Towards a New Profile? : Development, Humanitarian and Conflict-Resolution NGOs in the Age of Globalization

Both the significance and the profile of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have undergone a fundamental transformation in the past twenty years. In development cooperation new fields such as ecological sustainability and the promotion of democracy have emerged besides ‘traditional’ issues like poverty reduction. Furthermore, confronted with the realities of war and state decline, developmental NGOs pay increasing attention to crisis prevention and the resolution of conflicts; even a new type of nongovernmental organization has appeared, conflict-resolution NGOs. The change has been particularly dramatic in the area of humanitarian aid: even before the end of the Cold War some NGOs – Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) at the head of all of them – freed themselves from the “straitjacket” of only conducting humanitarian operations with the permission of the (often illegitimate) local government; meanwhile the concept of sovereignty has been substantially redefined. NGOs, however, also conformed to the imperatives of globalization and commercialization, and formed oligopolies on the market for humanitarian aid. At the same time, they are also confronted with their own “powerlessness” in conflict zones: actors of violence and power-holders successfully attempt to instrumentalize humanitarian aid for their own purposes, and western military forces threaten the independence of humanitarian work by demanding subordination to political and strategic goals. Must we, at the beginning of the 21st century, bid farewell to the conventional image of unselfish, flexible and diverse nongovernmental actors which blossom freely like flowers? What criteria exist to assess the success of NGOs involved in development policy, humanitarian aid and the resolution of conflict? This study presents empirical data and illustrates it using concrete examples. It explains above all which basic principles, codes of conduct and instruments of self-assessment and self-control NGOs develop in order to safeguard and improve the impartiality, credibility, transparency and effectiveness of their work.


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