THEY feed tens of millions, stabilize a half-dozen troubled regions, and have become the West's front-line soldiers in an increasingly chaotic post-cold-war world. But some humanitarian organizations, strained by unprecedented casualties and exponential growth, are beginning to question their prominent new role in the world.
Everyone from powerful Western governments to petty urban warlords is taking advantage of these organizations' good intentions, some groups are beginning to argue. Providing humanitarian aid on demand - combined with the West's reluctance to aggressively intervene in some conflicts - may actually be prolonging the suffering that these aid groups are trying to end, they say.
``We are part of the policy that does nothing to solve the problems and just appeases public opinion ...,'' says Alain Destexhe, secretary-general of the Brussels-based Doctors Without Borders International.
Observers say aid groups - also known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs - have generally responded well to their new roles, but unprecedented growth, mounting criticism, and confusion over how openly political they should be in civil or ethnic conflicts, has put NGOs at a crossroads.
``These organizations have assumed an importance they've never had before,'' says John Bennett, a British NGO consultant. ``There is a real crisis in the NGO world at this point.''
The problem, some humanitarian groups say, is Western governments that aren't keeping their half of the bargain.
``We are increasingly being asked to provide humanitarian assistance where other more-powerful bodies are failing to meet their obligations [to enforce] international law,'' says John McGrath, spokesman for London-based Oxfam-UK. ``Governments push these agencies forward ... and when the agencies say, `What about the political effort you were going to mount,' you can't see the governments for dust.''
Filling a vacuum
Critics say that as Western strategic interests in certain regions have faded with the end of the cold war, US and European governments' response to increasing regional, ethnic, and civil conflicts has been to let NGOs deal with them.
But NGOs say they are not equipped for the danger of today's conflicts. Nine of 11 UN peacekeeping operations since 1992 were prompted by civil wars. It has become common for NGOs to demand protection from Western troops, hire armed guards, and even bribe warring factions to gain safe passage.
Critics blame the West for abandoning or refusing to enter such situations. ``There's been a disengagement that has created a vacuum into which humanitarianism is sucked,'' says Alex de Waal, co-director of London-based African Rights, arguing that NGOs may cause more harm than good in some situations. ``Political leaders see [sending NGOs] as cover for not having a policy to deal with the problem.''
NGOs are becoming increasingly outspoken in calling for the international community to take sides in conflicts and use force to end them. Intense lobbying by several large American NGOs is said to have played a major role in former President George Bush's decision to send US troops to Somalia in 1992.
Doctors Without Borders International and the US-based International Rescue Committee last fall phased out some relief operations in and around Rwanda for moral reasons. Both organizations say they are withdrawing because the UN has failed to move soldiers preparing to attack the new Rwandan government out of NGO-supplied aid camps.
African Rights' co-director De Waal says more pull- outs are needed and argues that assistance from NGOs has actually helped lengthen conflicts in the Sudan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries. ``There's no question that there's a whole host of wars that have been prolonged because the UN [and NGOs] become quartermaster for both sides,'' he says.
But Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross - founded on the ideal of complete neutrality - warns that pull-outs fail to solve problems and hurt the wrong people.
A brave new world
NGOs' success - or troubles - began in the mid-1980s when a series of famines and conflicts abruptly thrust them onto the world stage.
The Ethiopia famine in 1984 and conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mozambique, and other countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s fueled exponential growth. Western governments and institutional donors also began funneling more of their development aid through NGOs instead of host governments.
As NGOs have grown, competition for donors has also intensified. Looming cutbacks in government foreign aid has only increased competition. ``Why do you think there are so many aid groups in Sarajevo?'' quips one aid worker. ``All the media coverage.''
Circus-like atmospheres have developed at some crises. Aid workers and UN officials frequently complain about small aid groups that arrive at a disaster scene with supplies that aren't needed or antagonize one side in a conflict by aiding the other.
``These fly-by-night operations that come in, the Pat Robertsons that use the media and have their own TV show, can be a problem,'' says Santiago Romero-Perez, NGO coordinator for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva. ``We don't control who operates. That is the responsibility of local governments.''
The American NGO World Vision in Monrovia, Calif., has been criticized for its television advertising - featuring television game-show host Alex Trebeck - which allows donors to ``sponsor'' a specific child, but the funds go into a pool that sponsors projects in the child's village, not the specific child.
``We have moved away from the money going directly to the child,'' says Eric Ram, director of World Vision's Geneva office. ``The idea is that all children [in the areas] should benefit from the money. We don't want to create elites.''
But critics see the ads as part of a disturbing trend. ``The 1980s corporate fund-raising model has really moved in with a vengeance,'' De Waal says. ``They want more and more money and.... they confuse their own institutional needs with the actual needs of the people.''
Even the International Committee of the Red Cross has been forced to ratchet up its public-relations operation. ``We recognize the need to be known to as many people as possible,'' Mr. Gordon-Bates says.
Critics point out that the news media is ideally suited to police NGOs, but has failed to aggressively question exactly what some NGOs are doing in the field. ``You get these very simplistic stories that end up as little more than commercials for aid agencies,'' De Waal says. ``The real issue is accountability. These people can do whatever they want.''
Governments in countries affected by disasters have complained of redundant NGOs providing unneeded supplies, ignoring local NGOs, and using their comparatively massive resources to run roughshod over weak host governments. The governments of Eritrea, Burma, and Sudan have severely limited the number of international NGOs allowed to work in their countries. ``It's the old maxim of `teach us to fish instead of giving us fish','' Mr. Romero-Perez says.
Supporters say that the myriad issues facing NGOs shouldn't cloud the fact that most NGOs have done a remarkable job. But critics warn that some NGOs are beginning to mirror the government and UN bureaucracies they scorn.
``The very size of these NGOs has meant that they've become more corporate,'' Romero-Perez says. ``They become too big, too inward-looking, and too dependent on raising money to pay their 400 employees. They lose sight of their goals.''
Bennett says a contradiction in missions is being exposed that must be resolved. Aid groups must decide whether they want to be unbiased aid givers or aggressive enforcers of human rights. ``I think there's going to be a split [among NGOs],'' Bennett says. ``You cannot be a pro-active advocate of human rights and be a humanitarian organization that goes in there and helps everyone irrespective of who they are.''