Peacekeeping: Another Good Idea That Got Complicated In Unexpected Ways

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August 12, 2014: The UN, Red Cross and thousands of other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that serve as foreign aid organizations are having growing personnel problems because of the restrictions that are often attached to money they receive from donor countries. The trend for donor countries insisting that a percentage (and a growing one) of the donation be spent in the donor country makes it difficult to buy cheaper goods elsewhere, especially in the country receiving the aid. Then there’s that pesky problem of hiring qualified locals for key jobs versus less qualified people from the donor country. One of the most troublesome aid conditions is that most of the key, and higher paying, jobs go to citizens of the donor country. This means a lot of foreign “consultants” in the country receiving the aid as well back in the donor country as well. But the worst aspect of this is that it means if a local, even one who graduated from a college in the donor country but is a citizen of the country receiving the aid r will often be offered a job that people from the donor country are also doing but at a much lower rate of pay. This despite the fact that the college educated local guy speaks the local language, understands the local customs and is also comfortable with the language and culture of the donor country. The highly qualified local hires often take the job anyway but are not happy with the situation and that leads to resentment and greater willingness to cooperate with locals out to loot the aid operation anyway they can.

This becomes a big problem as aid groups are trying to cope with the other harmful side effects of their good works. The worst side effect is how rebels and gangsters sustain themselves by stealing food and other aid supplies, as well as robbing the NGO workers themselves. Local businessmen and suppliers are also frequently out to defraud the NGOs.

At the core of this problem is not the UN (the largest organizer of aid efforts) but the concept of NGOs in general. A good example of how this works occurred back in 2004 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 NGOs (dating back to the 19th century), although the Catholic Church (and many other religious organizations) had been doing similar work for centuries. In the mid-20th century the UN (and its many aid agencies) became the largest NGO. 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, usually from Western countries, who work to 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 (compared to government employees) 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 employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism. These foreign NGOs 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 leaders. 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 local leaders. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted or even fought back. Thus the Afghan government officials calling for all NGOs in the country to be shut down. That included Afghan NGOs, who were 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. Moreover, the Afghan government wanted to get the aid money direct, so they could steal more of it.

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 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 all 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 must (instead of leaving). 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 peacekeepers.

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.

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 each have their own unique foreign policy. 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 language and cultural customs problems. NGOs have turned out to be another good idea that, well, got complicated in unexpected ways.

 

 

 


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