Tag: humanitarian situation

NGOs as the “New Colonialists”

Somehow, last summer I missed a Foreign Policy article by Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, and Parag Khanna, which appeared in the July/August 2008 issue. Unfortunately, you won’t find much of the article at that link unless you are a subscriber. I happened to see the piece in the November/December Utne Reader. The on-line excerpt is a bit longer there, but you still won’t find the full essay. Sorry about that.

Nonetheless, the authors’ central thesis is certainly provocative and worth discussing even if internet users cannot find the entire piece:

[T]he thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisers. This armada of non-state actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century.

Is this the logical new step beyond what Jessica Matthews called a “power shift” back in 1997? Clearly, this is not what scholars had in mind when they noted that activists had moved beyond borders.

While the authors credit NGOs with performing all sorts of beneficial — even vital — functions, they nonetheless claim “whatever the task, the result is generally the same: the slow and steady erosion of the host state’s responsibility and the empowerment of the new colonialists themselves.” Additionally, the authors imply that NGOs have a selfish agenda: “aid organizations and humanitarian groups need dysfunction to maintain their relevance. Indeed, their institutional survival depends on it.”

What are we to make of this critique?

As I said, I’m late to this discussion, so I should first point to an excellent early September post by William Felice at the HRHW Roundtable blog. Felice laments

“the way in which the language of colonialism, imperialism and empire has been sanitized and misused in the current period…Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna fall into this revisionist quagmire by conflating colonialism solely with dependency, ignoring the most vicious and brutal components to the over 450 years of colonial domination. It should not be so easy to label an organization “colonialist.” In fact, given the real meaning of the term, it is absurd and scandalous to call the Gates Foundation “colonialist.” One would not lightly brand a group “fascist” or “totalitarian.” Yet, somehow today it is OK to talk about empire, imperialism and colonialism as if these were almost neutral terms.

Felice also takes on the claim about selfishness, pointing out that human suffering would increase to “immeasurable” levels if NGOs did not provide vital functions throughout the developing world.

On July 31, Tony Pipa of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard wrote that equating NGOs with colonialists simply “doesn’t work…It’s like calling the Prius the new Hummer. They both get you from here to there, but the goals and values behind the design are completely different.” Pipa also references specific infrastructure projects that NGOs voluntarily turned over to governments once they had some success.

The Foreign Policy trio conclude that NGOs must be held accountable in order to assure that their goals are just and their power limited. They don’t really offer many specifics — market-style “competition among aid groups” is the most concrete suggestion.

There’s actually a very large policy and scholarly literature on NGO accountability. See, for example, this piece and this one too. Nayef Samhat and I briefly addressed some of it in our 2004 book. We argue for widespread inclusiveness, transparency, and public deliberation.

Update: Corrected a typo on Tony Pipa’s name 1/21/09.

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Meanwhile, Outside of the Caucasus…

Rodger and Peter remind us that many things are happening out there besides the commotion between Russia and Georgia. For example:

Canada has dispatched the naval frigate HMCS Ville de Québec to the waters off the Horn of Africa, in the hopes of stemming pirate attacks that have in recent months drastically curtailed the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia’s war-affected masses. It’s unclear whether a single additional vessel will be up to the task, even if its mission is to rather single-mindedly protect World Food Programme shipments, rather than to police the waters more generally. Still, it’s heartening to see Canada’s open securitization of maritime piracy: see the long quotation by Rear-Admiral Dean McFadden in Daniel Skeritch’s post at Modern Day Pirate Tales.

Relatedly, the Dallas News reports on Somalia’s humanitarian crisis, now characterized as the “worst in the world.” (Some helpful perspective: compare the “catastrophe” of between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees in N. Ossetia to the following:)

“The United Nations estimates that at least 14 million people in the Horn of Africa are in urgent need of food aid due to conflict, dramatic rises in food costs and severe drought.

Two countries most threatened by this crisis are Somalia and Ethiopia, where 2.6 million and 4.6 million people, respectively, face severe food shortages.

Somalia is already in the grip of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has been without an effective government for nearly two decades – but since 2007, the situation has declined sharply. Conflict, failed rains and hyperinflation have made staple foods such as rice and corn unaffordable for many.”

Finally, while two nuclear-armed superpowers step up increasingly belligerent rhetoric in the UN Security Council and beyond, it makes sense to mention the recent passage of the 63rd anniversary of the bombing of Hirsohima. Peace groups commemorated the event last week, and the mayor of Hiroshima asked the US to back a ban on nuclear weapons. Hmm. Might be an auspicious time to think about it.

The Human Security Report’s News Service provides a helpful roundup of other key stories.

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Casualty Counting

Dan lamented correctly yesterday morning about the paucity of reliable casualty numbers for the conflict in Georgia. Seems this is still the case, with the Washington Post reporting today that “no… casualty figures could be independently confirmed” in an article nonetheless subtitled “Civilian Deaths on Increase In Conflict Over S. Ossetia.”

But it’s actually rather important to try to figure out whether civilians are being targeted, and how many are being killed by either side, since the battle now being waged is as much for the moral high ground as for territory. Both Georgia and Russia are justifying their actions as “protection of civilians,” and both are accusing the other of atrocities. Sorting out who is killing who how and how fast may provide clues as to how humanitarian motivations may have played into recent events, if at all; and how they may complicate efforts at conflict resolution.

The latest FactBox from Alertnet breaks the available numbers down according to source but not, unfortunately, according to civilian or military deaths, and not, unfortunately, according to who did the killing in each case:

RUSSIA
* Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said at least 2,000 civilians had died in Tskhinvali as a result of fighting between Russian and Georgian forces, Interfax news agency reported. He said 13 Russian peacekeepers were killed and up to 70 injured in the fighting.
* Sergei Sobyanin, the Russian government chief of staff, said 30,000 South Ossetian refugees had fled to Russia since early on Friday.
GEORGIA
* A source in the Georgian government told Reuters on Saturday 129 Georgian civilians and military were killed and 748 wounded.
* Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian aerial bombing had killed around 30 Georgian soldiers.
SOUTH OSSETIA
* South Ossetia’s President Eduard Kokoity on Friday said about 1,400 people had died in Tskinvali.
UNHCR
* The U.N. Refugee Agency said the number of people who have fled from South Ossetia into Georgia proper is about 2,400.
* The UNHCR, quoting Russian officials, says the number estimated to be going to North Ossetia, an adjacent region within Russia, stands at 4,000 or 5,000.

One thing that’s to be noted is that UNHCR’s estimates of refugee flows into N. Ossetia fall considerably below Russia’s claims. It’s reasonable to expect that

a) civilian casualty counts are being exaggerated by both sides while
b) military casualty counts are being under-reported.

Beyond UNHCR, who was already in the region dealing with 275,000 existing IDPs, agencies that track war dead more systematically aren’t releasing numbers yet, but a number of them have reported on or issued warnings about the humanitarian situation through ReliefWeb: Human Rights Watch urges all parties to the conflict to refrain from attacking civilians outright – so far, no reports of massacres, just destruction of civilian infrastructure and collateral damage. International Crisis Group calls for an immediate end to hostilities, citing the humanitarian consequences of a wider regional conflagration. Which suggests to me that the direct impacts on civilians are relatively limited at present and that the greatest immediate risks will come from lack of water and shelter among the displaced rather than direct targeting: many civilians have already been evacuated from areas under siege, but now face deprivation and exposure. (At least it’s not mid-winter, yet.)

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued calls yesterday for the parties to facilitate humanitarian access. Unclear as of now whether this constitutes an accusation that either side is so far denying access, or whether it’s just a plea for logistical assistance. As of this morning, UNHCR reports that humanitarian corridors are being established.

More as events warrant.

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