Subcontracting Peace: The
Challenges of the NGO Peacebuilding
(Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005, 267pp.)
As Kim Reinann writes in this useful overview of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) in the peacebuilding field In the
past two decades, the number and influence of NGOs has grown
dramatically, leading many scholars and observers in recent years
to argue that a paradign shict has taken place in politics and
international relations theory. While the tone of much of the
literature on NGOs has been positive and has presented them in
a progressive and idealistic light, the rise of NGOs has not
been without controversy or critics.
As NGOs have grown in size and influence, their actions have
come under much greater scrutiny
During the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, a clearly
defined set of critiques of NGOs have appeared focusing on: (1)
their performance and actual effectiveness, (2) accountability
issues, (3) issues of autonomy, (4) commercialisation, and (5)
ideological and/or political interpretations of their rising
These critiques are worth looking at and will serve as a framework
for this review.
However, it is worth looking at the roles that NGOs try to play
in the peacebuilding field and why there has been the increased
growth in activity.
The rise of NGOs as important agents in conflict resolution and
post-conflict development efforts comes from the changing nature
of conflicts. During the Cold War years (1945-1990), governments
were the chief actors. NGOs could give advice on disarmament
measures, on the resolution of certain conflicts and could provide
the setting for some Track
Two informal meetings. On some special issues that were not directly
security related such as the Law of the Sea negotiations or the
first UN environmental meetings, NGOs already had a significant
However, even during the Cold War years, in certain areas, especially
Africa, we saw the rise of non-state armed forces such as the
first civil war in Sudan(1956-1972), the different rebellions
in the former Belgium Congo, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
Governments were unable or unwilling to deal with such non-state
actors. Much of the negotiations which brought an end to the
first Sudanese civil war in 1972 was carried out by the African
Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
There are also cases in which the government controlling the
territory is suspect and some government s are unwilling to work
with it. I was involved in the early 1990s in helping to set
up child welfare and educational programs through a NGO as the
Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government was not recognized by
some governments and was suspect for others.
It was only later that a massive UN-led effort was made in Cambodia.
Under UN leadership, NGOs, the Cambodian government and national
government programs cooperated to restore the country after war,
genocide, and the failure of Vietnam to undertake development
efforts for the government it helped to put into place.
Today, we see the same debates in the US government and the European
Union concerning a Hamas-led government in Palestine. There is
current talk of funding through NGOs so as not to deal with Hamas,
considered by some as a terrorist organization.
NGOs are thought to have speed, flexibility, relative cheapness,
high implementation capacity, and lack of bureaucracy.
They are also relatively independent from governments, often
made up of multinational teams. There is also disillusionment
with the role of states in constructing peace in conflict zones
governments are always suspected of acting for narrow
However, NGO strengths can also be weaknesses, and as Kim Reinann
suggests, it is important to look at performance and effectiveness.
It is also necessary to look at government-organized activities
in the same places and in the same fields. I would suggest that
each situation presents difficulties linked to history, culture,
the current distribution of local power and thus governments
and NGOs face the same difficulties. NGOs cannot use the police
or the military so they must depend on discussion and material
Performance and effectiveness depends in large measure on the
quality of the persons working for peacebuilding NGOs, and thus
is an issue of experience and training, background knowledge
of the area in which one is working, and the organizations
ability to get information and supplies to workers in the field.
Much also depends on relations with national and local authorities,
local NGOs and others having local influence. Moreover NGOs cannot
have staffs who only wait for a crisis to arrive. National military
are always on hand. To meet a new crisis, NGOs have to find people
who have worked for them before or
for likeminded NGOs. Many such people have jobs and families
and cannot drop
everything to respond to a call. Thus, there is a need
for wide and up-to-date NGO networks
of people with the needed skills.
There is a need to train people both on the culture of an area
and in skills. One has to be able to draw upon a wide range of
people who know the culture of an area. We have seen the difficulties
of the US government depending on too narrow a range of Iraqi
exiles for their background information on Iraq. The number of
people who know the history and culture of the eastern part of
the Democratic Republic of Congo (probably the most difficult
current conflict situation) are limited and rarely in one place.
Fortunately, there is a growing number of university-based peace
studies programs that can be helpful in training.
Kim Reinann has also raised the issue of autonomy that
is the way in which NGOs can prevent being manipulated by their
governments and yet cooperating when governments undertake useful
initiatives. There is a useful chapter on NGOs and the peace
efforts of Norway by Ann Kelleher and James Taulbee. Norway is
known for having played a leading role in brokering the Oslo
accord in the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as being active
in Latin America Guatemala and Colombia and especially
Sri Lanka. As Kelleher and Taulbee write As a peacemaker,
Norway sprang suddenly from amid the confusion
associated with the reshuffling of international roles after
the Cold War. A relatively small, homogeneous population that
enjoys a high standard of living has produced a highly educated,
closely connected governing circle whose members move easily
between public, private and semi-official roles. The Norwegian
domestic political process emphasizes consensus creation rather
than confrontation. Norwegians are accustomed to the time consuming
process of sorting out strongly held convictions and dealing
with shifting coalitions of interests. They consider their consensus-
building political style as aptly suited to the ambiguities and
uncertainties of peacemaking. Because there are exchanges
between NGOs, especially church-related, academic life and government
in Norway and because Norway has no Great Power interests, it
is easy for NGOs in Norway to cooperate with the government in
peace efforts as full partners, not as manipulated agents of
government policy. We have similar conditions in Sweden and Switzerland
thus the important role that NGOs from these countries
play in NGO peacemaking efforts.
Resources for NGOs is a crucial question. Fundraising from individual
givers helps strengthen NGO independence, but it is time-consuming
and expensive. In an analysis of NGO activities in rebuilding
Rwanda, Joanna Fisher writes NGOs may be benefiting their
own image rather than that of the populace that they serve; they
plan strategically ar time so as to worry more about proving
their worth to get funding instead of worrying about if those
helped can survive in the long-term after NGOs leave. Accepting
money from governments poses problems of independence from government
policy but can also be useful. Getting projects off the ground
requires funds which NGOs do not usually have in reserve.
We can agree with the editor Henry Carey in his conclusions NGOs
have a vital role in supporting societies emerging from conflicts,
half of whom are relapsed old conflicts where earlier efforts
at peacebuilding and prevention have failed. Greater assessments
of best practices and lessons learned about the vast growth of
NGO activity, both acting independently and in partnership with
the UN, is needed
Finally, more investigation of how to
empower local NGOs which still depend on external resources in
most cases, needs to be undertaken.