A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Wary Of Aid


January 24, 2005

By Rana Foroohar

Nonpartisan aid has a funny way of becoming political. Just ask the hundreds of workers from organizations like Oxfam, CARE and Save the Children who are carrying out tsunami relief work in Indonesia's Aceh province. Last week the Indonesian Army, which controls the war-torn area, recommended that they travel with military escorts anywhere outside the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

Authorities claim that the new rule is meant to protect foreign aid workers, an explanation some accept in light of the chaos. "You've got too many people running around with no knowledge of the local context," says Bud Crandall, CARE's Indonesia country director. "It's like Woodstock, and I don't think the government of Indonesia is going to allow a Woodstock in Aceh." But others say the new rules are less about keeping the peace than about maintaining control of an area that, until Dec. 26, had been almost entirely closed to outsiders.

The restrictions certainly owe much to a deep-seated suspicion of foreign influence--something that increasingly hampers relief work around the world. (Indonesia's Vice President Jusuf Kalla made waves last week when he declared that American and other foreign troops helping out with the relief effort would have to clear out of Indonesia by March 26.) More and more often, the neutrality and independence of aid groups is coming into question. The concerns have been prompted in part by the growth of the nonprofit sector, a $1 trillion industry that is far less regulated than the corporate world. In some cases, groups are taking money from government agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development. In others, they're simply tainted by association: with the rise of so-called humanitarian wars like those in Kosovo and Afghanistan, NGO relief and reconstruction work has become part and parcel of military missions.

In Sudan's Darfur region, numerous aid workers have been expelled or killed for speaking out against the government. Late last year, the Afghan Planning minister, Ramazan Bashardost, proposed throwing out hundreds of foreign NGOs, which he believed were corrupt and inefficient. The proposal was denied, and Bashardost was forced to resign. But Afghans are still wary of relief workers, partly because of leaflets like those passed out by the U.S. military, offering aid only in return for intelligence on Taliban insurgents. Many do-gooders are already leaving willingly: seen as easier targets than U.S. troops, some 24 aid workers have been killed in the past year in Afghanistan, compared with 13 in 2003.

The watershed moment for many NGOs came with the videotaped murder of Margaret Hassan, the British-born director of CARE in Baghdad. Since then, nearly every NGO has pulled out of central Iraq. "While people still have the courage we're going to try to continue," says Sean Sullivan, an American who is running Jump Start, one of the last two Western aid groups in Baghdad. "But we try to be invisible," he adds.

Hassan's death illustrates how difficult it's becoming for NGOs to negotiate the precarious politics of their work in light of the source of much of their funding. Lester Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, estimates that the types of international organizations doing relief work in hot spots get around 30 to 50 percent of their total budgets from their representative governments. Save the Children USA receives 60 percent of its $280 million budget from USAID. The American arm of CARE gets about 50 percent. While British groups, which include some of the largest and most powerful NGOs in the world, aren't quite that indebted to their government, that may well change--Britain's Department for International Development plans to increase its budget for NGOs from 84 million pounds to 110 million pounds this year. Mark Lowcock, director general of DFID, says that working with NGOs to effect change in local governments is "a growth area" for the British government. "We'll be doing a lot more in five years than we do now."

While Lowcock eschews the notion that the British government can or should tell NGOs what to do, the Americans are less subtle. In 2003, USAID head Andrew Natsios raised the hackles of a group of American NGOs by publicly telling them to do a better job of highlighting their links to the U.S. government if they wanted to receive more funding. In the same year, Britain's Guardian newspaper published e-mails leaked from Save the Children in which American staffers had pressured British colleagues to withdraw criticism about U.S. policy in Iraq. Rudolph von Bernuth, an executive vice president for Save the Children USA, says that the reports did not accurately portray the relationship between the two groups. "Given that they are nearly as big as we are, we aren't in a position to tell them anything," he says. Still, the report exposed the increasing pressure on NGOs operating in Iraq, particularly American ones.

The U.S. arms of Save the Children and CARE say they have been pushed to inform U.S. government officials before speaking with the media, and to highlight "brand America" with labels on equipment and property--a policy that can raise security issues in places like Aceh, which is devoutly Muslim and suspicious of outsiders. "Increasingly, any money we get from USAID has to be linked with logos," says CARE vice president Michael Rewald. While USAID denies gagging critical NGOs, it admits to strong-arming on other fronts. "We are putting more pressure on groups to let people know where supplies and equipment come from," says USAID deputy assistant administrator Bill Garvelink. "Branding is important. The EU does the same thing."

Aid groups have little room to maneuver. According to Johns Hopkins, employment within NGOs grew three times faster than overall employment in nine major developed countries over the course of the 1990s. Even global recession hasn't slowed the growth--American nonprofits have increased employment by about 4 percent a year since 2000, even as many other industries are cutting back. The result is that NGOs are now operating in an environment that is just as competitive--if not more so--than any global industry. Staying big is crucial, as 80 percent of the aid pie goes to the largest, most well-branded groups. And in order to stay big, you need to keep the donors happy.

At the same time, some of the bigger groups are uniting to fight pressure--in Iraq, for example, a group of NGOs including Save the Children refused to sign project contracts unless a clause requiring workers to notify the U.S. military before speaking to the media was taken out. NGOs have also successfully united to fight U.S. demands for increased vetting of workers. In an effort to head off suspicions and increase the transparency of their actions, a number of global nonprofits are coming up with voluntary codes of conduct, which are being publicized in areas like Afghanistan.

Still, there's no doubt that the friction with both donors and local governments will continue. Tsunami-hit Sri Lanka, for instance, has not imposed any Aceh-like restrictions on NGOs. But a government spokesperson says it's possible international aid workers will be asked to leave in a few months. "We will want to take back control. We can't let foreigners hijack the process," says Niranjan De Soyso, media coordinator for the Center of National Operations, which is overseeing tsunami relief efforts. Even where the need is great, the fear can sometimes be greater.

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