Despite the dire humanitarian conditions, on 4 June this year the operations of all aid and development NGOs in Zimbabwe were suspended by the Government. As was widely reported, it is reasonably clear that this action was taken to mimimise witnesses to the acts of intimidation and violence that the Government used to influence the outcome of the election. Since that time, limited operations have re-commenced; however, the future for NGOs operating in Zimbabwe remains very uncertain.
In contrast to the human-made disaster in Zimbabwe, Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar on 2 May was, in terms of the human death toll, the third worst Asian cyclone. Only a 1970 storm that killed 500,000 people and another that killed 143,000 people in 1991, both in neighbouring Bangladesh, had higher death tolls. Yet, fear and distrust resulted in the Government of Myanmar initially prohibiting international NGO staff from entering the country. While international staff can now obtain entry visas, limitations on freedom of movement in the country remain and it is uncertain for how long access will continue to be permitted by the Government.
In Darfur, the operations of NGOs are constantly hampered by the Government and the safety of agency staff threatened on a daily basis. This is likely to deteriorate even further now that the International Criminal Court has charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with crimes against humanity.
There are a number of possible explanations for why restrictive regimes may be increasingly wary of aid and development NGOs.
Firstly, the political nature of aid and development work is becoming increasingly evident. Although there were Cold War struggles over civil and political rights versus economic, social and cultural rights, much of the time aid and development work has been viewed (and even represented) as a largely technical exercise. This charade has, however, become much more difficult to play. With the adoption of rights based approaches by many agencies, aid and development work has been purposely aligned with human rights outcomes. This is a significant change.
In the immediate post-colonial period following World War II it was often argued that economic development required an inevitable trade off against some human rights. Now, there is almost universal recognition of an intimate relationship between the two. In the same way, development work is no longer seen as charity but as a contribution to the fulfilment of rights.
Secondly, the continued growth of the human rights discourse, the increasing activism of the ICC and the gradual (and grudging) emergence of a ‘responsibility to protect’ within the international community, is leading those in power to pause and become more concerned about who is witnessing their actions.
Thirdly, in many places, the ‘war on terror’ is a battle for hearts and minds resulting in aid activities becoming a ‘force multiplier’ and a key battlefield tactic. It is not by accident that, on some calculations, nearly 25% of the US government’s aid is distributed by the Department of Defence. Military personnel are also directly involved in delivering humanitarian aid, blurring the distinction between them and aid workers. The result is that, despite often decades long presence in a country, aid and development actors can no longer expect that they will be permitted to continue to operate when political conditions become more restrictive.
While I personally welcome the increased recognition given to the inherently political nature of development work, there are, of course, many critics of this trend and it does create a number of practical challenges, particularly in managing relationships with governments in difficult contexts. Some commentators, such as David Rieff, author of A Bed For the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, argue that this watering down of humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality results in development agencies losing their moral bearings. Rieff argues that aid and development agencies should focus on the humanitarian aspects of their work, irrespective of their frustration with this approach and whether it fails to address the underlying causes of poverty. On the other hand, Hugo Slim argues that basing humanitarian action on human rights makes values explicit and ‘humanitarian action less vulnerable to being shrouded in moral generalisations and driven by mixed motives’. Peter Uvin, goes even further. He believes that NGOs should impose minimum standards on recipient governments, below which they refuse to operate. In this way, they will avoid being seen as condoning the actions of tyrants or accusations of complicity. If adopted, Uvin’s approach would probably result in aid and development NGOs withdrawing from many of the world’s most dire humanitarian crisis.
There are also practical challenges. If human rights are indivisible yet finances limited, how does one make policy choices? While the passports of the few expatriate staff are usually ‘get out of jail free cards’, what about the hundreds of local staff that aid and development NGOs usually employ and their families? To what extent should their opinions be taken into account? And if good development work requires the active participation of government, how can this be secured if development NGOs are simultaneously involved in an explicitly political agenda?
The result of this changed operating environment is that aid and development actors need to spend much more time engaged in analysis of the costs and benefits of their actions, not just to the organisation itself but to the broader humanitarian context. This requires staff with well developed political science skills, not a usual area of expertise in such organisations. It also requires development actors to engage with a much broader range of actors if their work is to be effective. They need to partner more and use collective advocacy to maintain operations while continuing to address some of the underlying isues. Finally, they need to remain deeply pragmatic. Aid and development NGOs should not become human rights NGOs. There are real advantages in working together while recognising that each is important and has a different mandate.
The more NGOs that adopt a rights-based approach to their work, the greater the normative power of human rights and the more likely that citizens’ rights claims will be met by their governments. Ideas do matter, even in international relations and human rights are a powerful idea. Seriously implemented rights-based approaches should also lead to much more effective development work. However, this more explicitly political approach to aid and development work makes the endeavour even more complex. For aid and development agencies, this means it’s out of the fire and into the frying pan.
Paul Ronalds is Deputy CEO of World Vision. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of World Vision.