2 Cheers for NGOs

 

Skipsul’s recent post on the nefarious role that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) sometimes unwittingly play in the third world is an excellent read and echoes other recent articles critical of NGOs as a whole. (A Jerusalem Post piece called them the “new feudalism”). As an American expat working for an NGO in Iraq, I felt somewhat compelled to respond, not out of any desire to “defend the herd,” but simply to offer a little insight into their nature, both good and bad. I’ll restrict my commentary only to the areas I’ve worked in or observed personally. I would suspect some of what I say might not be relevant or applicable to NGO work outside of Iraq.

Important to note, NGO work is broadly divided into two often mutually exclusive parts; advocacy and humanitarian work. Most NGOs exist either to advocate and lobby for a particular issue or to provide a particular humanitarian service. You might assume they do both as a matter of course, but with rare exceptions, most NGOs stick to one or the other. The reasons for this are quite simple and each have their tradeoffs. Advocacy work is inherently political in nature. Either you’re lobbying for local/foreign governments do do something (give money, provide assistance, etc) or you’re lobbying for local/foreign governments to stop doing something (genocide, discrimination, neglect) Since local governments often bear some responsibility for the disaster being addressed in the first place (Iraq especially), advocacy NGOs can find themselves at loggerheads with local politicians. And believe me, you will never find a more petty and conniving politician than the ones this country produces. As such, advocacy groups are usually reluctant to delve into humanitarian work because these efforts would be hampered by their too-public profile.

For the strictly humanitarian NGOs, you see the mirror dynamic. They keep their heads down, focus on their work, and stay out of the morass of politics. This allows them the freedom to go about their business with minimal interference from local authorities. The unspoken and unwritten agreement is that if they don’t meddle in politics, politics will be less likely to meddle with them.

 

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Rabin Hormizd in Alqosh, Iraq: Assyrian Christian monastery built around 640 AD

 

Meanwhile there are some NGOs that try to have it both ways and advocate publicly while engaging in humanitarian work. This requires a careful threading of the needle, and the results can sometimes be disastrous. As an example, one NGO here made a public post on social media criticizing a regional party boss earlier this year for some truly appalling remarks of his. When the NGO staff went out to work in the refugee camps the next time, they found that all of their permissions had been terminated, and their work here basically ceased for the summer. But such are the risks when engaging in advocacy and humanitarian efforts. There is a constant question of balance; do you speak truth to power when the community you serve is demanding an impassioned defense against something egregious? Or do you let it pass, maintain your ability to work, but lose the confidence of the people you are claiming to give a voice to? 

There is a common perception among conservatives that NGOs are nothing but liberal trojan horses, using the cover of humanitarianism to advance some stealthy big government agenda in the third world. It’s true that expats who work in NGOs are almost uniformly liberal (it would be awfully lonely if I had conservative expat drinking parties). But I assure you, on the ground, their concerns tend to much more parochial in nature than ideological. My politics are worlds apart from just about every foreigner I work with, but it has precisely zero bearing on any of the work we’re involved in (interestingly, I have much more in common philosophically with Iraqis I work with than Americans, but that’s for another story). 

The truth is that in places like Iraq, NGOs really do fill a gap in services that would otherwise not be provided by the existing state authority, whether because of corruption or simple incompetence. If you have never spent any significant time living in a borderline-failed state, you cannot begin to imagine the malfeasance and capriciousness that marks the local political machine. Denying basic services, education, or freedom of movement to whole swaths of people based on religion or tribal affiliation; scandals and abuses that would be front-page news in the US are in Iraq just called “Thursday.” 

Regardless of whether an NGO is engaged in advocacy, humanitarian work, or both, there are a few other characteristics that can be indicative of their effectiveness. As a general rule, the less specific an NGO’s mandate is, the less it does. Resources are finite for organizations big and small and money goes to the priority as defined by each charity. If there is no priority or the criteria is too vague, then the money is diluted. Also, NGOs who leadership comes from the same community they are serving, whether local or from the diaspora, tend to have a better track record than those made up exclusively of foreigners. Human nature being what it is, most people are slightly more hesitant to swindle those closest to them than total strangers, so there is a built-in correcting mechanism at work. Unsurprisingly, the most effective organizations assisting Assyrians Christians and Yazidis are themselves staffed and lead by Assyrian Christians and Yazidis. 

 

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Lalish: Yazidi pilgrimage site located in Iraq’s Nineveh Governate 

 

This isn’t to say that NGOs are immune from corruption and malign influence. They aren’t. Local governments will co-opt them whenever they can and especially when the foreign staff have little understanding of the political and cultural dynamics. Authorities will tell all sorts of tall tales about how the NGOs are mandated to get approval from the government for all hires or maintain a quota of local staff (from a government-approved pool of applicants); none of which is true. The motivations for authorities to do this is obvious; install cronies in positions of power and also for the intelligence services to keep tabs on the activities of foreigners. 

NGOs also engage in their own blundering stupidity without the prodding of local authorities. The most common such example I’ve seen is the concealing of motives. I don’t know if it’s something peculiar to the region, but for whatever reason, northern Iraq in particular is a veritable pilgrimage site for savior complexes, false messiahs, and snake oil salesmen. Painful as it is to say, the evangelical charities tend to be the most prone to causing mischief with the best of intentions. I can think of multiple examples of religious groups ostensibly engaged in strict humanitarian work, but who were later revealed to be subtly engaging in proselytizing. The evangelizing itself was not the issue, but more troublesome was the founded perception that humanitarian services were being dispensed with in exchange for listening to sermons, attending religious ceremonies, distributing Bibles, or even converting. I know these people had the best of intentions, but to the groups they were targeting, it was downright predatory. Keep in mind that we are not talking about victims of flood or famine, but people who have been raped, tortured, and targeted for extermination because of their “pagan” beliefs. The fact that these missionaries did not appreciate this fact was nothing short of astounding.

NGOs are not, as some might suggest, a modern, more savory form of colonialism. If anything, local governments love NGOs for the milking potential they represent, whether it’s nepotism, spying, or the infusion of foreign money into the economy. Indeed, the political class in backwaters like this can’t help but let the mask slip whenever a longtime victim group is seeking to rebuild on their own or move out of the country altogether; the response boils down to, “Don’t do that! Give us money instead! We’ll take care of them!” 

This fact has left with me with a recurring question during the better part of a year spent here; does the presence of NGOs merely encourage corrupt governments not to reform? Might the governments be forced to account for their behavior if NGO support to their citizens vanished tomorrow? Knowing the culture of Iraq and its history, I lean towards answering with a resounding no. The crime families that masquerade as political parties here would not change an iota if there was an absence of foreign entities to help the people. Whatever services currently being provided by NGOs would simply not be provided in their absence.

There is nothing inherently non-conservative about the idea of NGOs. As a Burkean, I fully support free associations of people collaborating to raise money for a cause that suits their fancy. NGOs often have the capacity and willingness to tackle challenges that local authorities are too incompetent or too overwhelmed to be bothered with, be it providing education, infrastructure rebuilding, trauma support, etc. And if richer countries are going to continue providing foreign aid to poorer ones, well then I’d much rather see them route the money through charities like these than through the kleptocracies that run these regimes. Ultimately, NGOs are an imperfect solution to an intractable problem, but the good ones provide immense relief in the absence of stable governance.

There are 15 comments.

  1. SkipSul Moderator

    Thanks for the information. There are very good ones out there, but as you say they often are not the ones trying to play politics back here.

    • #1
    • December 8, 2016, at 5:52 AM PDT
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  2. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B. Post author

    skipsul:Thanks for the information. There are very good ones out there, but as you say they often are not the ones trying to play politics back here.

    True. For whatever reason, organizations of a given specialty will eventually feel compelled to speak on matters outside their scope of expertise in matters of politics. There’s should be a “_____’s Law” for this phenomenon.

    • #2
    • December 8, 2016, at 5:55 AM PDT
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  3. Titus Techera Contributor

    So we’re halfway there–let’s get this published!

    • #3
    • December 8, 2016, at 5:59 AM PDT
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  4. Seawriter Member

    Byron Horatio: There’s should be a “_____’s Law” for this phenomenon.

    “Horatio’s Law”? “Byron’s Law”?

    Seawriter

    • #4
    • December 8, 2016, at 6:02 AM PDT
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  5. Titus Techera Contributor

    Byron’s law is probably an oxymoron…–bad, mad, & dangerous to know is more like it.

    • #5
    • December 8, 2016, at 6:08 AM PDT
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  6. Clavius Thatcher

    So how does one reliability identify an effective NGO worthy of financial support?

    • #6
    • December 8, 2016, at 6:53 AM PDT
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  7. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B. Post author

    Clavius:So how does one reliability identify an effective NGO worthy of financial support?

    I originally began writing this post in the hopes of answering that, but then realized I couldn’t. It’s a lot easier to identify what is ineffective.

    But for some general guidelines, I would first pick an area/cause/people that you want to support. Of the charities that are related to that cause, look over their websites. Are all of leadership listed? Is the site kept up to date? Are the NGO’s projects transparent and clearly defined? If you are in contact with them, are they upfront when you ask questions? Can they articulate current project needs and funding shortfalls or produce a document explaining as much?

    If the answer is no to any of these questions, it doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate. Just for me, it would be cause for hesitation in supporting them until I knew more.

    I declined to recommend any NGOs by name in this post, but in private message, I would be happy to recommend some causes and charities worthy of consideration.

    • #7
    • December 8, 2016, at 7:24 AM PDT
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  8. I Walton Member

    Byron Horatio: There’s should be a “_____’s Law” for this phenomenon.

    Well there’s my corollary to Gresham’s law, “with time, bad politicians and bureaucrats drive out good politicians and bureaucrats.” This is a law that suggests sunset provisions, no government involvement, small size, real presence, low budgets, and religious motives.

    • #8
    • December 8, 2016, at 7:38 AM PDT
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  9. Umbra Fractus Inactive

    Byron Horatio:

    True. For whatever reason, organizations of a given specialty will eventually feel compelled to speak on matters outside their scope of expertise in matters of politics. There’s should be a “_____’s Law” for this phenomenon.

    O’Sullivan’s Law, maybe? “Any organization which is not consciously right-wing will become left-wing over time.”

    The corollary being that an organization’s ability to keep its mouth shut and do its job is inversely proportionate to the leftism of its leadership.

    • #9
    • December 8, 2016, at 8:47 AM PDT
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  10. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Excellent post, Byron. I didn’t realize the two major motives that drive NGOs and the effectiveness based on how well they manage their goals. It sounds like on balance, the ones there for humanitarian reasons are more likely to directly benefit the people. And charlatans will show up anywhere that money is exchanged. Thank you.

    • #10
    • December 8, 2016, at 9:04 AM PDT
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  11. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Umbra Fractus:

    Byron Horatio:

    True. For whatever reason, organizations of a given specialty will eventually feel compelled to speak on matters outside their scope of expertise in matters of politics. There’s should be a “_____’s Law” for this phenomenon.

    O’Sullivan’s Law, maybe? “Any organization which is not consciously right-wing will become left-wing over time.”

    The corollary being that an organization’s ability to keep its mouth shut and do its job is inversely proportionate to the leftism of its leadership.

    It’s more of the Iron Law of Bureaucracies, isn’t it? As time goes on, the people dedicated to the bureaucracy itself outnumber and take control from the people devoted to the goals of the organization.

    • #11
    • December 8, 2016, at 10:31 AM PDT
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  12. Umbra Fractus Inactive

    Matt Balzer:

    It’s more of the Iron Law of Bureaucracies, isn’t it? As time goes on, the people dedicated to the bureaucracy itself outnumber and take control from the people devoted to the goals of the organization.

    I would say that applies to activism in general, not just bureaucracies.

    • #12
    • December 8, 2016, at 10:33 AM PDT
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  13. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Umbra Fractus:

    Matt Balzer:

    It’s more of the Iron Law of Bureaucracies, isn’t it? As time goes on, the people dedicated to the bureaucracy itself outnumber and take control from the people devoted to the goals of the organization.

    I would say that applies to activism in general, not just bureaucracies.

    That makes me wonder if it’s possible to have successful activism without bureaucracy.

    • #13
    • December 8, 2016, at 10:35 AM PDT
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  14. Z in MT Inactive

    Matt Balzer:

    Umbra Fractus:

    Matt Balzer:

    It’s more of the Iron Law of Bureaucracies, isn’t it? As time goes on, the people dedicated to the bureaucracy itself outnumber and take control from the people devoted to the goals of the organization.

    I would say that applies to activism in general, not just bureaucracies.

    That makes me wonder if it’s possible to have successful activism without bureaucracy.

    Yes, as I Walton stated, it is always a race between accomplishing a mission and getting overtaken by one’s own bureaucracy. The best way for this to happen is a culture of starting an organization with a clear mission with objective goals, then killing the organization once the objectives are achieved. One is then free to start a new organization with new objectives with many of the same people, but the act of killing the organization prevents mission creep and diffusion.

    • #14
    • December 8, 2016, at 11:12 AM PDT
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  15. OldDanRhody Member

    Z in MT:

    That makes me wonder if it’s possible to have successful activism without bureaucracy.

    Yes, as I Walton stated, it is always a race between accomplishing a mission and getting overtaken by one’s own bureaucracy. The best way for this to happen is a culture of starting an organization with a clear mission with objective goals, then killing the organization once the objectives are achieved. One is then free to start a new organization with new objectives with many of the same people, but the act of killing the organization prevents mission creep and diffusion.

    In Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, Roland Allen discussed some of the great differences between the way the Apostle Paul conducted evangelistic church planting and the way it is being carried out by modern mission societies. One of the key points was that Paul would plant a church and move on – he didn’t hang around to micromanage the thing.

    • #15
    • December 8, 2016, at 11:30 AM PDT
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