The more NGOs - the less civil society?

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Howard Clark

After the NATO bombings, the world's most powerful intergovernmental organisations involved themselves in the administration of post-war Kosovo--not just UN and its subsidiaries or NATO, but the OSCE (for “democratisation”) and the EU and World Bank (for “economic regeneration”).Most of the major international humanitarians NGOs were also keen to be seen in post-war Kosovo. Per capita more money has been spent in Kosovothan in any other peace or humanitarian operation, and far more soldiers per head or per hectare have been deployed.

Bringing peace...

Five years later UNMIK's proud slogan “Bringing peace to Kosovo” looks tattered. The explosion of unrest in March shows how close to the surface there lurks ethnic violence. The recent elections were boycotted by Serbs (albeit with quite some intimidation), few of the Serbs who fled in the second half of 1999 have returned and they often live behind barbed wire and under military protection. Most of the money allocated to Kosovo has found its way into the pockets of non-Kosovars, leaving a stagnant economy with well over half the potential labour force unemployed. Corruption, intimidation and various criminal rackets introduced since the war--cars, building, prostitution--are rife. Quite a large sum of international money cannot be accounted for--not even the Italian financial police can trace the EU's missing millions in Kosovo.

Going through the motions

At one time, almost every international activity in Kosovo was presented as”peace-building”: even the loan shark claimed to be a dove--the Micro Enterprise Bank came to Kosovo announcing that its contribution to peace would be too ffer small business loans at three times the interest rate it could charge back in Germany. UNMIK's goals have merely been superimposed on Kosovo Albanian society, along with various bureaucratic complications. Those Kosovo Albanians cooperating with UNMIK are basically going through the motions rather than identifying with UNMIK's programmes. As for”civil society”, often considered one of the keys to peace after civil strife, Kosovo offers a graphic example of the impact of international aid. More than 2,000 local NGOs have registered--nearly all following the OSCE boilerplate constitution. Funders often offer training, especially “capacity building”, generally paying a foreign trainer as much for a day's work as a local school teacher would earn in a month. And the main capacity gained seems to be how to speak the language of the donors. Training a local humanitarian organisation in the early days of UNMIK, a friend of mine found herself being lectured that “Serbs are genetically evil”--is it the purpose of”capacity-building” to teach locals to hide such feelings from foreign funders?(I heard the same phrase at a peacebuilding workshop, but at least on that occasion all the other participants protested.)

Authentic voices

Authentic voluntary groups usually are moved to action because they see a social need. Most of the new Kosovo NGOs, however, do not have their own agenda. They have go along with the attitude of most international funders--”let us choose what you should do”. It is no coincidence that the two most public conflicts between funders and local groups have concerned women's programmes, because the strong Kosova Women's Network established itself before the war and contains groups with their own agenda and determined to initiate their own programmes. (See Peace News 2451, or online at /2451/245110.html).What is more normal is that an NGO receives the funds, equips its office,implements the programme and then closes down--or perhaps, if its staff are lucky, takes on another programme for another funder. Drawing up the list on Kosovo for a Balkans peace directory, one activist began phoning round those groups on the OSCE's NGO list that said inter-ethnic dialogue was central to their activities. Only one-third existed in reality, and very few were actually engaged in inter ethnic dialogue work--it was there mainly to please prospective funders. Perhaps there is an equation here: the more NGOs, the less civil society.

Topics: Kosov@, Howard Clark