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Time to Reconnect With Fundamental Values - Lessons For Humanitarian Organisations

by Abhijit Bhattacharjee

posted in News and Society

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I have given over thirty years of my career working for civil society and NGOs. From Asia to Africa, from democracies to authoritarian regimes under Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to failed states like Somalia and emerging state apparatus in Afghanistan, I have seen quite a bit. The two most important things that have always driven my work - and fortunately, the work of the organisations I have worked for - have been: independence and neutrality.
It is independence that gave NGOs to work fearlessly without being in the control of governments or businesses, and neutrality that gave the ability to act without taking any sides. And these are what I have personally valued in my entire career.
The world has certainly changed a great deal in the past 10-15 years. And I have often found my values and notion of what NGOs stood for at odds with the evolving quasi-government - military - market-driven humanitarian complex.
Tony Blair being anointed by the Save the Children for his "Global legacy" and 'visionary leadership' is one of many instances that are leading to coalescence of two distinct identities that had their own space (and role). After Blair his pal across the Atlantic led us to two fruitless wars and countless deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have often seen military masquerading as humanitarians distributing relief to those who survived their genocidal bombings. And we have also seen a good number of humanitarians seeking invading armies' assistance with armed soldiers to conduct their business. In Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010, a number of NGOs waited for the US soldiers to provide them security before they started moving around in the camps to distribute relief supplies.
This is just one part of the story. In the past 10-12 years, we have seen an increasing number of people crossing over from Governments to head NGOs, and from NGOs moving over to advise Governments and heading up foreign missions that seems to be a career path many have chosen to follow. The most high-profile of these crossovers was seen earlier this year when one of the former British foreign secretaries took the helm of the well-known American NGO, International Rescue Committee. Save the Children which is now at the centre of controversy for its eulogy on Tony Blair is not new to this. Its current Chief Executive, a former colleague at Oxfam, joined Tony Blair's team as an Adviser soon after Blair invaded Iraq, and then some three years ago moved over to the Save the Children, UK. I remember in the 1980s and early 1990s, Save the Children would send retired senior army men as their country directors to the developing countries' capitals who would land there, not just with their back suits and shining shoes, but with a couple of butlers in tow. I lost count of how many of them I met those days but I believe this practice stopped some two decades ago, probably because the retiring army men now found working in the private security firms that began mushrooming around the world more lucrative than the doing good business.
The tragedy is that actions like these affect the entire NGO sector as their independence and neutrality stands compromised. In many parts of the world, humanitarian aid workers have now become targets of warring parties who sometimes do not see any distinction between actions of NGOs, Red Cross and the United Nations, and the foreign policy agenda of various governments. Last year was the most dangerous on record for humanitarian workers, with 155 killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped, according to one report compiled by Humanitarian Outcomes.
I have no doubt that Save the Children, like most NGOs and humanitarian organisations I have come across, are sincerely motivated by their humanitarian goals, and want to stand by the side of the poor and the suffering humanity. I also know that in order to be able to raise funds without which these organisations can not do the good work they do, they need to promote themselves in the eyes of the public. But whatever they do for promotion and fundraising campaigns, they can not lose sight of their fundamental values. The drive to grow big and relying heavily on government funding has already been chipping away the independence. Deifying the likes of Blair in order to seek short-term gains of publicity is the last thing we need from serious organisations.
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