Global Policy Forum

NGOs and the Victim Industry


By Bernard Hours

Le Monde diplomatique
November 2008

The misadventures of the French charity Zoe's Ark in Chad early last year (1) finally opened to question the motives and morality of aid agencies. For the first time an organisation was criticised in the media, rather than lauded for its good intentions. The humanitarian industry's success made it inev itable its power would be abused. After the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, people had begun to question whether non-governmental organisations had the competence to administer the huge amounts of money they received. The ideology behind humanitarian aid depends on three principles. There must be universal human rights – a worthy premise, but problematic. You create victims whom you can save. Then you assert the right to have access to these victims.

Universal human rights, to health, education and security, make humanitarian aid legitimate. But who embodies these rights? Not the political citizen of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, but a physical body who must be saved from famine, epidemics and natural disasters. This body is the target of emergency aid (Médecins sans Frontií¨res (MSF) has become its international symbol). The right to life is a product of the late 20th century, the "humanitarian age" which began with the presence of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, but developed in the depoliticised and moralising 1980s.

To what extent is the victim the subject of aid or the object? A victim's dignity is abstract, and depends on the situation (living in a refugee camp, for example). A human being has a status, but being a victim is merely a state. Victims are anonymous and interchangeable, passive players in the emotive campaign leaflets of NGOs. The relationship between rescuers and rescued is, by its nature, unequal.

Most people do not see themselves as victims but as individuals confronting a crisis. Filipinos flattened by typhoons or Bangladeshis wading through floodwaters are dealing with a crisis which they see as part of their human destiny; they are dignified people living in a dangerous part of the world. It's others who see them as victims. Ambulances come only when you call them: aid agencies just turn up and declare an emergency. They save lives, but on their own terms.

It is interesting to look at how the number of victims in any disaster is calculated, or roughly estimated, to see how much intervention is justified. Countries in Latin America tend to overestimate in order to make it onto the global humanitarian agenda, as was the case when Cyclone Mitch struck Central America in 1998. Burma, and China after this year's earthquake, do the opposite.

Humanitarian aid workers claim they have a duty to intervene, and demand unrestricted access to victims. But this "right to interfere" has turned out to be more of a political problem for governments than a victory for humanity. It emerged at the end of the 1980s, at a time when western ideals of democracy could have appeared universal. That is no longer the case. It is not so easy to export western ideals now that economic growth has switched hemispheres. In China and Russia, with their authoritarian regimes, and many other countries, humanitarian intervention is perceived as political interference. Aid workers are being held responsible for local unrest, particularly where states are weak, and subject to international supervision. In Haiti, people throw stones in protest at well-paid foreigners driving 4x4s, or kidnap them for ransom.

Aid workers targeted

This year two members of Action Against Hunger (Action internationale contre la faim, ACF) were abducted in Afghanistan, and three volunteers with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were killed, with their driver. Several ACF workers were killed in Sri Lanka in 2006, and MSF volunteers have been kidnapped in Dagestan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past three years. These attacks tend to take place in conflict zones when NGOs work beside military forces or international peacekeepers. Being an aid worker no longer guarantees safety in the Palestinian territories, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Sri Lanka or Darfur. It's worse in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The problem is that this sort of intervention lacks political legitimacy. It presupposes that an imaginary global civil society gives a mandate to groups to intervene, and that these groups have no nationality, ideology or agenda of their own. It denies the fact that humans are territorial, political beings, living within sovereign states.

The financial crisis of global capitalism is making sovereign states stronger. This is likely to further weaken NGOs' "right to interfere", especially since strong states provide humanitarian aid, and weak states receive it. The contradictions continue. The Zoe's Ark farce underlines the central role of the pretext of saving life, which in this case was a lie. And it shows up the absurdity of political leaders who tried to make political capital out of it. Although most people involved are genuine, the humanitarian industry abuses the spectacle of other people's misfortune. Young people stand outside ?metro stations aggressively marketing NGOs and charities as if they were brands of toothpaste. But the public is suffering from donor fatigue, from having their heartstrings tugged so often by so many causes.

The state steps in

For a long time aid work was controlled by NGOs like MSF, Médecins du Monde, and ACF. But in the 1990s governments became directly involved, ending naivety within the voluntary sector. Claude Malhuret, mayor of Vichy for Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, and Bernard Kouchner, now the foreign minister, became France's first ministers with responsibility for humanitarian action (in 1986 and 1988 respectively). They made the role of NGOs official and institutionalised. As medical doctors, and in the name of human rights, both had been involved in the fight against Soviet totalitarianism in Afghanistan.

But the end of the cold war meant no one could pretend human rights was an apolitical concept: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became apparent that the United States had secretly financed many pro-democracy, anti-totalitarian groups (2). Kouchner and Malhuret, when they became government ministers, had to tone down their rhetoric. Since then, the humanitarian industry has had less campaigning zeal to get involved with problems in undemocratic countries. Even so, the recent disasters in Burma and China and the events in Tibet (3) show the persistence of trying to export western democracy.

Governments view humanitarian aid as a strategic battleground where their military forces can operate alongside doctors, to the great displeasure of the doctors. Multilateral organisations, such as the European Union, finance largescale programmes; the UN funds peacekeeping operations. All these players flood the poorest countries, overlap and fail to coordinate with each other, creating chaos rather than order.

Governments and multilateral organisations cannot allow voluntary organisations to have a monopoly on solidarity and generosity. So humanitarian work has become a world of populist politicians; tired, concerned professionals; international funders caught in a bureaucratic, financial rationale; and suspicious or blasé donors who prefer local causes. The circus follows the show – the misfortune of others – a media product in ever greater demand.

Laundering profits

The aid industry is central to the current globalisation of ideology. Global capitalism must launder the profits from its exploitation. The harsh demands of this unregulated world – child labour, increased production, unpaid overtime – must be disguised. The huge number of people who suffer from these forms of social violence are rarely identified as victims. Governments, businesses and donors are paying a moral tax, trying to claim they are part of a moral humanity, through their pledges of morality, pseudo-transparency and charity.

The world of humanitarian aid is post political. NGOs are in the morality business, producing token measures to appease the conscience. The 20th century was concerned with the social questions. The 21st will have to deal with the victims of natural disasters, and the social rejects of the market economy. Professionals and voluntary workers try to plug the leaks in this sinking ship. What they do is useful and generous, but it's not the solution. Aid work, by focusing on the struggle against poverty, has, in part, eclipsed development. It is like using first aid to treat a disease.

The ideology of aid uses distress to mask injustice, and offers a meagre existence, little more than survival, where only the dying receive help. Is this moral or humane? Contrary to the aspirations of the Enlightenment, it legitimises the idea of a world divided between the successful and the weak. This way of dealing with disaster contributes to a global apartheid, where people are subject to a global moral order.

In the North, constant images of disaster are used as a political tool to encourage us to forget about the social struggles of the past. We live in a world of emotion which seems to eclipse any real sense of injustice: the defeated may rebel, but it is the victims who make you cry; they are worse off than you. Compassion produces little more than indignation, and it obstructs rebellion.

More Information on NGOs
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