New book by UNL professor examines reliance on NGOs to rebuild war-torn countries

"The NGO Game" by Patrice McMahon (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
Patrice McMahon in Bosnia, 2003 (Image by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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November 3, 2017 - 6:45am

When it comes to rebuilding war-torn countries, the international community relies on NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, for a lot of the heavy lifting. But a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor’s new book finds problems with this model.

On a warm June afternoon Patrice McMahon talked with a handful of local men around an outside table at a large market in northern Bosnia. It was 2003, less than a decade after the fighting stopped, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor was travelling for several days with Nebraska Army National Guard peacekeepers, talking with sometimes reluctant everyday Bosnians about the war and its aftermath. Trips like this to Bosnia and Kosovo provided the perspective for her new book, “The NGO Game: Post-Conflict Peacekeeping in the Balkans and Beyond.”

Patrice McMahon talks with Bosnians at the Arizona Market outside Brcko during a 2003 trip to the country with Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers (Image by Mike Tobias, NET News)


UNL political science professor Patrice McMahon (courtesy photo)


"GUARDING BOSNIA": In 2003, Mike Tobias traveled to Bosnia to report on Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers deployed as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission. Watch the stories:

"Keeping Peace" - Have peacekeeping/nation building efforts worked in Bosnia, and what is the future of the country (story includes Patrice McMahon's visit to Bosnia and perspective).

"On Patrol" - follow Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers as they go on patrol in northern Bosnia.

"Camp Life" - life at Camp McGovern, where most Nebraska soldiers were stationed, and how deployment has impacted their families.

"The NGO Game"

Mike Tobias, NET News: So what is “The Game?”

Patrice McMahon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of political science and author of “The NGO Game: Post-Conflict Peacekeeping in the Balkans and Beyond”: This was what I heard from a human rights activist in Sarajevo after I asked him and this was in 2011. I said, “What happened to all the NGOs and all the activities that were here in Sarajevo? They seemed to have disappeared.” He said, “I was at this conference where a lot of activists were attending and participating, and we were all joking about the game.” I said “What game is this?” He said, “It's kind of like the NGO game, westerners arrive in some forgotten war-torn country and they want to do something and they waste our time and we waste their money.” That was a way for him to say that there was a certain kind of structural environment that's created when the international community wants to do good things in conflict-ridden or post-conflict countries but they're not quite sure how to do it. So it's a lot of good intentions and sometimes a lot of money that goes to rebuilding, restructuring countries and engaging in peace building, but there's also a little bit of, I don't really want to say a bait and switch that goes on, but people have lots of different motivations and they have lots of different incentives and constraints that they face.

Tobias: You talk in the book about one of the flaws being pressure from funders or boards for these NGOs to show very quickly results in an environment that doesn't necessarily lend itself to quick results.

McMahon: That's right. One of the things I realized early on, and it was something that was also hard for me to acknowledge, is that peacebuilding is a process and it's a process that takes a long time, and when I say that's obvious, but on the other hand, if you're investing in anything you want a quick return. You want to show that it's working. Certainly the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar and most of the cities in Bosnia have been rebuilt and are very impressive. But that other part about really building peace and building trust and empowering individuals and promoting human rights, those are not tangible things that are deliverables that you can see. They're hard to quantify. They're just hard to produce. They take a long time and for the actors that get involved in conflict-ridden and post-conflict states, for good reason, they want to make sure that their resources and money are being spent wisely.

"It's really hard to hold those organizations accountable"

Tobias: Talk about “the accountability gap.”

McMahon: So one thing that's really hard to do because the money goes through lots of different mechanisms and the challenge is to be able to track where international assistance goes. So I still am a big fan and think that the United States should provide lots more foreign aid than it provides. The question for me, though, is where then does it go? Does most of the foreign aid go to an international organization, and it goes to their overhead and jobs for westerners, who essentially provide money then to another organization that provides money to a local organization. It's really hard to track that money train and therefore it's really hard to hold those organizations accountable. One of the things that I try to do in my book is to try to track some of that funding, and what I found was that really most of the money, the foreign aid money that the United States has provided, and other countries as well, it either stays in the hands of other U.S. organizations or Americans. Very little of that money ends up kind of going to organizations in these countries and certainly to individuals or civil society organizations. So we talk a lot about wanting to empower, wanting to promote peacebuilding, wanting to promote peace and we realize that we need to engage in capacity building, but a lot of the programs that I looked at and I think the United Nations and the World Bank and a lot of international NGOs now have really acknowledged this, most of the money really doesn't go to those countries. So that's the problem that I see and I wish we could really address and maybe if we weren't providing so much, if so much of the foreign aid money wasn't going to international NGOs and to westerners to do good, but instead the money went directly to local organizations, local civil society, people on the ground I think that it would be a ton more effective.

Tobias: Talk about people coming in from other countries, the international players coming in and maybe they don't speak the language and they don't have the experience in the country, they don't know the culture. You address that in the book.

McMahon: The one thing that people said to me a lot in the field is how surprised they are that internationals don't listen more. That to me was interesting because it wasn't just one person or a couple, but a lot of people said, “They don't even come and say, tell us your experiences, tell us what you're interested in doing, tell us how we can help you.” So that lack of listening and kind of going with a certain agenda before they even kind of are in country and have a chance to absorb the uniqueness and the dynamics that are going on locally. They're used to people coming in with lots of big ideas and a lot of good intention. I really try to make sure in the book that doesn't get lost, is this good intentions but good intentions can only go so far.

Boom and Bust

Tobias: You mentioned a “dizzying array of social and political activities that NGO's were involved in in Bosnia.”

McMahon: The first trip that I took after the war ended was in late 2000, and I was with a group of internationals. We were all from different disciplines and we traveled throughout the country, and my job as a part of The National Research Corporation was to look at what international actors had done in different sectors. What surprised me was how many nongovernmental organizations there were that were involved in everything from memorials to healthcare to education to reconstruction to community development to women's empowerment to human rights. To me at that time I have to say, the reason I started focusing on this project, is because I thought this was really cool. This was really exciting. There was a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm by the people in 2000 because the war had ended. Communism was over. So people were very optimistic and very idealistic and thinking, “Wow, we're going to start taking part, an active part in our communities,” which didn't happen during the socialist period. That couldn't happen during the period of conflict that took place for about three and a half years. So people were really excited and for me it was like, “Wow, I had no idea that this is happening" and really the literature that I looked at that was looking at peacebuilding or post-conflict reconstruction didn't really talk very much about all of these civil society initiatives and these NGOs and people power. So I thought this seems like a really good thing and it really took probably until the mid 2000s, when I would go back to Bosnia for different reasons, that I realized that that dynamic, maybe at that one point in time was really positive, but that was just one part of a much longer cycle. And that's really what I tried to focus on in the book is this cycle that seems to be also repeated in other countries. I have read a lot that has been written on post-conflict Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Afghanistan, and area studies experts describe this similar kind of boom, all these activities. Just an array of sectors where NGOs were involved and really active in exciting stuff and then also this kind of time period where the money started to decline. International actors started to withdraw their interests and then things became kind of paralyzed. Then there were these real crises where people didn't have jobs, had nothing to do and the bust started to set in.

Tobias: So to some degree the cycle is boom, bust then chase the next shiny thing?

McMahon: Exactly. So part of the bust is okay, the money is dried up. So now where do we go? Now what do we do? Organizations would tell me that then they would become kind of an organization that did all sorts of things, that they engaged in everything from humanitarian assistance to women's development to peacebuilding to the media and whatever would bring in the money, because that's kind of what they needed to do.

"Not inherently effective organizations"

Tobias: One statement in the book really struck me, “NGOs are involved in a broad array of activities, but they are not inherently effective organizations that develop projects that reflect and advance those they claim to serve, as is claimed or assumed. They are also necessarily organizations interested in empowering or transforming societal relationships.”

McMahon: I think that especially in the 1990s and even in the 2000s, and even if you talk to people about NGOs there's this belief that they're inherently good organizations that are promoting good things. They're promoting human rights, they're nonviolent, and that's just not always true. It's a non-state actor and that's about it. So it's not formally part of the government but anything beyond that to me, it just depends on the country. It depends on the NGO. I have seen so many effective, inspiring individuals and non-governmental organizations that have done a lot of great things for individuals. For groups of people, for communities. On the other hand I've seen the whole gamut of NGOs that don't really do anything or NGOs that have ideas that I certainly don't support and probably the groups that are giving money to those NGOs probably don't support. That's not always the case. It's just sometimes the organizations also have their own interests at heart, their own agendas, their own priorities. I mean like international NGOs, they have bureaucracies. They have budgets. They have people to answer to, and that's something that fundamentally surprised me and disappointed me, that I saw this huge difference between international NGOs and local NGOs because it wasn't as though internationals were all bad and locals were all good.

Tobias: What was the starting point of what you called at one point the “golden age” of NGOs?

McMahon: I look at the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the boom started depending on the country in the early 1990s. And the boom of NGOs or the boom of civil society associations wasn't just in central and eastern Europe. It was really all over the world. There was this dramatic increase in nongovernmental organizations and what some people call an associational revolution, a really dramatic increase in civil society initiatives in almost every country in the world.

"Sub-contracting" peacebuilding

Tobias: To a certain degree was it opportunity? Was it sort of a follow the leader kind of mentality?

McMahon: I think it was the perfect storm in lots of ways. In part this growth of civil society came because of technological changes. It was easier for individuals to organize, to get to know each other, to mobilize. So technology helped with that. There was also a change in political conditions and the third wave of democratization started in Europe. It was a change in political conditions, a change in international structure. There was this opening up as communism collapsed and the Soviet Union collapsed. There was more opportunities for civil society and then there were also ideas around civil society and democracy and democratization that started to happen. So for me it was kind of this perfect storm of lot of structural and ideational factors that came together that allowed civil society groups to form. In addition to that there was also a change in governments in the 1990s in terms of what they were interested in and able to do internationally, so there was a growth of ethnic and civic conflicts in the early 1990s and certainly in the United States starting with the Clinton administration there was this realization that these ethnic conflicts were happening and the United States could do some things but it didn't want to get too involved in these conflicts and get involved in conflicts all over the world and become the world’s policeman. So what it started to do really with the Clinton administration it was a conscious policy to sub-contract out a lot of services, of activities and give more money to international NGOs and to give more resources to the United Nations or NATO to take care of these, or to try to address some of these issues and these conflicts.

Tobias: In some ways for governments and countries it was a safer way to participate in peacebuilding?

McMahon: Absolutely. It was a way to do something without getting too involved, without putting their own people in harm's way, without having the United States get too involved in these really messy ethnic conflicts of which the United States certainly, when Bosnia comes to mind or Rwanda, we really didn't know that much about. We knew we could and should stop the violence but after that we weren't quite sure what to do. So there was really this effort to sub-contract out different services.

Tobias: You also write about the “golden age” of NGOs kind of coming to an end?

McMahon: Yeah. I think some really great things are happening with international NGOs and I've been in touch for the last two years with the research division of Oxfam that is really trying to document where international NGOs get their money, where their money is going to in humanitarian relief. They have this report that I referred to called Turning the Curve, and basically saying we have come to a point where we have a tremendous amount of humanitarian needs and we know certain things about the provision of humanitarian assistance and we know certain things about what we've done wrong and what we've done right, and what we need to do is invest more money in local actors at the right time, engage more in prevention. So, I'm really excited about international NGOs and governments realizing that this was a certain period, a certain point in time that nongovernmental organizations and international actors can do really good things but they have to be more accountable.

Tobias: If there was anything else that you could change in addition to what's already starting to happen, what would you do?

McMahon: I would certainly give more money to local organizations. I do believe that capacity building is really important. Education is really important, transferring skills is really important. So instead of working through international NGOs or intermediaries as they're called, they take a cut and then another national one takes a cut, is to figure out a way to eliminate some of those intermediaries and those are often positions that are filled by westerners and Americans. So that's challenging.



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