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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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. This dependence has been furthered by the “humanitarian story.” 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. Labeling the actors as such portrays the ‘victim’ “as needy and incapable of self-government…in need of long-term external assistance.” 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.
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.
 David Chandler, The Road to Military Humanitarianism: How the Human Rights NGOs Shaped A New Humanitarian Agenda, 23 HUM. RTS. Q. 678, 692 (2001).
 Id. at 678-685.
 Id. at 678.
 Global Humanitarian Assistance: A Development Initiative, http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/data-guides/defining-humanitarian-aid (last visited Nov. 1, 2012).
 Id. (emphasis added).
 See CHANDLER, supra note 1, at 681.
 Id. at 678.
 Id.at 690.
 Id. at 691.
 Id. at 692.
 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/.
 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.