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Muddying the world's conscience

The endless war on terror has claimed another casualty
Muddying the world's conscience

The 'war on terror' is being used as cover for a sustained assault on the independence and progressive agenda of NGOs, says Abigail Fielding-Smith

Friday January 9, 2004

The so-called "war on terror" is radically reformulating many aspects of world politics, not least the international nongovernmental organisation (NGO) sector.
Broadly defined as not-for-profit, autonomous organisations working in the global public interest, NGOs play a pivotal role in international society. They have a strong advocacy voice in intergovernmental politics and are viewed by some as the "third sector" (after intergovernmental bodies and corporations) of international society. Kofi Annan calls them "the conscience of the world".

Having previously consisted only of some faith-based organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), during the 1980s and 90s the sector exploded. There are now an estimated 25,000 international NGOs.

Northern governments respected the NGOs' flexibility, commitment and capacity to respond to (and prevent) international crises in a way that the interstate system could not. Consequently, the proportion of aid budgets given to intergovernmental organisations such as the UN decreased during this period, while funding for NGOs rose steadily. International NGOs now receive one-quarter of the average northern government's total aid budget; the French government gives them nearly half.

Yet NGOs on the other hand have traditionally emphasised the "nongovernmental" aspect of their identity. They have their origins in an ideal of humanitarianism that transcends states and governments. Oxfam, for example, began as an independent student movement to send food to the people of Nazi-occupied Greece.

Clearly, there were always going to be tensions in the partnership between NGOs and governments that developed in the 1980s and 90s. But the ever-evolving balance of needs and expectations was centred around two basic principles - the unconditionality of aid and the independence of the NGO sector. Now the "war on terror" threatens both.

The change is most dramatically visible in "war on terror" frontline states. Western aid agencies have operated in Afghanistan for two decades and have negotiated access to needy communities on the basis of humanitarian neutrality, even during the Taliban years.

Since the US-British invasion of October 2001, neutrality has been difficult to maintain, despite the agencies' best efforts. The US has been widely castigated for its "unhelpful" blurring of military and humanitarian activities. This has included "humanitarian airdrops" from the same planes that had released cluster-bombs, and troops in civilian outfits handing out food.

President Bush complained to his national security council about not getting enough "credit" for the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan. In June, USAid, the body that coordinates funding for US overseas aid, ordered US NGOs to identify themselves more clearly as part of the US operation or lose their funding. A USAid coordinator, Andrew Natosis, said US NGOs should consider themselves "an arm of the US government".

Against this background, the invasion of Iraq fatally compromised the position of NGOs in Afghanistan. Anyone seen to be involved in the international reconstruction effort became a potential target for resistance attacks.

In Iraq, many NGOs have tried to distance themselves from coalition governments by refusing to accept their money. The attack on the neutral ICRC in Baghdad on October 27 demonstrated the futility of this attempt. As Alistair Dutton, emergencies officer for Cafod, explained: "If our government is the occupying power and we are distributing food, where is the distinction between those who wage war and those who distribute humanitarian goods? Politicians have chosen to coin the phrase 'humanitarian war' and they have therefore co-opted us, arguably."

Distinctions are further blurred in Iraq by the unprecedented use of for-profit organisations in the reconstruction operation.

The choices are beginning to look stark for NGOs providing humanitarian relief in "war on terror" conflicts - either act as sub-contractors for the superpower or pull out.

In September, a report was published by the chief institution for defining and prescribing aid policy - the development assistance committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The report, entitled A Development Cooperation Lens on Terrorism Prevention, appalled NGOs. Although it speaks of the need to prevent development aid becoming "an instrument of nondevelopment interests", the thrust of the report is that the resources and capacities of development agencies should be "calibrated" to serve the counter-terrorism agenda.

The report heralds a redefinition of development that means that resources for tactical security operations could come out of already overstretched development aid budgets. For example, money earmarked for getting children out of extreme poverty could go towards beefing up security in east African airports. Tough choices lie ahead for development NGOs if this is to be the new framework for their funding.

Another source of pressure on NGOs' independence is the political environment of the "war on terror". While the threat of terrorism is real and important, there is no international agreement on what it is. The concern in the NGO community, particularly in the US, is that the taint of terrorism may be used to discredit the work of politically dissenting international NGOs, or even to stop their funding.

In the US and Australia, ultra-conservative thinktanks have recently set up units to monitor and investigate the NGO sector. Several European NGOs, including the British-based charity Interpal, have been put on the US's Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list. Interpal provides aid to Palestinians in the occupied territories and was accused of acting as a "front" for Hamas.

When the British charity commission investigated the claims against Interpal it found no evidence for them, nor was the US able to provide any. Interpal was cleared but remains on the SDGT list, and its staff can still be arrested if they travel to certain countries.

Most NGOs continue publicly to maintain that their independence is not under threat. Save the Children UK fiercely rebutted suggestions that its public statements had been "toned down" by its US partners, after transatlantic internal communications were leaked to the Guardian in November. But the Interpal controversy indicates that trends in the US NGO sector may be spreading.

Bond, the umbrella group for British development NGOs, has been sufficiently alarmed to set up a programme to monitor the effects of the "war on terror" on the humanitarian and development community. Richard Bennett, the organisation's director, told Guardian Unlimited: "These trends are a cause of concern for all NGOs that want to see real progress on development goals and the eradication of poverty."

Many of these trends existed before September 11. But the "war on terror" has created an acute need for NGOs' international expertise while at the same time providing justification for glossing over or rooting out their progressive political agenda. At a time when it is needed most, "the conscience of the world" looks vulnerable.

Special reports
The voluntary sector

Useful links
International Committee of the Red Cross
DAC report : A Development Cooperation Lens on Terrorism Prevention
Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDGT)
Save the Children UK

Related articles
28.11.2003: How British charity was silenced on Iraq
29.11.2003: Charity faced US pressure on Gaza

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