An NGO Perspective
By Andrew S. Natsios
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Andrew S. Natsios, "An NGO Perspective" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 337-361.
Natsios has extensive experience directing both national and non-governmental humanitarian relief operations. He is currently vice president of the non-governmental organization (NGO), World Vision. Natsios identifies the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs as tools for peacemaking and conflict resolution.
Most modern international conflicts are complex emergencies, characterized by the destruction of local economies and governance, the dislocation of many people, and the proliferation of armed factions. While diplomacy has traditionally occurred at the highest levels of government, these modern conflicts must be addressed at lower, grassroots levels. NGOs often have an established presence at such grassroots levels, and so seem well positioned to intervene in conflicts. However, coordinating multiple NGO initiatives with each other and with national and UN interventions has been very difficult. Poorly planned or coordinated interventions can and have exacerbated conflicts.
Modern conflicts are also characterized by a lack of central authority. Many militias are little more than untrained, undisciplined gangs motivated by plunder. Factional leaders have little actual control over them, and these armed (often young male) "soldiers" have little reason to relinquish their new-found power. The lack of central authority has also increased the influence of mass media. Unlike the Nazi genocide, which was directed by the state, the recent Rwandan genocide was carried out by the mass citizenry of the country, who were mobilized by hate radio broadcasts. NGOs have taken steps to counter such hate propaganda by broadcasting conflict resolution programming. This decentralization poses two problems for negotiated peace settlements. First, the factional leaders who negotiate a settlement may not be able to enforce that agreement within their own constituencies. Second, such negotiations do not address the collective guilt and responsibility of the involved publics. "Replacing bad leaders or intransigent negotiators does not expunge the guilt of the entire society."(p. 341)
NGOs are well placed to implement post-settlement peacebuilding activities such as de-mining, demobilization, resettling refugees, and reestablishing basic services such as food, water, health, and sanitation. Here again NGO implementation work must be carefully planned and coordinated. Problems in the implementation stage can undo a peace agreement. Often, however, NGOs are assigned implementation tasks with very little guidance or support. Natsios notes that "the logistics of demobilization are not in the lexicon of most mediators, so they are not factored into the negotiation process as a potential pitfall."(p. 343)
As agents of conflict resolution, NGO have advantages and disadvantages. Most NGOs operate under some sort of community-building mandate. NGOs work with local people over the long term to help them identify and address their needs. NGOs often develop bonds of loyalty and trust with local communities, which can be helpful in conflict interventions. This local focus can also be a weakness, however, leading to a narrow, biased understanding of the conflict situation. Ironically, the very number and autonomy of NGOs is their greatest weakness. "The proliferation of NGOs, combined with their (sometimes compulsive) tendency to guard their autonomy from one another, from donor governments, and from the UN system, create serious problems for diplomats and policymakers alike who look to NGOs to carry out conflict-resolution interventions."(p. 344).
NGOs differ in their specific focus. Some focus on relief activities; others on development. Some are active on the operational level; other at the policy and advocacy levels. They may be religious or secular, indigenous or international, skills or resource oriented. Natsios believes that NGOs with a significant focus on development (rather than distribution of relief resources) will be more effective contributors to conflict resolution and peacebuilding. NGOs also differ in their organization. Some operate out of a single headquarters. These types have the swiftest responses. Others are associations of autonomous national chapters, each of which may field independent, international field operations. These types are the most flexible, but can be competitive with each other. Some are internationally funded but indigenously staffed. These are slow acting but excellent fundraisers. Some operate strictly through indigenous NGOs. These have deep community roots, but little flexibility or quality control.
Natsios notes that "some of the interest in NGOs as mediators stems from their presumed neutrality."(p. 348) However, NGOs are rarely neutral. They may be beholden to the interests of their fundraising constituency. Even strictly need-based relief may benefit one party in a conflict predominately. Natsios reports that "in December 1994, a couple of dozen NGOs withdrew from active work in [Hutu refugee] camps because they knew that relief agencies were, in effect, acting as the quartermaster for the Hutu militias that were likely to engage in more killings as soon as they were militarily prepared."(p. 349). NGOs may be perceived of as biased due to their location or hiring practices. NGOs are a valuable source of information on developing conflicts. However, such reporting may make NGOs suspect as informants or threats to security. Third World governments often view NGOs as competitors, rather than neutrals, since NGOs provide many of the municipal services that local governments would provide in the West.
NGO conflict resolution activities take several different forms. NGOs may engage directly in negotiations, mediation or conciliation. Negotiations are often aimed at limiting the fighting and protecting noncombatants. Some NGOs address structural inequalities, which they believe underlie conflict. Others create neutral forums for communication. Some create mass education programs to provide accurate information and counter propaganda. Some NGO focus on economic interventions designed to offer young men alternatives to fighting and to encourage the merchant classes to support peace. Religious NGO have introduced a new dimension into international conflict resolution with their emphasis on reconciliation. NGOs may also support or develop indigenous conflict resolution processes. In general, NGO take a programmatic approach to their activities, "using an analytical construct called a 'logframe' (logistical framework), which breaks down a program into objectives, tasks, activities, and measurable indicators of success."(p. 356)
Natsios concludes that NGOs are likely to play increasingly larger roles in international conflict resolution. However, he cautions against exaggerated expectations regarding their peacemaking abilities.