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The evolution of NGO peacebuilding in complex emergencies: A theoretical analysis

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have emerged in the post-Cold War era as active players in efforts to mitigate and end conflicts.  There are several factors that have led to the increased participation of the NGOs in peace-building activities. The post cold war period, to some extent, ended the ideological partisan approach to international relations and aid delivery coupled with the promotion of the principles of liberal democracy and global peace. The post-Cold War era has also witnessed the expanding developmental role of NGOs as well as active engagement in advocacy and peacebuilding. NGOs have also increasingly been viewed and have assumed the stance of being a source of countervailing power to local and global structures of power.

NGO involvement in complex emergencies

The NGO involvement in conflict zones has primarily been through humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies. These conflict settings have put the lives of NGO staff at risk, as well compromising the NGO mandate.  Complex emergencies can be defined as “humanitarian crises that are linked with large-scale violent conflict – civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide”.[1] Keen emphasizes here that ‘complex emergencies’ should refer to emergencies that are conflict-induced as opposed to those that are caused by natural disasters.

The involvement of NGOs in complex emergencies has raised a number of issues, mainly around the extent to which NGOs can perform humanitarian assistance in a manner that is perceived to be neutral or impartial. This has prompted a moral discourse on humanitarian intervention in situations of conflict. NGOs have found themselves in compromising situations leading to critical reflection on the extent to which humanitarian assistance may exacerbate conflict or create favourable situations for peace.

The idealization of NGOs as neutral and impartial, focused on doing good and saving lives, has led to high expectation of NGOs[2] At the same time these situations have given rise to discussions on vigilance against doing harm.[3]   These discussions have propelled calls for accountability on the part of the NGOs while questioning the manner in which they have conducted their humanitarian assistance. Respect of local cultures and balancing this with the NGO principles of operation has sometimes posed serious dilemmas especially where these cultures condone or tolerate human rights violations.

NGOs have faced numerous challenges such as reconstruction of schools and hospital, job creation, lack of security and unresolved issues in post conflict settings.[4] NGOs are further limited in their activities by the fact that “major donors have substituted humanitarian aid for political action”, hence compromising the impartiality principles.[5] Politicisation of aid has dragged humanitarian assistance and NGO activities into tensions with different parties in conflict.

Anderson  asserts that while aid is crucial in mitigating conflicts through humanitarian assistance, NGOs ought to pay attention to activities that exacerbate conflict rather than mitigate its impact.[6] She describes these situations as “implicit ethical messages” such as hiring armed guards to protect the aid materials; unhealthy competition and distrust among agencies;  acting with implicit impunity without being sensitive to the local cultures and values, apparent discriminatory treatment between international staff and local people.[7] In a similar perspective Reimann posits that there are five ways in which NGOs can exacerbate conflict: providing resources to warring parties; contributing to market distortions; reinforcing societal divisions and conflict; freeing up internal resources for use in conflict; and legitimizing warring sides.[8]

NGOs appear to create “shadow networks of governance” that can undermine the local authorities.[9] In displaced camps NGOs are seen to be running “surrogate states”[10] independent from the host countries. NGOs can also affect “the emotional economy of conflict” by supporting, through aid and ideology, one community against another.[11] Humanitarianism also has been critiqued as playing the role of the right hand of the empire.[12] Algier argues that in humanitarianism: “There is a hand that strikes and a hand that heals”.[13] The hand that strikes refers to the hegemonic powers in the international system.  Algier makes reference to wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 where the “aerial distribution of supplies and medicines accompanied the dropping of bombs.”[14] Thus humanitarianism emerges as the hand that heals, repairing the damages of the super-powers.

The above situations have had negative impact on the achievement of the objectives of humanitarian assistance. These situations politicize aid and render NGOs vulnerable to partisan politics at the local level, while at the same time creating unfavourable economic and social environment.[15] Prendergast describes which he refers to as the “seven sins” that subject humanitarian NGOs to competing imperatives such as: limiting the success of aid delivery to quantified numbers of people that have been reached, and unaccountability for the funds that have been raised in response to humanitarian crises.[16]

Caution is imperative on the part of NGOs in dealing with these dilemmas, as conflict and post-conflict settings are often highly complex. Some situations call for immediate decisions that may be contextually evidence-based yet in the long run could turn out to be inappropriate. Keen argues that it is impossible to understand the inadequacy of humanitarian interventions “without understanding the complicated functions of ‘humanitarianism’ for donor governments and the extent to which these are consistent with not providing relief to needy groups.[17] Humanitarian situations often bring in many players, raising concern about coordination and prioritization of activities. These situations tend to make humanitarian work more complex.

NGOs in peace-building

NGOs have been active in the peace-building arena. This has been attributed, in some cases, to the failure of the states in resolving conflicts and creating sustainable environment for security, development and harmonious co-existence.[18] Besides “conflict prevention, humanitarian interventions and post conflict peace-building” became part of international policy of global management in the post Cold War period (Tschirgi, 2004:4).[19]  Minear holds that although “humanitarian action has always had an uncomfortable association with the trajectory of conflicts, only in the 1990s have the specific linkages become a policy issue of ongoing debate.”[20]  The transition from relief-development trajectory to peace-building has been intertwined and not necessarily chronological in nature. This means that there are a number of NGOs that have been providing relief and development assistance while still engaged in peace-building activities.

In the1994 UN report on Agenda for Development three areas were identified as key to NGO peacebuilding: preventive diplomacy; humanitarian assistance and post-conflict peacebuilding.  In the UN Agenda for Peace, peacebuilding was seen as multidimensional linking grassroots, middle level diplomacy and top level leadership.   Boutros Ghali defined peacebuilding as “sustained, co-operative work to deal with underlying economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems …”2  Peacebuilding also entails “action to identify and support structures which tend to strengthen and solidify peace to avoid relapse into conflict.”[21] Thus NGO activities can contribute to the peacebuilding discourse and influence international conflict resolution efforts.

Goodhand argues that there have been two different interpretations of the NGO engagement in peace-building within the human security paradigm.[22] One interpretation holds that NGOs can contribute to peace-building activities by virtue of their grassroots involvement in humanitarian activities. The other interpretation argues that western interventionism has mainly been geared towards the rogue states that have failed the democracy test.  These are seen as attempts to quarantine war while promoting the liberal peace agenda.[23] In this sense NGOs are viewed in the same continuum as subjects of liberal peace because it is difficult to separate their humanitarian and development activities from the new security regime of the western nations.[24]

This mix-bowl approach to humanitarianism has posed definitional problems of what is actually entailed by humanitarian assistance. For example, the inclusion of ‘protection’[25] as part of the humanitarianism has come into conflict with the work of human rights organizations which have normally undertaken the task of ‘protection’.[26] Likewise the incorporation of advocacy as part of humanitarian operation could potentially compromise the security and safety of aid workers on the ground.[27] Thus, NGO peace-building ought to be understood within the complexities of humanitarianism.

NGO involvement in post-conflict development has been influenced by studies demonstrating that increased development can counter the effects of war.

Carey  outlines the various dilemmas faced by  NGOs in peace-building.[28] These include, the challenge of maintaining neutrality in the face of evil; prolonging war by providing aid both to those in need, and the militias who might use it to foster a war agenda; engaging in short-term peace-building activities that could exacerbate conflict; co-opting NGOs into the liberal peace agenda which may not ensure a sustainable peace; compromising the NGO identity by the diverse nature of the NGO category, which has included illiberal organizations that have been known to promote violence. These situations imply that NGOs have to adapt their methods of peace-building in order to accommodate the complex and diverse contextual conditions.[29]

Policy Recommendations

  1. Peace-building interventions ought to be tailored to contextual imperatives. Linking up peace-building initiatives at different levels (grassroots and policy levels) ensures that there are no duplications and that the intervention weaves into existing initiatives.
  2. Interventions should be based on a clear understanding of the change processes that the activities aim to produce. The conceptualization of this understanding ought to be in consultation with the local people so that the change desired by the people becomes the target rather than prescribed
  3. Communities in conflict are often characterized by mistrust, violence and divisions as a means of survival. It is important to engage in trust building process as part of the conflict intervention mechanism.
  4. Interventions have to pay attention to the changing phenomenon and manifestations of conflict. Prescribed solutions could fall prey to ignoring the dynamics of conflict and changing roles of the actors.

Elias Omondi Opongo is the Director of Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR), Hekima University College, Nairobi, Kenya. He holds a PhD in Peace Studies from University of Bradford, UK and MA degree in International Peace Studies from University of Notre Dame, USA. He has published books, articles and book chapters on NGO field diplomacy, transitional justice, methodologies of peacebuilding, among others.


[1] Keen, D. (2008) Complex Emergencies, Cambridge, UK, Polity. Pg: 1

[2]  Fisher, W. F. (1997) ‘Doing good? The politics and antipolitics of NGO practices’ in Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 26, 439.

[3] Anderson, M. (1999) Do no Harm. How Aid can Support Peace or War, London, Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[4]  Lewis, D., Rodgers D & M., W. (2005) ‘The fiction of development: knowledge, authority and representation’ in Development Studies Institute (Destin), Working Paper. London, London School of Economics.

[5] Shearer, D. (2000) ‘Aiding or Abetting? Humanitarian Aid and Its Economic Role in Civil War’ in MATS BERDAL, D. M. M. (Ed.) Greed and grievance: economic agendas in civil wars London, Lynne Rienner Publishers: 198.

[6] Anderson, M. (1999) Do no Harm. How Aid can Support Peace or War, London, Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[7] Ibid: 58.

[8] Reimann, K. D. (2005) ‘Upto No Good? Recent Critics and Critiques of NGOs’ in RICHMOND, O. P. & CAREY, H. F. (Eds.) Subcontracting Peace: The challenges of NGO Peacebuilding. Burlington, Ashgate.

[9] Goodhand, J. (2006) Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict, Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers. Pg:111.

[10] Slaughter, A. & Crisp, J. (2008) ‘A Surrogate State? The Role of UNHCR in Protracted Refugee Situations’ in LOESCHER, G., MILNER, J., NEWMAN, E. & TROELLER, G. (Eds.) Protracted Refugee Situations: Political, Human Rights and Security Implications. New York, UN University Press.

[11] Goodhand, J. (2006) Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict, Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers. Pg: 115.

[12] Agier, M. (2010) Managing the undesirables: refugee camps and humanitarian government, Cambridge, Polity.

[13] Ibid: 200.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Smillie, I. & Minear, L. (2004) The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in A Calculating World, Bloomfield, Kumarian Press. pg: 81.

[16] Prendergast, J. (1996) Frontline Diplomacy. Humanitarian Aid and Conflict in Africa, Boulder, Lynne and Reinner 1-15.

[17] Keen, D. (2008) Complex Emergencies, Cambridge, UK, 116.

[18] Richmond, O. P. (2010a) ‘A Genealogy of Peace and Conflict’ in RICHMOND, O. P. (Ed.) Palgrave advances in peacebuilding.  London: Palgrave Macmillan. London, Palgrave Macmillan. pg: 25.

[19] Tschirgi, Neclâ Yonagoĝlu. (2004). Peacebuilding as the link between security and development: is the window of opportunity closing? New York: International Peace Academy, Studies in Security and Development. pg: 5.

[20] Minear, L. (2002). The humanitarian enterprise: Dilemmas and discoveries. Bloomfield, Conn: Kumarian Press, p. 156.

[21] Ghali, B. B. (1992) ‘An agenda for peace: Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping’. Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations GA and SC, A/47/277, S/24111, 17 June 1992. . United Nations (UN).

[22] Goodhand, J. (2006) Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict, Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers. pg: 78-79.

[23] Richards, P. (Ed.) (2005) No War No Peace. Anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts, Oxford, James Currey. pg: 3.

[24] Duffield, M. (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars: the merging of development and security, London, Zed Books. pg: 16.

[25] ‘Protection’ refers to initiatives that aim at protecting and defending the rights of people affected by conflict or humanitarian disaster. Such could include speaking against different forms of physical or emotional abuse; supporting initiatives that ensure the security of affected persons; negotiating with the local government to accord appropriate rights and care to the affected population, etc.

[26] Slim, H. & Bonwick, A. (2005) Protection: An ALNAP guide for humanitarian agencies London Overseas Development Institute.

[27] Borton, J., (2009) Future of the Humanitarian System: Impacts of Internal Changes. Berkhamsted:  John Borton Consulting.

[28] Carey, H. F. (2010a) NGO dilemmas in peacebuilding. IN OLIVER, P. R. (Ed.) Palgrave advances in peacebuilding. London, Palgrave MacMillan. pgs 240-256.

[29] Ibid: 247.

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