How NGOs Blur the Line Between Help and Harm

The role of transnational advocacy networks and humanitarian aid agencies is considered an indispensable aspect of rehabilitation and reconstruction in war zones. However, the repercussions of their presence in those regions are largely ignored by states that fund such projects. It seems that this question has only been deemed relevant in the wake of atrocities carried out by ISIL against foreign aid workers in this past month—and that, too, only because those who have been brutally killed hail from states that are home to these international, non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

This sudden concern perturbs me. It makes me wonder if humanitarianism really has been reduced to a mere smokescreen for military interventionism, like so many militant groups assert.

All of this had been close to my heart even before much of the Western world thought it was newsworthy. Partly, because of the presence and contribution of these entities in my homeland, Pakistan. I also became concerned by the perception that their impotence proves that these organizations never truly intended to help the people; that they were only meant to distract them with a false illusion of support while the streets rang out with the sound of bullets, bombs and foreign boots on the ground.

It is still unclear to me when these very distinct interest groups—the military and NGOS—became a unified ‘other’ for many, including myself. Why has it become so difficult to distinguish subcontractors from relief personnel?

Perhaps it can be traced back to the aggressive, moralistic rhetoric employed in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The Bush administration portrayed military men as being part of a moralistic mission to not only save the Iraqis and Afghans from their oppressive regimes but also to supplant those regimes with a very U.S.-centric notion of liberal democracy. The White House emphatically linked the army’s means to the same end as that of the NGOs attempting reconstruction. 

In the field, the distinction became even more confusing. The use of local men like Dr. Shakil Afridi and the vaccination ruse to track down Bin Laden in Abbottabad produced an environment of acute distrust between states that require assistance and those that provide it. Subsequent murders of polio workers in Northern Pakistan, a region seen as a hotbed for the disease, began in 2012 and are a direct consequence of this.

In her book War Games, Linda Polman notes that 80 percent of the victims of violence against international NGOs are local workers. These civilians are deemed legitimate targets by militant groups for being collaborators in the ‘agenda’ of the Western world.

To the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Ba’athists in Iraq and ISIL in large parts of the Middle East any form of foreign aid is simply a ploy to collect intelligence against them. This material support is merely ‘soft’ intervention to garner public sympathy and has nothing to do with morality or accepting responsibility. Collin Powell’s brand of aid, replete with American flags accompanying food packages, may very well be to blame.

As a whole, NGOs presently deliver more aid globally than the United Nations. But Lakhdar Brahimi, a UN war-zone commission chief, warns these organizations of the “need to realize that our [the UN’s] flag is not enough protection.” The fatal 2003 attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad is emblematic of this. It was a clear sign that just like messianic military intervention, humanitarian aid was also unwelcome if it was Western in its origins.

The David Haines video released by ISIL Sept. 13, titled “A Message to the Allies of America,” encapsulates this synonymy of humanitarianism and military interventionism in the eyes of these militant groups. Alan Henning, a British aid worker, is now awaiting his turn at the gallows.

While most NGOs and aid agencies take targeted action to ameliorate pertinent problems like rebuilding roads and schools and ensuring access to sanitation and clean water, one wonders how much autonomy these international groups really have in negotiating their agenda. Development projects, at present, have to be remotely managed because of security threats. Rather unsurprisingly, large amounts of money are being siphoned off in the process of relegation and disbursement. And even the most sympathetic of Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis are becoming increasingly bitter.

According to Fabrice Weissman from the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières Foundation, the people whom the United States and NATO hoped to appease after a decade of war are far from satisfied. Their standard of living, instead of improving as promised at the time of invasion, has drastically deteriorated and unfortunately there simply is no development on the ground to dispel that belief. The militants are using this disillusionment to increase popular support—thousands of fighters joining ISIL is just one appalling example.

So as Obama orders air strikes in Iraq and Syria, I think of all the ways in which these donor agencies will try to make their cause and that of their financiers seem moralistic and compensatory. I am reminded of how I’d scoff at the scenic USAID television adverts while I was home during the summers—not only because the war-ravaged do not have access to cable networks or LCDs to appreciate the high definition shots and soothing voice-overs, but because the adverts in themselves seem to prove the militants right. Maybe humanitarianism and interventionism do serve the same purpose when it comes to military strategy, and, ironically, that is the only perception that the United States and its NATO allies seem to share with ISIL right now.

Aiman Chaudhary PO ’17 is a pseudo-philosophizing poet, politics major and proud Pakistani. Portions of this piece were originally developed for an academic class.

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