NGOs and Central Asia

by Joshua Foust on 4/16/2007 · 6 comments

NGOs have been all over the blogs lately (the good ones at any stretch). Bonnie Boyd posted a summary of the poor relationship NGOs have enjoyed with Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. More recently, Nathan has written on whether or how NGOs could create a culture of giving. Now, our very own Laurence Jarvik has published an article in the most recent issue of ORBIS, in which he argues that NGOs “take control of civil society,” and in the process serve the “interests of the terrorists, warlords, and mafia dons, who benefit from weak central government, and hinders the West’s ability to mobilize allies to participate in the war on terror.” Pretty provocative stuff. Let’s dig in further.

For one, here is a PDF of the article. Since I can’t think of any easier way of doing this, I’m going to assume you’ll all read the article and then read my (disjointed) comments.

It’s interesting that Jarvik referenced Jessica Tuchman Matthew’s 1997 “Power Shift” essay in Foreign Affairs, about how the Internet was driving a redistribution of power: the massification of society, for lack of a better term. Interesting because it is a thesis intriguingly similar to Alvin Toffler’s 1991 book of the same name, in which he argued the widespread use of computers and enhanced communication technologies (this was before the World Wide Web) would dramatically transform society into one driven principally by knowledge, permanently changing how it functions.

I don’t say this to disparage Jarvik’s article, merely to point out that Tuchman Matthews’ article wasn’t really as original as it appeared, and doesn’t deserve the mountains of praise it received. So while she was correct in seeing the information age as a fundamental transformation of how society and politics work, she was far from the first thinker on this front. She did, however, take it a step further than Toffler: she saw NGOs as a way for the government to pursue its foreign policy objectives outside the bounds of Congressional oversight. What’s even more incredible is, Tuchman saw this as a good thing.


From a macro view, Jarvik is right to call the moralistic discussions of the West with regards to NGOs in Central Asia counterproductive. They are. For sheer pragmatism’s sake, it might not be the most useful approach to discuss, say, the relationship between Freedom House and Islam Karimov as “good versus bad,” even if Islam Karimov is quite objectively evil and thuggish, and Freedom House is quite good-hearted (both descriptions are simplifications, of course). Jarvik draws this idea to its logical conclusion: NGOs are their own class in International relations, with their own significant impact in international relations, and thus worthy of their own level of analysis.

This is starkly illustrated in the conception of al-Qaeda as an NGO. It is, in a very literal sense, one of the most effective NGOs in history: their reach, influence, and impact are unmatched even by more laudable groups like Amnesty International. But even more than the idea of the stateless Islamist suicide bomber as his own unit of analysis, the idea of the NGO worker as her own class is alarming. NGOs create essentially stateless individuals, traveling not under the aegis or protection of national flags or corporate banners (which also have their respective national flags) but under supra-national, humanitarian missions. Such a group of stateless individuals, despite their own good intentions, often make matters where they travel worse, rather than better.

Tangent: required readings on the role NGOs play in the International system are “Collateral Damage: Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict” by Sarah Kenyon Lischer (International Security 28:1), and “The NGO Scramble: Organizational Insecurity and the Political Economy of Transnational Action” by Alexander Cooley and James Ron (International Security 27:1), neither of which are in Jarvik’s bibliography. Both papers address the major, macro-level problems caused by NGOs: the corrupting influence of donors, the desire for a status quo misery for better fund raising, the imposition of foreign standards, issues of sovereignty, the challenge of who to blame when nationals are captures injured, the danger of setting up aid stations in war zones (as you fix as many criminals as victims), and so on.

Back to it: The biggest problem with NGOs is they tend not to attempt organic, locally-inspired solutions. Indeed, as Jarvik notes:

[T]raditional elites had an advantage over the Western-sponsored NGOs: they knewtheir society organically and were masters of how to balance different elements, whether clan-related, geographical, ethnic, business, political, or international. The existing political and business elite could coopt or threaten any businesspeople who sought to switch sides. In a traditional society, they had tradition on their side. Fulbright scholar Elinor Burkett found traditional attitudes widespread when she taught in Kyrgyzstan before the Tulip Revolution. She encountered widespread apathy from her students when she attempted to elicit complaints about the Akayev regime: ‘‘No one is happy with the government,’’ they said. ‘‘But it’s the government. It’s not our right to ask questions of the government.’’ Burkett concluded that ‘‘old traditions die hard, even in the face of Britney Spears and MTV, the Internet, and a democratic constitution.’’

What is Jarvik’s solution to all the madness? A return to nationalism—only enlightened nationalism. He means this in a Kissinger-inspired return to realism, interests, and nation-states, but with a moral twinge. The degradation of the nation-state government since the end of the Cold War, in a general sense (or so this argument goes), is what has driven terrorism further into the mainstream. The kind of “flat world globalism” so breathlessly preached by Tom Friedman and and Jeffrey Sachs is actually what is exacerbating, rather than easing, extremist violence.

Jarvik’s conception, however, is problematic. Though extremist Islam can be seen as a reaction against globalization (from a social, not an economc perspective), it is not a nationalist response. Neither would a nationalist response be appropriate. Al-Qaeda’s transnationalist structure poses major headaches, for as the U.S. has learned quite painfully, addressing transnational terrorism by itself is futile. And, contra Jarvik’s argument, NGOs can be effective in matters of war, peace, and social justice without toppling or weakening the conception of the national government. The International Justice Mission, for example, works through local courts and legal systems to achieve their ends, instead of imposing a top-down system from the outside. Other groups, like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, though annoying when they complain of American problems to the neglect of far more serious issues elsewhere, are not ineffective either: their reports are considered authoritative when formulating policy or examining a crisis area, and their work could not often be done by government parties, given the nature of their contacts and reporting networks. (Update: Nathan has recently called Human Rights Watch “the canary in the coalmine” when it comes to holding governments accountable to their abuses—further illustrating the very useful role NGOs can play in war, peace, and justice.)

The use of IGOs, as Jarvik advocates, also poses problems. Afghanistan is probably the region with the most active and pervasive use of IGOs on the planet: the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, ISAF, and so on have taken over the country, imposing Western ideals and reorganizing things according to a nice, pluralist, Western, classically liberal order. This has resulted in some stunning positive changes, but it has also produced a lot of push back, as promises are impossible to keep, guarantees never guaranteed, and security more or less impossible for at least a third of the country. The PRTs and IFI teams are effective when they set up camp, but the demands placed upon them require only temporary forays into hostile lands, which deeply limits their effectiveness.

This is, of course, solvable through policy changes. The big limitation of IGOs, however, one NGOs rarely face, is that they are inflexible. It is damned tough to get NATO to change its security policy, just as it is incredibly difficult to get the World Bank to re-examine its financial policies. A smaller NGO, like the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, can see the ground-level situation and adjust itself relatively quickly. Of course, it is a trade-off in a forest-for-the-trees sense: you need both, and it’s hard to be both when you’re forced to specialize.

So I propose a balance: NGOs do play a vital role in the international system, by enjoying superior access to local knowledge, and by being more flexible, more tightly focused, and more responsive to donor needs. Governments and IGOs play a vital role in the international system as well, however, by mustering up vastly greater resources, maintaining a wider geopolitical view of the policies on hand, and providing legitimacy to actions taken by their member states. I agree with Jarvik that the pendulum has swung too far toward the NGOs… but it should come to rest in the middle, not at the opposite extreme. That would be too much like a return to the 19th century, rather than a step into the 21st.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dolkun April 16, 2007 at 9:26 pm

Couldn’t access the file, but what the hell. I’ll take a stab, although the article clearly represents a point of view that is probably not possible to dislodge.

I’d like to note a few assumptions however:

1) NGOs hate government, and when NGOs gain a foothold, crime and terrorism result. Countries with stronger civil societies should thus have more terrorism and crime.

2) MNCs working with NGOs is an “unholy alliance.” This assumes MNCs and NGOs have common interests in overthrowing governments which override the obvious differences in individual actors’ positions, i.e. Greenpeace and ExxonMobil both want to establish world governance, so are willing to put their other differences aside.

3) There is a civilizational conflict better handled by realist policies.

Joshua Foust April 17, 2007 at 3:34 am

Sorry, I fixed that link. And you’re right, Laurence is working off some assumptions neither of us (I think) necessarily share. But I also think it’s important to critique the role that NGOs play in International Relations, and especially Central Asia, as he does. We all too often assume “NGO=good, Government=bad” and that’s clearly not always true, even in the West.

Dolkun April 17, 2007 at 3:42 am

There is a lot to criticize, but a more nuanced and balanced portrayal of NGOs would make a stronger case.

Laurence April 17, 2007 at 6:29 am

Thank you for your interesting commentary on the Orbis article. So far, it is the only discussion that I have seen of points raised. As for your compromise suggestion: I’d settle for a 50% across-the-board cut in international NGO funding, as a start. Let’s see what happens after than, then decide whether it would be even better to go all the way…

Joshua Foust April 17, 2007 at 7:03 am

No problem. But the trick in a 50% “cut” is, you’d have to convince a lot of people to stop voluntarily giving their money to the NGOs they see as more effective than IGO or government programs. I know there are weird public hybrids like Freedom House, but in general most NGOs are privately funded, and those private donors are the ones who would have to change.

Brian April 17, 2007 at 9:40 am

I haven’t had time to read the article, so excuse me if I’m saying something redundant or silly, but what about instead of a cut in NGO funding, a mandate for better coordination both amongst NGOs and between NGOs and the host governments?

When I did a bit of NGO work a while back I started under the naive assumption that the UN would act as an umbrella coordinating agency for work in a particular country. After seeing how cut-throat the competition between various agencies to go after a fixed pie, I now feel stupid for thinking that.

I think collectively, NGOs can do good work when pointed in the proper direction; problem is that, except for a brief monthly meeting that only some NGOs attend, there’s little direction. So you get situations where ACTED gives local farmers seed and fertilizer so that their region can feed itself, but then when it’s harvest time the WFP comes and buys all the food and ships it to a neighboring country.

The silly thing is that the UN already has an agency called UNOCHA (UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), however as far as I know they are basically an internal UN agency that is great at sticking lots of pins on big maps. This agency doesn’t tackle the big problems: where is aid most needed, how many resources should be allocated to each particular region, what kind of projects have the highest priority (water, irrigation, roads, schools, etc.), what do we want the country to look like in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, etc.

In my opinion, the UN should not only act as an umbrella coordinating agency, but should also act as a chief liaison between NGOs and the host government, the NGOs and the donor governments, and should (within the bounds negotiated with the host government) guide aid policy.

This could be done if the donor governments had the will to do it, because any NGO that accepts government money could be subject to following protocol. Problem is that there’s not only competition between NGOs, but between donor countries, and within donor countries there’s competition between the lawmakers or politicians that sponsor specific forms of aid. It’s an uphill battle for sure, but I think having more focused, more efficient aid protocol is a better alternative to cutting it.

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