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Reviewing Chandler’s Critique of NGOs’ “New Humanitarian Agenda”: a Push for Self-Sustainability

Chandler's book suggests that shifting priorities for international NGOs have reduced the effectiveness of international NGOs; coupled with increased governmental regulation, these NGOs are in danger of doing more harm than good. However, a move toward an initiative of self-sustainability could turn these problems around.

Human rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have had an increasing impact on the international sector. However, with their increasing appearance, there has been lack of international law to govern their presence. With exception to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which are “tied to a mandate under international law (the Geneva Convention regulations),” this lack of international governance has made it easier for NGOs to take on their own agenda.[1]

In David Chandler’s book, he argues that human rights NGOs have shifted…from a traditional emergency, universal, temporary, and neutral focus and turned toward aid that is developmental, long term, coercive, and political.
In David Chandler’s The Road to Military Humanitarianism: How the Human Rights NGOs Shaped A New Humanitarian Agenda, he argues that human rights NGOs have shifted the priority of aid from needs-based humanitarian aid to rights-based. In doing so, NGOs have shifted from a traditional emergency, universal, temporary, and neutral focus and turned toward aid that is developmental, long term, coercive, and political.[2]  It is within the core of this shift that Chandler sees damage: “The new international discourse of human rights activism no longer separates the spheres of strategic state and international aid from humanitarianism, but attempts to integrate the two under the rubric of ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ foreign policy.”[3]

A leading comment on this issue—Global Humanitarian Assistance: A Development Initiative (“GHA”)—defines ‘humanitarian aid’ as “aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies.”[4] GHA states that humanitarian aid is “to be governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence,” and that “it is intended to be short-term in nature.”[5] At least according to Chandler’s priority shift analysis, we have moved substantially away from the traditional ideals identified in GHA’s definition of humanitarian aid.

Chandler argues that it was the original non-governmental nature of NGOs that gave them a “radical edge” and allowed them to “[put] the interests of the people above the concerns of the East/West divide” with “no strings attached.”[6] Now, with the shift to a rights based humanitarian aid policy, NGOs have taken a more “interventionist approach,” resulting in a harmful dependence on outside support.[7] This dependence has been furthered by the “humanitarian story.”[8]  Chandler breaks this story down into three components: first, he argues, is the “hapless victim in distress” (those in need of aid). The second component is “the villain,” that is, the corrupted non-western state.  Lastly is “the savior” or the external aid-agency.[9]  Labeling the actors as such portrays the ‘victim’ “as needy and incapable of self-government…in need of long-term external assistance.”[10]  This disturbing approach has been broadcast widely across the media and, by reducing those in need to the position of an actor in a story, we have consequently stripped them of their human dignity, consequently heightening their dependence.[11]

As long as the labels of “victim” and “savior” continue to be used, along with the increased non-western restriction of NGOs, it will hinder the ability to provide true humanitarian aid that does not disable those in need by creating a dependence upon external sources. I believe that the greatest hope for true humanitarian aid remains within the idea of self-sustainability.
Chandler believes that, recently, there has been a call for government restriction of NGOs but that it has allowed NGOs to act as an “alternative guide to policy making.”[12] Various countries have begun to call for legislation but, rather than improve the way in which NGOs interact with their host countries, this has created a fear which may offset the balance of humanitarianism: “NGO laws [are] constructing barriers, barriers by which the government can control and eliminate oppositional organizations.”[13] For example, Kenya has proposed “The Public Benefit Organizations Bill 2012” which reinforces fears of government control of NGOs.[14]  “The NGO Board (the government agency that registers NGOs) and Kenyan NGOs are now negotiating amendments to the bill that would provide the government with greater oversight in exchange for governmental support for this bill.”[15]  This restriction, intended to give the Kenyan government more control of NGOs, seems to directly contradict the idea of transparency that is so intertwined with humanitarian aid;[16] it seems to be a direct result of the “rights-based” humanitarian aid agenda.

As long as the labels of “victim” and “savior” continue to be used, along with the increased restriction of NGOs, it will hinder the ability to provide true humanitarian aid that does not disable those in need by creating a dependence upon external sources. I believe that the greatest hope for true humanitarian aid remains within the idea of self-sustainability.  If human-rights NGOs can shift to a perspective where “victims” are no longer portrayed as weak and helpless, these “victims” can become students, and the “saviors” can, in turn, become teachers.  If the goal changes from development-by-intervention to development-by-teaching, then the once “victims” can learn ways to sustain themselves and one day abandon their constant dependence on NGOs.  Rather than bringing only needs-based aid, NGOs can present a theory of self-sustainability and show those in need how they can improve their ownclean water systems, agriculture, micro-finance, schools, etc.  To start, however, governments must allow NGOs to take action without requiring them to have their same political goals.



[1] David Chandler, The Road to Military Humanitarianism: How the Human Rights NGOs Shaped A New Humanitarian Agenda, 23 HUM. RTS. Q. 678, 692 (2001).

[2] Id. at 678-685.

[3] Id. at 678.

[4] Global Humanitarian Assistance: A Development Initiative, http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/data-guides/defining-humanitarian-aid (last visited Nov. 1, 2012).

[5] Id. (emphasis added).

[6] See CHANDLER, supra note 1, at 681.

[7] Id. at 678.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.at 690.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 691.

[12] Id. at 692.

[13] Leland Belew, Legislating Aid: The Necessity and Difficulty of NGO Regulation, THE LAW & GLOBAL JUSTICE FORUM (Nov. 30, 2012, 9:15 AM), http://www.lgjf.org/2012/02/legislating-aid-the-necessity-and-difficulty-of-ngo-regulation/.

[14] International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), NGO Law Monitor: Kenya, The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, http://www.icnl.org/research/monitor/kenya.html (last visited Nov.29, 2012.

[15] Id.

[16] Belew, supra note 13 (“NGO laws must focus on equitably increasing transparency”).