NGOs & the ‘industry’

Very interesting food for thought here. Still chewing on it.

In the world where most prominent nongovernmental organizations see their role in the international legal process as public advocacy, often through naming and shaming, one very prominent NGO stands apart — the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 152-year old Swiss institution founded by Henri Dunant to aid the victims of armed conflict worldwide. With its staff of over 12,000 in 80 countries, the ICRC has a reach greater than that of the best funded NGOs. It self-proclaimed mission is to serve as the ‘promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law.’  Much of its work consists of hundreds of confidential visits and authorship of numerous secret reports to monitor compliance by armies, security forces, and non-state armed groups with IHL. In doing so, it is deliberately opaque: it rarely identifies violators publicly; it leaves its legal position on many key issues ambiguous, sometimes even from the target of its discussions; and at times it avoids legal discourse entirely when persuading parties to follow legal rules.

This aversion to transparency is not only at odds with the assumptions of the naming and shaming strategy regarding the most effective means to induce compliance. It also makes it almost impossible for outsiders to know the ICRC’s legal characterization of specific cases. As a result, its approach to protection of victims, even if successful in individual cases, seems to undermine its self-professed role as the guardian of – the authoritative interpreter of and voice for — international humanitarian law.

…But perhaps the better question is not how much secrecy the ICRC needs for its work in promoting IHL compliance, but how much secrecy the ICRC needs for itself. For in this regard, the institutional culture seems engrained from the highest levels to the newest delegates. The mantra can be heard from the Avenue de la Paix to the farthest flung of the delegations: We are the ICRC. Our only purpose is to help the victims. We do not name and shame. We maintain confidentiality. Secrecy is part of the personality and identity of the ICRC, as much as its neutrality, impartiality, and professionalism. To surrender that attribute would simply make it too much like any other NGO. This sort of catechism led to disaster for the ICRC – and, more important, for the people whose deathly fate it chose never to reveal – once in its history, and while it has occasionally revealed or denounced grave violations, those remain the exception. This question cannot be answered through doctrine, but through an acculturation that requires delegates and senior officials to ask themselves more often whether confidentiality is achieving the humanitarian purpose or undermining it.

–Steven R. Ratner,  Behind the Flag of Dunant: Secrecy and the Compliance Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross


Because if there’s one thing any EAW [expat aid worker] worth her or his hardship allowance knows, it’s that integration and process are “good things”, always, by definition. Regardless of the task at hand, integration and inclusion can always be assumed to add value. There is virtually no facet of the aid industry or the EAW’s experience which does not benefit from additional process and/or the inclusion of other participants.

There are few doctrines in the church of aid so sacred as the doctrine integration and process.

Process = accountability.

Integration = transparency.

Process + Integration = impactful aid.

And so as you no doubt expect, there is no EAW sin quite so egregious as the opposite of integration and process: “working in silos.”

It has been proven, established fact since at least 2001  that working in silos has been the cause of every bad thing from the fall of Rome right up to yesterday’s badly implemented handicrafts project. “If only they hadn’t been working in silos…” is the common refrain from undiscovered humanitarian prodigies and reasonably paid evaluation consultants alike. Working in silos is at the root of what keeps MONGOs from becoming BINGOS, and LNGOS from becoming SLoNGOs. If things are going badly at the NGO, UN agency, or project the culprit is almost certainly that people – maybe even you – are working in silos. Any new leader coming in from outside or EAW recently promoted to management will serve her/his career well by rambling on about how everyone needs to stop working in silos.

For those EAWs so naïve as to think that they can simply focus on their tasks, do their jobs, or keep their heads down, think again. Everyone in the agency is relevant to whatever it is that you’re working on. Just getting on with your job and doing what needs to be done with out a lot of ponderous discussion is just proof that you’re not really committed to saving the poor from poverty.  So no, actually you can’t make this decision on your own. An inclusive, integrated process matters at least as much as what actually gets done.

–J, Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,  #176 Not working in silos

As someone who recently worked in strategy, planning & evaluation in a BINGO integrating its work, I can verify this also applies to human rights workers in London. Sigh.

[The International Committee of the Red Cross] displays liberal goals but pursues them through conservative means. That is, the welfare of individuals is the highest value in its mandate, but it proceeds slowly, cautiously, with minimal objectives, and mostly on the basis of the consent of public authorities. Further, it claims to be non-political but is inherently part of humanitarian politics. It professes impartiality and neutrality, but it calculates how to advance humanitarian policies that are in competition with other policies based on national and factional advantage. (2005: 2)

–David Forsythe, The Humanitarians, p. 2

Astute observations by Forsythe on the contradictions of a fantastic organization.

I wrote reports that people didn’t read. I went to meetings that didn’t amount to anything. I argued about organizational politics that didn’t matter.

When I look back, I wonder how it was possible to be so busy yet doing so little. How did any of that really help our ‘beneficiaries’?

I’m pretty sure it didn’t. I don’t miss it. 

–a friend, reflecting on his former life working at a big international humanitarian NGO in London

I didn’t agree with my friend when we had this conversation. However his words have echoed in my head since then–admittedly louder during bad, ineffective and inefficient moments.

This sentiment is not the whole truth of (big/international) NGOs. It is a partial-truth though.

There are no quick fixes to eliminate organizational inefficiencies or to maximize impacts for victims of rights abuses and aid recipients.

But even if this is a slow fight, this reflection reminds me what’s at stake if we don’t improve.

There is growing recognition of the importance and potential of proximity between NGOs and their audiences, between audiences and beneficiaries, and between NGO professionals and the places and people they seek to help. Survivors and beneficiaries are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and direct mailings, and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper.

“Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector,” POLIS, June 2012, pg 19