When a pseudonymous filmmaker put out the laughable, execrable Innocence of the Muslims, did anybody foresee a KFC getting torched? Not to mention a Hardees. (Which begs the question: When was the last time anybody outside of Tennessee even noticed a Hardees?). Apparently, these heart disease outlets are symbols of the USA, a nation that is being held responsible for Sam Bacile’s vile film. Just yesterday on BBC, a British military expert referred to it as “the U.S. film,” as if it were an official product of the State Department. Funny that sort of attribution. Seems unfair. Like holding the entire Muslim world responsible for 9/11.
There is no link from bad fast food to American foreign policy (let’s not quibble about U.S. Govt efforts to help U.S. corporations establish overseas markets). Yet the perceived link is as real to rioters on Lebanon’s “Arab Street” as salt in a Big Mac, isn’t it?
That’s the lesson for independence in humanitarian circles: we NGOs can’t fully control perceptions; we can only improve our chances. Independence is factual: being able to make decisions and then implement programs in such a way as to ensure impartiality trumps political opportunism (i.e., that aid goes to those most in need). And independence is about what people think. What does KFC have to do with the American government? And what does the American government have to do with Bacile’s film (“Sam Bacile” and “Imbecile”: curiously close!)? Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.
ALNAP’s recently released State of the Humanitarian System report raises the concern of a growing split between “traditionalist” actors, like MSF and the ICRC, and multi-mandate organizations, like Oxfam or World Vision. (Scroll down on ALNAP’s site if you want to see a video of yours truly in action). Tellingly, it concludes that “many humanitarian organizations have themselves also willingly compromised a principled approach in their own conduct through close alignment with political and military actors” (SOHS p. 79). Bingo. That’s your first step to a burned down chicken shack. But what does this compromise look like up close?
There is the obvious acceptance of funding for programs, especially for work in war zones, from Western governments that are one of the belligerents. Most international NGOs really struggle with those decisions, attempting an impossible calculation between benefits of the program versus negative consequences for the NGO. Will “they” shoot at us if we take U.S. Govt money? Will “they” give us access?
Less obvious for some reason are the ways in which agencies go further than accept government funding. Responding to the recent Cabinet shuffle in the UK, here’s what Christian Aid had to say about the departing head of Department for International Development (DFID): “Andrew Mitchell can leave [DFID] with his head held high. He has been a passionate defender of the need for the UK to help people living in poverty around the world.” That sort of asskissing is so commonplace many NGOs no longer even register its existence. Here’s Save the Children’s UK CEO, saying that he “completely” trusted David Cameron’s Conservative government on aid and development.
In an astute blog, Jonathan Glennie casually concludes that “Pandering to power is an inevitable part of being a large international charity or research organisation these days; it’s where much of the money comes from.” Say what? Inevitable? Like death and taxes?
The issue goes beyond money. It goes to achieving organization objectives. And the relationships go much deeper than offering public praise (which, btw, DFID strongly “encourages” for NGOs receiving funding). This is not self-promotion, this is partnership. Many large NGOs must actively cultivate a public, political relationship with a government. In 2009, Save UK hosted the Conservative Party’s launch of its aid policy. Right now, Save is preparing to host the Labour Party’s annual conference on int’l development. Another example: Islamic Relief co-hosted a Ramadan dinner with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (that’s not the aid bunch, that’s the politicos).
Beyond partnership, there is the co-mingling of staff. Lots of NGOs hire directors from the ranks of the political world. This is a matter of hiring skilled, connected leaders. Positive impact? Loads. Negative impact? Hard to measure, but a full 30 years after Bernard Kouchner left MSF, the organization still had to issue press releases to distance itself from his actions as French foreign minister.
Let’s get something straight. I’m not being critical. Really. Well, sort of. This “partnering” has become a policy, not just a practice. In other words, one NGO’s pandering is another NGO’s advocacy strategy. Check out journo Peter Gill in his excellent Famine and Foreigners: ‘The intimacy between Oxfam and the Labour government was defended on both sides […] An impressive national consensus was built in Britain around the merits of aid which after decades of [Conservative party] scepticism was endorsed by […]David Cameron.” (pp. 179 – 180). Gill was critical of the relationships, but he’s right to realize that they proved an effective vehicle for change. And lest the sanctimonious pretend they are different, here’s MSF showing some love for none other than the heavyweight champ of drone missile diplomacy, pushing the agenda for HIV/AIDS funding.
The problem lies in the multi-mandate status of most large humanitarian NGOs. When it comes to development programs and policy campaign objectives, creating a close and public relationship with key governments is crucial to ensuring success (e.g., adequate aid flows, effective policy). The cosier the better – politics makes for mundane bedfellows as well – even if their new best friends also happen to be shooting up a few war zones. Put simply, there is little imperative for a development organization to safeguard the perception of independence. The oops factor comes from the fact that development is only half the story of some NGOs.
In the end, the difficulty for big charities to demarcate and safeguard their independence from government blots out the NG in NGO. In the UK, carrying the Minister’s bag means carrying the bag of the man who said “Using the UK’s aid budget to secure progress in Afghanistan will be my number one priority … Well-spent aid is in our national interest. Nowhere in the world is this case clearer than in Afghanistan.” (UK Minister for Int’l Development Andrew Mitchell, July 2010).
That sort of co-mingling has an effect. Look, not even people in the same country will trust your motives. When Save recently highlighted the problem of hunger in Britain, people uncomfortable with that message undermined it by suggesting there was a rat loose. As reported in the illustrious Daily Mail, “Conservative MP Brian Binley told civilsociety.co.uk he had general concerns as Justin Forsyth […] had worked for the last Labour government”, and suggesting that the report’s alarm over hunger in the UK was part of a “political agenda”. Turn now to people in foreign lands. With guns. Or a sick child. As I have written before, in the midst of humanitarian crisis, independence goes to the heart of aid, to its integrity.
Which brings us back to KFC. Bad enough that independent Western NGOs may be targeted as a way of venting anti-American or anti-Western suspicions and anger. What happens when it turns out that these NGOs actually helped fry the fowl?