NEW YORK – Non-governmental organizations taking government funds have picked a side in Afghanistan’s war and cannot possibly implement projects impartially. That’s one of the arguments former Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) country representative Michiel Hoffman makes in his AfPak Channel piece ‘Dangerous aid in Afghanistan’:

While NGOs mostly claim their assistance is based on humanitarian principles, this is often inaccurate in Afghanistan. Many NGOs implement nation-building projects at the behest of Afghan and U.S. government agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The opposition militant groups challenge the legitimacy of these efforts because they fall under the broader COIN strategy. In effect, these NGOs are choosing sides in the war.

Not exactly.

Yes, most NGOs receive funds from governments (not just USAID, but also European and Asian donor agencies), however, in my experience, funding does not translate to control, or even much influence, over the day-to-day work NGOs carry out.

Oxfam is a good example here. Though it receives British and Dutch government funds, it regularly criticizes the conduct of the international military forces and the broader international community, often harshly and publicly. If Oxfam has picked a side in the conflict, it has sided with Afghan civilians. Donors may impose burdensome reporting requirements, but they generally don’t micro-manage –and most couldn’t, practically, even if they wanted to.

Donors don’t set priorities either, at least not to the extent Hoffman makes it seem they do.  Some donors choose to focus on funding particular areas. The Nordic country donors are well-known for funding projects aimed at empowering women, for example. But donors don’t tell NGOs what to work on. Calls for applications and proposals are advertised, and NGOs submit those that fit their missions. NGOs, especially struggling local ones, regularly submit unsolicited proposals to donors as well.

Still, Hoffman sees only one ethical path for NGOs that truly want to be impartial.

MSF has been able to carve out operational space in Afghanistan through regular, direct, and transparent negotiations with all the warring parties and though complete financial independence from Western- and Afghan-government sources.

Direct, transparent negotiations with belligerents are often (though not in every case) a good policy, but complete financial independence from government sources? That’s a tall order for most NGOs, and virtually impossible for Afghan NGOs.

MSF occupies one end of the spectrum of opinions in the sector-wide debate over the role of aid in conflict. With pieces like Hoffman’s in the AfPak Channel, MSF is attempting to draw a clear line between NGOs that are, according to its conservative definition, “real” aid organizations, and those that are automatically corrupted by their  official funding sources and should be written off as pawns of warring parties.

That binary doesn’t correspond to reality.

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