The first voice America heard from the Haiti earthquake was my Salvation Army friend, Bob Poff, who was reporting via cell phone for all the major networks. As he was driving down a street in Port au Prince, the first lurch of his truck made him think he had been rear-ended. Then he saw the paved street undulate like a snake as the tall concrete buildings that lined it begin to collapse. In the days to follow, the world reached out with the most massive relief effort ever known, primarily through NGOs; Non-Governmental Organizations.
I will use Haiti as an example of NGO activity, although there are hundreds of countries where the same dynamics exist. In the U.S., we call them non-profits; outside the U.S., they are called NGOs. After the earthquake, an estimated 10,000 NGOs were at work in Haiti. Haiti and its relationships with NGOs illustrate the tension surrounding the need and value of NGOs. Some still call Haiti, “The Republic of NGOs.”
Even before the disaster, Haiti was the poster-child for corrupt governments. I had breathed it’s diesel-exhaust-filled chaos, wept with mothers in rural villages who couldn’t feed their starving children, tried to negotiate water rights between village leaders, hurriedly fled a dangerous barrio when just my presence escalated a conflict, and came back to America and kissed the ground as soon as I got off the plane.
Hunger is often the result of ineffective and corrupt governments. People in the hunger space repeat this same mantra: “The only way to stop hunger is through political will.” If you look at a hunger map, any country that with severe hunger has serious government issues. Often, when the government can’t govern, they call in the United Nations. The U.N. has to be invited; they just can’t show up when they want to.
NGOs are most prominent where social safety nets are the most lacking. In some places, to work with NGOs is extremely dangerous, as in the current case of Somalia in which aid workers are frequently in danger and some have been killed.
Here are some of the benefits of NGOs:
- Provide health care
- Provide education
- Help with micro-financing
- Help with economic development
- Provide social services
- Protect human rights
- Protect the environmental
Critics of NGOs oppose them because:
- Their presence hurts the local economy
- Control local markets
- Bring in different value systems (trying to westernize them)
- Create a system of dependency
- Interfere with people’s ability to solve their own problems
While there is no international governing body for NGOs, there are standards to which the major ones adhere. After the earthquake in Haiti, their were “clusters” formed that sought to establish communication and strategy between various players. The U.N. Peacekeeping Force, NGOs, the Haitian government (which was practically destroyed), and militaries from other countries such as the U.S., all convened to strategize.
To dive deeper, I would recommend you go to Interaction, which attempts to set standards and build collaboration amongst NGOs. Herding cats would be easier than what they try to do.
This story is the seventh of a 20-part series called “Hunger: A Conversation That Matters” written by Rick McNary.
Rick McNary dedicated himself to fighting world hunger and recruiting volunteers to help. Rick founded Numana Inc., a non-profit that in the first six months of 2010 empowered over 120,000 volunteers to package over 20 million nutritious meals for the Salvation Army’s response to the Haiti disaster and recovery.
Rick currently serves as Liaison for Government, Private Sector, and University Relations for Stop Hunger Now of Raleigh, North Carolina. He also serves as a Liaison for Universities Fighting World Hunger of Auburn University and as Treasurer of the Board for Alliance to End Hunger.