Tag: NGOs

Market Values: Why Local Human Rights Work Needs Global Funding?

As IR scholars thinking about the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in shaping international norms, we rarely think to ask those doing the work on the ground what they think (this author is guilty as charged).  Plenty of work has gone into researching how others NGOs think of one another (Murdie and Davis, Hadden) and try to shape one another’s’ behavior (Deloffre), how international NGOs shape international norms through their work with other political actors (Carpenter, among others), and how NGOs might censor themselves (Bush).  Others have also looked at how external, in particular, Western donors, can shape the NGO-scape in a certain country (Luong and Weinthal, Sundstrom), but very few of us have then thought about where else the money would come from if not from outsiders meddling in the internal politics of state-society relations (see however, Brass, Dupuy et al. for a view of Ethiopia, work by Gugerty and Suarez).   Continue reading


Bottom’s Up: Exploring the Resource Mobilization of Local Human Rights Organizations

James Ron, Archana Pandya, and David Crow’s article investigates the resource mobilization of local human rights organizations (LHROs) in India, Mexico, Morocco and Nigeria. Having theorized the transnational networks, strategies, politics and influence of NGOs, Ron, Pandya and Crow now turn the attention of international relations scholars to the local contexts in which NGOs work. Drawing on original data including 263 semi-structured interviews with key informants and LHRO staff in 60 countries as well as public perceptions surveys in each of the four cases (n= 6,180), they find that although there is widespread public support of human rights and trust in LHROs, domestic publics do not donate to LHROs. They call this the “resource-rights” puzzle.

One nagging implicit normative assumption in the article is that somehow the resource-rights puzzle has negative or adverse effects on the work and impacts of LHROs. One obvious reason why LHROs might want to raise funds locally is the sense that Northern donors push Northern agendas and raising funds from local communities would empower LHROs to better represent local interests (Bradshaw 2006). Ron, Pandya and Crow’s public perceptions data however, show that the surveyed publics in the four cases generally support the broader human rights agenda. So while the funding might come from the global North, substantial local support for human rights principles and groups exists. Continue reading


Policymaking Gone Global: Learning to Work with NGOs

Policy schools prepare students to work in the public policy realm, most often training students for positions in government. But policymaking is an increasingly diverse field, policy issues span the globe and multiple–state and non-state–actors take part in decision-making and policy implementation. How should we teach global policy-making in policy schools?

In a recent article co-authored with Cristina M. Balboa, Policymaking in the Global Context: Training Students to Build Effective Strategic Partnerships with Nongovernmental Organizations [ungated access here], we use a case study of the on-going global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and descriptive data from an analysis of MPA/MPP programs to demonstrate the need for teaching “global” policymaking. [1] Continue reading


PETA’s Shock Tactics: Irresponsible Advocacy or Strategy and Positioning?

[As two fellow NGO researchers, Wendy and Maryam are going to collaborate on some posts to provide contrasting views on hot-button issues related to NGOs. Think of us as the Siskel and Ebert of
NGOs – we definitely agree on certain things, but clearly not on others (and don’t ask who’s who). Our points of view will not always reflect what we personally think of an issue–we need drama and suspense!–but we will always provide food for thought.]

By now everyone is well aware of the recent tragic killing of Cecil the lion by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Josh shared a post about this incident here on the Duck, as have countless others. One opinion from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA), no stranger to controversial statement, has caught plenty of attention:

“If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.”

Needless to say, calling for Palmer to be hanged has generated a public outcry of its own.  We weigh in here.

It’s All About Strategy and Positioning

PETA calls for Walter Palmer to be hanged.  Offensive?  Yes.  But it is doing what we expect groups like PETA to do.  The PETAs of the world play a very important role in the world of global activism and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) – they make some outlandish statements, they embark on ambitious (perhaps even wacky) projects, but these actions mark clear distinctions between types of INGOs: even if INGOs are a class of actor, they often adopt very different means to approach the same concern.  PETA’s role is to stay outside of the mainstream, to do what other INGOs won’t do. Continue reading


NGO Power Shift 2.0

In her seminal 1997 article, Power Shift, Jessica Mathews argued that a power shift was underway in international politics marked by a redistribution of power from states to non-state actors—mostly businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Almost two decades later, NGOs are trying to foster a new sort of power shift, this time transferring power from the global north to the global south. This power shift was one of the substantive topics of discussion at the BISA NGO Working Group workshop I wrote about last week. The BOND report and subsequent presentations by academics, Amnesty International and Family for Every Child elaborated various perspectives on the nature and perceived extent of the power shift.

From the practitioner’s point of view, the perceived power shift is occurring as humanitarian, development and advocacy NGOs, often founded and headquartered in the global North, commit to four primary activities: (1) relocating their headquarters and operations to the global South; (2) supporting capacity development in the global South by transferring skills, knowledge and resources; (3) gradually withdrawing from service delivery to permit local actors to take over these roles; and (4) where Northern NGOs (NNGOs) remain primary actors, enhancing participation in all stages of program planning, implementation and evaluation. Continue reading


Studying Non-Governmental Organizations: What International Relations and Public Management Bring to the Table

In my grad class every semester, I always ask the students if IR is really the best field for studying human security.  Undoubtedly, I get some students who respond that political science is the best discipline and IR is the best field – or even the only field – to really study human security. However, I usually also get a large minority of the students who acknowledge off the bat that most of the phenomena we study could be similarly examined in other social sciences or  –gasp!– could even be looked at by people in the humanities.

Continue reading


Human rights NGOs: Just Hot Air?

Charli’s posts on Human Rights Watch and Autonomous Weapons got me thinking: should we really expect human rights international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to influence weapons systems?   On the whole, human rights NGOs are a pretty powerless lot: NGOs don’t control military resources like states do and they are typically not at the decision-making table.  Why would a powerful state ever listen to the musings of an NGO?  Are all of these reports and calls-for-action by NGOs really just hot air?

Continue reading


Blegging: Did no one complain about the Soviet Use of landmines in Afghanistan from 1979-1989?

I am trying to find examples of humanitarian organizations that spoke out against the use of landmines by the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

Landmines were big as one of the weapons issues put up for debate in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UN General Assembly. The first specific legislation against them was Additional Protocol II to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. (A regulatory treaty as opposed to a banning treaty.)

Even if the original APII was pretty weak (it was amended in 1996 which greatly strengthened it) there is no question that the Soviet Union, who ratified the CCW in 1982, was violating the crap out of it. In particular the “butterfly landmines” it used were particularly horrendous.

However, until the series of reports by the UN Human Rights Committee from 1985-1990, I cannot find any evidence that humanitarian organization spoke out about the landmine issue until the 1990s. I have a couple of guesses as to why this would be the case (one being the fact that the ICRC was kicked out of Afghanistan in 1980, allowed to resume limited operations in 1987 but then kicked out again until the end of the war. This would obviously make it hard to monitor the situation.)

Yet, while speaking out about the sue of these weapons, the Human Rights Committee report does not invoke the 1980 CCW?  Did no one else speak up about the treaty (or landlines, or incendiary weapons, etc)?

Edit: There seems to be a certain amount of news coverage of the weapons issue in Afghanistan, but the NGO response still seems underwhelming. MSF held a press conference in 1982, but it isn’t until around 1988 that we start to see NGOs (like the ICRC) really highlighting the problem in the press.) Additionally, it seems that in 1986 a UN official actually tried to cut out some of the criticism in the Human Rights Committee report – allegations of the use of chemical weapons, for example – that made the Soviets look really bad.


How fares “lawfare”?

There has been so much going on with the international law front, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin. In sum:

Oy. No shortage of things to blog about. So let’s go meta, shall we? (With the hope that they’ll be a chance to return to some of these in the next couple of days.)

International law is still hot. It’s the old and new black. We’re getting our law on. I-Law is in the hizz-ay.

In short, based on the above list, it’s clear that law is being used to justify the use of force, to criticize the use of force, to question the use of force and to help us think about the use of force in general.

I make this (somewhat obvious point) in thinking about Charli’s post earlier this week about “Lawfare” where she takes to task Eric Posner’s editorial on the concept. I liked the post, but I think “lawfare” is a far more complicated phenominon than what her argument suggests (although I think Charli was more interested in talking about Posner’s argument than exploring what “lawfare” actually is.)

There seems to be general consensus that the term was created by Charles Dunlap who described it as “the use of law as a weapon of war”. Yet, beyond this, there seems to be little agreement as to what this implications of this means – except everyone seems to use the concept derisvely. Some, like Posner use the term to mean the use of law by NGOs to try and restrict military operations by powerful (particularly Western) states. Some, like David Kennedy suggest it is the manipulative use of law by states to justify violence.

Alana Tiemessen has usefully pointed out the different meanings of the term that were pointed out by the participants at a conference on the term at Case Western University last year:

Despite the speakers frequent lamentations that after much discussion we still don’t know what lawfare is, it origins and conceptual boundaries are as clear as any contested concept can be in the study of law and politics.

For most, the concept of lawfare came to the fore with Charles Dunlap’s initial definition (2001) of lawfare as “the use of law as a weapon of war.” He subsequently expanded the definition to be “the strategy of using – or misusing – law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.” Empirically, lawfare has since been applied as an accusation with respect to the detainees in Guatanamo, the Goldstone Report, tactics in the War on Terror, and yes, to question the legitimacy of international criminal tribunals.

With so many different ways to understand the concept – I wonder if “lawfare” is really just a trendy way of describing the politics of international law? And if so, is it really that useful?

I think an argument for “lawfare” being useful could be based on it being understood as a phenomenon: although international law has always been political, the way that non-state actors engaged with it changed in the 1990s (with the classic case being the 1997 Ottawa Landmines Treaty.) And since the 1990s there has been a flourishing of international humanitarian/human rights organizations which monitor international law in armed conflict. International law is being discussed in ways that it never has been before – whether its is because of the media (which makes watching and reporting alleged violations easier), the internet (which makes it easier to research and find) or changing expectations in populations (which demand that wars fought by democracies are fought in ways that reflect democratic values.) So should lawfare refer to this of hyper-discussion and awareness?

The problem with this (at the risk of having set up a straw-man) is that international law, particularly the laws of war, have always been political. Not even the participation of non-state actors is particularly new. ICRC aside, in the 1970s national self-liberation movements (such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the African National Congress) demanded and sometimes recieved the right to participate in IHL conferences (such as the Geneva Diplomatic Conferences which wrote the Additional Protocols). And both the United States and Soviet Union (and their client-states) were willing to use international law to score their political points (such as North Vietnam insisting that downed US navy pilots were “war criminals” rather than prisoners of war.)

It’s obvious that discussions and heated debates on international law related to armed conflict will not be vanishing anytime soon, especially as states continue to feel obligated to justifiy their actions in terms of international law and NGOs continue to push for more and more restrictions on weapons. Whether or not we choose call it “lawfare” (however defined) will make little difference.


UN Passes “Right to Water”: Diplomacy everywhere but not a drop to drink.

Yesterday the General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution declaring “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”

The vote passed with 122 countries voting and 41 countries abstaining, including United States, Britain, Canada, Australia – but also other nations like Botswana and Turkey. On the other hand, China, Russia, Germany, France, Spain and Brazil backed the resolution.

This vote comes after many years of debate. Water, increasingly seen as a strategic issue and a natural resource, is not something that countries with large amounts of fresh water (I’m looking at you, Canada) want to be obligated to part with under international law.

But the idea that water is a fundamental right is something that the UN has been working on for some time. In 2003, the WHO published an argument in favour of enshrining such a right. Their argument follows that a right to water is largely inseparable from a right to health and a reasonable standard of living. Additionally, defining water as a “right” was seen as having the has the following advantages:

  • achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;
  • the “least served” are better targeted and therefore inequalities decreased;
  • communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision making processes;
  • the means and mechanisms available in the United Nations human rights system will be used to monitor the progress of States Parties in realizing the right to water and to hold governments accountable.
In other words, establishing a “right” means that there will be the ability to claim that right and demand that someone act upon it. Further arguments in support of the right to water by leading proponent Maude Barlow, (who calls it the “most violated right”) can be read here.

A couple of observations on this development:

First of all, I think it needs to be said that not having clean water and poor sanitation is probably an undisputable bad thing. That individuals in poorer counties are forced to drink contaminated water in this day and age is pretty much a terrible tragedy.

Additionally, while realists or sceptics may argue that defining something as a “right” in international law will basically have little to no impact, recent work by Beth Simmons suggests that this may actually not be the case. Simmon’s recent work on human rights treaties and documents demonstrates that where the possibility to organize exists (even in repressive countries) the human rights situations of some countries measurably improves.

This “right to water” approach also seems to reflect a “Basic Rights” approach advocated in the 1970s and 1980s by those (such as Professor Henry Shue) who argued that it was not very useful to divide rights up into “political” and “economic and social” but rather to think about, literally, what basic rights human beings need for survival. It’s all very nice to have the right to freedom of speech, but if you’re dying of thirst it’s not particularly useful.

So, acknowledging the general tragedy of the situation and the fact that change may actually result from this (although more thoughts of the international legal aspect of this below), what are we left with?

I should say that after about 30 minutes of trying I cannot, for the life of me, find the text of resolution (A/64/L.63/Rev.1) on the internet. I’m assuming that it will be online later.

However, an accounting of the vote is available here. The major objections seem to be:

  • The US Representative argued that the resolution describes “the right to water and sanitation in a way not reflected in existing international law since there was no right to water and sanitation in an international legal sense, as described by the resolution.” The UK agreed with this, stating that there was no customary evidence that there was such a right.
  • The US Representative also suggested that the resolution was not drafted in an “open” or “clear” way and largely circumvented the traditional processes of developing “rights”. The Australian Representative seemed to agree, stating that his state “had reservations about declaring new human rights in a General Assembly resolution. Indeed, when new rights were recognized, consensus was essential.”
  • The Representative of Canada argued that the resolution “appeared to determine that there was indeed a right without setting out its scope” of that right.

(For those that are interested, UNDispatch has the full US argument here.)

What also seems to be the case is that there is a parallel process on going in Geneva where there is an Independent Expert currently undertaking research in this area. This vote occurred before that expert could report.

However, it seems clear that states are opposed to the idea that human rights can be drafted in non-binding General Assembly resolutions. (In this sense it is interesting that there is so much commentary on the failure to achieve consensus. States who voted in favour regret that consensus could not be achieved and those who voted against seem to argue that the resolution was drafted and pushed through in such a way that consensus was impossible.)

Also, there is the obvious concern over sovereignty and sovereignty over resources that the Canadian representative (no surprises there) seems to be getting at. Is there an obligation for states with lots of fresh water to provide it for free to states with little?

Incidentally, my favourite statement in the whole description of the vote was that given by the Albanian Representative who stated “he had not been present for the vote and wished to place on the record that he would have abstained.” Hope it was a nice lunch then.

There is much that could be said about consensus vs voting, “rights based development”, non-binding resolutions in the General Assmembly, etc. But this is already a long post. So I’ll just leave it to listing some questions that I have, and hope that some will be answered when I do eventually get to read the text – or in subsequent international debate over the issue.

First – what about cases where states are responsible for polluting their own water? China has basically turned many of its own rivers into toxic, stinking, flowing masses of chemicals through its industrial development and poor monitoring of environmental degradation. Is there an obligation to provide water to nations that have acted irresponsibly? Or to nations that refuse to take steps to improve their own sanitation?

Second – It seems as if the resolution is not clear as to who is responsible for providing this ‘right’. The ‘emerging norm’ of the “Responsibility to Protect” makes it clear that states are responsible in the first instance. This is the long standing position of China, Russia and virtually all of the Non-Aligned Nations. So does this count for water too?

Third – Could this have perverse results? Would poorer countries that are water-rich be forced to give water to its potentially richer neighbours? Say, for example, Costa Rica (who voted in favour of the resolution and has a reasonable water/sanitation level for Central America) be forced to give water to wealthier Arab nations?

Fourth – (and this is more of an observation) in terms of international law this technically does not have much sway. Unlike the human rights treaties that Simmons is concerned with, it’s a non-binding General Assembly Resolution that does not have any enforcement mechanisms nor can it be said to have received overwhelming support. But there will be little doubt that humanitarian and NGOs will use this as evidence of an “emerging norm” regarding the obligation to provide clean water. And it is also clear that states are concerned about the emergence of such a ‘right’ – wherever and however it develops.

EDIT: Friend and very cool guy Jeremy Youde has provided me with the link! The text of the resolution is here. It is pretty short – consisting of three main points. In this sense I can see why there was some concern over the ‘scope’ of the right. It simply states that there is a right but does not specify who is to provide it or what may be required of states. The only indication is calling upon states to help provide better assistance… but as Jeremy points out in his comment, it does not state what happens if the water is not there to begin with.


Monitoring the NGO Sector

Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris says NGO Monitor should practice what it preaches when it comes to transparency about donations from government funders. The dialogue in comments on this and older threads is illuminating and raises some interesting questions about the accountability of the NGO sector. Like Heller, I would like to see greater transparency from both Human Rights Watch and NGO Monitor.

I think it’s a shame that NGO Monitor is so policitized by its emphasis on Israel because the general argument it makes is quite cogent: who watches the watchers? The NGO sector of global civil society is supposed to be promoting accountability by states, but is largely ungoverned itself. Various academic studies have demonstrated that while NGOs may genuinely be altruistic, they’re also self-interested bureaucracies whose behavior is closely related to that of firms. William DeMars’ recent book is a useful example. I don’t think this is an indictment at all; it just means they we probably need to think about governance mechanisms for the NGO sector just as the NGO sector wants to strengthen global governance mechanisms for states.

For example. If and NGO claims not to take money from governments, should that include only direct donations, or indirect channels as well? (At issue here is Human Rights Watch’s receipt of donations from the Dutch government through OXFAM Novib, reported by NGO Monitor, for example.)

On the other hand, why shouldn’t NGOs take money from governments? Why shouldn’t governments fund human rights work? (I was recently at a conference where Bert Lockwood, editor of Human Rights Quarterly, pointed out that if the human rights movement had a day’s worth of the US defense budget it could do a lot more good than it already does.) The problem of course is the risk or perception that political strings would be attached, but this need not be the case, any more than National Science Foundation funding for research should be assumed to render scientific research “US biased.”

What ought to be attached are standards for reporting and accountability to the public. Just as with scientific research these standards are (in theory) based on norms governing the scientific enterprise, rather than the political concerns of the government, the standards applied to NGOs should be drawn from human rights law, not from donor priorities. NGOs (and NGO-watchers) should be expected to make the case that their work meets these criteria. And this should be demanded not only by governments who fund human rights work but also by private citizens – that human rights NGOs stay true to the work they claim to be doing.

[cross-posted at LGM]


Online Security Jam

I know I was asked to comment here on international political economy issues, but how can I pass up the opportunity to point you all to the Online Security Jam?

Yes, on February 4, you too can participate in an online discussion of important security issues. You will “help make the world a safer place…online.” The Jam is being co-produced by the European Commission and NATO, who are just so..so..cutting edge, yes? Well, ok, it’s actually being organized by Security and Defence Agenda, a think tank, and IBM. The goal is to engage literally thousands of experts and non-experts alike in “widening the debate” beyond military concerns. As they say, “No one person has the solution. We all do.” They even have a “Guide to Jamming,” complete with a video, for those of us who are not so of-the-moment, not so part of the online social community.

Actually, I do applaud the idea of widening the debate. And the organizers are sensitive to the increasing influence of NGOs in security issues, which has not always captured the attention of the powers that be. I will be interested in seeing what comes out of the Jam session. Although, frankly, I am not confident that crowdsourcing is the way to solve security issues, even in the 21st century.



If you are trying to follow the news about Haiti, I recommend reading Mark Leon Goldberg’s UN Dispatch. If you are looking to donate to the relief effort, then check out The Daily Beast’s rundown of NGOs operating effectively in Haiti.

Goldberg and I agree that Reverend Pat Robertson is a fool. Media Matters transcribed his January 13 comments about the Haitian tragedy:

PAT ROBERTSON: And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.”

And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.

I’ve previously blogged about Robertson’s idiocy, but this latest comment is truly abhorrent given the circumstances. Haitian leaders are estimating between 100,000 and 500,000 dead, but nobody really knows right now.


Symposium Report

I just returned from the 47th Annual International Affairs Symposium at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Events were organized as debates — the students developed the topics and invited academics and people from the policy world to participate. My debate was on this topic: “Jumping the Gun? The Legitimacy of Preemptive War.”

The application of offensive war as a defensive measure raises debate over the legality and legitimacy of such campaigns. While purely defensive warfare is often accepted as legitimate, there is broad disagreement over the line between aggression and self defense. If a state perceives a security threat, does it have to right to launch a preventive attack?

My talk was on “The Illegitimacy of Preventive War,” with a great deal of attention on the necessity requirement of a just war. Given great uncertainties about threats — and a history of both threat inflation and intelligence failure — how can states ascertain the hostile future intentions of other states? The risk of false positives would be too great.

In the 1950s, a large number of defense and foreign policy analysts argued that the US should launch preventive war against the Soviet Union. After all, war was inevitable and the US was in a better position then than it was likely to be later…

The most-discussed presentation of the Symposium was Jeremy Rabkin‘s broadside against non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He began by accusing NGOs of being spineless for refusing to operate in risky countries and for cooperating too much with dubious governments.

Then, he essentially accused NGOs of being evil (and he wasn’t talking about NGOs as “new colonialists”).

Rabkin flippantly claimed that these transnational NGOs (and their donors) are primarily interested in taking up anti-American causes.

Oh and he accused NGOs of failing to report ongoing genocides they witnessed first-hand (Cambodia, Darfur) — for fear they’d lose access to the states in question.

Needless to say, most other panelists and Lewis and Clark students and faculty were left shaking their heads.

In any case, I really enjoyed the event and wish to thank the organizers and student hosts for inviting me to participate.


NGOs as the “New Colonialists”

Somehow, last summer I missed a Foreign Policy article by Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, and Parag Khanna, which appeared in the July/August 2008 issue. Unfortunately, you won’t find much of the article at that link unless you are a subscriber. I happened to see the piece in the November/December Utne Reader. The on-line excerpt is a bit longer there, but you still won’t find the full essay. Sorry about that.

Nonetheless, the authors’ central thesis is certainly provocative and worth discussing even if internet users cannot find the entire piece:

[T]he thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisers. This armada of non-state actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century.

Is this the logical new step beyond what Jessica Matthews called a “power shift” back in 1997? Clearly, this is not what scholars had in mind when they noted that activists had moved beyond borders.

While the authors credit NGOs with performing all sorts of beneficial — even vital — functions, they nonetheless claim “whatever the task, the result is generally the same: the slow and steady erosion of the host state’s responsibility and the empowerment of the new colonialists themselves.” Additionally, the authors imply that NGOs have a selfish agenda: “aid organizations and humanitarian groups need dysfunction to maintain their relevance. Indeed, their institutional survival depends on it.”

What are we to make of this critique?

As I said, I’m late to this discussion, so I should first point to an excellent early September post by William Felice at the HRHW Roundtable blog. Felice laments

“the way in which the language of colonialism, imperialism and empire has been sanitized and misused in the current period…Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna fall into this revisionist quagmire by conflating colonialism solely with dependency, ignoring the most vicious and brutal components to the over 450 years of colonial domination. It should not be so easy to label an organization “colonialist.” In fact, given the real meaning of the term, it is absurd and scandalous to call the Gates Foundation “colonialist.” One would not lightly brand a group “fascist” or “totalitarian.” Yet, somehow today it is OK to talk about empire, imperialism and colonialism as if these were almost neutral terms.

Felice also takes on the claim about selfishness, pointing out that human suffering would increase to “immeasurable” levels if NGOs did not provide vital functions throughout the developing world.

On July 31, Tony Pipa of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard wrote that equating NGOs with colonialists simply “doesn’t work…It’s like calling the Prius the new Hummer. They both get you from here to there, but the goals and values behind the design are completely different.” Pipa also references specific infrastructure projects that NGOs voluntarily turned over to governments once they had some success.

The Foreign Policy trio conclude that NGOs must be held accountable in order to assure that their goals are just and their power limited. They don’t really offer many specifics — market-style “competition among aid groups” is the most concrete suggestion.

There’s actually a very large policy and scholarly literature on NGO accountability. See, for example, this piece and this one too. Nayef Samhat and I briefly addressed some of it in our 2004 book. We argue for widespread inclusiveness, transparency, and public deliberation.

Update: Corrected a typo on Tony Pipa’s name 1/21/09.


Foundations, Foreign Policy and NGOs

This issue of International Studies Quarterly contains an interesting article about the effect of donors on both the agenda and strategies of human rights NGOs. Here’s the abstract:

“Focusing on the flow of funding to human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we begin in this article to broach one of the least studied issues pertaining to transnational regimes—namely, their material underpinnings. Through an analysis of the patterns of donor funding to human rights NGOs, we underscore the triangulation between states, donors, and rights NGOs, whereby states have an impact on donor preferences, which, in turn, influences the agenda of human rights NGOs and their modes of operation, and these, in their turn, help shape the kind of NGO criticism voiced against the state. By emphasizing the important and frequently missing link of donors, we thus complicate the discussion concerning the impact human rights networks have on state policies and practices, showing how rights NGOs simultaneously weaken and strengthen the state. Accordingly, our examination of the political economy of human rights adds a new dimension to the literature analyzing how the state both reconfigures and is reconfigured by transnational regimes.

Reading the article made me happy because I now have a good, current overview to assign to my students next time I teach the “Global Agenda-Setting” class. This semester we focused on NGOs, the UN, the media, celebrities and network politics, but we ran out of time to dig more deeply into other impacts on the agenda-setting process, such as epistemic communities and private donors. Then, when my students briefed an NGO in Washington this past weekend on what they had learned and how it could help the practiotioners’ work, it became clear to me that I had not prepared them to answer a question that was of utmost concern to this organization: how to pitch its issue in such a way as to attract funding (rather than to attract members of a coalition).

So as I read, I was wondering what insights my students might have incorporated into their strategy document had we studied the political economy of NGO fundng more closely this semester. At least one insight stands out: even private donors seem constrained by the socio-political climate within their particular country. If a campaign is aligned with US foreign policy discourse, it will be more successful at securing funding from American foundations (as well as from US government donor agencies) than if it is pursuing goals at odds with US foreign policy. It might therefore logically follow that if a campaign is focused on changing or challenging US practice, it’s a good idea to seek funding from entities outside the US.

Since the authors’ analysis focuses just on funding to Israeli human rights organizations, though, it leaves this question open in my mind. They support this general claim both with their own data (US donors tend to support organizations that protect Israeli citizens, while European donors support NGOs who protected Palestinians) and by citing literature showing that both the US government and private US donors like Ford Foundation privilege civil and political rights over social and economic rights. But does this mean that US-based donors never support campaigns that challenge the US more directly? I don’t actually know what the answer is, but I would want to see a wider range of evidence across many thematic cases. I think that evidence to disconfirm this notion would be US-based private donor funding for campaigns that the US opposed, like for the International Criminal Court or the cluster munitions treaty. I wonder if readers of this blog are familiar with the political economy of these campaigns and have answers, or other thoughts about how to study this question more closely.


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