NGO’s – Can they do more harm than good?

By Ian Howarth

If we are to understand whether or not Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) can ‘do no harm’ we need to examine the structural system in which they operate.  This involves looking at the growth in the role of NGO’s in major humanitarian crises, and the structural changes that have driven this growth, giving an increasingly significant role to NGO’s.  We also need to look at the growing trend amongst donor states towards contracting out humanitarian aid programmes to NGO’s, and the division in responsibilities that this practice has created between NGO’s and Governmental Bodies.  The operational position of NGO’s in conflict zones will also be examined; demonstrating that although they play a positive role in providing humanitarian relief; there involvement can lead to the exacerbation of conflict by institutionalising the status quo.Aid

The role of NGO’s since the end of the cold war has expanded significantly; the removal of the ideological and political restrictions that dominated the cold war not only led to an expansion in the tasks of NGO’s, but also in their numbers.  The expansion of NGO involvement into areas that had traditionally been considered the preserve of nation states can be traced back to the Biafran war in Nigeria during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The impact of television images showing drought, starvation and war, on an increasingly affluent western society led to civilian driven programmes providing aid to the afflicted of Nigeria/Biafra.  The massive spread in NGO’s during the 1990’s was connected to globalisation.  Social and economic interdependence, combined with global communication has given us access to, and an awareness of remote and previously unreported regions of the world.  This means that an earthquake in India or flooding in Mozambique can be broadcast into living rooms across the world within hours, or even live from the scene.

The effects of the media on public perceptions of humanitarian crises, and on governments in the developed west have been substantial.  The 1984 Live Aid appeal followed ‘….  Western television coverage..[which]…brought sickening scenes of malnutrition and death from starvation to the homes of tens of millions of well-fed people.’  (Gilbert 1999: 619)  The public response to these images was a call for a stop to the unnecessary deaths they were witnessing in the comfort of their living rooms every evening on the nightly news.  This response led to a massive media driven aid campaign, which was hugely successful despite the aid arriving too late; with an estimated ‘three-quarters of a million people’ (Gilbert 1999: 619) dying from starvation.  However, the aid that did arrive benefited ‘…at least ten million more…’  (Gilbert 1999: 619)

Live Aid instructed a generation that through their own actions they could potentially ‘feed the world’ independent of their governments through donating money to NGO’s or volunteering time and effort.  They could impact on the lives of others who were not as fortunate as themselves, and change the world for the better.  This led to a ‘…growth in informal non-governmental transnational networks.  These include NGO’s – both those which undertake functions formally undertaken by governments, e.g. humanitarian assistance, and those which campaign on global issues, e.g. human rights, ecology, peace, etc.  These NGO’s are most active at local and transnational levels, partly because these are the sites of the problems with which they are concerned…’  (Kaldor 2001: 73)  Thousands of people have become involved in these campaigns either indirectly through donating money, and signing petitions or directly by cutting fishing nets, or protesting.

Ethiopia was undoubtedly a success for humanitarian NGO’s, the campaign mounted through television, popular music and politics brought about massive international assistance from governments across the world, and led to real results on the ground; with the British government sending RAF Hercules transport planes to deliver food to remote regions through airdrops.  Live Aid can be seen as the beginning of the modern NGO movement, although organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid had been around for many years prior to this crisis, assisting in disaster zones across the globe, their role, and profile was far diminished from what we see today.  The role of NGO’s in conflict zones significantly changed from that of auxiliaries to state based programmes, to representing a response in them-selves.  Today the arrival of NGO’s with their global aid campaigns and government subsidies in a disaster zone can alone bring about sufficient support to negate the need for a wider international military or state based humanitarian response.

The position of NGO’s as neutral, independent entities operating outside the foreign policies of nations has given them a unique status in international politics.  This has meant that when operating in conflict zones they can act as neutral intermediaries, providing humanitarian assistance, while remaining outside the politics of the situation.  Equally in natural disasters they can enter an afflicted region quickly at the request of a government; avoiding the complicated issues surrounding state sovereignty that arise from sending multinational state sponsored relief missions.  The reluctance of states to surrender control over a situation no matter how dire could prevent calls for assistance, and block the arrival of aid to people in desperate need.  NGO’s in their capacity as non-state actors work in a way that prevents this.

The combination of globalisation and the emergence of new post-cold war crises have meant that the list of NGO’s operating around the world today is ever growing.  The largest and more established organisations like OXFAM, Christian Aid, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, increasingly work like multinational corporations; with hundreds of aid programmes, development initiatives and exchange programmes operating across the globe.

The rise of NGO’s during the 1990’s occurred in parallel with a wider change in the approach of states to the allocation of their aid budgets for humanitarian assistance.  This saw the United Nations (UN) expand its role within humanitarian issues, with the same changes in circumstances as NGO’s leading to the creation of new commissions and agencies such as UNICEF and UNHCR.  These developments increased the influence and role of the UN in the provision of humanitarian assistance.  ‘The last decade of the twentieth century saw an unprecedented increase in the number and scale of military interventions by the United Nations forces: this has been called new interventionism.  Between 1988 and 1993 alone, 20 new peacekeeping missions were established.  At the same time, the size and budget of the annual UN peacekeeping budget shot up from US$230 million in 1988, to between US$800 million and US$1.6 billion throughout the 1990’s.’  (Baylis, Wirtz, Cohen & Gray 2002: 287)

The expansion of new interventionism in international relations boosted the growth of NGO’s, providing substantial new sources of income, and increasing their size and power.  ‘A major reason for the proliferation of NGOs has been the recent inclination of both international and bilateral aid agencies to contract out much of their fieldwork…’(BBC News 2004) This along with the ‘…big increase in humanitarian assistance; nowadays it amounts to over 10 per cent of official development assistance…[and]… the establishment of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in 1991 and of the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) in 1992 reflects the growing importance of humanitarian assistance.’  (Kaldor 2001: 132)

NGO’s often work closely with government development and humanitarian assistance agencies, providing the infrastructure through which aid and financing is funnelled.  This has meant that NGO’s are increasingly becoming the enabling agencies of government aid programmes, often gaining funding from several sources, even governments for each programme.  This has meant that NGO’s have in many ways become the only show in town when it comes to humanitarian assistance, the UN does not provide doctors, or run international media campaigns, it does provide administrators, finance and political legitimacy.

The UN organises the political and administrative structure of missions with local authorities, establishing their legitimacy, and providing an umbrella under which the NGO’s can work.  This operational structure creates a division of responsibility; political negotiations, economic development and conflict resolution are dealt with by the UN, while food, medicine, basic infrastructure and other practical humanitarian requirements are provided by NGO’s.  NGO’s in providing the infrastructure for relief missions can increasingly act without UN supervision, having their own administrative capabilities through which to operate.  This also means that the enabling capacity of the NGO’s can be used to influence UN policies.  If NGO’s refuse to operate under the conditions established by the UN or the host state then there is no mission; this has made NGO’s powerful players in the planning and implementation of humanitarian missions.

These financially competent transnational organisations independent of any single government, who work to provide emergency relief to desperate people; are viewed by many as a third way to dealing with the humanitarian implications of state disintegration, natural disasters and civil wars.  However, the political atmosphere that the symbiotic relationship between state financing and NGO field work produces has had a negative effect on the approach to humanitarian crises taken by the international community.

The fact that NGO’s work on a consensual basis within disaster zones under UN political auspices or at the bequest of a host state means that they are dependent on the acquiescence of third parties.  This situation is partly due to the politics of NGO’s ‘Cosmopolitan politicisation can be located both within the new transnational NGOs or social movements and within international institutions, as well as amongst individuals, around a commitment to human values (universal social and political rights, ecological responsibility, peace and democracy etc.) and to the idea that self-organised groups, operating across borders, can solve problems, and lobby political institutions.’  (Kaldor 2001: 76)  The belief in their ability to solve problems independent of states or without the use of coercion or force leads to the pursuit of consensus and agreement as an end in itself rather than dealing with the wider issues of the conduct of war or corruption within host governments for example in the siphoning of funds from aid budgets.  This is a particular problem for NGO’s in conflict zones, situations that bring about NGO dependency on the political agreement, and support of combatants in order to operate on the battlefield.  This reliance brought about by a need to work within the prevailing circumstances; represents a systemic failure in the way NGO’s and the UN approach the dilemma of providing aid to civilians caught up in war.

This problem was seen at its starkest in Bosnia during the early 1990’s.  The civil and ethnic conflict that erupted in Bosnia following its independence from the Yugoslav Federation represented a massive humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe.  The response of NGO’s to the crisis was punctual entering the conflict zone long before the creation of a UN mission and the arrival of peacekeepers; establishing food convoys, refugee camps, and setting up medical facilities while the war raged around them.  The initial response of the NGO’s was timely and became increasingly important as the war continued and the siege of Sarajevo commenced.  The lifeline of medical and food supplies provided by NGO truck convoys and airlifts into the city, and to the safe areas like Bihac and Srebrenica were vital; without them, the cost in lives of the war would have been considerably higher, with starvation and the cold adding to the death toll.

However, the structures that supported these efforts were questionable, the truck convoys had to pass through Serb or Croat controlled territory in order to reach the safe areas and the airlifts had to fly over Serbian anti-aircraft batteries to enter Sarajevo.  The cost of keeping these lifelines open was in the NGO’s and the UN having to deal with the combatants.  This occasionally involved turning a blind eye, or in supplying medical or food aid to combatants.  The need to maintain these agreements and the position of neutrality within conflicts have led the UN, often with NGO support, to stand back and not intervene to prevent human rights abuses and genocide.

The tenuous position held by the UN and NGOs in Bosnia, were taken advantage of by the combatants; in his testimony to the UN War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, Momir Nikolic stated that, Serb commanders issued a directive for dealing with UN safe areas “…the life of the enemy has to be made unbearable and his temporary stay in the enclave made impossible so that they leave en masse as soon as possible, realizing they cannot survive there…the policy was carried out said Nikolic…Civilians were fired at, aid was blocked, and fuel, food and other supplies for the UN were halted…” (Simons 2003: 2)

The result of this policy was seen in Srebrenica where a UN safe area had been established for Bosnia Muslim refugees in April 1993.  Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic demanded the surrender of the ‘safe area’ in July 1995.  NATO attempted air strikes on the Serb forces; however, the Dutch peacekeepers were taken hostage and NATO stopped the strikes  ‘…following negotiations between the UN and the Bosnian Serbs, the Dutch were at last permitted to leave Srebrenica, leaving behind weapons, food and medical supplies.  In the five days after Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica, more than 7,000 Muslim men are thought to have been killed.’  (BBC News 2003)  This failure by the UN was a result of the policy of neutrality towards the combatants, and the failure to take action against clear acts of aggression.  It is an attitude promoted by NGO’s, and although the UN takes the main measure of the blame for Srebrenica, the Red Cross and other NGO’s resident in the safe area, withdrew along with the UN.

The balancing act demanded by NGO neutrality, and the weakness of this approach when dealing with dishonest and unscrupulous regimes, or groups is apparent.  The international communities reliance on NGO responses to conflicts such as Bosnia, Rwanda and initially Kosovo has meant that thousands of people have died.  The consensus driven approach to humanitarian intervention is not the third way it is presented to be, it is in fact a means of passing the buck.  NGO’s for all their promise do not posses the appropriate tools to deal with a situation that demands military intervention, as they lack the capabilities of states.

In Bosnia the arguments against taking military action against Bosnian Serb forces, despite clear evidence of organised genocide being committed by these forces, revolved around the issue of the neutrality of the UN mission.  The UN couldn’t take sides, if it did it argued the peacekeepers and NGO’s would become targets.  This argument meant that it was five years before NATO under American pressure finally bombed the Bosnian Serbs besieging Sarajevo into submission and to a peace settlement at Dayton Ohio.

The existence of NGO’s on the ground in Bosnia in the long run became a liability. Their vulnerability on the battlefield presented an argument for not taking action against forces committing genocide, and flagrantly abusing UN safe zones.  The reliance on consensus and agreement with combatants, and their role as the enabling agencies of the UN relief programme; led the UN and its forces, designed so as not to provoke hostility towards themselves, and protect the NGO’s, to become an obstacle towards ending the conflict quickly.  It is arguable that the Bosnian war could have been brought to as swift a conclusion as the later Kosovo campaign if the international community had opted for an immediate military solution to Serb aggression against the Bosnian state, rather than the humanitarian led response that left itself exposed and unable to act.

It is clear then that NGO’s can do harm, the way in which they operate and the system of responses they promote from the international community to crises; particularly to conflict, are in themselves harmful to the people they aim to protect.  Humanitarian assistance in these circumstances should take a secondary role to the issue of preventing and ending human rights abuses and bringing about political stability.  The examples of Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s represent circumstances where aid, and the operating practices of NGO’s defined the nature of the UN missions sent, and the tone of the international response.  Both of these cases led to genocide, and inaction, with the later only finally brought to an end through military intervention.

NGO’s offer a huge reserve of expertise, and resources, they have and will continue to save the lives of millions of people.  However, they should be the rearguard of international responses to humanitarian crises, particularly in war zones.  Where a robust response is possible from the international community, they should work around it, and accept that neutrality isn’t always a noble, or suitable position to take.  NGO’s should help rebuild shattered countries after the fighting has stopped, deliver food, and heal the sick.  However, the rules of engagement of international missions should not be determined on the basis of making it easier for NGO’s to operate. Their involvement in a crisis zone, and the politics they encourage should not be allowed to present an argument for inaction in the face of genocide.


Baylis, John, Wirtz, James, Cohen, Eliot, Gray, Colin S. (2002) Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.289

BBC News Online (20th February 2003) Srebrenica Timeline

BBC News Online (25th February 2004) Ghana to Blacklist NGO’s

Gilbert, Martin (1999) A History of the Twentieth Century; Volume Three: 1952 – 1999 HarperCollins, London, pp.619

Kaldor, Mary (2001) New & Old Wars; Organized Violence in a Global Era Polity Press, Cambridge, pp.73, pp.76, pp.132

Simons, Marlise (13th October 2003) Behind the Srebrenica Massacre The International Herald Tribune, pp.2