Prior to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted an operation to confirm the identity of their target by covertly collecting DNA samples from the local population of Abbottabad through a false-flag vaccination program. A Pakistani doctor was later arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) for cooperation with the CIA.
This is not an example of a Civil Society Organisation (CSO) becoming involved in the international policymaking process alongside state actors, as proposed by Peter Walkenhorst and Tom Fries in Learning To Share. However, the fallout of this incident demonstrates the dangers of CSOs cooperating too closely with governments and departing from their core task of helping people on the ground.
While there unquestionably exists “a strong need for coordinated action by CSOs, the private sector, national governments and international organisations”, collaboration is made difficult by increasing ties between CSOs and the other actors. Irrespective of whether CSOs actually act on behalf of foreign governments or corporations, a solution must be found to avoid the difficulties that arise from the perception that they do so.
Bringing CSOs closer to governmental actors, including intergovernmental institutions, in the process of forming policy for specific countries may exacerbate the already existing, widespread suspicion that they are in cahoots with foreign governments and are acting according to an agenda other than purely helping the local populations. In parts of the world where the work of CSOs is made more difficult by the idea that vaccination programs are a foreign plot by colonial powers, the CIA’s abuse of an aid program legitimises the conspiracies of many who regard the work of international CSOs in their population.
One example where a combination of a xenophobic view of aid work and severe conservatism combine to disrupt the work of CSOs exists in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is a focus for the campaign against polio. Opposition from hardliner Muslim clerics has already jeopardised the success of the program in this area, one of the very few places where polio is still prevalent. This has also happened in Nigeria.
As another example, the independence of Amnesty International relies upon the distance of the organisation from, and its consequent ability and willingness to criticise, powerful Western governments such as those of the US and EU. This neutrality gives Amnesty legitimacy to act in a way that governments cannot, such as sending representatives into foreign prisons.
The US government has defended the vaccination program in Abbottabad, with one senior official quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “People need to put this in perspective… The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world’s top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn’t shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn’t used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden.”
The argument in this case is effectively that the end justifies the means. The outcome of this debate depends upon the importance given to the extrajudicial killing of the world’s most infamous terrorist. However, the consequence that cannot be denied is the effect on aid operations, in particular those located in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Taking a step back to look at the purpose and function of CSOs is essential. These organisations tend to have a double constituency: those to whom they provide assistance, and those to whom they owe their finances. CSOs must also necessarily work in a real political environment, which often means gaining permission to operate from the government of the host country – and governments are not always as morally pure as the aid workers who risk their lives to help poor communities. As a result, concessions must be made in the way that they work on the ground to improve conditions for impoverished communities. The current situation in Somalia underscores the degree to which aid organisations must work with and through local power brokers, even if they are as unpleasant as the Al Shabab organisation which controls large areas in the south of the country.
There are similar limitations that arise from the second constituency, those who control the purse strings in terms of governmental and international aid budgets as well as private donors. For example, it has been common that abortion services are not offered by organisations which rely upon funding from sources which are hostile to that practice, such as previous US administrations and the Catholic Church.
CSOs must do their utmost to provide services to their aid-receiving constituents under a number of constraints from both of their constituencies as well as the political environment in which they operate. One of those constrains is maintaining the good faith of the communities they seek to assist as well as the governments which control the areas in which they operate. This necessity is put at risk by occasions when CSOs are seen as subordinate to, or even cooperating with, unpopular international actors such as the United States.
One solution which modifies the proposal of Walkenhorst and Fries is to establish a mechanism by which CSOs are indirectly represented in international policy forums. In this scenario, representatives from CSOs take part in an umbrella group, which has specific policy functions rather than resembling a collection of area-specific and operations-oriented aid organisations. The first advantage of this is to distance the men and women on the ground in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan from harmful association with unpopular governments.
Additionally, this allows aid-giving organisations to continue their focus on the operations on the ground in which they already specialise, while creating a separate, representative body suited to the responsibility of interacting with governments and international organisations in the policymaking process. This preserves the valuable suggestion of “collaborative efforts by CSOs, governmental and other non-state actors on levels from the local to the global”, while safeguarding the effectiveness and security of workers on the ground as well as focusing the policymaking instruments on positively informing international policy.