International NGOs and the ‘New Humanitarian Agenda’

Babu Rahman

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 2

This article is based on a paper presented at the workshop on Understanding Security and Development in Africa, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 8th March 1997. Let me begin by briefly explaining what NGOs are. NGOs are Non-Governmental Organisations. In the UK we might describe some of them as Charities, although not all NGOs actually have legal charity status. In this article I am concerned with those NGOs whose work occurs in a country different to the one in which they are based; that is International NGOs, or INGOs. More specifically I will examine those INGOs who participate in the relief of humanitarian emergencies.

There is such a tremendous diversity in what we might refer to as the INGO sector that it is very difficult to talk of them as having a single agenda except in terms so broad that they are unhelpful. Rather, what I intend to examine is a discourse which I contend has arisen from, and about INGOs and emergency humanitarian relief. INGOs do not as a rule conduct their operations in secret. INGOs do not generate their funds in the way that commercial organisers do, by offering goods and services in return to their customers. INGOs customers are the Southern peoples who they regard themselves as helping in their diverse and often dramatic ways, where as their donors are sympathetic governments and peoples in the North. INGOs generate funds by convincing their donors of the moral urgency of their mission, and their own competency in fulfilling this. The work of INGOs is essentially twofold – to fulfil their mandates in the South, and to organise their communication with donors and other actors such as the media and academia in the North to validate their mandate and their fulfilment of it.

This process of communication hence reflects the identities, objectives and values of the INGOs which participate in it. It is this process of communication which constitutes the INGO humanitarian discourse. INGOs are not the only actors to engage in this discourse; academia and international and local media organisations have had as much to say about INGOs’ relief of humanitarian crises. My aim in this article is to illustrate the practice of humanitarian relief by INGOs with reference to this discourse, focusing on issues and concepts of human rights, and in particular the way it has responded to the new interventionist international humanitarian agenda which has arisen following the end of the Cold War.

Throughout much of the post-World War Two period, humanitarian relief for INGOs was a matter of responding to short term crises in the ‘Third World’. Because the crises were perceived as being short-term, for many INGOs the norm became established at this time that relief was a short term activity aimed at returning affected populations to a situation of normalcy. As some INGOs became preoccupied with processes of economic development in the nineteen sixties, concepts of economic and social rights became more relevant to their constructions of emergency relief. Some INGOs began to describe poverty as the most important factor in the creation of disasters, since it made people vulnerable to the effect of cataclysmic environmental phenomena like earthquakes and floods in a way that people living in more wealthy countries were not. Critically however the task of relieving humanitarian crises was seen as separate from providing developmental aid.

The instability of newly independent post-colonial states, continuing wars of national liberation, and the extension of superpower rivalry to the South throughout the Cold War meant that both developmental activities and emergency relief activities occurred more and more often in the context of violent conflict. Mass human rights abuse and the deliberate targeting of civilians became an increasingly common feature of these conflicts. The external humanitarian norm of political neutrality first enshrined in international law in the form of the Geneva Conventions, and in the body of the Red Cross movement obliged humanitarian agencies to refrain from taking actions which could be interpreted as challenging the sovereignty of states. This caused a severe crisis of conscience for many INGOs.

Speaking out on these human rights abuses risked compromising the access they had to the very groups of people they aimed to help. In many cases the worst abusers of human rights were the very same governments whose permission INGOs had to seek to conduct their relief and development activities. The protection of human rights was defined in international law and state practice as the responsibility of states themselves. During the Cold War the only states which had the power, in terms of military, political, and economic capability, to force an end to these abuses were the same ones whose involvement made these conflicts as severe and as savage as they were. Moreover, even had there been willingness on the part of the superpowers to bring pressure to bear on their proxies, the political contingencies of the Cold War prevented the possibility of collective international action even being discussed in most cases. Not speaking out raised dire moral questions for the individual relief workers who witnessed the abuses and saw the effects of the terrible atrocities committed by state and rebel forces. For some INGOs such as Oxfam, the period from the 1960s onwards saw an increasing internal contestation of the norm that the efficacy of providing relief required them to avoid offending human rights abusing states. For others, such as Save the Children, there was an internal norm which regarded anything other than what was strictly defined in their own mandate as unacceptable political activity for which they were neither competent, nor mandated. They were concerned with children’s social and economic rights – Amnesty International could take care of political and civil injustice.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, whilst some INGOs struggled gravely with the consequences of not speaking out, others such as the French agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, made a virtue of ‘whistle-blowing’ on instances of human rights abuse. Many of those that did not speak out on issues of political and civil rights developed sophisticated concepts of social and economic rights. In Latin America and Southern Africa even the provision and protection of these rights, which INGOs often went to pains to describe as non- political, brought them into conflict with repressive governments. For Oxfam in the late 1980s this finally pushed them into publicly making a connection between their social and economic developmental concerns and the protection of civil and political rights.

The end of the Cold War has had a profound impact on INGOs’ provision of emergency humanitarian relief. Initial talk of a ‘New World Order’ raised many hopes that freed of their Cold War agendas powerful states in the North could now work towards the resolution of conflicts in the South. In particular, the concept of humanitarian intervention became increasingly regarded as a way for the international community to justly use force to end massive human rights abuse and extend humanitarian protection to vulnerable people in an increasingly unstable world. Perpetrators of genocide could be brought to book, and no more would civilians have to suffer the abuse of their governments for want of international censure or unacceptability. Most importantly for INGOs, the sacred cow of state sovereignty began to be questioned at the level of the society of states, particularly where it was seen as a cloaking device for human rights abuse. The strengthening of concepts of humanitarian access by the UN General Assembly, and the creation of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs seemed to indicate that international humanitarianism was being considered far more seriously as an area for legitimate state action.

Those INGOs who described themselves as concerned with issues not only of social and economic rights, but also civil and political ones increasingly began to call on states to follow their New Humanitarian claims with action on behalf of vulnerable populations. International media coverage of the extreme suffering of civilians in a selected handful of humanitarian crises further helped to create a dynamic amongst populations in many Northern states to respond with the deployment of troops and material. Initially the involvement of international military forces in the protection and relief of the Kurds, Somalis and the various groups of civilians caught up in the Bosnian conflicts seemed to indicate that humanitarianism had finally come to the top of the foreign policy agendas of the states most able to effect change.

These interventions have however raised new dilemmas for INGOs. Military intervention has occurred as a response by states to terrible humanitarian crises which initially cause tremendous domestic outrage. These crises however are increasingly complex in both cause and effect. The dynamics of internal conflict have changed. In Somalia, Liberia and Angola ideology is no longer a factor in conflict, insofar as it ever was, and robbed of their superpower support combatants are involved in a struggle for the resources of the state. For many of them, in the absence of total victory a continuation of conflict is seen as a desirable outcome. Often ethnic, tribal, and clan identities have been constructed to gain support and internal legitimacy for their activities. Attacks on civilians and robbing them of their societal and material security are no longer ancillary to war aims, but are war aims in themselves. Many groups of people such as women and children have become targeted by combatants, and in the case of children are increasingly used as instruments of violence. INGOs as providers of material aid are also increasingly targeted. Political neutrality which was seen during the Cold War as necessary to the maintenance of access and security has increasingly become irrelevant to contemporary humanitarian crises. The New Humanitarian Agenda of human rights protection and conflict resolution has become an issue of physical security for INGOs and the vulnerable communities they seek to aid. Witness for example a press release issued by Oxfam last year which alongside an appeal for justice for the victims of the Rwandan genocide, called for international military protection of refugee camps in eastern Zaire.

Such military protection is not without its problems. If international military forces themselves become involved in the local conflicts as in Somalia and Liberia, they risk making the humanitarian environment for INGOs even more insecure. This is particularly so when the states responsible for sending the military forces see this as a substitute for resolute political action as in the former Yugoslavia, and are unwilling to become involved in the longer term resolution of local conflict or the provision of social justice as in Rwanda. Under such circumstances many INGOs have reversed their positions on intervention, and tried to distance themselves from international military forces and the ‘international community’ which sent them. This happened in Somalia when UN forces, led by the US, engaged in a short and disastrous war with local Somali factions compromising and alienating many INGOs who had been working with UN civilian and military agencies. It must be remembered that not only did this action cause severe amongst national contingents within the UN force, but also led to the unnecessary and endlessly futile deaths of thousands of Somali civilians.

The development of the internally constructed identities and interests of some INGOs has found external expression in the form of the New Humanitarian Agenda. The convergence changes in the external international environment, particularly at the level of the society of states, with their own concerns for human rights protection, and new and ever more savage intra-state conflict seemed to present not only more urgent calls on INGOs humanitarian values, but also seemed to create a role for them as part of a wider expression of international humanitarian values. Even those INGOs who did not overtly take part in calls for humanitarian intervention and the international protection of human rights have begun to internally address the relevance of civil and political rights, and their espousal of ‘non- politicism’ in the light of new and more dangerous disaster scenes.

The practice of New Humanitarianism has raised as many problems for INGOs as it has sought to redress. To some extent this is the result of the changing patterns of conflict, not only in the traditional ‘Third World’ but also, as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia have shown within Europe itself. It is also the result of a gap between the New Humanitarian rhetoric of states, and their political resolve in engaging the complexity of post-Cold War conflicts. To some extent these problems can only be resolved by more open policy making by these states, and a clear understanding of what they are willing and unwilling to do. Doctrines of humanitarian intervention however are also being created in the field by the uneasy and complex relationships between INGOs, local combatant forces, UN agencies, and international military forces. This is more than a matter of the strategic agendas and the domestic politics of UN member states; there is frequently an intense clash of cultures between these actors. Military agendas have often sat uneasily with the bureaucratic politics of UN agencies, and the independence of INGOs own internal humanitarian mandates.

The urgency and instability of humanitarian crises mean that there will always be a degree of tension and conflict between the various actors at the scene of humanitarian crises, and indeed it is only from such tension and conflict that policy emerges. The INGO humanitarian discourse has reflected differences in the internal organisational cultures and mandates of the INGOs who participate in it. Differences between INGOs on which areas of human rights advocacy are legitimate aspects of humanitarian activity originate within INGOs, and arise from the way human rights are constructed as part of their organisational humanitarian culture. The importance of INGOs organisational culture extends beyond the area of human rights, and acts as a framework through which they individually construct and understand the whole concept of humanitarianism, and appropriate humanitarian practice. Those concerned with the furtherance and implementation of The New Humanitarian Agenda must consider the impact of internal culture on the way organisations respond to the demands of post-Cold War humanitarian crises. Longer term cultural discourse between military organisations, INGOs, and UN agencies must act to create broader understandings of each other’s agendas and policy making structures, so that interactions in the field can be harnessed and directed towards a comprehensive resolution of humanitarian crises. Local actors must be included in this discourse where possible, so that humanitarian policy making is sensitive to local cultural and political conditions. In short, the only way to achieve the New Humanitarian Agenda is through the creation of a new and perpetual, culturally informed debate on the nature and objectives of contemporary international humanitarianism between all the actors involved in such relief. This debate must begin in all instances with the internal restrictions on each actor’s behaviour.