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Got into a discussion on the critical dilemmas that INGOs face. Here are my top four

  1. The risk conundrum: In order to be able to make a difference in a country, apart from direct support, many a time, raising voice against injustice is critical. In order to do so effectively, it is necessary for the international organisation to have the legitimacy and strength. This comes from partnering local organisations which are connected better to local issues. However, since most of the ‘raising voice’ work happens in non-democratic (deeper meaning of democracy here than mere multi-party elections) countries, working on voice and rights issues puts local partners and staff at risk. To what extent the organisation should push the boundaries and put others at risk remains a dilemma.
  2. Home support v/s greater influence: Often, obtaining support for their vision at home becomes troublesome. The organisations working in the humanitarian space can manage this support because their outputs are clear – feeding the poor affected by drought / famine, working with refugees etc. It is when the organisation is working on governance issues that the outputs become nebulous. Also when the home country itself is in trouble, voices are often raised about the need to support ‘others’. A recent case was when the Irish raised their voice about loss of aid money in Uganda (to corruption) at the time when Republic of Ireland was (is) also in economic trouble. Feeling funny writing this sitting in Dublin. I remember this clearly because I was working in Uganda at the time the news broke.
  3. Pushing on governance, human rights and environmental issues: International agencies in this space now face a new threat – emergence of China as a key economic player. The ‘hold’ or ‘influence’ that international agencies had over undemocratic countries is diminishing rapidly as the Heads of State of these governments have an option to seek aid / investment from China which does not (almost never) ties support to rights / governance. International agencies know that they need to continue their push on these issues but also face the risk of being expelled. This reduces their ability to reach out to the poor and powerless. A case in point was Sudan which expelled 16 agencies in 2009 over the ICC indictment of President Bashir for genocide in Darfur. Bashir could do that because China continued to buy the oil that Sudan was producing thereby having no impact on the economy. The dilemma was around raising the issue of genocide v/s reaching out with support to those who needed it desperately.
  4. Supping with the devil: In countries / regions where warlords and other undesirable elements are in charge, countries are forced to deal with them knowing that their principles are being violated. The humanitarian imperative often forces them to do so. This could be winking at ‘taxes’ collected by the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan or militia in the D R Congo or ‘protection’ / ‘security services’ offered by warlords in Somalia.

Some of these may sound like challenges but are, in reality, ethical dilemmas that International Agencies struggle with all the time.

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