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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #29

There have always been charities, foundations and not-for-profit organisations working in the troubled regions of the world, whose stated goals are to pursue the greater good and in particular to alleviate suffering associated with wars, natural disasters or economic downturns, amongst many other good causes. In wartime, the role of NGO’s becomes particularly important because conditions on the ground often descend into chaos such that governments warn against their citizens travelling to war zones and therefore place a prohibition upon formal government employees from working to assist in humanitarian relief.

Governments are acutely aware of their duties of care towards their employees and agents, and therefore are reluctant to step into a conflict zone with their own staff even where humanitarian assistance, often provided on a bipartite or multipartite basis by national governments’ international development agencies, is sorely needed. The same is true of the international development banks and other international development institutions: they will typically embrace a cautious or restrictive approach towards their staff travelling to war zones, and therefore the supply of aid and financing to alleviate civilian suffering is restricted.

Governments also fear that if they insert public employees into war zones, whether in a military or a civilian capacity, then that might be construed as a declaration of war against the hostile state (in the Ukrainian case Russia); and/or their employees might be targeted or even become the victims of kidnapping, extortion and ransom attempts. Formally, both the United States and the United Kingdom are at peace with the Russian Federation, even though they are supplying Ukraine’s Armed Forces and providing loud moral support for the Ukrainian cause. In neither case do they want to insert their own soldiers or civilian staff into the Ukrainian military theatre. They are content to supply financing and even military equipment; they are not prepared, as a rule, to provide people. Even international military training of Ukrainian soldiers is undertaken outside Ukraine, typically in neighbouring NATO member states.

This may be the result of caution learned in a number of wars in recent history in which the Western powers did insert troops into military theatre, and the outcome was not particularly auspicious. The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are four such examples. Now Western powers, seeking to provide support for Ukraine against military aggression by one of the world’s most significant nuclear powers, tread with far greater care.

NGO’s, being private organisations albeit typically regulated in some way by the government of the jurisdiction in which they are established, often in exchange for tax relief, can operate in a war zone such as Ukraine notwithstanding the advice of Western governments that their citizens not travel to the country at all by reason of the dangers involved. Such advice typically voids all international travel insurance policies, another reason why government officials find it hard to travel to foreign war zones. By contrast NGO’s, if they can recruit staff, are free to ignore these formal strictures. Travel in Ukraine is not for the most part obviously dangerous, save where one approaches the front line too closely. There are places where a flak jacket and helmet are recommended, such as walking along the waterfront in Kherson in full view of the Russian artillery positions; but for the most part such things are not necessary. There remains a determined handful of NGO employees and volunteers who are prepared to work in such conditions and to risk the law of averages and assume that, exercising due care, they will not get shot.

NGO’s have their own issues. Because a lot of the people working in them are volunteers, they may come from all walks of life and are very unlikely to have had the same training (or indeed any training). They may be learning about the risks and discomforts associated with working in a conflict zone on the job, for the first time. They may not be sifted comprehensively. Their principal employment criterion may simply be a willingness to travel. As a general rule, any work in war zones, if it is to be effective, requires military discipline and therefore experience working with the military or in the military is highly desirable. One’s schedule for each day needs to be planned; contingency plans should be prepared; a culture should develop in which each time member is caring for the welfare of others and should be quick to spot problems that may be arising. Decisions need to be made quickly and efficiently. Much of this discipline can be missing in NGO staff, who may never have experienced the focus and concentration required to work effectively in a war zone.

A lot of people who work in NGO’s are motivated by genuine altruism and humanitarian considerations - indeed most are. Nonetheless this type of motivation creates its own perils. Every person’s motivations may be slightly different, and egos may be bruised quickly by imagined sleights against another person’s values or ways of operating or thinking. Therefore it is imperative that any NGO team receives training upon working effectively within a group, and understands their roles. NGO teams can often be shifting sands who pick up tasks and obligations in an ad hoc fashion whereas in a military unit every person would understand at the beginning of the day precisely what their obligations are and when and how they are expected to execute them; and when they are off duty and can relax. A lot of these lines can be blurred within NGO’s, perhaps by reason of the diversity of the people involved; perhaps because NGO’s are not as disciplined as military units in sharing information necessary to a common team exercise; perhaps because a number of the team members are volunteers.

Working in the management of an NGO requires constant tap-dancing. There are several elements to success in managing an NGO and they can be challenging to reconcile. Fundraising is essential. Too often there is a constant scrabble for money from different types of private donor. There are two methods of fundraising: lots of donations from small donors, and a small number of larger donations from wealthy individuals. Each from of fundraising has its own politics, and this is a world I am quite new to. Then volunteers must be attracted, and preferably those willing to stay for a longer period because they will learn how to work in a conflict environment and can pass on these skills to others. The volunteers must be treated reasonably well, or they will leave; and they must have the customary phlegm, or they will flee through fear. Managing volunteers is often like herding cats, precisely because they are volunteers and therefore NGO management is reliant upon maintaining their good will. There are huge numbers of NGO’s out there searching for volunteers, particularly in Ukraine, and the volunteers know it.

The final element of successful NGO operation in a war zone is to maintain cordial and positive relations with your local “fixers”: the Ukrainian people - and you need at least one in each region you work in - who can make the necessary contacts and arrangements with the Police, the armed forces, the internal security service, the hotels, and all the other local organisations whose support and cooperation you need to deliver humanitarian assistance. This can be a challenging political dynamic in and of itself.

NGO’s are often learning through trial and error, as they make mistakes on the way to learning proper procedures, precisely because in many cases the staff have not received consistent training and there may be a lack of historical institutional knowledge about the country in which they are operating. Nevertheless they can be remarkably effective, as they tend to be lean and, on the ground at least, relatively unbureaucratic. You have a group of enthusiastic well-intentioned people often with large egos who genuinely want to help but whose interests and goals must constantly be managed and aligned with the goals of the NGO in question. To resolve the funding issue - because donor drought is a perennial challenge in extended conflicts after the initial, bloodiest phase of a war has receded - more significant government funding of NGO’s should be considered.

After all, NGO’s are filling a gap in wartime that governments are loathe to fill themselves although they know that they ought to do so. The merry undisciplined enthusiasm of NGO’s may deter governments in forging too close ties with them, particularly out of concern that if a government-funded NGO has a death of other personal tragedy within its ranks then the funding agency may be held partly to blame. Nevertheless NGO’s are the best tool we have for civilian reconstruction and humanitarian assistance at the current time in war-torn Ukraine. Of the myriad NGO’s those that have proven themselves most effective and well-organised ought to be supported because their efforts and achievements are in the national interest and the greater public good in spaces where the normal coterie of foreign diplomats may fear to tread.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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