Monday, July 7, 2008

Debunking the myth of "Left Wing NGOs" and insurgencies

So many misconceptions and lies, so little time. Mary Anastasia O'Grady carries water for the pro-Uribe contingent found in the conservative movement by trying to paint organizations--Non-Governmental Organizations or "NGOs"--that operate in war zones as "ultra-left" and "sympathetic to terrorists." She writes about the recent rescue of three American contractors and Ingrid Betancourt (and a handful of other unnamed souls) and opines that since the trickery involved convincing the FARC rebels that an aid organization was coming to help them, then it is proof that the FARC is in cahoots with the aid organizations.
This warrants attention because it adds to the already robust evidence that left-wing NGOs and other so-called human rights defenders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, are nothing more than propagandists for terrorists.

When passions over kidnap victim Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages were running high, these actors pressed Mr. Uribe to grant FARC demands. Now it is clear that the pressure was geared more toward strengthening the rebels' hand than freeing the captives.

Left-wing NGOs have made undermining the Colombian government's credibility a priority for many years. A 2003 internal report from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá titled "A Closer Look at Human Rights Statistics" confirmed as much. It found that NGO analyses – for example by the Jesuit-founded Center for Popular Research and Education known as Cinep – of the human-rights environment contained a heavy bias against the government while granting a wide berth to guerrillas.

This is sheer wingnuttery in action--always blame the people in the war zone who aren't carrying guns.

The success of the raid is not proof of anything, other than the fact that the FARC is in decline and has a significantly reduced cadre. A ruse that never would have worked three or four years ago worked because of incompetence on the part of the FARC rebels, not on the brilliance of the plan itself. Why did all of those past attempts at rescue fail? Because the FARC reacted and moved accordingly. Why did that fail this time around? Because they didn't react and move--there was no experienced leader to see through the ruse--so they got complacent and tired, and that is deadly for a popular insurgency. The FARC has long been in decline--too many old members and not enough new blood. So much for their power.

Popular insurgencies are made up of the people--therefore, the NGO is usually in a difficult position of helping the people and inadvertently helping--you guessed it--the popular insurgency. That's not "so-called humanitarianism" as O'Grady snarls--it's basic humanitarianism. You know--taking care of people? Isn't that the job of the Colombian government? And isn't the Colombian governments' answer to helping the people to look the other way when narco-terrorists disguised as right-wing pro-government militia come barreling into town? Who would you prefer that they assist--the right wing death squads that shoot up villages or the insurgents themselves? The mission of the NGO is to help whoever needs help. I don't think they have time to ask for membership cards and ID. There aren't many good guys, but there sure are a lot of poor people who need help. It's unrealistic to think that an organization that isn't carrying guns in the war zone and is trying to help people wouldn't inadvertently help a few guerrillas. I'd be shocked if they didn't, but I'm an adult who lives in the real world.

Now, simply accepting a document from the US Embassy in Bogota is difficult--not that there is anything wrong with having a bias, but failing to accept that the bias could exist is almost enough to debunk the claim itself. If the embassy in the country that we give billions to is led by a political appointee of an administration that enthusiastically promises more billions in aid to that same country, then how is there any way to verify that the analysis made by that embassy is independent and verifiable? When was the last time the Bush Administration said anything substantive or critical about Colombia?

Where does that mentality come from? The likes of NGO Watch:
In May 2003, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios delivered his now-infamous speech to NGOs at a conference organised by the US umbrella grouping InterAction. In it, he roundly scolded NGOs for not clearly and consistently identifying their aid activities in Afghanistan as funded by the US government, and admonished them that they needed to demonstrate measurable results if they wanted to continue to receive USAID funding in the future. Shortly after the speech (in a coincidence noted in press reports) a new website, ‘NGO Watch’, was launched by the conservative think-tanks the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.

The website project, kicked off by a conference entitled ‘NGOs: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few’, contends that the largely left-wing NGO sector wields undue influence over US foreign policy and US corporations. The venture has prompted a more than usual degree of concern among humanitarian practitioners, not least because several senior administration officials come from the two think-tanks involved.

The site’s founders declare that, ‘without prejudice’, they intend to ‘compile factual data about non-governmental organizations’, and much of what is on NGO Watch is no different from the information posted on any number of websites and consortia rosters. Yet some in the US NGO community suspect that the NGO Watch project was designed as a tool for the administration to bully non-compliant NGOs, so that those who insist on openly criticising the US government’s actions in Iraq and elsewhere will be held up for public lambasting on the site.

The tone of the language about NGOs (‘What are their agendas? Who runs these groups? Who funds them? And to whom are they accountable?’); its corporate sponsorship; and its underlying ideology indicate a heightened level of anti-NGO sentiment, uncomfortably close to official government circles. How real is the threat to NGOs and humanitarian action? Insiders at USAID and others in the US humanitarian community dismiss fears as conspiracy theory-mongering – an over-reaction fuelled by Euro-humanitarian indignation.

Yes, there are communication problems with the military, but USAID is a longstanding partner and protector of NGOs and fully understands the importance of their independence and the principle of neutrality, despite some surprising rhetoric from officials (Secretary of State Colin Powell’s talk of NGOs as ‘force multipliers’, for example). Natsios comes from an NGO background himself, and was known not to mince words with the US government.

I broke that up into paragraphs so that it can read better, and I hope I did not do disservice to the material. Abby Stoddard has been writing tirelessly about this subject, and she all but predicts the kind of backlash we are seeing in the wake of the rescue of the hostages in Colombia. If you think that the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society are looking out for mom, Apple pie, the truth, the American Way, and free and open exchanges of ideas, you're kidding yourself. They are the perpetuation of wingnuttery and neoconservative thought, plain and simple.

See the coincidence? In the same year that the US Embassy is claiming that NGOs are undermining the right wing government of Alvaro Uribe, the NGO Watch organization is created in order to further the bullying.

And that's the basis of O'Grady's criticism? More like the continuation of neoconservative goals and right wing intimidation of the people who, as I said, go into the war zone without guns and try to help the people. Undermining the contributions of NGOs allows the neoconservatives to operate in countries without any check on their power--with no one to document the atrocities from either side, the atrocities don't exist. I am not accusing the US government of atrocity--I'm saying that it is easier to bomb villages from a mile up by accident or by virtue of a bad piece of intelligence and write it off as "collateral damage" if there's no one helping the victims. Maybe I am accusing it of an atrocity. Instead of getting caught up in that, let's just acknowledge that horrible mistakes happen in war zones, and if there aren't busybodies running around taking notes, it is easier for a defense establishment to perpetuate the notion that they're saving the people from themselves and bringing them Democracy. I think we could use less of that.

Demonizing the NGOs is easier than dealing with the human rights nightmare that is the Uribe government:
Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups are immeasurably powerful. Through drug trafficking and other illegal businesses, they have amassed enormous wealth. They have taken over vast expanses of the country’s territory to use for coca cultivation or as strategic corridors through which they can move drugs and weapons. In recent years, they have succeeded in expelling left-wing guerrillas and strengthening their own control of many parts of the country. And thanks to this power, they now exert a very high degree of political influence, both locally and nationally.

Paramilitaries accrued their power and influence by force. “It is stipulated that there are borders and you have to win people’s respect, and so we had to kill people to show that you could not come in or go out of certain areas,” a demobilized paramilitary told Human Rights Watch. “It was not a fight for Colombia. It was a drug trafficking war,” said a former squad commander, discussing his experience as a paramilitary.

Considered terrorist organizations by the United States and Europe, over the last two decades paramilitaries have killed thousands of civilians; tortured, kidnapped, and stolen from tens of thousands more; and threatened and otherwise disrupted the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of Colombians, with almost no consequences for the perpetrators. To the contrary, paramilitaries have historically enjoyed the collaboration, support, and toleration of units of the Colombian security forces, a fact that has led many to refer to the paramilitaries as a “sixth division” of the army. Today, paramilitaries have made major gains in consolidating this impunity, along with their economic and political power, with the collusion of the Colombian government.

Two years ago, paramilitary commanders initiated demobilization negotiations with the administration of President Álvaro Uribe in the hope that they could obtain a deal that would allow them to avoid extradition and potentially lengthy prison terms in the United States for drug trafficking. Since the start of negotiations, thousands of paramilitaries have started to turn in weapons and enter government reintegration programs. This trend accelerated towards the end of 2004, when five paramilitary blocks entered the demobilization process by turning in weapons. The process is poised to accelerate much more rapidly: on June 21, 2005, the Colombian Congress approved a demobilization law that gives paramilitaries almost everything they want.

Why isn't there any accountability for this? Oh, that's right--lip service is paid to a phony war on drugs we never had any intention of fighting. Whatever keeps Uribe in power as a bulwark against Venezuela is the rule of the day. Why this country insists on opposing and pissing off people who have scads of oil is beyond me.

I should clarify something--in general, the NGOs operate without being armed. There are some instances where this is simply not possible. Stoddard has written about what the NGOs have to do to protect themselves. It's not widespread and it's not common practice, however. And that's what I was alluding to.
What can agencies do to defend themselves?

Some agencies have taken to hiring armed guards, but that's a very sensitive topic. No one knows who's doing it or where, and even within organizations themselves it's not discussed, because it's antithetical to the whole humanitarian stance.

When humanitarians try to fashion their own security approach, it's fashioned on what's called the "acceptance" side of the security triangle - blending in, reaching out to local populations, becoming known and trusted entities within the community, and making sure you're constantly projecting a neutral and impartial face. That works really well in some places, and has no effect in others. Certainly you can't base your security in Iraq or Afghanistan on acceptance at this point. So agencies have either gone completely to the deterrence side, traveling with military convoys, or they've gone completely in new and strange means of protective approaches. We've seen clandestine approaches, in which they take all marking off themselves, their cars, their aid, and deliver under the table, as it were, so that the beneficiaries themselves don't know where this aid is coming from.

And, yes, that means that the efforts of the NGO can and sometimes do end up supporting a popular insurgency within a population. Well, sometimes government aid ends up supporting things we don't agree with as well--like right wing death squads. Which is worse?

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