With us or against us? NGO neutrality on the line
by Abby Stoddard, Center on International Cooperation December 2003

The humanitarian community is groping for a way to conduct its work in the face of post-9/11 US foreign policy.

Navigating an uncertain course among military and for-profit actors in Afghanistan and Iraq, and confronted by intensifying security threats, NGOs may be forgiven for reacting with alarm to what they see as a gathering storm against non-governmental humanitarian action.

From the White House, the State Department, USAID, and conservative think-tanks with close ties to the administration, the message is that neutral humanitarianism has no place within the framework of the ‘global war on terror’.

In the past, the mainstream US NGOs have often dismissed with irritation the European fixation with humanitarian principles, regarding such navel-gazing as of little practical value.

In the face of the new US foreign policy, the neutrality question has suddenly become less academic, and US NGOs are facing some very difficult choices.

The scale of the challenge

In May 2003, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios delivered his now-infamous speech to NGOs at a conference organised by the US umbrella grouping InterAction.

In it, he roundly scolded NGOs for not clearly and consistently identifying their aid activities in Afghanistan as funded by the US government, and admonished them that they needed to demonstrate measurable results if they wanted to continue to receive USAID funding in the future.

Shortly after the speech (in a coincidence noted in press reports) a new website, ‘NGO Watch’, was launched by the conservative think-tanks the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.

The website project, kicked off by a conference entitled ‘NGOs: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few’, contends that the largely left-wing NGO sector wields undue influence over US foreign policy and US corporations.

The venture has prompted a more than usual degree of concern among humanitarian practitioners, not least because several senior administration officials come from the two think-tanks involved.

The site’s founders declare that, ‘without prejudice’, they intend to ‘compile factual data about non-governmental organizations’, and much of what is on NGO Watch is no different from the information posted on any number of websites and consortia rosters.

Yet some in the US NGO community suspect that the NGO Watch project was designed as a tool for the administration to bully non-compliant NGOs, so that those who insist on openly criticising the US government’s actions in Iraq and elsewhere will be held up for public lambasting on the site.

The tone of the language about NGOs (‘What are their agendas? Who runs these groups? Who funds them? And to whom are they accountable?’); its corporate sponsorship; and its underlying ideology indicate a heightened level of anti-NGO sentiment, uncomfortably close to official government circles.

How real is the threat to NGOs and humanitarian action? Insiders at USAID and others in the US humanitarian community dismiss fears as conspiracy theory-mongering – an over-reaction fuelled by Euro-humanitarian indignation.

Yes, there are communication problems with the military, but USAID is a longstanding partner and protector of NGOs and fully understands the importance of their independence and the principle of neutrality, despite some surprising rhetoric from officials (Secretary of State Colin Powell’s talk of NGOs as ‘force multipliers’, for example).

Natsios comes from an NGO background himself, and was known not to mince words with the US government. Nonetheless, more seems afoot than just idle talk.

The change in tone reflected in Natsios’ speech appears deliberate and meaningful – as though USAID is at once both remonstrating with and appealing to NGOs to get on board lest both they and USAID lose out to the forces of political change.

Its partners see USAID coming under growing pressure from the administration and a majority in Congress that is sceptical of the foreign aid enterprise, doubts that it can get results on the ground and questions whether it deserves its place at the foreign policy table.

Wider questions

While there may be no concerted right-wing plot to stifle the humanitarian community, three developments threaten to significantly affect mainstream US NGOs and humanitarian action generally: first, the urgency with which the US has linked humanitarian goals with the strategic agenda after 11 September; second, the increasing role of for-profit actors in the aid and reconstruction response; and third, the growth of the ‘faith-based’ movement in aid and policy circles.

Aid and security

After 9/11, the act of providing relief and reconstruction aid has assumed a vital political importance to the US.

At the same moment that the humanitarian community was reaching consensus on the failure of political co-option of the aid response, the US began to demand it to an unprecedented degree.

In the late 1990s, European and US NGOs alike reinforced the importance of the neutrality principle, and stressed the point both to governments and the UN. With 9/11 this all changed; early on in the Afghanistan recovery effort, President George W. Bush complained to his National Security Council: ‘We’re losing the public relations war. We’re not getting credit for what we are doing for the Afghan people’.

As Natsios later put it to the NGOs, in the bluntest possible terms, ‘The work we do is now perceived to affect the national survival of the US’.

Along with the well-known dispute over US military squads in civilian clothing delivering aid to Afghans, US NGOs have had to counter, with varying degrees of success, attempts by the US government to muzzle their press statements and gather information on local partners.

Despite the traditionally pragmatic character of many US NGOs, and their willingness to find ways to work with political and military actors when the situation demands, the largest and most reputable are not prepared to be seen as direct agents of the US government.

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Aid and profit

The second major trend is a burgeoning for-profit presence in post-conflict reconstruction.

The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan are arguably anomalous in their political significance and the scale of reconstruction needed, but Natsios seemed to be putting the NGO community on guard for the future when he declared: ‘Results count. And if you cannot measure results, if you cannot show what you’ve done, other partners will be found’.

And found they have been: the total awards to private-sector firms in Iraqi reconstruction are the largest USAID has ever implemented, dwarfing the sums granted to NGOs for smaller, more relief-oriented projects.

To date, contracts with US corporations for civilian reconstruction in Iraq total upwards of $1 billion (the largest award, of up to $680 million over 18 months, has gone to US construction firm Bechtel).

The provisional authority in Iraq has asked the US Congress for $20.3bn more, of which, if current funding patterns continue, only $.3bn appears slated for non-profit grants (refugee assistance, human rights and civil society).

Even in recovery sectors where non-governmental actors traditionally predominate, such as public health and education, the US government has contracted for-profits instead. NGOs’ arguments that demanding quick results detracts from their efforts and comparative advantage in building close partnerships and stable relations with the beneficiary community have held little sway.

Aid and faith

A third, more subtle shift in US aid policy has been the emphasis on faith-centred aid. Evangelical Christians are increasingly active in foreign humanitarian assistance, and are represented heavily in the current government.

In the late 1990s they drove such pieces of legislation as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which passed over Clinton administration objections, and the withholding of funding for the UN Population Fund for anti-abortion reasons.

During this period, the faith-based agency World Vision overtook CARE as the largest US NGO, with annual revenues exceeding $700m, mostly from private sources.

The widespread practice among evangelicals of tithing (giving 10% of income to church-sponsored charity) makes them a potentially much more lucrative source of private relief and development funding than the average US private donor, who directs only roughly one percent of donations to foreign causes.

Although USAID has long funded many faith-based NGOs, the new emphasis on them is another sign of the scale of the threat to the agency.

Talk of abolishing or radically reforming USAID has been around for decades, but in recent years, especially with the Bush administration, it has taken on decidedly religious overtones.

Shortly after Bush took office in 2001, long-time aid critic Senator Jesse Helms came out in favour of increasing foreign assistance – on the condition that USAID was abolished and future US contributions were funnelled directly through ‘charities and religious groups’.

The five organisations Helms cited as potential grant recipients all happened to be religious, save one (the five were World Vision, Save the Children, Hadassah, Catholic Relief Services and Samaritan’s Purse).

Helms said that he had modelled his proposal on Bush’s private charity and faith-based initiative promoted during the election campaign. Neither this nor past proposals has got through the legislative process, but there is chronic pressure on USAID. Under Clinton, the agency was restructured to come under the more direct control of the Secretary of State, and staff numbers were cut from 10,000 to 7,300.

Iraq: lessons still unlearned

The NGO gold rush repeated itself in Iraq, a situation not only morally fraught but also lacking in massive, life-threatening needs.

There is, though, an alternative scenario, whereby the NGO community collectively agrees to present a united humanitarian face to the occupying power before an invasion, inventoried capacities and pooled resources, waited to assess needs, and then jointly agreed with the UN on the necessary interventions, maintaining as much distance from the military presence as circumstances permitted.

This is of course far-fetched, not because of funding reasons but also because of the lack of leadership and will among NGOs to collaborate effectively. Natsios’ speech indirectly hit on a hard truth: the continued fragmentation of the aid community remains a weakness, and the humanitarian enterprise too often adds up to less than the sum of its parts. These are challenges that face not just US NGOs, but the entire community.

The future

Much depends on the outcome of the next presidential election in 2004. Democrat front-runners have sharply criticised the Iraq invasion and Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive security, and have called for the US to cede control of civilian assistance programmes to the UN.

But regardless of who wins, a complete rollback of the ‘war on terror’ is unlikely, and US NGOs need to take a hard look at themselves, their funding structures (nearly all receive over half of their funding from government sources) and their relations with the government generally.

Despite genuine and public reservations about launching operations in Iraq, most US NGOs have entered the fray in one way or another.

Nearly all the US NGOs polled by InterAction at the beginning of the crisis indicated that they would refuse all funding from the US military-controlled authority in Iraq, but one by one nearly all have done so now.

The crisis of conscience that this has begun to trigger threatens to make the aftermath of Goma look paltry by comparison.

Abby Stoddardis an Associate at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University.

References and further reading

Nicholas D Kristof, ‘Following God Abroad’, New York Times, 21 May 2002.

Jim Lobe, ‘NGOs in the US Firing Line’, Inter Press Service, 14 June 2003.

Andrew Natsios, ‘Remarks at the InterAction Forum, Closing Plenary Session’, 21 May 2003, www.interaction.org/forum2003/panels.html.

Colin Powell, ‘Remarks by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the National Foreign Policy Conference For Leaders of Non-Governmental Organizations’, 26 October 2001, http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/terror/01102606.htm.

Eric Schmitt, ‘Helms Urges Foreign Aid Be Handled by Charities’, New York Times, 12 January 2001).

Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

USAID, ‘Assistance for Iraq: Contracts and Grants’, 10 October 2003, www.usaid.gov/iraq/activities.html.