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Missing in Action: Why do NGOs Shy Away From Geopolitics?

April 1, 2014
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Didier Jacobs, my strategic adviser equivalent at Oxfam America, wonders why this blog hasn’t mentioned some of thedidier jacobs big geopolitical events of recent weeks, and what it says about NGO advocacy.

Last month, a significant event inflected the world order: Russia invaded Crimea. Not a word about it in these columns so far.

Whether their mission is poverty alleviation, environment protection, or human rights promotion, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have extended their advocacy agenda to every global policy issue: climate change, international trade and finance, peacekeeping, international public health, migration, and so on. NGOs are knee-deep in global public policy… and yet they shy away from geopolitics.

Geopolitics is about countries competing for power in the international community. Key geopolitical questions include:

  • the prioritization of a country’s national interests
  • the allocation of its defense budget
  • the identification of its allies and enemies
  • its policy regarding the use of force.


For several years, the US foreign policy establishment has been debating bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. We have a few months of reprieve thanks to an interim agreement. Nevertheless, the possibility of US strikes against Iran remains likely.

What consequences would such strikes have on global poverty? The oil price would shoot up, which could increase food prices. Food price hikes plunged tens of millions people into extreme poverty in 2011. The nascent global economic recovery could be nipped in the bud, with social consequences everywhere. Religious and ethnic strife might worsen in a range of places. In the worst scenario, a full-scale US invasion of Iran would generate a new major – and preventable – humanitarian crisis.

What about a war in the South China Sea? Not a month goes by without more saber-rattling in that neighborhood. The Economist magazine recently charged governments as well as businesses with complacency in the face of what could become the Third World War. It could have mentioned complacent NGOs as well.

That was before Russia intervened in Crimea last month. The phrase “cold war” has now returned to the daily news. While it has somewhat shaken complacency, economic interdependence between Russia and the West is likely to contain the crisis and Crimea may soon join the list of protracted but forgotten geopolitical headaches alongside Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Kosovo or Cyprus.

However, this latest crisis is definitely going to have long-term consequences. We are witnessing cold wars unfolding in slow motion between the West and both Russia and China. It could mean the multiplication of proxy wars among world and regional powers, worsening the overload of the international humanitarian system. It could mean a retreat of civil and political rights as security resumes its status of primary imperative. It could mean a decline in international trade and finance preventing some developing countries from “emerging”.

any of our business?

any of our business?

Even absent deeper enmities, NGOs should be concerned about the geopolitical chess board. The 1990s witnessed significant advances in multilateralism that augured well for development, human rights and the environment: the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol. Economic growth in China, India or Brazil is great news for global development. However, it has also stalled multilateralism in the 2000s – from G8 to G20 to G0 – as emerging powers want more say while established ones resist giving up their privileges. Addressing the failure of multilateralism is all about geopolitics.

NGOs are involved in geopolitics, but seem hesitant to embrace it. Let’s examine how they handle the four key geopolitical questions posed above.

Prioritization of national interests: the one that NGOs address best. Environmental organizations advocate for environmental issues to top the list in every country, and they can provide specific policy advice on what it means. Likewise, every mission-driven NGO has its own priorities: human rights, women’s rights, agriculture, etc.

The problem is that when everything is important, nothing is important. Political parties and elections arbitrate between priorities at the national level. In many countries, national NGO platforms and big coalition campaigns do a decent job at influencing national priorities. At the global level, the UN General Assembly and the G20 are the closest things we have to an assembly and Senate that set global policy priorities. There is a modicum of coordination among global coalitions of NGOs to influence these priorities, but it has lost cohesion and effectiveness since the heyday of Make Poverty History.

Cohesive and effective?

Cohesive and effective?

Influencing defense policy: largely absent from NGOs’ agenda. Yet it is at the top of the agenda of those who really set the pecking order of national interests and define foreign policy. There are many grassroots peace networks bereft of resources (loosely coordinated by United for Peace and Justice in the US), but relatively few professional NGOs specifically dedicated to peace (such as Peace Action in the US). Even those peace NGOs are of modest size compared to their environmental or human rights counterparts. Their common agenda is disarmament, but they generally lack defense expertise.

Identifying allies and enemies: for NGOs, the very proposition seems preposterous. Leaving aside diaspora associations influencing relations between their home and host countries (like the National Iranian American Council), NGOs are part of networks that are truly transnational. They are above the geopolitics that divides countries. It is great indeed that NGOs from all over the world can work in solidarity. However, international enmity does exist out there. In the absence of a vigorous campaign embraced by NGOs of all stripes, the American foreign policy establishment has won the argument that Iran (and tomorrow China?) is an enemy of the United States.

Which leads us to the fourth geopolitical question: when should countries use force? Human rights and humanitarian NGOs defend international law. They are more interested in jus in bello (restraining the use of force to protect civilians) than jus ad bellum (justifying, or not, the use of force in the first place).

Humanitarianism is not geopolitically neutral. Aid can change the dynamics of conflicts. Humanitarian organizations are aware of that and constantly grapple with it. While seeking access to populations in need, they must be careful not to be instrumentalized by conflicting parties as well as by donors under the guise of counter-terrorism or campaigns to “win hearts and minds”.

Peace aheadSome humanitarian NGOs push the envelope by advocating for arms embargoes, ceasefires, and peace negotiations. But they are either ill-equipped or unwilling to influence the substance of such negotiations. Other NGOs specialize in conflict resolution and mediation, the International Crisis Group prominent among them. They provide analysis of the underlying causes of conflicts, advise governments, and sometimes participate directly in diplomacy by mediating between conflicting parties. On the other hand, they hardly engage the public through advocacy campaigns. So their influence is limited to the quality of their analysis and negotiation skills.

Pushing the envelope even further and treading on jus ad bellum, human rights and humanitarian organizations have advocated for the responsibility to protect civilians. When states fail to protect their citizens, some NGOs occasionally call for international military intervention. While the responsibility to protect is a sound principle, in practice there are not many cases where international force can do more good than harm. (On the other hand, humanitarianism is often instrumentalized for darker designs, like Russia’s protection of Russian-speaking Crimeans.)

Last but not least, the World Federalist Movement champions the criminalization of aggression and thereby addresses the question of the use of force head on. Nevertheless, by approaching the use of force from a legal and transnational perspective without regard to the international enmities that underlie aggressions, it somehow manages to remain above geopolitics, not engaged in it.

Meanwhile, the NGO community remains silent about Ukraine and other shifts of the tectonic plates of geopolitics that underpin future conflicts, like the arms race in East Asia.

NGOs should be conscious that they are geopolitical actors, and reflect on ways in which they can better mitigate the harmful aspects of nations’ competition for power.

Any suggestions for how to do this?


  1. Geopolitics is the elephant in the room – or at least one of the elephants. I am not sure most of us can lay claim to being unbiased in our analysis of such sensitive issues. For example, Duncan says Russia “invaded” Crimea. That is already alienating for those who would rather say Crimea opted to go with Russia based on the right to self-determination. And it would seem that all members of the UN SC are engaged in “darker designs”, not only Russia.

    1. Even considering the right of self-determination, the annexation process was not right. That said, your general point is right and underscores the difficulty for NGOs to engage in geopolitics: you are quickly thrown into taking sides on national and historical narratives.
      I completely agree on your other point that other UNSC members also have self-interested agendas cloaked into legal and human rights language.
      (And by the way I wrote this, not Duncan.)

  2. Very thought-provoking piece. Some NGOs of course certainly think of geopolitics when they decide where to put their advocacy resources – and the widespread NGO opposition to arms and military intervention in Syria is in some ways grounded in fears for the geopolitical as well as humanitarian consequences. But the general point is true, so it’s probably worth considering the factors that tend to make NGOs cautious of geopolitics…
    There can be fear of the reaction not only in the countries at the heart of these geopolitical crises – but also in the ‘home markets’ of NGOs. NGOs may have a distinct advantage over many governments on what is happening in, say, the Central African Republic. But they are unlikely to have the analytical advantage on Crimea. And – less defensibly – there’s still a baffling lack of awareness of how important reducing conflict is to global development.
    So what’s the answer to Didier’s big question? How can NGOs mitigate the harmful aspects to nations’ competition for power? Not a bad question in 2014 as some geopolitical thinkers see worrying parallels between 1914 and now. For starters, what about these 3 beginnings to an answer?…
    1) NGOs could do more to show how their values and nations’ interests often point towards the same policy conclusions. Our advocacy should not be above using more ‘self-interest’ arguments. And part of that is showing that extreme poverty and inequality are dangerous as well as morally contemptible.
    2) We should support a multilateralism of different and diverse global and regional organisations – not a return to the New York and Geneva-centred multilateralism that seemed a good idea in the 1990s.
    3) We probably shouldn’t focus on rules of the use of force too much. There will probably be few occasions like Rwanda’s genocide, which started 20 years ago on Sunday, when NGOs should advocate for substantial force. But if the world needs clear principles for when the use of force is right, Kofi Annan provided a perfectly good starting point in what he proposed, and the world’s governments rejected, at the 2005 World Summit.

    1. I like your second point Ed! If we agree with Didier on the changing narratives, then we should create more fora and not mislead to only return to the NY/ Geneva centered mechanism. If i may add, the fourth point perhaps; politically aware and act to prevent. As Didier argue on impact to global poverty, food price, etc. This may be the new wave for NGOs.

  3. Good blog and good comments from Ed and Mickael. I think we need to not only be politically aware but also pay more attention to the history of the countries we work in. Can’t understand Crimea without knowing its history.

  4. It very much depends on how you define “NGO”. Think tanks are typically registered as NGOs, as they very much weigh in on these issues, and in reality the lines between “conventional NGOs” and think tanks are blurred. Is Oxfam a think tank? In the best sense of the word, I certainly hope so.

    However, sometimes think tanks are not quite as independent as they may seem, with negative effects on geopolitics:

    Which is why PWYF has called for greater transparency in donor funding for think tanks:

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