The Role of Ngos in Human Security

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May 2002
This is a research paper submitted to the Commission on Human Security. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not reflect that of the Commission. Please direct all inquiries about the paper to the Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. 1

Human security is fundamentally concerned with helping people to deal with unforeseeable threats and sudden downturns, whether international financial crises, environmental disasters or incapacitating illnesses. In this paper I argue that NGOs, as one of the most visible sets of actors in the related fields of human development and human rights, can play a significant role in helping to achieve human security. NGOs are especially well suited to action for human security because of their size and reach, closeness to local populations, willingness to confront the status quo, and ability to address transnational threats through coalition-building. While NGOs face many obstacles in reorienting their activities explicitly towards human security, including the cyclical nature of the aid monies on which many of them depend and the high costs of networking, I argue that the human security framework will nonetheless attract many NGOs to its approach. 2

No discussion of poverty, equality or development today is complete without considering the role of NGOs. Whether in the North or the South, NGOs are a visible, respected and entrenched part of many societies. NGOs like BRAC in Bangladesh are as familiar to us as The United Way in the United States; the activities of Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund are regularly covered by media organisations across the globe. The successes of these and other NGOs in providing health care, education, economic opportunities and human rights advocacy to millions of people are also well-known. The decentralisation of governments and scaling-back of social spending advocated by the international financial institutions and large aid-donor organisations throughout the last decades have created considerable space for NGOs, and made them key figures in a wide range of social sectors. Today, for instance, over half of Kenya’s health care services are provided by NGOs, over a million self-employed women have received credit from a single Indian NGO, and NGOs in Zimbabwe were able to supply the emergency drought relief services that the government was unable to provide when drought struck the country in 1997 and 1998.1 As NGOs have become increasingly involved in providing such services, they have also become critical in ensuring human security. They are thus of particular relevance to the work of the Commission on Human Security. In this paper, I hope to provide the Commission with an analysis of the roles that NGOs can play within the realm of human security, particularly in the fields of health, education and economic opportunities. Where possible, I will include examples from NGOs around the world, drawing on field-work I have conducted in Bangladesh, Senegal, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.2The paper is organised into four sections. In the first section I will provide a brief overview of the roles that NGOs currently play in improving human development and protecting human rights – fields intimately connected to ensuring human security. In section two I will outline what I see as the main potential contributions of NGOs to providing human security and in section three I will highlight the main obstacles which currently prevent many NGOs from fulfilling these roles. Finally, in section four I will identify the reasons why NGOs, many of which are already stretched to the limits of their resources, would be interested in both addressing human security concerns in their work, and participating in the efforts of this Commission. Section 1: NGOs in human development and human rights

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