Do NGOs have a Place in Conflict Resolution? Are They Really Neutral? Are Military PRTs the Answer?

(C) Kapok Tree Diplomacy. 2010. All rights reserved. Jeff Dwiggins. FREE CONTENT

NGOs are essential to conflict resolution in as much as they possess the necessary skills, knowledge, personnel and experience to help resolve the conflict and the context is favorable to their participation. Certainly, the traditional role of the NGO has changed in nature from one of purely humanitarian relief to one that includes the roles of civil society builder and peace broker. This role transformation challenges the NGO’s assertion of neutrality and inviolability. Pamela Aall lists certain conditions that must exist prior to NGO conflict resolution intervention, saying NGOs must have:

·   Knowledge of the country and the regional institutions involved (14)

·   Indigenous partners (14)

·   Good knowledge of conflict mediation skills (14)

·   Inherent understanding of the personal risks involved (14)

David Baharvar explains, “The basic mission of the major NGOs devoted to international ethnic conflict resolution is to transform the way that torn societies deal with a conflict and to improve the process of conciliation. Their efforts typically are focused on capacity-building: consultation, dialogue, and training in conflict resolution for people on all sides of an ethnic conflict” (2001).

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Baharvar definitely feels that NGOs possess certain advantages over governments and third party organizations.He focuses much of his article on building trust and sustained dialogue among influential citizens on both sides of the conflict. “The acceptance by the parties of NGO involvement with key individuals on all sides of a conflict is not based on an official position as representative for a government, nor is it based on leverage as an outsider with “sticks and carrots.” Rather, legitimacy is based on a very personal level of trust” (2001). I think these actions can be very effective at the local community level, and perhaps broadened from there.

Aall lists “four fundamental roles NGOs could perform” during crisis: (1) “a preventative function through early warning;” (2) “human rights monitoring;” (3) relief and rehabilitation functions;” and (4) “conflict resolution activities, such as mediation and reconciliation” (7). So why can’t governments do these roles just as effectively? Baharvar says governments normally lack the “long-standing relationship with either of the parties” (2001). In other cases, state authority has eroded for various reasons whether it be from armed conflict, economics, globalization, famine, refugees, etc., and as a result the government lacks the resources and political will to resolve conflicts.

Sounding very much like Baharvar, Petrasek says NGOs could potentially help resolve conflicts through the “management of dissent or relations with local communities” (27). Petrasek asserts that state governments are not always the best facilitator of conflict resolution because they may be illegitimate, oppressive, unrepresentative, corrupt, incompetent, acting with impunity, lacking in political will, and fighting for their own survival (34-35).

For those reasons NGOs may be in a better position than governments to perform many of the conflict resolution tasks Petrasek puts in his extensive list: fact finding, public reporting,  shaming groups, asking for sanctions, raising awareness of human rights abuses, training, confidential dialogues, establishing codes of conduct, and helping create judicial mechanisms (39). These tasks don’t just help people. They help build a better society. Oops, that might not be neutral.

Petrasek himself cautions that NGOs run the risk of appearing to take sides in the conflict or being used as a propaganda tool by either side (33). Sanctions can potentially hurt the citizenry and “strengthen the regime in power” (Petrasek 43). A strict focus on one particular type of abuse versus another “could give the impression that the abuses not being raised are somehow acceptable” (Petrasek 48).

In fact, NGOs may even prolong the conflicts they wish to curtail. Debiel and Sticht note, “In Somalia, international aid organizations were inadvertently drawn into rivalries between clans. In order to gain access to needy segments of the population, they paid protection money and tolerated hefty ‘taxation’ of relief supplies by the militias. As a result, in the final analysis they were effectively contributing to the financing and prolongation of the conflict. Similar patterns were also observed in Ethiopia and southern Sudan” (32).

In another example, Debiel and Sticht explain that Operation Lifeline Sudan, “which was organized under the auspices of UNICEF and the World Food Programme/ Welternährungsprogramm (WFP) as a large-scale relief action for people affected by war and hunger. The warring parties managed to instrumentalize part of this aid for their own purposes. In1989 the Sudanese government is even reported to have funded roughly half of its military budget from the operation” (23). These examples certainly bring into question the effectiveness and counter-productivity of some NGO tactics.

Pages 33 and 34 of this report by Debiel and Sticht are worth reviewing. They illustrate how NGOs need to be smart about their activities. For example, NGOs may contribute to capacity building by supporting civic peace groups or by supporting political front organizations. One activity builds peace, the other fuels the conflict (33). Development cooperation within a political context could “indirectly strengthen illegitimate and authoritarian political structures,” or on the other hand it could “strengthen legitimate formal and informal political structures” and “promote participation and respect for the local owner” (34).

The last point that I would make is about context. NGOs are not always absolutely essential to conflict resolution. If a powerful state or regional organization is involved and security dictates a certain modus operandi, NGOs may not be needed to accomplish the core mission. Some militaries have powerful civil affairs divisions, and private contractors can be hired to get water running again. Sometimes physical reconstruction and the acquisition and establishment of political legitimacy trumps humanitarian concerns. This can in some cases be better for long-term sustainable peace. Ascribing significant political power to NGOs on the elite state level would be making them into something they’re not. Moreover, their (NGOs’) safety cannot always be assured in some scenarios.

As Anderson points out, “Bechtel and Halliburton, overcharges and all, may yet prove more important to Iraq than the U.N. Secretariat” (33), for “beyond immediate humanitarian needs stretches forth the domain of contested politics, which is where most of the work of reconstruction lies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world” (34). NGO’s can certainly play a part in the process in these tough cases, but it may be a small one initially until the military and political situation gets under control and the overall environment and security is more conducive to their success. Helping IDPs reintegrate into society could be a very helpful task for NGOs in this phase.

This opinion slightly differs from that of Cornish and Glad who advocate a completely separate role for the NGO from that of the political and military role. The “Do No Harm” and “assistance according to need” approach is a valid one. However, Cornish and Glad fail to explain why short-term humanitarian need trumps the need for long-term political and military solutions anchored by responsible governments and stronger institutions. Failed states do not just threaten the security of western nations, they threaten the failed states’ citizens as well. NGOs do not possess comprehensive knowledge on all the best methods of resolving conflicts and lifting failed states out of failure.

Cornish and Glad’s complaints about the military having “biased needs assessments” and building schools that are “just too big” seems tainted with a bit of sour grapes in my opinion (14). The problem with Cornish and Glad is that they wish to remain neutral in regards to aid, but not neutral in regards to reconstruction. How is this not a violation of their neutrality? Providing food and water and hospitals is not just about helping people, it’s about ultimately rebuilding the community, the socio- political and cultural community.

Thus, Cornish and Glad cannot hide behind neutrality and selectively pick and choose how to apply the Red Cross Code of Conduct. Violent attacks happen precisely because the belligerents understand the end result of such protracted humanitarian actions, a better and safer community, may preclude their violent behavior. To pretend otherwise and adopt some sort of an apolitical façade about the whole thing is misguided. It goes back to Aall’s recommendation: know the personal risks you are assuming as an NGO worker, and embrace them for the good of the cause (my addition).

Aall, P. R. (1996, February). NGOs and Conflict Management | Peaceworks No. 5. Retrieved October 18, 2010, from United States Institute of Peace:

Anderson, K. (2004). Humanitarian Inviolability in Crisis: The Meaning of Impartiality and Neutrality for UN and NGO Agencies Following the 2003–2004 Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 17, 41-74. Web.16 Aug 2010. E-Journal Portal. Retrieved from NorwichUniversity Library.

Baharvar, D. (2001, Summer). Beyond Mediation: The Integral Role of Non-Governmental Approaches to Resolving Protracted Ethnic Conflicts in Lesser-Developed Countries. Online Journal for Peace and Conflict Resolution , Web. CIAO. Retrieved from NorwichUniversity Library.

Cornish, S., & Glad, M. (2008). Civil Military Relations: No Room for Humanitarianism.Oslo, Norway: Den norske Atlanterhavskomité. Web. Retrieved at NorwichUniversity Library.

Debiel, T., & Sticht, M. (2005). Towards a New Profile? Development, Humanitarian and Conflict-Resolution NGOs in the Age of Globalization: INEF Report 79/2005. University of Duisburg-Essen. Essen, Germany: Institute for Development and Peace. Web. Retrieved from NorwichUniversity.

Petrasek, D. (2000). Ends and Means: Human Rights Approaches to Armed Groups.Versoix, Switzerland: International Council on Human Rights Policy. Web. Retrieved from NorwichUniversity Library.

The great dilemma in the relationship between NGOs and governments is security versus neutrality.  Given the threats that exist in war-torn places like Afghanistan or Sudan, how can NGOs be effective? Are Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) the answer? 

The security risks faced by NGOs in places like Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan should not be minimized or diminished in the least. Many recent articles confirm the rise in violence against NGO workers in recent years. This is both troubling and sad. The PRTs are accused of “blurring the lines between military and humanitarian workers” (Cornish and Glad 13), potentially “stigmatizing humanitarians and put [ting] them in danger” (Cornish and Glad 16). The conclusion of Cornish and Glad is to keep a “clear distance from military activities” (20).

I assume that includes scenarios where cooperation with the military would enable CARE to feed thousands of Afghani citizens in relative safety in order to preserve CARE’s “perceived” neutrality? I would also assume that such a relief effort to Afghanis could not possibly be categorized as being done according to need, but would be tainted with politicization (in Cornish and Glad’s eyes) since the military is involved?

While I appreciate Cornish and Glad’s moral conviction about this, I simply think the needs are too great to take such a one-sided position of non-cooperation. The military needs NGOs, and the NGOs need the military. The two can and do work together in complementary ways that maximize both the overall results and the functionality of each group. Based on my initial research, there sometimes seems to be a breakdown in semantics and communication that hinder the synergy between the two.

A quick disclaimer. There is a ton of information about this topic in academia. I read about ten articles, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I definitely encourage going beyond the class assigned readings on this one. I could not even get to the question of how development equates to aid. This is an important question, because development brings on additional security concerns and may not always aid stability. It can also impact neutrality when aid and development are pitted against one another. I see them on a continuum of humanitarian relief in which both contribute to building a better community or state. Maybe in another post.

Lawry states, “The word coordinate continues to hinder or stop effective communication and dialog” (180). The military and NGOs tend to define that word differently, leading to some misunderstandings. Yet functional and resource interdependence can “provide certain capabilities that another lacks” (Lawry 181), with NGOs providing local knowledge, management of population movements, provision of medical care, and assistance with humanitarian projects, and the military providing “logistical assistance, communications, intelligence and protection” (Lawry 183). “Both groups – whether or not originally desired – find that coordination is essential” (Lawry 183). This approach can even work in places like Iraq and Sudan, but the NGO must be a willing partner, and not all are. There are practical ways to create ‘humanitarian space.

In some cases Humanitarian Information Centers (HICs) and Civil-Military Operations Centers (CMOCs) can be established to facilitate better coordination and information sharing (Lawry 184). This report by Lawry also notes that a successful CMOC in Kuwait in 2003 included the UN, the military and over 80 NGOs where the “preponderance of cooperation and collaboration … occurred informally over coffee after daily briefings,” and “NGOs … agreed to avoid using the term belligerent, and the military agreed not to call the NGOs force multipliers” (190). These semantical truces may sometimes be necessary to achieve military-NGO cooperation.

The more robust the mandate, the more complex the peace operations can be, and the more necessary it becomes to have functional and resource coordination between the military and the NGOs. Quoting Chris Seiple, “The NGOs, for example, must comprehend the crying need for comprehensive and integrated approach, even if this sometimes requires subjugating their charter for the good of the overall cause. On the other hand, a linear military mindset is also insufficient“(Lawry 193).

The security situation on the ground may at times be so unstable as to preclude humanitarian efforts until the military can create a more stable and secure operating environment. Commentators like Bessler and Seki also recommend a “clear division of labor” in regards to development, aid and security with the military only providing the latter (5). I disagree with that conclusion as reality doesn’t always set things up so neatly. They also recommend that humanitarian organizations “avoid reliance on the military” and only use the military for armed escorts and joint operations as an “option of last resort” (6). That suggestion is probably pretty smart.

Along these lines, InterAction and the DOD have provided a set of “Guidelines for Relations Between U.S. Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organizations.” Many of these guidelines are very practical and further confirm the idea that the military and NGOs can work together effectively. The guidelines recommend, for example, that the military wear distinct clothing, meet with NGO personnel outside of military installations, and not require NGOs to implement relief projects without their express consent among other things. NGOs are told not to co-locate with military personnel and have liaison officers participate in unclassified security briefings. The guidelines also include several helpful information and resource sharing recommendations.

Private military firms (PMFs) can be hired to help with NGO security needs. Peter Warren Singer says, “The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and World Vision have used PMFs to protect their facilities and staff in hostile environments such as Sierra Leone and the Congo.” Singer cites “scrupulous recruitment” of shady employees, differing goals, and the jeopradization of neutrality as drawbacks to PMFs.

Yves Engler says, “Approximately 22% of the major humanitarian organizations reported using armed security services during the last year [2007],” with ArmorGroup … an NGO favorite. In 2002 its clients included UNICEF, CARE, CARITAS and the Red Cross.” He adds, “Is it really any surprise that NGOs, which replace public institutions delivering services turn to [PMFs], which do the same?” Engler also cites personnel scandals among PMFs and perception issues that can imperil neutrality. Given the widespread usage of PMFs, they must be considered as part of the solution to NGO security issues in some cases, but the drawbacks are legitimate as well.

NGOs can also take other measures to ensure their own safety by having security officers in the field, using appropriate transportation and communications, avoiding military targets and high crime areas, securing valuable resources and coordinating with the military.

Regarding PRTs, I discovered quite a bit of negative commentary in my research of them. Lisa Schirch says PRTs “model attempts to link security, governance, and development by bringing together military and civilian government personnel in civil-military integrated programs” (1). Schirch recommends more policy communication than coordination, smarter development aid, synergizing time horizons, and better consultation with civil society and Afghan leaders (4).

Azarbaijani-Moghaddam et. al. indicate that PRTs often have different goals than NGOs (8), drive up local prices in their role as local contractors (9), focus on short-term aid projects rather than long-term development and good governance (13), and lack sensitivity to civilians (17). In the same report, it was concluded that PRTs can help with security sector reform and training police (9). Edwina Thompson adds, “Problems arise when PRTs become the primary platform for delivering assistance (7),” but also notes “One study found that the impact of CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) funding is twice as effective when a PRT is present” (14). But Thompson is also very critical of some development projects, saying they don’t solve the underlying security and political concerns. That’s a valid point.

Captain Mattia Zuzzi (IT Army) concludes, “If relationships between the civil and the military component are affected by prejudices, bias and rigid “own way to do business” attitudes, the Inter-agency coordination becomes more difficult and the subsequent long processes to achieve results are a waste of time,” but also adds, “Inter-agency coordination at PRT level is at the moment a matter of Leadership capabilities, interpersonal skills and proficiency.” It sounds like communication is key with a clear delineation of tasks and a solid emphasis on planning.

What I gather from this is that PRTs are a work in progress. You get two very different perspectives when you ask someone from the military and someone from an NGO. Right now I would say that NGOs have the edge in humanitarian expertise over PRTs and also have more diverse capabilities and experience. However, PRTs may be able to help reform and train indigent police and security forces. Thus, they may be able to be part of the solution.

In conclusion, I would affirm the InterAction guidelines on NGO-military relations. I would recommend that the NGOs and military forces collaborate on humanitarian assignments in ways that emphasize each other’s strengths and minimize each other’s weaknesses. Many of the specific tasks can be effectively separated to help minimize the risk of what NGOs worry about the most, mainly their impartiality and neutrality. Some semantical compromises need to be assumed to enhance better communication. PMFs and PMTs could be small parts of a larger body of solutions, though both have distinct drawbacks.

The question of whether development constitutes aid and who should perform those tasks is also another fascinating question of which much has been written. I will leave that for another day. Suffice to say that both the narrow band of humanitarian aid and the thicker band of development and reconstruction both have the same goal of an improved, safer, and more positively functional society and both are necessary. Context and timing (phase) determine which one may trump the other in importance.

Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, S., Wardak, M., Zaman, I., & Taylor, A. (2008). Afghan Hearts,Afghan Minds: Exploring Afghan Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Cooperation for Peace and Unity:

Bessler, M., & Seki, K. (2004, November). Civil-Military Relations in Armed Conflicts: A Humanitarian Perspective. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Liaison: A Journal of Civil-Military Humanitarian Relief Collaborations:

Cornish, S., & Glad, M. (2008). Civil Military Relations: No Room for Humanitarianism.Oslo, Norway: Den norske Atlanterhavskomité. Web. Retrieved at NorwichUniversity Library.

England, Y. (2010, August 26). Privatizing the Occupation: Mercenaries and NGO’s. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Counterpunch:

InterAction, American Council for Voluntary International Action and the United States Department of Defense. (2007, July). Guidelines for Relations Between U.S. Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organizations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from United States Institute of Peace:

Lawry, L. (2009, Summer). Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Federation of American Scientists:

Schirch, L. (2010, September 24). The Civil Society-Military Relationship in Afghanistan. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from United States Institute of Peace:

Singer, P. W. (2004, Summer). Should Humanitarians Use Private Military Services? Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Brookings Institution:

Winning ‘Heats and Minds’ in Afghanistan: Assessing the Effectiveness of Development Aid in COI Operations. (2010, March 14). Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Wilton Park Conference WP1022:

Zuzzi, M. PRT Interagency Cooperation in Afghanistan . (2010, February 11). Retrieved October 20, 2010, from Combined Arms Center Blog:

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