Working in complex realities, do NGOs do good, harm, or both?

NGOs are regularly scrutinized for their accountability to donors, but what about their accountability to the civil societies they are trying to help?

By
January 28, 2017 03:01
B’Tselem

A B’Tselem researcher on the ground in east Jerusalem. (photo credit: B'TSELEM)

In mid-October, the head of human rights NGO B’Tselem, Hagi El-Ad, testified at a special session of the United Nations Security Council against the State of Israel’s “injustice against other human beings” in its occupation of the West Bank.

B’Tselem received praise from the left-leaning Israeli public and was defended in international media reports by sister NGOs and the UN. At the same time, there were those who went so far as to call the unprecedented move of an Israeli NGO speaking out against its country “diplomatic terrorism.”

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“I think people in Israel were proud we took a stance against the occupation and that we insisted there are better alternatives for the future,” B’Tselem spokesman Amit Gilutz tells The Jerusalem Report.

Gilutz says B’Tselem received donations from more Israelis – mostly micro gifts – in the month that followed the UN presentation than it had received in the entire first nine months of 2016.

On the other hand, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Dannon, was critical.

“During these days when our souls are being weighed and we are praying for the unity of the Nation of Israel [the UN address took place during the High Holy Days], it is sad and disappointing that Israeli organizations are providing moral cover for persecution against Israel at the UN,” Dannon said in a statement.

Do El-Ad’s actions help the Palestinian and Israeli people or will they further distance any hope of direct negotiations and peace? Can B’Tselem’s work – or that of other NGOs operating in the Palestinian territories (or any other conflict zone, for that matter) ‒ be seen as that of a blameless agent of human rights, as El-Ad portrayed himself in an op-ed published by the leftwing Hebrew daily Haaretz following the UN presentation? NGOs are regularly scrutinized for their accountability to donors, but what about their accountability to the civil societies they are trying to help?

NGOs rely on their perception as experts and moral authorities as an important tool for attaining funding and achieving their missions, says Naftali Balanson, chief of staff at Israel’s NGO Monitor. He adds, however, that a growing number of reports of corruption, misuse or even abuse of funds and other controversies surrounding the actions of NGOs have recently raised a red flag of skepticism. This is especially true, he says, when it comes to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict where NGOs not only provide aid, but often serve as political advocate organizations promoting what are later proven to be false claims of war crimes and human rights violations. Such accusations malign Israel in the international arena, feed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and engage the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a lawfare campaign against the Jewish state.

“More people are being skeptical and wondering who are these self-appointed actors and why are we giving them so much power?” explains Balanson, whose organization analyzes and reports on the output of the international NGO community in Israel.

“We have to ask, ‘Who do they represent?’ Are they democratic actors? Are they the voices of civil society or are civil society’s voices being shut out because we are only listening to this narrow band of human rights organizations?’”

Gilutz says it is false to assert B’Tselem is out of touch with people on the ground. It works with local residents who understand the field and the players. B’Tselem hires researchers and trains volunteers on site in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

He also says it is unfair to paint all Palestinians with one brush ‒ there are those who agree with B’Tselem’s methodology and those who use other means to fight the occupation.

“Palestinian society, like any society, is complex and layered,” Gilutz says.

Most experts agree the people who volunteer for or are employed by NGOs get into the business for the right reasons and want to help. Mary B. Anderson, author of “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace‒or War,” tells The Report that conflict zones can be “so complex, or even overpowering” that the most well-intentioned work can lead to increased violence and desperation.

Further, she says shifts in the structure and funding models of NGOs have led to increased challenges for those in the field.

The first official NGOs were named as such in the mid-1940s by the United Nations, which selected a group of international non-state agencies to observe some of its meetings. These were organizations bound by their missions to create a better social good.

GERALD STEINBERG, founder and president of NGO Monitor and a professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, tells The Report that most of these organizations were small and focused groups with earned reputations for accuracy and fighting against corruption.

“They were the good guys fighting against totalitarian regimes that were oppressing their people,” says Steinberg. “NGOs’ reputations stayed even though the entire human rights community has changed fundamentally. We call this the halo effect.”

At the beginning of the 1990s, in the aftermath of the conclusion of the Cold War, NGOs were looking for new agendas to justify their existence, and the rise of neoliberalism – anti-Western, anti-capitalism and anti-democracy – gained popularity in the NGO world, says Steinberg.

“The Cold War left the world divided into two parts ‒ the Western powers, which were responsible for war and violence and colonialism, and the victims. Israel was easily identified at that point as part of the aggressive Western framework, and the Palestinians were readily identified as the victims, he says.

At the same time, the Arab League benefitted from growing political power within the United Nations.

By the mid-1990s, the League and the rest of the Islamic bloc had captured and controlled the UN’s human rights agenda – mostly to avoid scrutiny of their own practices. Steinberg says, however, this ripened the field for Israeli and international NGOs working in the Palestinian territories.

B’Tselem and another more than 25 variations – often founded by the same people – were launched during this time.

A similar phenomenon was occurring around the world in other conflict zones as aid to developing nations began to be funneled from governments through NGOs to the needy, rather than through state entities.

“Between 1975 and 1985, the amount of aid transferred from developed nations to developing nations via NGOs increased 1,400 percent and the number of NGOs proliferated in countries as far apart as Brazil, Kenya, Philippines and Thailand,” the academic journal International Socialism reported in 2004. Some 90 percent of current NGOs were formed since 1975. The Commonwealth Foundation estimates that, in Britain, there are more than 500,000 NGOs, while approximately 1.5 million NGOs operate in the United States, according to HumanRights.gov.

Author and activist Anderson says that in the last two decades, NGOs have become businesses, often obligated by the priorities and/or timelines of their funders. NGO staff describe a “trap” in which they need to make a proposal for money and, in that application, include details of what they are going to do with the funding on the ground and how they are going to do it. This proposal becomes contractual, and the NGO must deliver what it said it was going to – often even if it finds an alternative plan might be more effective.

“The system gets very much engaged in getting the money delivered and spending it, so that the aid agencies can go back to their parliaments to show they spent their money so their budgets don’t go down,” says Anderson.

Steinberg says most NGOs are operating extremely large budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars per year, with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch having as much as $70 million to spend. Even smaller Israeli NGOs tend to have budgets as high as $4m. to $6m. And there are thousands of people involved in the NGO industry.

“Today, we have found there is a new cynicism on the part of [aid] recipients,” says Anderson, who notes that during her recent listening project, in which she and a team of other field researchers spoke to aid recipients in more than 60 countries, many expressed feeling they were “being used by people [in the field] for their own careers and not to benefit the people and that everyone was making money off this process.”

ANDERSON SAYS many recipients feel the aid community is not trying to solve problems and make their recipients independent because “then they would go out of business.”

“I have been working in the field since the ’60s, and in the early days there was much more faith,” says Anderson. “Aid agencies, today, brag about how long they have been working in the field when they should be mortified if they have been working anywhere for more than five or six years. If they really achieved their missions, they wouldn’t be needed anymore.”

In the case of B’Tselem, the organization has been operating since the late 1980s.

According to the organization’s website, it exists to “educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the occupied territories; combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public; and help create a human rights culture in Israel.”

“Conditions are worsening,” admits B’Tselem’s Gilutz.

On the one hand, parliamentarians feel good when they think they are helping solve the world’s problems, says Anderson, so they give more and more money. On the other hand, sometimes these same donors project their own political agendas or ideals on the NGOs they fund.

Sweta Velpillay of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a non-profit organization committed to improving the effectiveness of those who work to provide humanitarian assistance, cited a recent example of how many European governments were funding NGOs to offer humanitarian aid, but also to stop and/or deal with immigration from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries into the UK and other European countries.

The NGOs then changed strategic focus to be in line with their donors.

Furthermore, many funders struggle to ensure how exactly the funds are being used by those to whom they outsource their humanitarian work other than relying heavily on the reports presented by the NGOs themselves.

Velpillay, who serves as CDA’s senior adviser on conflict sensitivity and peace-building effectiveness, says her organization helps funders analyze conflict context. This involves looking at everything from the ability of local partners to manage the funding passed down to them to whether or not the correct paperwork is filled out and checking on political affiliations and nepotism, which are some of the ways conflicts can be exacerbated.

“The advantage of doing this analysis is that you minimize the risk of losing funds or having them end up in the wrong hands,” says Velpillay. She notes, however, that reality on the ground sometimes dictates that, even if a full assessment is done, there will be cases where funds will go missing.

In Sri Lanka, immediately following the 2004 tsunami, aid organizations handed out fishing boats to local fishermen whose livelihoods were ransacked by the floods. Years later, says Velpillay, these same boats were being used by the rebels for warfare.

“It was all done properly, the families who should have received the boats were verified, but once the organizations gave the boats and went off somewhere else – one week, one year later, sometime, those boats ended up in the rebels’ hands,” Velpillay says.

Funders and NGOs themselves must recognize that some of their work can have unexpected negative impact on the ground, says Velpillay.

She cites the situation in Southeast Asia’s Myanmar, where violence erupted earlier this year and international agencies immediately provided humanitarian aid, prioritizing assistance to those they felt needed it most.

“Humanitarians selected to give aid to one group over another, even though other groups were also affected by the violence,” says Velpillay. “Animosity between the two groups grew after that, resulting in further violence.”

Anderson, meanwhile says she has seen, firsthand, NGOs acknowledging that they are delivering needed food or building shelters, but simultaneously supporting warlords or other types of corruption. Sometimes, the negative impact can be so acute that the result is further violence or desperation.

“We have done lots and lots and lots of conveying of the ‘do no harm’ lessons, and lots of NGO staff read the book and get trained to do no harm, but only about 10 percent really carry through,” says Anderson. “The other 90 percent say it’s too hard.”

B’Tselem’s Gilutz says the organization trained some 200 Palestinian volunteers living in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip to take part in its innovative camera project, providing them with video cameras to document clashes or other human rights violations. Gilutz says they recruit volunteers via word of mouth, generally through those Palestinians with whom B’Tselem has been working for more than 20 years. He says volunteers sign a contract that they are not engaged in terrorist activity or affiliated with a terrorist organization, but he admits there is no detailed screening process.

NGO MONITOR’S Balanson says she feels B’Tselem fills an important need for the Palestinian people in that it helps them report what they perceive as human rights violations against them by Israel or the IDF.

“There are a lot of language and cultural barriers,” says Balanson. “NGOs like B’Tselem know the system and how to make a report, so they really are facilitators.”

However, he says that simultaneously B’Tselem and other like-minded NGOs also initiate reports based on inaccurate and/ or unverified information ‒ over-reporting falsehoods and even presenting video footage that only tells part of a story, which leads to an escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Steinberg cites an example as early as 2002, when a series of suicide attacks took place in Israel and the IDF went into the Jenin refugee camp, from where many of the suicide bombers had been sent. Shortly after the IDF pulled out, the Palestinians began reporting a massacre, claiming hundreds of people were killed by the IDF. A spokesperson for Amnesty International confirmed this massacre and dozens of other NGOs quickly added their names to the claim, including Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel.

“None of these people were anywhere near the Jenin refugee camp, including Amnesty,” says Steinberg. “The only evidence they had was that Palestinians said so.

Eventually, some of them came out and admitted the numbers were wrong – because the numbers were wrong. But the damage was already done.

“Very often, an NGO will make a claim immediately after an incident to get a headline,” Steinberg continues. “They claim that an Israeli rocket or other attack killed a number of innocent civilians – often children.

But there is no way they can already know. And it turns out later these same ‘victims’ were identified by Hezbollah or Hamas as having been members of their organization.”

Steinberg says this is not an issue of a few examples, but dozens, in which NGOs claim to have knowledge within a few hours that in a military situation could take weeks or months to obtain. Therefore, he says, “they cannot possibly have credibility.”

The result is inadvertent, but very real, harm.

Steinberg believes these faulty reports cause Israelis to be more skeptical and reluctant about peace negotiations with the Palestinians, especially with European involvement.

“These NGOs, funded by the European governments, are contributing to the demonization of Israel and the distrust by Israelis of the international community – the UN, Europe,” explains Steinberg. “It leads to defiance – the opposite of willingness to compromise and take risks. If the world is going to be against us anyway, why should we bother? You hear that sentiment a lot among Israelis now.”

Furthermore, Steinberg says many of the BDS resolutions passed by universities, etc., cite these faulty reports by various NGOs.

“So, I think we can strongly make the case that the BDS movement would be either nonexistent or at least a lot weaker without these NGOs,” he says.

Gilutz says B’Tselem has no official position on BDS, but “we do recognize that boycott is a nonviolent and legitimate way of applying political pressure.”

Gilutz adds that B’Tselem far predates the BDS movement by nearly two decades.

“So, to make this connection and paint us as [BDS] being one of our goals or method of working is ridiculous,” he says.

According to Velpillay, NGOs will always face the challenge of balancing benevolence and harm. The question is what to do when they learn something harmful is or has inadvertently happened as a result of their aid.

“Do you close up shop and leave and not continue to serve the people in need?” she asks. “Do you say, let’s investigate what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again, or do you say that this is just how this is going to work and move on? If someone is handing out food and 70 percent of it is getting to the people who need and deserve it, do you let slide that other 30 percent?”

Velpillay says some NGOs deal with this dichotomy in the here and now, while others recognize that the situation will need to be handled over the long term. Knowing future effects could be disempowerment or even prolong the conflict ‒ some stay, while others pull out right away.

“It’s a difficult choice for each organization,” she says. “There is no right or wrong answer.”


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