9 July 2011
International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones by Sreeram Chaulia, Tauris Academic Studies (August 30, 2011). ISBN-10: 1848856407.
This book casts a jaundiced eye over the working of humanitarian organisations in conflict zones. The author, a professor at the Indian Jindal School of International Affairs, examines the working of five international humanitarian organisations, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Save the Children and OXFAM-GB, active in Sri Lanka and the Philippines over a five year period (2003-2008).
Drawing on field research and civilian peacekeeping experience in these two countries, he takes a closer look at the cultures of these organisations and the interactions of these with the external pressures exerted on them by the environments they work in. In the process, he describes the inducements offered and pressure applied on them by donor and host states in regard to the fraught business of civilian protection.
According to Chaulia, the UNDP in Sri Lanka, for example, suffers from a “deeply state-subservient and opportunistic culture” with a preoccupation with “peace” and “development”. The UNICEF, meanwhile, started out as equally conservative, but under pressure from grassroots organisations like the Nonviolent Peaceforce (the NGO the author volunteered with), the UNICEF became “more assertive and proactive instead of blithely documenting complaints and building databases.”
In the Philippines, however, UNICEF ranked second from the bottom in terms of being proactive, according to the author. This was because here it is still wedded to ‘developmentalism’ and was reluctant to move outside this remit.
While Chaulia’s evidence helps deflate the more naïve ideas about the role of such supranational organisations, he then falls into a classic Neo-Marxist narrative about “power” and “ideas” being “offshoots of larger oppressive structures of patriarchy and the capitalist world-system,” that undermines the potency of his argument.
He claims, for example, that the main reason these organisations are so reluctant to focus of the protection of civilian populations is because their primary donors are the ‘commercial capitalist class.’
As far as the author is concerned, the real hope doesn’t lie with these large bureaucratic operators but with small local grassroots organisations that can help to keep them honest.
Local activists are the key, Chaulia believes, citing evident from the experience of UNICEF Sri Lanka and OXFAM-GB Philippines, where “local peace and human-rights defenders are agents of change and can transform not only IOs [international organisations], but also the brutal milieu of war through coordinated grassroots actions.”
Cynicism about the efficacy of the various international humanitarian organisations is fairly understandable – and that they often become captive to the people who run them and craven in the face of the powers-that-be is largely beyond dispute – but viewing local grassroots operators though rose-coloured spectacles could surely be equally dangerous, as anyone with experience here in Cambodia can vouch.
These supranational operators often have to tread a careful path to avoid offending the governments in conflict zones – as the evidence of Sri Lanka attests. And while engagement with local grassroots organisations is clearly desirable, one of the major challenges facing international humanitarian organisations today is how to hand over the running of their programmes to the locals in the countries in which they work without these operations succumbing to the maladies of corruption, patronage and nepotism that are frequently part of the fabric of these societies.