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Conflict Research Consortium ARTICLE SUMMARY

"Humanitarian NGOs in Conflict Intervention"

by

Mary Anderson

Citation: Mary Anderson, "Humanitarian NGOs in Conflict Intervention," in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) pp. 343-354.


This article summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium.

Anderson argues that humanitarian aid provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) "often becomes intertwined with the forces that drive the conflicts that prompted the aid in the first place."[p. 344] Anderson describes the basic missions of NGOs and the ways in which humanitarian aid can exacerbate conflicts. She describes and evaluates strategies NGOs have used to avoid exacerbating conflicts, and closes with suggestions on how these organizations might better proceed in the future.

NGOs' Philosophy

Western NGOs generally operate on one or more of the following mandates. They may seek to provide emergency humanitarian relief. They may seek to promote long range economic and social development in impoverished nations. They may seek to promote respect for human rights and to monitor human rights abuses. Or they may seek to promote peace, often by encouraging nonviolent conflict resolution. These goals are increasingly recognized as being interrelated and interdependent. And so actions based on any one of these mandates tend to have repercussions throughout the recipient society.

Anderson stresses that NGOs have done much good. Still, there have been many instances where NGO aid produced unintended and even counter-productive consequences. The author notes that, "circumstances of violent conflict add complexities to the operating environment of international NGOs that often distort the impact of their interventions."[p.345]

Oftentimes NGOs' basic mandates and founding ideology make them slow to address the political ramifications of their humanitarian activities. Many NGOs were either originally formed to aid war victims, or have since had substantial experience in violent contexts. NGOs which have been active in conflict settings tend to share two attitudes. First, many have a sense of purity regarding their motives and urgency regarding their activities. The need to relieve suffering seemed uncomplicated, immediate and direct. Second, many adopt a stance of strict political neutrality. In part political neutrality makes NGOs more likely to be granted access to victims. But in part such neutrality reflects a view of politics as tainted or sordid, and an assumption that NGOs could address social or cultural issues without stooping to politics.

How NGO Intervention Exacerbates Conflicts

By failing to consider the political implications of their work, NGOs have in many cases exacerbated the very conflicts and violence they were seeking to relieve. NGO bring new resources into a conflict situation. During war, each sides tries to acquire and control resources, and so NGO aid can present a new focus for struggle. Anderson lists a number of ways in which NGO assistance can become distorted and actually contribute to the conflict. Warring factions may "tax" the NGO for the right to deliver their aid. Those "taxes" then support the war effort. Aid may be stolen and redirected to the fighting parties. Resources given to victims may be passed on to friends and relatives who are engaged in fighting. NGO built infrastructure, such as roads, may enable military troops to travel farther, faster. Local, NGO-trained specialists may be conscripted into military service.

NGO actions and attitudes can also exacerbate conflict. The author notes, "NGOs must choose to employ some people (and not others), purchase goods from some (and not others), and target their aid toward some people (and not others); these decisions can fuel separate group identities, inequalities, and jealousies."[p. 348] Publicizing human rights abuses can provoke both increased outrage and a defensive response in the perpetrators, and so further harden their opposition. Such publicity can also promote a dehumanized image of the perpetrators.

Traditional Responses

Anderson assures her readers that she is not arguing against publicizing human rights abuses, nor against providing aid. However, the potentially negative side-effects of these practices must be acknowledged and addressed. She describes three ways in which NGO have responded to the political effects of their work. The first approach is described as the "Mandate Blinders" approach. NGOs taking this approach feel that the intended purpose of their work is sufficiently important to justify them in ignoring secondary effects of their actions. Such groups are usually acting on strong moral imperatives under pressing time constraints. Anderson criticizes this approach. Such NGOs also tend to act unilaterally, with little input from the recipients of their aid. This approach tends to be disempowering in the long term, and to foster dependence.

Anderson calls the second approach the "aid on our terms only" approach. NGOs following this approach monitor the negative consequences of their intervention. If the negative impact begins to outweigh the positive, they may withdraw, offering to return when conditions become more conducive for effective intervention.

The third approach models itself on the Hippocratic Oath of physicians. Here, NGOs seek to do whatever they can to aid their targeted populations, while emphasizing the principle "first, do no harm."[p. 349] Such NGOs take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions. They actively seek to better understand the consequences of their activities. They are attentive to the responses and intentions of aid recipients. Anderson notes that many NGOs are moving toward this approach.

NGO Intervention in the Future

The nature of the wars the NGOs respond to has changed in the post-Cold War era. Many such wars are domestic, fought between groups within one nation. There are no longer clear battlefields, and the distinction between military and civilian is no longer clear. People increasingly attribute wars to their leaders' greed, and to see war as destructive, ineffective, and self-perpetuating. War is no longer seen as a means of restoring justice. At the same time, opposing war is dangerous, as critics are seen as disloyal.

The changing nature of war lead to three new complexities for NGO interventions. First, such wars are not governed by the international codes of war. Second, it is difficult to decide where sovereignty and political legitimacy resides during a civil war. Third, it is difficult to decide where moral legitimacy resides during an opportunistic war or attempted coup. With whom should an NGO negotiate, and to whom should they lend aid in such cases?

Anderson recommends that, in the face of such conflicts, NGOs give up their apolitical stance. NGOs should denounce war itself. NGO interventions might then be directed toward supporting and protecting local opposition to war, and to fostering individual's attempts to disengage from war. This will require developing alternative methods of distributing assistance, so that aid is less easily misdirected into the war effort. NGOs might also seek to foster economic cooperation and interdependence between non-combatant members of warring groups.


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