CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Order? International models of peace and reconciliation (Report No. 9)

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New Order?

International models of peace and reconciliation

NGOS and governments

Mari Fitzduff

We are living during a transition period in which the old world is in terminal decline but the contours of the new one are not clearly discernible.[1]
On March 14th 1993, the people of Andorra - numbering all of 7,000 - overwhelmingly passed a referendum granting themselves sovereignty over the principality, hitherto shared between France and Spain. They acquired the right to have their own currency, stamps and a seat at the United Nations, becoming the 184th member of that august body. And they exemplified the seismic changes that are happening in our world.

When the UN was formed in 1945 there were 51 constituents; by 1960 there were 100. Today there are 189, at the last count, and it has even been suggested that the number of states could increase to 2,000 by the year 2050 - a not impossible scenario if we look, for example, at the current break-up of the United Kingdom.

At the same time, the emergence of a global economy is deconstructing currency and customs boundaries and negating the control by nation-states over their own wealth. Financial markets are now both transnational and mobile. Labour is being transnationalised too, it has been suggested, with large migrations across established boundaries. A worldwide system of communications is diminishing cultural borders.

International lobby groups are the fastest growing power in politics. Meanwhile, fewer citizens are voting in national elections-less than half the citizens of Japan and the us - and fewer are bothering to join political parties. The formation of issue-based alliances is assisting the destruction of national politics.

These twin trends of fragmentation and globalisation are creating a new domain of 'sub-politics',[2] dominated by economics, experts and the private sphere-and, of course, non-governmental organisations: "In the old world you had to choose between left and right. In the new world you choose between global and tribal…"[3]

Over 40 million people have been killed in wars since the second world war, most of them in intra-state conflicts. Since 1990, there have been some 150 wars, in which at least 5 million have died. At the moment, there are about 30 taking place, almost all ethnic, political or religious - not international.

But fragmentation per se should not be perceived as a problem. There is a lot to be said for devolution, as those in Scotland who have argued for more local power, control and responsibility - for which they are willing to pay increased taxes - have articulated quite clearly. The same sentiments are echoed in many large companies, who for several years have sought to decentralise, with resultant gains in effectiveness and loyalty.

Nor, in itself, is globalisation. Although based on the edge of a tiny island at the edge of Europe, every day I have at least half-a-dozen trans-world conversations - at little expense because of the wonders of e-mail. I am part of a variety of new communities and alliances, which would have been utterly impossible even five years ago.

Worries about a new axis of inequality between those who have modern technology with which to communicate, and those who do not, are understandable. Yet developing countries are likely to benefit most, and with little cost, from such technology.

At a global level, we have been destructively limited by our conservative perspectives on how territories should be governed. Northern Ireland has also suffered from the either/or perspective of existing states. It is now fairly clear that no such either/or solution is going to be successful in addressing the needs of a territory almost equally split in political and cultural aspirations.

The British and Irish governments have desperately tried to address this need through a variety of constitutional alternatives, some unique in their willingness to consider extra-state possibilities for those who feel the need for them. We need much more such creativity, not just in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the world. Such creativity might have helped avert the utterly destructive way in which former Yugoslavia fell apart.

When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.[4]

Of course, Joyce did escape, flying to Paris and Zurich - anywhere to get a way from the webs of belonging which he felt so restrictive but about which he wrote so vividly Most feel at times an equivalent ambivalence about where and how we belong. The win!lose approach to issues of territory and resources has been disastrous, leading all too often to the awfulness of ethnic essentialism and the associated 'ethnic cleansing'.

Dreams of a place for 'our' people - with our army, our language and our economy - are no longer viable. Only about a tenth of the countries of the world are ethnically homogeneous. And such desires are based on a psychological fallacy: "The problem with nationalism is not the desire for self-determination itself, but the particular epistemological illusion that you can be at home, you can be understood, only among people like yourself."[5]

Such dreams, however, persist-especially when we come face-to-face with a crisis of identity or inequity New forms of co-operation are needed, emphasising the civic - as opposed to the ethnic - locality.

Thus, for example, the break-up of the USSR beached dozens of 'ethnic' groups (still an unclear term), ranging from hundreds to millions of people, which Stalinist mobilisation had deposited in mixed territories-in the northern Caucasus there appear to be at least 17 groups seeking new forms of being in the world. A Northern Caucasus Economic Council, which could address economic needs without a concomitant dilution of political identity was mooted some years ago. Similarly, a Council of the Isles has been suggested as a possible strand to co-operative alternatives to the Northern Ireland conflict. Although untested, it is at least useful in assisting a new paradigm to emerge [and is now included as a British-Irish Council in the Belfast agreement - ed].

Increasingly important forms of international co-operation will, of course, be the Internet and e-mail. A few months ago, the centre which I head, INCORE, did some work on conflict-management theories and practice with a group of diplomats and senior executives from 20 embassies. A listserv was set up to sustain e-mail contact within the group. When our South African participant received news that he was to be posted to Moscow, immediately lists of contacts and hints flowed through the listserv, easing his way into his new world - and increasing the strength of those networks so vital at times in the work of conflict prevention. Considering that the group included people from Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India, and Nigeria and South Africa-so generating unusual and powerful contacts between often colliding worlds-the potential of sustained list services to provide alternative networks to those based on traditional loyalties becomes readily apparent.

Through our ever-ready lap-tops, day and night, we bypass institutional boundaries, governments, censorship systems and borders-as seminal documents, minutes of meetings and contact numbers become increasingly available. Hierarchies and formalities are diminishing-a peculiar consequence of e-mail - and transparency growing. These possibilities are particularly important in a world where we often need to bypass repressive régimes.

Am I my brother's keeper? The recent upsurge in human-rights organisations, many functioning at a global level, is testimony to a new sense of international responsibility perhaps unique to our times. The capacity to ignore the wrongs of another's regime has been reduced in the last few decades partly through the globalising media. Such knowledge, such concern, has eroded many principles which have informed the foreign policy of governments - in particular, the concept of 'non-interference' in the affairs of another country.

It is easy to forget that this idea was almost sacrosanct until the last decade. Many will remember the wrath within sections of the British government at the idea that the Republic of Ireland and latterly, the us could contribute to a resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. It took many years of argument to ensure such co-operation and, indeed, for it not to be deemed officially as interference. Most can recall similar arguments over so-called interference in Yugoslavia-particularly where there were no apparent economic interests to be protected - and one still hears them, from Algeria to Kosovo.

The number of indigenous NGOS involved in human rights has also increased over the last decade, particularly in places like Sri Lanka. Partly this is in response to the concerns of aid donors' domestic constituents about recipient governments' utilisation of foreign funds, for good or ill. More generally, it has been noted that the new emphasis on the non-governmental sector reflects the intellectual framework of wider changes in macroeconomic policy privatisation, and the reduced role of states in all aspects of the economy and service provision. NGOs are seen as a dynamic alternative to bloated state bureaucracies.

This change has been revolutionary and, by and large, positive. I am glad that the EU is bargaining with Turkey over its human-rights record, in response to its membership application. I was glad when western aid donors forced the Sri Lankan government to allow international human-rights groups to visit the island to check out allegations of governmental violence. As a yardstick for funding by the World Bank, the concept of 'good governance' is also helpful-even if there are still questions about how to interpret it. It was right that the issue of the rights of women was at least raised, if not won, in regard to NGO and other humanitarian involvement in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. And the question of whether UN aid should be linked to human-rights development will be one of our most productive debates of the next decade. Such challenges to internal sovereignty, including international war tribunals and international monitoring of elections-even if these are often badly resourced - reflect a growing sense in the world that what affects citizens elsewhere is indeed of my concern.

Much ambiguity remains. The recent British defence review talks about use of the army as a 'force for good' - but the precise nature of that goodness is not yet agreed. Western defence forces generally are suffering a crisis of identity, as the former defence-of-the-realm role becomes ever less clear. Explaining body bags coming home from Bosnia is an increasingly uphill task, particularly in the us. This ambiguity among many military personnel - and politicians-about why they should risk the lives of their mainly young men in far-away, war-torn lands, where there is no obvious security or economic gain, could prove a significant weakness in securing their commitment to future peace-keeping operations.

This new agenda can be summarised as creative approaches to developments on the emerging global-local axis - particularly approaches which can provide alternatives to violence. What, then, is the role of NGOS in furthering this agenda? One of increasing importance, if they wish it to be so. But they will only be successful, if they are prepared and most are not.

In the past, there has been little questioning of the positive role of the NGO. Most have been established to perform worthwhile tasks they think are not being addressed - or not properly addressed-by governments or intergovernmental organisations like the UN. Increasingly many are functioning at an international level, as an adjunct, or even alternative, to official aid-particularly those working according to one or other of the following four mandates:

  • providing humanitarian aid in emergencies,
  • promoting social and economic development,
  • promoting and monitoring human rights, and
  • undertaking peace-building through conflict prevention, management and long-term reconciliation.

Increasingly too, such NGOS are recognising the interaction between these objectives and developing new skills to address their additional mandates-for example, there is a fashion for many aid agencies to undertake training in mediation and negotiation skills. This has led to some confusion, and difficulties for funders and audit officers. Is Oxfam involved in charity or politics? For the moment, it seem to have settled for what is called capacity-building, deemed by some - somewhat naïvely - as relatively neutral.

Without doubt, many lives have been saved through the intervention of NGOS with these new mandates in areas of disaster and conflict. By casting a spotlight on human-rights abuses, they have led many governments to be increasingly mindful of scrutiny - with a concomitant curtailing of some of the worst abuses. NGOS are also to be congratulated for their encouragement in many areas of grassroots participation in economic and social programmes.

Because of their degree of independence and their tendency to be task-driven-as opposed to bureaucracy-led - they are often able to be innovative and creative in how they approach their tasks. And many have a capacity to cross international boundaries in a way that is often impossible for governments to emulate.

With the growth - including budgetary - of many NGOS and their increasing visibility, there is however in many quarters a feeling that the honeymoon is coming to an end-that the apparent goodwill and harmlessness of such organisations may no longer go unquestioned. Increasingly, NGOs - quite rightly - are coming under scrutiny themselves.

Thus Stubbs[6] has argued that many of the actions of NGOs in ex-Yugoslavia have eroded the middle classes and suspended civil-society activities. Eagen[7] has suggested that in Mozambique NGOS have caused the underdevelopment of local government. In other places, they have been accused of succumbing to government agendas-for example, in Sri Lanka by becoming involved long-term in areas held by government, but not those controlled by the Tamil Tigers. They have also been accused in some countries of selectivity in their advocacy of human fights - a charge, indeed, which used to be levelled against Amnesty International over its condemnation of state violence in Northern Ireland, before it changed its policy to allow parallel condemnation of the violence of the paramilitaries.

The criticism of many NGOs by the various UN peace-keeping forces is legendary: charges of naivete, meddling and introducing their own - often competing - agendas abound. The forces in turn are often resented by many NGOS, who see the former as arrogant, hierarchical, sometimes trigger-happy and often far too susceptible to political forces back home.

Recent stories of competitiveness among NGOS themselves-fuelled often by their need for recognition on the world stage, and from actual and potential funders-have also damaged their reputation. And, in some cases, they have been accused of dehumanisation in using horror pictures of wartime atrocities as aids for fundraising.

As the nature of war is changing, the task of the NGOs intervening in conflict settings has become both more complex and more promising.[8]

These criticisms, arising amidst - and possibly stemming from - the in creasing power of NGOS, provide, however, an occasion for the latter to reassess their focus and their future in the new world of politics, globalisation and peace-making.

Acting with integrity in any conflict is never easy: we know that to our cost in Northern Ireland. Many local and international NGOS have had great difficulty acting effectively together in the region. At least three factors have rendered their contribution to peace-building problematic: the ambivalence felt by many about their relationship with the state, the limits to the power they have traditionally wielded, and the lack of any agreement - as, indeed, within many other sectors - about the nature of the conflict or approaches to it.

There have been honourable groups who have attempted-often under conditions of great danger - to ensure co-operation and dialogue between the different factions. But this ambivalence, and these differences, have meant that by and large NGOS have been unable, indeed unwilling, even to discuss what constructive approaches to peace-building might be - let alone agree to implement them.

This is not surprising: far from having kept themselves 'pure' from the discriminatory and exclusive practices of other sectors, many NGOS in Northern Ireland-particularly some of the most respected and long established - are almost as burdened with exclusivity exemplified through imbalances in staff and clientele, as many commercial concerns. This is apparent in symbols used, holiday customs, and choice of venues or patrons, all of which serve to sustain exclusion.

Many of these difficulties came to a head in the approach of the voluntary sector to the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, introduced in 1995, whose moneys were supposed to be directly related to peace-building on the ground. Discussions around how best to use the funds showed that very few NGOS were agreed on how to build peace - indeed very few people were willing to give a lead in ensuring that communities openly talked through the issue. It is only now, three years later, with the EU'S insistence that peace-building be integral to expenditure of the second tranche of the 'peace package', that some groups are finally-in many cases, very reluctantly - beginning specifically to address the problem.

External, including international, NGOS have also not been without their difficulties. Some - I would commend the Quakers and the Mennonites-have achieved significant credibility Similarly some funders - notably the Rowntree trusts, again Quaker-based - have taken a very wise and sophisticated approach to hastening an end to the conflict. But others have had major problems achieving cross-community credibility and, despite the visits of hundreds of international academic and conflict-related delegations, only a handful will be remembered as having contributed significantly to that goal-indeed, some external interventions have been nothing short of disastrous.

Direct Intervention Capacity buildingAdvocacy
Fuelling Conflictaid used to purchase arms providing support
to political fronts
advocacy for warring party
Holding Operation'smart' relief, ie does not increase tension support local development organisations protection of civilian rights
Peace-buildingethnic groups brought together to develop co-operative programmes support for civic peace groups advocacy for peace, justice, reconciliation

Our knowledge of the processes of conflict remains limited: the dubious excitements of war-making continue to capture more research and other resources than the long-term challenges of conflict prevention and resolution. But critical work is increasingly being undertaken: that of Goodhand and Hulme at Manchester University offers a very useful starting point for NGOS in conflict situations.[9] The matrix above is a variation on their classification of NGO strategies and impact.

The last of these categories - peace-building - is probably the most interesting. It is here-in the lulls between the fighting or after the fighting has eased - that the work of NGOs will meet in some significant way the new demands of the world for a rewriting of global and local civic processes, for a reinvention of politics and power. If power is indeed moving both towards the global (in some cases via the regional) and the local, then the competencies and roles of government are themselves in transition. This offers major opportunities for willing NGOS, with expertise and strategic skills, to inform and influence governmental policies.

For example, many British NGOs - particularly those active in development - have been working closely with the Labour party for some time to help shape its policies. It is a salutary experience now to observe Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development personnel collaborating with such organisations as Saferworld and Oxfam - a sight that would have been most unusual five years ago.

So who is learning from whom-government or NGOs? Obviously it would be politic to suggest both - and equally. But, culturally the world is moving towards the less hierarchically inclined processes of the NGOS. Their capacity for networking and breaking through international, and indeed ethnic, boundaries is increasingly being appreciated by those involved in more formal, closed, often secretive organisations. The emerging science of peace-making (as opposed to war-making) has developed primarily amongst NGOS and intellectuals, but its theory and skills are increasingly being taken up-with some avidity - by military men and diplomats alike. In Northern Ireland, models for dialogue and mediation, or for institutional audit, developed within the voluntary sector, are being increasingly adopted in the domains of business and security.

It has been fascinating how, in the prior absence of regional democratic administration in Northern Ireland, many of the barriers between government and civil society have been broken down, with each side gradually learning that perhaps it could come to trust the other, even when dealing with some of the most conflictual issues. Such trust is also echoed in some of the partnership arrangements for delivery of government and EU programmes - particularly at district council level, where consortia encompassing politicians, trade unions, businesses and the voluntary sector are sitting on local decision-making committees in a way that, again, would have been impossible a few years ago.

Interesting in this context was the recent suggestion by the Women's Coalition that any new political assembly for Northern Ireland should be supplemented by a second-tier body, in which the business, academic, trade union and voluntary sectors could provide constructive and formal input into the democratic process. Although there were many politicians who looked upon this idea with suspicion [and it was eventually translated into an advisory forum - ed], such new forms of power reflect national and international trends in which issue-based groups are becoming increasingly important in shaping local and global agendas.

The story is very far from universally positive, of course, and the way ahead for NGOS is far from clear. While they may influence the thinking of an increasing number of governments and international security bodies, such positive alliances will only be possible in certain circumstances. In others, governments will continue to try to seduce and use NGOS for their own ends, or to impose political constraints on their idealism.

But the millennium will see a gradual coming of age for many NGOS. The time is now extraordinarily opportune to develop positive agendas, to refine and refocus them, to move with increasing confidence and capacity into a world increasingly of their making. As Ignatieff puts it, "The army of aid workers and activists who mediate between the zones of our world continues to grow in strength and influence. They remain our moral alibi, but they are also the means through which deeper and more permanent commitments can be made in the future."[10]


Harald Bungarten of NATO opened the discussion by recalling how as one of the "68 generation' he had taken part in demonstrations against things his parents had stood for. Now he found himself having to respond to a demonstration in Brussels demanding intervention in Kosovo. And far from this being a demonstration against something, the demonstrators had chanted 'Long live NATO!'

He said how the mid-conference bus tour for participants around Belfast had sent shivers down his back, the 'peace lines' reminding him of Berlin. The Wall's demise there had changed the atmosphere dramatically in NATO headquarters. Nowadays the only uniforms in Brussels tended to be worn by eastern European visitors; for the rest, civilian clothing reflected the increasingly civil-political role NATO was playing.

Partnership for Peace had been very important for NATO but the organisation still needed to redefine its 'strategic concept' as to what threats now had to be faced. The new role was to provide security in the broadest sense, to establish an environment in which others - whether they be the UN or domestic NGOs - could do their work: "If the bridges are mined or destroyed, you can't bring people together."

As to the role of NGOs, he stressed that intergovernmental organisations like his own could be even more remote than governments. But, as he saw it, "co-ordinated co-operation with policy-makers" was the way ahead.

As discussion broadened, it was pointed out that NGOs did not in a simple sense 'represent' the entire grassroots population. Indeed it was much easier for governments, or IGOs, to bring small groups together via NGOs than to reach the majority of the people (a difficulty often highlighted by politicians keen to dismiss NGOs as 'unrepresentative').

Problems could also arise if NGOs were much more developed in one community than another. Nor did they necessarily agree - sometimes the role of politicians was precisely to balance the different views they heard represented to them.

NGOs also needed to liaise better between themselves. They often got in each other's way and did not achieve the 'synergistic effects' they could through cooperation.

One way forward was a charter for NGOs in conflict situations. Thus, everyone knew what to expect of the Red Cross, but other organisations did not always know what NGOs saw themselves as doing.

A particular problem had arisen in Northern Ireland with NGO beneficiaries of the EU Special Support Programme. Evaluation of the programme had revealed that many groups had not built any serious commitment to reconciliation into the work that had been supported. Hence the European Commission had stipulated that eligibility for the second tranche of the 'peace package' would require reconciliation to be foregrounded.

The more general lesson was that NGOS were required to work to a clear mission with a defined modus operandi, to think strategically and to improve their co-ordination.

1 Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, Michael Joseph, London, 1994
2 Ulrich Beck, The Reinvention of Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997
3John Naisbett, Global Paradox, Allen & Unwin, London, 1996
4James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916
5Michael Ignatieff, Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Consciousness, Chatto, London, 1998
6P Stubbs, 'The role of NGOS in social reconstruction in post-Yugoslav countries, Relief and Rehabilitation Network, May 1997
7E Eagen, Relief and rehabilitation work in Mozambique', Development in Practice, no 3, 1991
8Mary Anderson, Do No Harm: Supporting Local Capacities for Peace through Aid, Collaboration for Development Action, 1996
9J Goodhand and D Hulme, NGOs and Complex Emergencies, University of Manchester/INTRAC working paper no 1
10Ignatieff, op cit

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