Explainer: Obstacles and Opportunities for NGOs Providing Humanitarian Relief in a Changing World
Explainer: Obstacles and Opportunities for NGOs Providing Humanitarian Relief in a Changing World

JURIST Deputy Features Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Shai Dromi, author of Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Construction of the Humanitarian Relief Sector (University of Chicago Press, 2022) and co-author of Moral Minefields: How Sociologists Debate Good Science (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), about his research on the impact of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Could you please describe what an NGO is?

An NGO is a non-governmental organization, which typically works on areas like human rights, humanitarian aid, and public policy without being directly dependent on any state organization or institution. Occasionally, they might receive funding through grants or through other programs that they administer, but at least the ideal is that they are independent in their decision-making.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of an organization being independent from the government?

A big disadvantage is that an independent agency has to keep raising money, through fundraising or applying for grants. This is especially difficult for smaller NGOs and could mean the organization has a very tenuous existence where one unsuccessful funding cycle could result in the need to fire people to cut costs. State agencies that work on humanitarian relief on the other hand enjoy much more stability, although their budgets could be cut at some point. Many more resources are available to state agencies in terms of administrative assistance, office space, and so on.

A big advantage is that an NGO can normally react much faster and can act after going through far fewer channels to address human rights violations or humanitarian crises. This is because the NGO is independent, which allows them to channel funding and personnel much faster than most government organizations. In addition, an NGO, at least ideally, will be better able to maintain neutrality and impartiality compared to an organization that works as part of the state and might be subject to various changing political agendas depending on who is in power. 

I noticed you said the word ideal a lot. Do you see a difference between the ideal of what an NGO should be and how NGOs operate in reality?

Yes. Oftentimes NGOs are effective, and they do truly independent and truly neutral work in the field. Nevertheless, some NGOs, especially smaller ones, are almost always dependent on fundraising. And with fundraising and donations often come requests and interest from the donor or the donor agencies. Oftentimes, funding resources are for a specific region, for a specific problem, or even for a specific problem in a specific region. That means that when an organization has to decide where to send humanitarian aid, they have to balance competing interests: on one hand, the organization wants to look at the map for the worst disasters; but on the other hand, the organization also has to think about where can the funding that it needs come from and for which specific cause. So sometimes the decision comes down to donors: if donors currently prefer to send aid to combat Ebola in Western Africa, for example, then that is where the NGO has to go. So although the NGO can be independent of the state, it might be dependent on donors’ wishes.

In addition, there are certain NGOs that, despite having an ethical code that declares that they’re independent, actually work very, very closely with the local government. One example is the People’s Republic of China’s Red Cross, which has been informally termed GONGO, a government-organized non-governmental organization. It does a lot of good still, but it is very hard to say that it’s independent, especially in contrast to an organization like Doctors Without Borders which is known to take very little money from governments. An organization like Doctors Without Borders is better able to work based on its agendas and to determine which humanitarian needs are the most pressing in this region.

Apart from an example like China’s Red Cross, do NGOs often get involved in politics? And if so, in which ways?

Although NGOs often do advocacy work, it’s unusual for an NGO to publicly lobby for a specific candidate or to participate in actual electioneering. Instead, an NGO might advocate for specific bills or specific causes to be promoted by lawmakers. For example, in Canada, many millions of dollars of federal funds were channeled to COVID vaccine research, and Doctors Without Borders of Canada launched a big advocacy campaign to require firms that take government funds for this purpose to make the vaccine that they produce public.

In the United States, it’s extremely risky for an NGO to lobby because the Internal Revenue Service has very clear restrictions about the type of political intervention a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is allowed to do. For example, a 501(c)(3) organization is only allowed to spend a certain percentage of its time on lobbying. Furthermore, NGOs working in countries that are either involved in active conflict or have a repressive government might get in trouble with local authorities and be removed from the country. This happened in Ethiopia in the 1980s when the government removed NGOs from the country for criticizing its management of the famine situation. NGOs in North Korea have also been forced to leave on several occasions, so some considerable risks make NGOs hesitant to engage in political activities.

I know that you mentioned how oftentimes there can be a government agency trying to provide humanitarian relief alongside an NGO. Is there any research into which type of structure is more effective?

NGOs can be faster [ed: than their governmental counterparts], and that’s critical when it comes to disasters. But at the same time, NGO assistance tends to be temporary. And it’s very hard to have any sort of certainty about the future when needs are supplied through NGOs because the NGO might lose its funding or it might have to change its funding. Also, a more urgent situation might emerge elsewhere, in which case the NGO might leave or at least take away some of its resources to the other place. Or anything else might happen. Whereas when we’re talking about government assistance, the ideal is that this will turn into a longer-term operation where, with the help of international development organizations, the local government will work to build infrastructure and provide resources that will help prevent future disasters from reoccurring.

This was a problem in Haiti, where many NGOs are trying to respond to the series of natural disasters that occurred there over the past decade and a half, as well as to the government’s occasional inability to deal with the consequences of natural disasters. But because of the multiplicity of NGOs, there has been very little coordination between them, which causes problems like unnecessary supplies being sent over when other supplies were needed, as well as competition over funding between different NGOs. There have even been stories of abuse of the local population by NGOs. While the Haitian government did develop a national plan of recovery that included rebuilding a lot of the infrastructure that was damaged and restoring governance to the entire country, this plan was unfortunately not adequately funded internationally. Additionally, on the more ethical side, international donations do not provide beneficiaries with control over the type of assistance that is being funded. This highlights how a recipient of an international donation often has very little say about how the assistance will be managed. If the assistance is coming from a democratic government, then citizens can demand basic necessities from their government as a right, rather than as a gift. That’s why oftentimes, it can be advantageous for the government to do the long-term work.

Because NGOs are less of a democratic process than government aid can be, are there examples of people being skeptical of receiving aid from an NGO?

The first example that comes to mind is when there is a secessionist conflict, where part of the territory is under the control of the central government and the other is no longer under that control. In this situation, individuals will oftentimes have a lot of suspicion about where the aid is coming from. Especially, because they worry about whether accepting aid will get them into conflict with whoever is in power at the time. This is what happened in Syria. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has had serious trouble providing aid outside of the areas that are fully controlled by the Syrian government. Because people in the disputed territories had concerns that the organization was a government agency, they thought they might get in trouble with whoever had power in their area for appearing to have accepted aid from an organization that’s associated with the government. Conversely, Doctors Without Borders has been present in the far north and east of Syria, areas that have not been under Syrian government control for a while. They have had the opposite problem the closer they try to get to Damascus, the more resistance they’re getting because it’s not clear whose side they are on. So sometimes having the false appearance of being in some way connected to either a government or to a rebel organization might cost an NGO dearly.

A separate problem is that aid organizations are often targets, especially when there’s a civil conflict where certain groups try to take ownership of the aid and then leverage that to gain control of the population. Unfortunately, you see this happen where an aid convoy will be attacked and detained, and its supplies will be used to try to gain the population’s favor. Afghanistan has been extremely prone to that phenomenon. It also raises some complicated questions for NGOs. For example, is it okay for an NGO to get protection from an occupying military? What could be worse for the trust of the population, if you’re being protected by the armed force? Conversely, how do you manage to put your aid workers’ lives at risk? The phenomenon is often referred to as bunkerization, where the aid organization surrounds itself with guards, barriers, and so on. This has happened in Afghanistan and Yemen, among other places. But, this is extremely harmful to the trust of the population

NGO work in North Korea presents another example of distrust because the North Korean government insists on directing where the supplies are sent or who they’re offered to. This is incompatible with humanitarian principles because just like in medicine, the idea of humanitarian aid is to offer the aid in the place where it’s most needed and where the organization can intervene the best. However, North Korean policy has been to prioritize the military. And that’s why oftentimes there ended up being either a complete usurpation of the supplies that the humanitarian aid organization brought in or the humanitarian organization completely leaving the country, because it is not able to evaluate the situation independently and make its own determination of what’s the most pressing need.

Given the complexities these organizations face, do you have any recommendations or reform ideas for NGOs wishing to be more effective? 

I think a viable process that has been emerging in the United Nations, especially given COVID, is called localization. Historically, international NGOs or the UN would swoop into the country where the humanitarian need is providing aid and then leave. Now, however, there are increasing efforts to empower local organizations and local NGOs which offer the aid independently right in their locale. And I think this brings several advantages. First, I think it provides more opportunities to be employed because often local workers and local supplies are present, but just need to be distributed. Second is that local organizations are often much more familiar with the culture, the social structure, and the potential dangers of the area, compared to outside interventions. Another advantage is that empowering local organizations, such as NGOs, can contribute also to democratization, or the enhancement of existing democracy, in the sense that individuals are better equipped to make demands on their local government, push back against harmful local policies, and create new initiatives. This strengthening of democracy also aligns with the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.

I think localization, if it continues, will help the work of NGOs and help ensure that they are successful. And ironically, this came about, or at least was pushed forward because of COVID, because the pandemic prevented international travel for a while and international organizations literally could not reach their field sites. The United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) has been working with local NGOs and bringing NGO leaders and workers to various workshops and training, offering tools and resources, and empowering local civil society leaders to take charge of aid in their countries. So I think this is a really wonderful direction.

Another direction, which is less new, but I think has become more effective in the last several decades is ensuring that local governance is prioritized. This means that as soon as the actual emergency is over, the NGO starts to direct attention toward the local government and towards ensuring that the local state organization regains their activity and that governance is established in the entire sovereign territory. I think that having the understanding that a functioning government is the most sustainable and will actually help prevent future humanitarian crises from occurring.

How do you think NGOs will change in the future?

I think that this is an exciting time for NGOs because I think COVID-19 led to huge growth across many different organizations. One point that I mentioned is how the lack of ability to travel contributed to the localization of aid. Also, I think that NGOs, especially those working in the medical areas, had to develop a new skill like contact tracing. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and other organizations already developed contact tracing during the 2013-16 Ebola crisis in West Africa, but the sophistication certainly expanded during COVID. Furthermore, organizations had to learn to fight miscommunication and fake news, especially surrounding medical information. This became a new purview of humanitarian aid organizations, out of the understanding that access to reliable news is going to have an actual effect on people’s health. Additionally, at least throughout the acute parts of the pandemic, there was more cooperation between organizations that normally don’t cooperate. For example, Doctors Without Borders normally shy away from state interaction, but in the United States, they had several programs with the US government, which would have been unthinkable several years ago. I think because of COVID, NGOs think much more big picture now. Public health, crises, as we know now, involve an entire country, even the entire world. You can’t just treat one part of the population and call it even. This is something that has to be a national effort. I think we have yet to see what emerges out of these changes, but I do think that this is a very exciting time for NGOs, especially those in medical humanitarian aid.