Since that forum was conducted under Chatham House rules, I won't give too many details. Suffice to say that the round-table was chaired by a western government official and attended by representatives of many different humanitarian NGOs, some well known and some less well known, as well as government and military personnel. The theme was ostensibly the 'humanitarian space' in a specific conflict environment and the intersection of NGO and military development activities in the areas where both work. However, the discussion was quickly monopolised by the issue of NGO neutrality.
I could understand the NGOs' complaint that government/military stabilisation contractors asked them for ideas but then expected the NGOs to implement those ideas on their behalf. However, I cannot quite get my head round their seemingly pathological fixation with neutrality, especially when it would seem to call into question what they actually hope to achieve through their work.
For example, the NGOs at the round-table explained that they shied away from stabilisation activities, which they defined as strengthening the government and therefore making them party to the conflict.
That may be true but it makes me wonder exactly what they hope to achieve. There may very well be clear theoretical differences - even practical differences - between stabilisation on the one hand and 'pure' development activities on the other. However, what happens if stabilisation fails and a government falls? Will development be possible in the ensuing chaos? NGOs may have preserved their neutrality during all this but if in the long-run they aren't able to bring sustainable development (not stabilisation but 'real' development) to the people they hoped to help then what was the point?
I freely admit I have no experience of working in an NGO but that is one question - perhaps even a contradiction - regarding their self-proclaimed neutrality that I just cannot get my head round.
On top of that, I read a rather more cutting assessment of NGO neutrality in Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes, drawn from her observations in and around Kandahar from 2001 to 2005. The basic premise is that whereas neutrality may have been a valid concept in Bosnia or Rwanda, it is not valid in the honour culture of southern Afghanistan.
Chayes argues that in Afghanistan, or at least in the Pashtun belt, it is better to belong to one side and advertise your affiliations. The reason? That side can take revenge if harm is done to you and that fact affords a certain amount of protection. In short, Mutually Assured Destruction is a valid concept there.
However, Chayes essentially accuses many aid organisations of not recognising the reality of their surroundings and the society they were working in. Many aid workers simply took their own good intentions for granted and expected others to do the same, regarding their self-proclaimed neutrality as their power and their safe conduct. When some aid workers were killed, it was regarded as either an accident or an abberation caused by the US military presence in Afghanistan which they regarded as an inherent part of the problem.
In the context of a clash of civilisations, this rationale doesn't stand up. We may not accept the clash of civilisations thesis but the point is that the Taliban and certainly al Qaida do. Consequently there is little or no difference between a US soldier and a western aid worker and, in fact, the latter may be even more threatening as they extend olive branches by building schools, hospitals, bridges etc.
Put together, those two questions make me wonder about the role of NGOs in a conflict environment, more specifically what they can look to achieve long-term if their attachment to neutrality might actually work against them.
What really makes me wonder is that when the chairperson of the round-table repeatedly asked what governments and/or militaries could do to operationally create a greater or better humanitarian space for NGOs, the NGOs present were unable to provide a single concrete answer.