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ICG Risk Blog - [ The annoying realism of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), foreign and domestic ]

The annoying realism of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), foreign and domestic


The US Agency for International Development (USAID) was a principal contact point for domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with Iraqi relief activities. By September 2002, most of them had turned their attention to Iraq, gathering weekly at USAID HQ for routine coordination meetings:

The weekly meetings at USAID quickly settled into a pattern. The representatives of the NGOs would say, "We've dealt with situations like this before, and we know what to expect." The U.S. government representatives would either say nothing or else reply, No, this time it will be different.

I can only imagine the frustration of these meetings, which became known as the Iraq Working Group, as the NGOs’ experience was vastly different from that of US citizens and many legislators who saw the nearly continuous regional or ‘low level’ conflicts as having no obvious connection to one another, i.e., these lay observers saw them as stand-alone cases, none of them a ‘proper’ war:

To the NGO world, these and other modern wars (like the ones in Africa) are not the exception but the new norm: brutal localized encounters that destroy the existing political order and create a need for long-term international supervision and support. Within the U.S. military almost no one welcomes this reality, but many recognize that peacekeeping, policing, and, yes, nation-building are now the expected military tasks. The military has gotten used to working alongside the NGOs-and the NGOs were ready with a checklist of things to worry about once the regime had fallen.

NGOs heard administration recovery models anchored by the successes of Germany, Japan and part of Eastern Europe. Many NGO representatives "assumed that postwar recovery would not be so automatic, and that they should begin working on preparations" before the combat began. They needed feet on the ground to estimate need prior to hostilities and so asked for a Presidential directive exempting NGOs from US sanctions against Iraq making it illegal for US humanitarian organizations to operate there. (Never granted.)

NGOs knew from years of postwar reconstruction that even a short period of disorder had lingering effects. Aid groups were forecasting massive refugee flows, power vacuum, lawlessness and ‘day after’ looting.

I find it interesting that the one forecast that did not materialize, refugee flows, was based on the administration’s own assumption that Saddam Hussein would use CW/BW agents against US, Kurdish or Shiite groups, thus causing Iraqi civilians to flee. That the administration then used this unfulfilled prediction as evidence of success is, I think, unfair.

Unfortunately the NGOs remember a unilateral dialogue at IWG in which "We would tell them stuff, and they would nod and say, Everything's under control… They were there to just dribble out the clock but be able to say they'd consulted with us."

The NGOS were further surprised when those same individuals refuted the aid groups’ assumption that the US would adhere to the Fourth Geneva Convention’s commonsense obligations placed upon a victorious military as the "occupying power," e.g., protecting hospitals and minimizing reprisals. The NGOs were told that "The American troops would be 'liberators' rather than 'occupiers,' so the Fourth’s obligations did not apply."

Archaeologists briefed DoD as to the location of key historical sites and museums so as to insure that they were not bombed. The subsequent establishment of civil control did not match the success of precision-guided munitions as most were shortly sacked and looted.

By early February 2002, the International Rescue Committee and Refugees International made public their prediction of incipient collapse of law and order after invasion unless US/UK forces acted immediately even if it required the imposition of martial law.

NGOs reacted negatively to the Administration’s announcement that reconstruction authority, under Jay Garner, would be under DoD control rather than State. NGOs believed, rightly, that the international community would find it politically difficult to fund humanitarian and reconstruction aid through the US DoD. Garner attempted the impossible, gathering together an interdisciplinary group that included State’s director of the Future of Iraq project. Garner later stated that Rumsfeld had instructed him to fire the director even after Garner stated his value to the mission.

AS little as two weeks prior to commencement of hostilities on 19 March - when the US was not yet technically at war, USAID was able to persuade OMB to set aside the funds that AID would need for immediate Iraqi postwar efforts. Immediately prior to combat operations, AID secured an emergency grant from USAID to the World Food Programme in order to immediately purchase food for Iraqi relief operations. It is not clear to me that without this USAID effort postwar civilian food shortages could have been averted.

Less than a week prior to hostilities, the last IWG meeting saw humanitarian organizations being told, "It's going to be very quick," she said, referring to the actual war. "We're going to meet their immediate needs. We're going to turn it over to the Iraqis. And we're going to be out within the year."

Part 6

Gordon Housworth

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