NGO-Government collaborations in peacebuilding

Alice Konig
Thursday 4 April 2024

In this presentation, Visualising Peace student Samuel Huff discusses some of the research he has been doing into the different roles that NGOs play in conflict prevent and post-conflict transformation. In particular, he reflections on different models of (and challenges to) collaboration between NGOs and governments. Below the video, you can find a summary of the publications he discusses. These are also available in our Visualising Peace Library.

MacCormack, Charles F. “Coordination and Collaboration: an NGO View.” In The Pulse of Humanitarian Assistance, edited by Kevin M. Cahill. 2013. (New York: Fordham University Press): 243-262

This book chapter, written by former Save the Children President Charlie MacCormack, addresses the issues and challenges facing NGOs in today’s humanitarian climate. As humanitarian response has become more complex and often militarised, as seen through the crises of the 1990s, NGOs must navigate more and more hurdles to do effective work. MacCormack describes the distinct challenges that NGOs faced during the 1990s in four ways: security, coordination, underlying political causes, and a lack of advocacy. These issues are newer developments in the humanitarian world that compound issues of bureaucratic regulations and militarisation that contribute to a more complex humanitarian sphere. MacCormack shows, however, that NGOs can still do effective and sustainable long-term and short-term work. This takes place in a number of ways that involve drawing on the expertise of staff on the ground, establishing dialogue with other NGOs, the military, and the media, and international appeals to muster adequate funding. The methods described by MacCormack take into account an understanding that NGOs often cannot easily influence governmental policy and seek to create other types of sustainable change from the ground up. This speaks to other peace literature on grassroots peacebuilding and the importance of establishing sustainable peace. To build future peace, organisations must begin their work with the long-term in mind. This necessitates a “sustained, concerted effort” on the ground delivering aid and structurally to address the underlying issues at a political level.

Power, Grant, Matthew Maury, and Susan Maury. “Operationalising Bottom-Up Learning in International NGOs: Barriers and Alternatives.” Development in Practice 12, nos. 3-4 (2002): 272-284. 

In this article, Power, Maury, and Maury address the question of whose interests International NGOs serve. The interests of stakeholders in INGOs are typically diverse. The authors explain that while the values of groups may often align with the communities they are trying to serve, organisations also must take into consideration the interests of their donors. Donors want to see results quickly, which results in the implementation of programs and the creation of structures that can be ultimately unhelpful to local communities. The authors describe this phenomenon as the alien hand syndrome and propose a solution known as Bottom-Up Learning (BUL). This article further highlights the importance of consultation with local communities in NGO work and demonstrates ways in which BUL can be used to change the systems and cultures of NGOs to properly serve communities. This forced self-reflection at an organisational level is part of a wider conversation on top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding that addresses these same issues. Top down-approaches, while well-intentioned, can be ineffective or even widen the disconnect between marginalised communities and INGOs without being properly informed from a bottom-up grassroots level. The authors argue that these community connections must be taken into account by INGOs and integrated into a top-down approach. This necessarily changes how a top-down approach might look for many organisations. The authors conclude by stating that organisations that are willing to adapt and reshape their organisational structure to give voices to those they are actually serving will ultimately gain the trust of communities and the ability to empower them, which promotes peace in the long term. 

Tyler, Dan. Reflections from the Experiences of the Humanitarian Reform Officer. (Geneva: ICVA, 2012).

This piece was written by Dan Tyler, an Officer of the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project, a United Nations initiative designed to increase the capacities and robustness of the global humanitarian sector in the mid-2000s. Written in 2010, this article details the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia and gives analysis and recommendations on how to address what could be seen as a difficult humanitarian climate in the country. The author highlights the historical disconnect between humanitarian and development structures in Ethiopia, though their goals are mixed with political agendas amid complex government structures. He goes on to describe how the complexities of the Ethiopian government’s response to humanitarian aid and their interactions with NGOs make it difficult to establish a clear path forward for reform. The primary obstacle to overcome in this situation is that of humanitarian coordination. Tyler demonstrates the importance of increasing the credibility of institutions that facilitate NGO collaboration through the inclusion of more NGO voices, donors, and increased dialogue with governments. Increased interaction within these structures will facilitate trust-building and information sharing that is essential to making change happen for the people that need it. This report highlights the complexities of peacebuilding on an international scale and how existing structures can be utilised to achieve peace. Tyler’s idea of coordination through trust and information sharing relates to other peacebuilding literature that applies these same concepts to grassroots initiatives as well as interpersonal peace.

Ethiopian Humanitarian Country Team. Ethiopian Civil-Military Coordination Guidance. (Ethiopia: EHCT and OHCR, 2019). 

These guidelines for the interactions between civil society and military actors in Ethiopia in 2017 provide both context for ongoing humanitarian issues in Ethiopia and inform considerations for wider humanitarian collaboration with the government and the military. This document, written by the Ethiopian Humanitarian Country Team (EHCT) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), makes clear that the coordinating process is difficult but is essential for ensuring that humanitarian efforts are able to be sustained throughout a conflict. And while coordination is helpful between government and NGOs, this report acknowledges that it is not always in the best interest of humanitarian groups to coordinate with military groups and governments as this may alienate the people they are serving and dismantle trust previously built between communities and organisations. This represents the importance of public perception for the work of humanitarian groups to be done effectively. In order for peacebuilding to happen, it is absolutely imperative that trust between organisations and communities is maintained. For this to happen, humanitarian organisations must remain aware of the contexts in which they operate and be cognisant of how their actions will affect the populations they serve and in turn affect their own work in the future. 

Pellet, Philippe. Understanding the 2020-2021 Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia: Background, Root Causes, and Consequences. (Budapest: Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021). 

This policy brief outlines the history of conflict in Ethiopia, giving context for the current humanitarian crisis. The author describes how Ethiopia’s federal system of governance operates and how the construction and politics of the Tigray region provided a framework through which conflict could proliferate. The maintenance of state and regional security forces in addition to the federal army helped facilitate violent conflict after years of increasing political tension between Tigray and the central government. After the outbreak of violence, a humanitarian crisis has been ongoing in Ethiopia. As a nation that has already received many refugees from neighbouring countries, the conflict has had a disproportionately large impact on those who are already some of the most vulnerable. Conflicting actions and statements by the central government have further exacerbated the crisis, leading to fears that the government will continue a blockade of the region in order to force Tigrayan leaders to capitulate. This blockade has prevented essential supplies from reaching civilians in the region, deepening a famine and economic hardship already present. The lack of security and inaccessibility compound the difficulty of NGO work in Ethiopia, demonstrating the importance of information and government collaboration in peacebuilding. The Ethiopian case also demonstrates how conflicts form and what types of political and environmental challenges make conflict recovery more difficult. The report concludes with an assessment of both long- and short-term needs, drawing attention to the need for reconciliation between sides and structures to support sustainable peace in the country.

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