Global Policy Forum

Fighting "NGOism"


By Aunohita Mojumdar

Hindu Business Line
January 13, 2006

Slow progress in reconstruction, misplaced aid priorities and anti-foreigner sentiments are squeezing the space for non-profit NGOs working in Afghanistan, making them an easy target for politicians playing on populist sentiments.

First there was Communism, then there was Talibanism and now there is NGOism," goes a joke that gained currency after the arrival of the international community in post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001-02. Nearly four years later, with targeted attacks on a large number of aid workers by anti-government militants that joke is no longer funny.

According to a report brought out by the Afghan NGO Security Organisation and CARE International (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), as many as 24 NGO workers were killed in 2004, compared to 12 in 2003. Slow progress in reconstruction, misplaced aid priorities and misperceptions that club the international community together as one monolithic entity, are increasingly squeezing the space for non-profit NGOs working in Afghanistan, making them easy target for politicians playing on populist sentiment.

One politician riding high on this sentiment is former Planning Minister, Basher Dost. One of the highest vote-grossing candidates contesting the elections to Afghanistan's new Parliament, he has acquired a reputation for anti-NGO rhetoric — one of the main reasons for his popularity.

Afghanistan receives a fairly large amount of aid funding. From January 2002 to September 2004, donor assistance totalled $1.226 billion directly to the Afghan government, $1.957 billion to the UN, $705 million to private contractors and $413 million to NGOs (as per Financial Report, Fourth Quarter: Ministry of Finance, Government of Afghanistan). Although NGOs get very little of the direct funding, the misperception that they receive the bulk of donor money persists, fuelled by populist rhetoric.

Dost denies that his is a populist stand that cashes in on jingoistic sentiment, claiming he is only against corrupt NGOs. Out of the 2,350 NGOs registered with the Ministry of Planning, Dost cancelled the registration of 1,935 in 2004, saying, "They were not really NGOs". He also feels that all international aid should be routed through the office of the President; he thinks at present the aid is being controlled by a "mafia that shares it for its own luxurious lifestyles".

Dost is tapping into the core of the latent anti-foreigner sentiment in the country. Afghanistan's history of foreign invasions and fighting occupying forces ensures a simmering anti-foreigner sentiment. The resentment is also fuelled by the perceived lifestyles of the international community. Security restrictions on large sections of the international aid workers — especially those under the UN mandate — make it mandatory for them to travel in secured vehicles and live in secured areas. Unable to interact normally, a large number of foreigners lead insulated lives, travelling from office to home, where many lead lifestyles that are perceived alien to Afghan culture with its strict social and moral codes.

Alcohol consumption, for example, is banned under the Afghan Constitution; but under an unwritten code, expatriates continue to drink and be served alcohol at restaurants, which have to ensure that no Afghans are served alcohol. This and any form of open mingling between men and women are often the target of criticism from conservatives.

While the entire aid community is not a monolithic entity, there is little perception of distinction amongst Afghans. In fact, the blurring of lines extends even to different sections of the international community. With the military forces now engaged in reconstruction, the distinction between the military and civilian aid workers has been lost. So has the distinction between UN workers, contractors and the NGO community.

Attempting to redress this, ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), an umbrella organisation for NGOs, led the development of an Afghanistan NGO Code of Conduct, which was launched in May 2005. Barbara Stapleton, ACBAR's Advocacy and Policy Coordinator, says, "The Code will help professionalise the national NGO community further and provide a mechanism for following up on alleged complaints against any signatory organisation. It will also provide a tool to communicate to the Afghan government, media and people what non-profit NGOs are and what they are not. The Code is also intended to increase the transparency and accountability of NGOs working in Afghanistan. International NGOs prioritise capacity building and, in line with this objective, tend to have a predominantly Afghan staff."

This contrasts sharply with the profiles of contractors and for-profit organisations. With huge sums of money available for reconstruction, their work focuses primarily on execution of projects to meet deadlines and pre-ordained benchmarks. This often leads to the creation of unsustainable projects, and institutions with little or no capacity building. The idea is to move in, build, collect payment and move on to the next project.

Unfortunately for NGOs, critics do not make this distinction. Paul Barker of CARE International says, "Much of the hostility against NGOs in Afghanistan is not very well-informed. Populist politicians, the media and many in the public tend to lump all aid agencies (including private contractors, UN agencies, private security contractors, and even the NATO-led International Assistance Security Force) into one group and refer to them as `NGOs'. The frustration felt by critics of the aid community reflects a perceived frustration with the rate of reconstruction and development in the country."

A year ago, security for this community had reached rock bottom with repeated attacks in different parts of the country, forcing NGOs to curb their activities. Even popular agitation against the central government took the form of pinpointed and organised attacks on the international community and aid offices. While few chose to pull out, almost all restricted their activities, curtailing the movement of non-Afghans in some areas.

The situation was a little better in 2005, but seems perched to worsen again. A senior analyst dealing with security issues points out that this is not because of any decrease in anti-foreigner sentiment but because of the changing tactics of anti-government forces. These include the Taliban and various other forces jockeying for power — former commanders of legal and illegal militias, drug smugglers and criminals.

The anti-government forces have chosen to concentrate their energies on low-level government officials, having failed in their attempt to make a difference by targeting NGOs, the analyst said. However, he pointed out that the situation was changing with some more targeted attacks on NGOs. Barker says, "CARE programmes suffered some short interruptions due to security concerns in some areas in 2004, but we did not pull out of any provinces due to this. In 2004, we expanded to include Daikundi and Bamiyan. In 2005, we added Panjshir and Kapisa. In 2006, we will start work in Balkh and Baghlan."

But Barbara has a more serious concern. Many long-term NGOs are looking at the possibility of going out of business. They are being squeezed out by other players from the international community, as short-term political projects tend to take precedence over long-term sustainable development.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGOs in the Field
More Information on Funding for NGOs


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