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En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Brussels, novembre 2007

Larger-scale organisations: relationship to local groups, other INGOs and IGOs working in their region, with the international military presence and with the sending organization

Relationship to local groups

The relationship between local groups and the international community is often a complex one. There is a mutual dependency that is beneficial but it can also be a doubled-edged sword.

Often the very presence of the international community creates an atmosphere of expectation, much of it unrealistic, of what can be achieved on the ground. These expectations are created as much by the international community bringing in large infusions of financial and other aid and resources and implicitly or explicitly offering solutions to the problems that have plagued the country. As well promises are often made which cannot be kept.

However the dependence goes the other way as well. Both the IGO and INGO communities need local groups to give their work legitimacy and relevance, but as in all other benefactor-type relationships, the relationship on the part of the international community to local groups is often patronising and paternalistic. Many international organisations feel it is their right to dictate course of action because they are the ones with access to vitally needed financial and material resources and assistance.

These days in conflict and post-conflict areas international organisations, both INGOs and IGOs, generally tend to work either through, or with, local groups either on a formal or informal basis. Most INGOs have formalised relationships with local partners through which their assistance is channelled while IGOs at a minimum collaborate with the local community in developing projects for the targeted group.

While this can be seen as a positive development in that rarely is programming developed without some input from the local community, as mentioned above the dynamics of the relationship is often one of paternalism. As the old adage says, those who hold the purse strings also hold the power.

This kind of situation works to create competition rather than cooperation between local organisations because local organisations must compete with each for assistance from the international community. Not only do local groups often find themselves pitted against one another in accessing aid but because of the explosion of financial and material resources in the area, local NGOs have been purposefully set up, often at the initiative of the donor organisation, which are not self-sustaining.

And because these local initiatives are donor-driven, they will take on activities that do not necessarily reflect the needs and priorities of their constituents that the NGO is not equipped to work on.

For example, there are two programs funded by UNHCR that are dedicated to improving the situation of the women of Bosnia and Kosovo. Known as the Bosnian Women’s Initiative (BWI) and Kosovo women’s initiative (KWI), they are a $2 and $5 million USD program respectively set up to fund women’s groups and initiatives by and for the women of Bosnia and Kosovo. However, the problem with both BWI and KWI, which came into existence as a grant from the U.S. Dept of State, was that they, like other donor organisations, are in a hurry to see their money disbursed. Thus, many of the women’s NGOs in Kosovo and some of the women’s NGOs in Bosnia were set up to access this windfall.

Activities for a single NGO could include everything from basic humanitarian aid to legal projects, to hairdressing courses. What all this means is that there is an extreme amount of competition between the women’s NGOs of both Bosnia and Kosovo, all competing for the same source of funding, an overabundance in the provision of some services and a gap in the provision of others depending on donor interests. As well, there is a strong question of the sustainability of many of these NGOs.

The most important relationship in the field is that with the local population. After all, all intervention is ostensibly on behalf of the local civilian population, whether it is strictly delivery of humanitarian aid or an international military presence or anything in between.

Many people deployed to the field have no or little understanding of the current social and political context, or historical and cultural framework of the region in which they find themselves working. Although the issue of training is dealt with in depth in Section 7, it is important to point out in addressing best practices in the field, how effective an organisation on the ground will be, often boils down to how individuals within the organisation [on the ground] not only understands both the current context and historical framework of the local population and the culture, but is able to parlay that understanding into a relationship on the ground with the local population.

This of course in part depends on the kind of training people receive before being deployed to the field, but a large part is also dependent on the personality of the individual. I have seen people deployed into a region with little knowledge other than the basic rudimentaries and yet because they come open-minded with a genuine interest and concern they become well versed in the situation and earn the respect of the local population.

I have also seen people deployed in field ‘armed’ with a fair amount of knowledge of the politics, history and even language of the region. Yet their arrogance, their unwillingness to recognise that they may have more to learn about the situation, or that the local population understands their own needs better than the intervenor, has obviously made it difficult to foster a constructive working relationship with the local population.

Thus, while it best if you know the language and are well-versed in the issues before being deployed to the region, personal attitude also accounts for a lot. People appreciate effort and not just knowledge. And so, although it isn’t necessarily always the best situation to have a translator between you and the local population, there are also many benefits that can come in working with a translator.

One is that it can be helpful to have someone literally to interpret the situation for you because even if you’re well-versed in the overall situation and know the language, as an outsider there will always be subtleties and nuances that will be impossible to grasp. As well, because you spend so much time with your translator, a close relationship often develops which can also give you insight into the culture and current socio-political situation of the society that you might not have otherwise had.

On the other hand, if you do not speak the language you are always dependent on someone to ‘interpret’ the situation for you. 99% of the translators working in the field are not professional translators and many may not even speak the language in which you are working very well, and so often ‘interpret’ rather than ‘translate’ what is happening. Cultural differences often come into play as well. Many times a translator tells you what he/ she thinks you want to hear rather than what is actually being said. Some translators will inevitably have their own political agenda through which everything gets filtered. But most important of all, having the local population work with the international community ultimately puts them at risk, especially if the intervening forces pull out of the region. This was well documented in Kosovo after the withdrawal of KVM and in East Timor after the withdrawal of the international community there.

Also important is the question of what kind of relationship the international community has with the local power base on the ground. If those in power are ambivalent or resentful of outsider presence they could hamper the work of the international community through a variety of ways, including not providing access to certain geographic areas or certain groups of people; making unwieldy entrance requirements to the country; being intransigent on issues that could help work towards resolution of the conflict, as well as other types of actual and figurative roadblocks.

There can also be problems when those in power embrace the presence of the international community; for example, using their offer of continued compliance with the international presence as a means of extracting certain promises or favours that ultimately run antithetical to resolving the situation.

This then leads to the question of neutrality on the ground. It is one of the more debated issues in the field. For some organisations such as ICRC, it is one of the main tenets of their work and guides all their actions right down to refusing to allow its workers to testify at war crimes tribunals even if they may have important information that relate to the charges of alleged war criminals. Those who are in favour of neutrality argue that is a much needed basis from which to operate simply because otherwise a lack of neutrality would jeopardise an organisation’s access to those populations most in need of assistance, including civilian populations trapped between warring factions, the wounded, the missing and the detained.

Other organisations, such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), do not feel that an organisation can or should operate under a guise of neutrality because this is not reflective of the reality on the ground in that organisations providing assistance can often be perceived as favouring one side of the conflict or another [and sometimes they are]. As well, they see [that the fact of] being ‘neutral’ can sometimes lead to practices and situations in which the organisation, in providing humanitarian assistance, aids and abets the conflict as well as contributes to further human rights violations (1).

For example, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the mission and mandate of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and Croatia from 1992 – 1995. All parties to the conflict perceived UNPROFOR to be biased in favour of the other side and thus UNPROFOR often found itself both literally and figuratively hijacked and unable to secure the delivery of humanitarian assistance - one of the main mandates of its mission.

Others feel that any kind of assistance or intervention whether it is perceived as neutral or not, leads to prolonging the conflict and furthering human rights abuses, often because the international community can be either witting or unwitting pawns in the conflict as we saw with the UN Mission in Somalia. The mission was initially ostensibly about ensuring humanitarian assistance to the local civilian population, but soon the U.S. (as the lead country of the Mission) got caught up in the politics of the conflict and allowed itself to become an active player in the conflict further fuelling a situation it had come to alleviate in the first place.

Relationship to other INGOs and IGOs working in the region

The relationship to other INGOs and IGOs working in the region very much depends on the Mission, the goal and objectives of the organisation and the personnel on the ground. However, generally there is much competition between the various international players for resources, overlap of programming in some areas and a gap in others. As well, there is often a lack of information and knowledge about what the various international counterparts are doing.

However, the international community is trying to address this issue through a variety of methods. There are now often committees or groups formed around an issue (eg. the demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants) or target group (child soldiers) where the international as well as local players get together to exchange information and sometimes join together to pool resources.

But part of the problem with these committees is that often the local community is either intentionally or unintentionally excluded. So while there is more information flow and exchange between the various aspects of the international community, much of this flow remains outside the local community.

And even when there is collaboration and co-operation between the agencies there is still a good deal of competition and jockeying for position. For example in the area of monitoring human rights, you will have the U.N. either within the Mission structure or by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or often by both, as well as a regional intergovernmental body such as the OAS or OSCE and then by non-governmental groups as well such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. This of course leads to turf wars but often the very issue that should be addressed is not.

For example, in Kosovo at least 5 different organisations go to see prisoners – UNMIK, OSCE, OHCHR, Amnesty International, ICRC. Yet with all these organisations monitoring and supposedly addressing the conditions and lack of rights for prisoners, many prisoners still found their rights denied and facing miscarriages of justice.

Both the Missions in East Timor and Kosovo recognised the problems of the inherent competition and lack of co-ordination between agencies and programs and tried to address this issue by setting up a pillar system. The pillar system is such that one body would be responsible for the all the activities under one particular pillar. In Kosovo for example, the European Union was responsible for all programs and activities within the reconstruction and development arena; UNHCR was responsible for all humanitarian assistance; the OSCE was responsible for the human rights and democratisation part of the Mission and the UN itself was responsible for civil administration.

It sounds good on paper, but unfortunately it did not take away the competition or turf wars. This is partly because these issues cannot be so clear cut and neatly divided into 4 separate boxes – there is bound to be some overlap. As well, it is impossible to cut out the competition and petty jealousies particularly in an environment where reputations and careers are at stake because the reality is that for many organisations conflict and post-conflict situations are a business.

This is especially true for the INGOs where there livelihood depends on securing funding for programs they want to run in the region. You might have 3 or 4 different organisations interested in doing water projects, all chasing after the same funders, (such as OCHA or ECHO) and potentially the same geographic or ethnic target groups depending on the interest of the donors. For example, there is not nearly as much aid going to the Serb part of Bosnia as to the Muslim-Croat, in part because the international community feels the Serb entity is less compliant with Dayton and thus tries to use the carrot and the stick approach to aid and reconstruction to bring about compliancy.

However, overall the problem of competition and overlap has gotten better in the past several years even as the field and the number of players have grown exponentially. Those who have been working in the field for at least 10 years talk about the development of co-operation between various INGOs and IGOs. Even the ICRC, which has traditionally worked on its own, is now recognising the value in working with other members of the international community.

Relationship with the international military presence

The interaction between the military and civilian components of the international community presence in the field has also improved. Both sides have come to recognise that there is a dependency on each other for resources, information and help. The military now has in every operation, units and personnel to deal specifically with the civilian component of a Mission – called CIMIC (civil – military co-operation) – it is increasingly becoming one of the more important areas in a military peacekeeping operation.

The military has shown signs of opening up and sharing some of its vast resources for civilian operations and programs since the adoption of CIMIC. However, one can say there has also been too much a movement to the other side, with more dependency rather than distrust now the common factor. This is in part because often the military are the only ones with full resource capacity and hence the dependency on the military for resources that would otherwise be impossible to secure has grown expondentially.

Although there remains a certain amount of distrust with regard to co-operating with the military, particularly among the INGOs; the international community in general, especially the IGOs, have recognised the ‘benefit’ in co-operating with the military and now the international military presence is generally recognised as a key and integral component in missions along with the INGO and IGO communities, and local governmental and non-governmental structures. In some missions the military is even under the command of the SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary-General, who is the civilian head of peacekeeping missions), such as in East Timor. Although they may not be under the direct command of the civilian head of other missions, such as in Kosovo, the military chiefs are routinely included and integrated within the decision-making processes from the top echelons to the grass-roots level.

However, even given the recognition of mutual dependency, the relationship between the military and civilian components of a mission remains difficult and often tense. This is IN part because the military remains suspicious of non-military culture and views the outside world through the lens of its own culture - rigid, hierarchal and orderly and sees the civilian world, the NGO world in particular, as chaotic and ‘undisciplined’. Thus, the military continues to have a difficult time understanding the non-military community and the role they play in peacekeeping missions. Some of this is because of the continuing myopicness of the military but some of it is also due to the actions of the civilian presence in the field, which as mentioned above, is often disorganised and competitive, with no clear exit strategy.

In conclusion both the civilian and military components to peacekeeping operations recognise the need to collaborate and the fact that both sides have something to ‘offer’, however the relationship remains rocky.

Relationship with the sending organisation

Similar experiences in the relationship with the sending organisation exist in both small-scale and larger scale operations, in that the relationship between the head organisation and the field component is a very important element of the equation in missions, but it is often problematic.

This is particularly true if the sending office does not have an office on the ground which is the most common situation particularly for peace teams such as the ones addressed in the section on small scale organisations but also for larger scale missions where the headquarters may in fact have the final say in the decisions affecting the implementation of programming on the ground.

INGOs probably suffer much less from the situation of the geographic division between program implementation and decision-making at the policy level, in large part because they generally have an office on the ground which functions as an autonomous entity from headquarters.

However, even INGOs cannot get away from the fact that field personnel often complain that the sending organisation does not understand the difficulties and the needs faced by those working on the ground. This is often exacerbated by the difficulties in communication that can define working in the field, particularly in a conflict zone.

Unrealistic expectations can then develop on both sides about what is achievable. For the field workers, trying to communicate the priorities and needs to an organisation thousands of kilometres away from the person’s work can be difficult at the best of times. Add in a constantly changing political environment, evolving response structures on the ground and a lack of reliable communications, and the potential for the sending organisation to misunderstand or misinterpret the needs and concerns of the field workers increases greatly. This is true for both large and small scale operations.

At the same time the reporting requirements of the sending organisation, in order to remain appraised of the situation, can be unrealistic by dint of the constantly changing situation in the field. Thus in conflict zones the work generally tends to be reactive rather than proactive. While it is extremely important to keep the sending organisation as informed as possible, a balance needs to be struck on both sides as to what can be feasibly achieved in keeping the sending organisation informed and involved.

It doesn’t add to the relationship that often field workers can have unrealistic expectations about the kind of support (material, emotional, financial) that a sending organisation can give, especially in a constantly changing environment. If the priorities keep changing due to the evolving situation on the ground which dictates the kinds of activities field workers do, and therefore the kinds of resources they need, it can be difficult for the sending organisation to continually meet the resource demands, as well as other needs, of the field workers. Yet, there can be an expectation by the field workers that the sending organisation is an endless reservoir of resources and support.

On the other hand incredible loyalty to an organisation or people attached to a particular organisation often develops in the field, particularly because field workers are so dependent on their superiors and their colleagues as well as on other relationships they build on the ground for their own survival as well as the the survival of their work, often literally as well as figuratively.

This holds particularly true for small scale organisations as well as larger INGOs where the development of loyalty is a natural outgrowth of this dependency on their peers. This kind of commitment to the organisation is generally not as strong with the larger scale, more bureaucratic organisations but nonetheless a sense of dependency on colleagues as well as the organisations is much stronger in the field than in the ‘regular’ working world. There are many reasons for this.

One is that most people have other interests and people in their life outside of their work environment, which provides them with a balance between their professional and personal lives. In the field it is very difficult to achieve that balance where one’s professional and personal lives are far more intertwined. You find yourself, not only working with your colleagues and superiors, but often living, vacationing (and mating) with them as well. And although your work as an accompanist for local human rights workers will be very different from the engineer with whom you live; nonetheless you work in the same context and under the same conditions. All of this provides for an atmosphere in which intense and strong linkages are formed. In other words, in the field your professional life is your personal life.

The relationship between the field worker and the sending organisation also depends very much on the size and type of sending organisation. For example the ICRC has an intense training program for its delegates before they send them to their posts. This is not only because they want to ensure their delegates are prepared for what they will experience in the field but also because they recognise that a strong, cohesive team is far more equipped to cope with, and resolve all kinds of unexpected situations the workers may encounter on the ground. This also fosters strong loyalty and commitment to the ideals and goals of the sending organisation which other organisations might not get from their field staff.

However, an organisation like the OSCE is dependent on country secondments in which to staff over 95% of their missions. This often means the people sent by a national government are the ones who are not necessarily the most qualified for the position, but the ones with the most connections and often a stronger commitment to their national government than to the OSCE either as an organisation or its mandate. And since an organisation like the OSCE is mostly field-based once the secondment is finished there is no further contact with the organisation.

On the other hand, many of the NGO personnel in the field have either been with the organisation on other missions, or working in the national office of the organisation, or will go to the national office when they leave the field. And because many NGOs are staffed at the headquarters with former workers in the field, this can help build trust and co-operation between the sending organisation and the field staff.

Ultimately though the relationship between the field workers and the sending organisation depends on how remote and bureaucratic the organisation is. The more intimate and responsive an organisation is to the needs and concerns of its staff on the ground, the more likely the relationship will be co-operative and trustworthy.


  • (1) : See Mary B. Anderson’s Do no harm approach, described in chapter 2.3 (page 95 pp.)