring in contracts to take care of their payroll and expenses. This has become an issue in some of the countries where NGOs operate. The locals have been noticing how much of the aid money given to their country is going through the NGOs, and how the NGOs use a lot of it to pay NGO expenses, and generally distribute the aid as they feel best, without a lot of consulting with the locals. But a major reason so many donor nations prefer to give aid via NGOs is that it cuts down on corruption. In too many poor countries getting emergency aid, local officials are quick to divert aid to personal use. 

Special Forces teams work a lot cheaper than NGOs, and are better able to work with the locals. Many of the Special Forces operators speak the local languages, and understand the local customs. Moreover, the Special Forces are armed. This helps deal with a common problem in disaster relief; how do you deal with the armed thugs you run across. Some are local police or army, but most are bandits, rebels or just desperate, armed, civilians. The NGOs have to back off, and end up either providing support for the gunmen, or getting out of the area. Special Forces simply scare off or kill the gunmen, which is what Special Forces are trained to do.

Unfortunately, youre not going to have many Special Forces available to run relief operations. There are only about 4,000 Special Forces troops, and they are currently chasing down terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The NGOs are basically an outsourcing of government foreign aid operations. The NGOs are an outgrowth of centuries old religious relief groups. The Red Cross and anti-slavery groups were the first modern NGOs to appear, in the 19th century. Since World War II, there has been an explosion in the formation of new NGO organizations. Thousands have appeared, driven by a more generous public, and a growing number of idealistic men and women willing to work, in dangerous places, to do what task the NGO dedicated itself to. Over the last few decades, governments realized that it was more efficient to have NGOs handle disaster relief, and foreign aid in general, rather than having government employees do it. 

But increasingly, the NGO employees are becoming like the civil servants they have replaced. Part of it is the passage of time. While many NGO employees are idealistic young people who do it for a few years, others have made a career of it. The NGOs have become more bureaucratic, and political. These days, most NGOs tend to have a foreign policy, and they often group together to pressure governments to do things the NGOs feel comfortable with. This has increasingly brought NGOs into conflict with the governments and donors who supply the money, and locals who are supposed to be benefiting from it. 

Theres no easy solution to these problems. The NGOs are too effective at what they do, especially since they make use of large numbers of temps, and can expand and contract their workforce quickly and with far fewer problems than can a government. Natural and man-made disasters arent predictable, so the NGOs have a major advantage with their flexibility. However, the political differences between NGOs and governments may lead to the return of government personnel taking back more of the work in distributing aid. And after the war on terror is over, the Special Forces may end up doing more in this area as well.

 


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