Are international NGOs causing more problems than they solve?

The need for humanitarian assistance is greater than ever as the Ukraine conflict threatens to add millions more people to a record global 274 million who the UN has predicted will need urgent assistance this year.

But while international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) may play a prominent role in trying to deliver that aid, critics have suggested that “broken” humanitarian systems risk doing more harm than good.

Paul Spiegel, a former senior official at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), argued in a paper published in The lancet Journal in 2017 that the humanitarian system was “no longer fit for purpose.” Spiegel, now director of the Maryland-based Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, said NPR that the “cobblestone approach” made sense “for a simpler time when conflicts and wars were of a shorter nature and came to an end” but “no longer worked”.

historical problems

Concerns about cultural sensitivity and respect for local communities have long been raised in the context of international humanitarian efforts. A 2018 study by researchers from the Universities of Reading and Portsmouth found that ensuring INGO staff speak the language of aid recipients is generally “a low priority in development”.

In an article about The conversationthe researchers warned that communication problems could leave local people “confused about the goals of aid projects” and “endanger the trust that communities have in NGOs”.

Other critics have argued that humanitarian workers risk inadvertently escalating conflicts in the communities they seek to help. By bringing vital resources to war-torn or disaster-stricken communities, NGOs can relieve rival factions of many of the burdens of warfare and even provide an incentive to continue conflict.

In an article published in The New Yorker In 2010, Philip Gourevitch summarized the logic of the humanitarian era under the heading “Alms Dealers”: “Sow terror to reap aid, and reap aid to sow terror”.

Consider, Gourevitch wrote, “how in the early 1980s, in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, armored, fugitive Khmer Rouge killers were helped to enable them to bring another ten years of war, terror, and misery upon Cambodians; and like the fugitive Rwandan in the mid-1990s genocide were similarly supported by international humanitarian workers in border camps in eastern Congo”.

Mission drift and brain drain

Other problems can arise when a well-intentioned INGO arrives in a community to serve a temporary mission but ends up staying for a long period of time.

INGOs can recruit local workers, which can contribute to an “internal brain drain” of the “community’s best thinkers and hard-working workers,” wrote Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, professor of governance at the University of Essex, in an article about The conversation.

When helpers become embedded in a situation, the group’s original goals can also be forgotten, sometimes referred to as “mission drift.” The resulting humanitarian projects can reduce the incentive for ruling regimes to facilitate and fund long-term recovery efforts.

Some INGOs are tied to governments through funding agreements and service contracts. But problems can also arise when INGOs do not work closely enough with governments, as a lack of communication and collaboration leads to inefficient use of resources.

For 20 years until the Taliban took over in August last year, Afghanistan was heavily reliant on international actors for funding and assistance. Before the Taliban took control of the war-torn country. Foreign aid covered 75% of the state budget and was used to build hospitals, schools and major infrastructure projects such as dams and roads.

But that help has run dryresulting in acute humanitarian needs for more than half of the population following a devastating drought and extreme winter temperatures.

“spur of poverty”

Efforts to raise funds have also been criticized for selling “poverty porn,” “a tactic” used by NGOs and charities “to garner empathy and contributions from donors by showing exploitative images of people living in poverty.” live in poor conditions,” said CNN.

The 1985 Live Aid concert organized by Bob Geldof to raise funds for starving people in Ethiopia “was a marketing exercise that distilled the complex history of the African continent into a logo,” it says The Atlantic.

“Starving three-year-old” Birhan Woldu “became the face of Live Aid,” she said The guard. Speaking to the newspaper 20 years later, Woldu said she was “branded” as a “symbol” of the event but her own life remained “miserable”.

Former aid worker Michael Maren echoed these concerns in his 1997 book: The Road to Hell. The “only practical thing” some of the trainee helpers were taught was “how to pose children for photos that go into brochures and advertisements.”

Labor MP David Lammy has also criticized the “tired and unhelpful stereotypes” perpetuated by such images. “The world doesn’t need white rescuers anymore,” he said tweeted in 2019, under what The mirror described as “Race Row” triggered by a Comic Relief documentary.

High profile scandals

A series of scandals have also affected the reputation of some aid organizations and peace efforts in recent years.

Aid workers rushed to deliver emergency aid in Haiti after the Caribbean country was hit by a massive earthquake in 2010. But eight years later it turned out that some Oxfam staff had sexually exploited survivors.

Amid allegations that the charity tried to cover up the abuse allegations, high-profile ambassadors, including Desmond Tutu, withdrew their support from Oxfam and funding fell.

The UN has also been at the center of some high profile sex abuse scandals. Then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in 2015 that sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers was “a cancer in our system.”

what can be done

Many people working in, or working closely with, international humanitarian aid have insisted that while change is needed, the work of INGOs is essential and often life-saving.

In an article for The guard In 2015, Richie Alford of the Send A Cow charity wrote: “I can’t deny, having heard some of the arguments against aid, there were moments when I considered changing my career and whether I should work for them Charity is working or should be closing”.

However, he argued that “in this imperfect world” it must be ensured that “aid is as effective as possible”. This requires “a purposeful and down-to-earth approach to empowering people” in local communities.

More and more INGOs are now following this approach, including Oxfam, which had a fundamental strategic rethink after the Haiti scandal. According to the charity, the focus has shifted to ensuring that the communities receiving aid are the central actors in their own survival and recovery.

The overview Are international NGOs causing more problems than they solve?

Fry Electronics Team

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