"United Around High Human Values"

Dr. Patrice McMahon | 

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln | 

Associate Professor, Political Science | 


In post-conflict countries, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are not the first thing that you notice, but their presence is striking.

Visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina in the fall of 2000—almost five years after the horrific violence ended—I was amazed by both the number and the diversity of NGOs working throughout the battle-weary country.

In simple terms, an NGO is a non-state, non-profit organization that works for the public good. In post-conflict Bosnia, NGOs included a dizzying array of organizations that were involved in almost every aspect of reconstruction. Not only were international NGOs providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside of Mostar, but national NGOs were working on education reform in Sarajevo and training women in Tuzla. At first, it was difficult to know if these organizations were domestic or international, but within a short time it became obvious that all of the NGOs were funded by sources outside the country. It was also clear that throughout the country, NGOs of all shapes and sizes were embraced as assistants, collaborators, and even saviors in the country’s renewal.

Subsequent trips to other post-conflict countries, like Cambodia, Kosovo, and Vietnam, were similarly surprising and inspiring, in large part because of the activities undertaken by both international and national NGOs.  The generous and hardworking people who were running these organizations often worked tirelessly and creatively to help those in need and to solve problems big and small. At the same time, the visits were disconcerting, because so many of the NGOs were staffed by foreigners rather than locals, and the relationship between international organizations and national ones was rarely clear.  In many cases, there was a noticeable gap between what locals needed and wanted and what the NGOs were doing.  At best, the relationships between the internationals and the locals were polite but awkward; at worst, they were hostile and imperialistic.

This is the NGO reality in post-conflict environments. It is undeniably moving to see private groups and volunteers toiling away to promote positive change from the bottom up. Yet, it also portends a darker side, as large, self-interested organizations and professional do-gooders may be engaging in activities that are neither necessary nor particularly helpful—at least to those in the most need. It is these surprises, inconsistencies, and contradictions that shape the three central concerns of my research. First, given the explosion of NGOs in post-conflict countries, what do they do? Second, why are NGOs—which are usually artificially divided into international and national groupings— so prevalent in post-conflict environments?  And, most importantly, how does NGO involvement shape national NGOs, civil society, and, thus, efforts to further peace from the bottom up?

To be clear, my research is not meant to evaluate the work of specific international NGOs, and it neither celebrates nor condemns their involvement in peacebuilding. My goal is, instead, to clarify and understand the role and impact of international NGOs on post-conflict peacebuilding. To do this, my forthcoming book Partners in Peace? Nongovernmental Organizations in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding integrates over a hundred interviews from Europe, Asia and the U.S.  I also include survey research, as well as secondary sources from political science, sociology, and history. In addition to explaining and analyzing what it is that NGOs do in specific post-conflict environments, I examine whether high-profile policies and academic claims made about NGOs stand up to the complexities, challenges, and realities of peacebuilding.

In a nutshell, I argue that contemporary peacebuilding exercises, which started in the 1990s, are different from similar efforts of the past, in part because they are based on the universal belief that international actors need to focus on conflict-ridden societies as well as states.  As a part of “the liberal peacebuilding agenda,” I contend that both international and national NGOs have become the surrogate for efforts to connect with “the people” and to foster peace from the bottom up.  Liberal peacebuilding, thus, has two different but related effects: it provides financial assistance for international NGOs to work in post-conflict countries while it also creates a slew of policies, practices, and institutions to create and sustain national NGOs in post-conflict countries. Since international peace builders contend that local partners are necessary for helping people and increasing political support for peace, democracy, as well as economic reform, NGOs—as the embodiment of the people, have benefited enormously.

These assumptions and practices in peacebuilding have both positive and negative effects.  Initially, there is an NGO boom: a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of both international and national NGOs. In the short-term and in certain sectors, the involvement of NGOs is a positive development. As conventional wisdom indicates, many of these organizations engage in important and lasting work.  However, an NGO boom has other mid- and long-term effects that, I contend, often contribute to adverse behavior. To put it simply, booms are followed by busts, or a rapid decline in the number of NGOs, as well as other surprising and unfortunate consequences that affects domestic groups’ behavior and perceptions of NGOs, civil society and the peacebuilding process.

Although this research is grounded in international peacebuilding experiences in the Balkans, it suggests that the behavior and outcomes there are not unique and that these patterns can be found elsewhere. Thus, despite all the attention and money invested in NGOs as partners in peacebuilding, the results are mixed and sometimes quite disappointing. This is because the national NGOs that are created (by international funding) lack domestic funding sources.  They often have little indigenous support, thus national NGOs are short-lived and instead of creating genuine partners in peace and liberal peacebuilding, they leave civil society fragile, if not drained for quite some time.  International efforts to manufacture domestic partners by channeling money through NGOs or creating national NGOs unintentionally stunts the development of authentic, indigenous groups and thus hinders long-term peacebuilding.

There are many reasons for the NGO boom-bust cycle that takes place in post-conflict peacebuilding.  Using what I call “the Midas touch” analogy, I suggest that certain structural and organizational factors help explain actors’ behavior and these outcomes.  At the same time, I cannot ignore the role that ideas and norms play in shaping interests and behavior. I do not suggest that the effects of the Midas touch are permanent, but I do contend that contemporary peacebuilding and the strategy to involve NGOs has various intended and unintended effects. These effects are mediated by domestic context and conditions, but they, nonetheless, have an important impact on domestic organizations, society and the peacebuilding process.

The Promise of NGOs

Without a doubt, what stood out most from my first visit to Bosnia after the violence ended were the horrendous stories I heard from the people there. These were stories of neighbors who became murderers, college students who dodged bullets, and doctors who treated concentration camp victims. In total, some 200,000 people perished in the Yugoslav wars that began in 1991 and ended with the violence in Kosovo in 1999.  In Bosnia, the brutality and bloodshed damaged much of the country’s infrastructure; yet by 1999, after three years of intense international involvement, observers deemed reconstruction efforts “remarkably successful.”  However, the scars of the conflict remained among the people, regardless of their ethnicity.  The violence had pushed nearly half of the country of four million people out of their homes.  And as time passed, there were fewer jobs to be found, and ethnic nationalism continued to pervade public life.

The NGOs I observed in the post-conflict environment were not solely international, but they could not be considered grassroots organizations either.  Moreover, these NGOs were active in ways that went far beyond providing humanitarian assistance.  In 2000, while I was interviewing widows from Srebrenica who had witnessed their husbands and some 8,000 men and boys being systematically killed by the Serb army, I asked myself: who would help identify their family members? Who would help bring closure to this horror? How would they reconcile with the past?  For them, at least at that point in time, the only reason for optimism was international involvement and specifically the work of NGOs.

This perception of NGOs—as organizations that held the most promise for the country’s future—may have been the result of Western involvement in the Balkans.  This involvement began in the mid-1990s and led to hundreds of international NGOs descending on the region in droves. It also helped fuel an explosion of what can only loosely be called “national NGOs,” because almost all of them were funded by external actors and many were inspired by international actors.   Over time, many of the international NGOs that were involved in Bosnia evolved and changed their mission, shifting away from humanitarian matters and putting more emphasis on issues like peacebuilding and reconciliation.  In fact, by 2000 the widows from Srebrenica had already formed their own NGO—with the help of international funds—to raise awareness of their plight and to help fund the identification of their families’ bodies. Indeed, the promise of NGOs was widespread, even among those who had experienced so much tragedy but desperately wanted more peace.

The widows of Srebrenica in Bosnia were not alone in seeing NGOs in such a favorable light. Among internationals and locals alike, NGOs were implicitly regarded as “the magic bullet,” able to respond quickly and efficiently to the country’s complex political, economic and social ills—if only because they were the only actors both willing and able to involve themselves in the country’s reconstruction.  Various UN and government documents mentioned that a primary lesson from conflicts in the 1990s is the urgent need to identify and support “local structures” and “social partners” to build and sustain the peace process.  Quite often these structures and partnerships took the form of NGOs, which were seen as quick and efficient ways of connecting with the local population and targeting the roots of the conflict.

Involving and creating NGOs as a way to support political and social aspects of peacebuilding is not confined to the Balkans. The recent history of Cambodia, for example, differs in important ways from the unfolding events in southeastern Europe, but the involvement of international and national NGOs is quite similar.  Since the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1991, Cambodia has been struggling to create a stable democratic state.  In 1993, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established, and almost immediately the NGO boom began, as hundreds of international NGOs flocked to this Southeast Asian country. Many of these international NGOs provided much needed humanitarian relief or a range of other services. Yet, many other NGOs tried to activate the population and encourage domestic political change, working with national NGOs and civil society groups.

Today, international and Cambodian nongovernmental organizations (CNGOs) remain involved in various aspects of peacebuilding, such as human rights and democracy promotion. This is because NGOs and CNGOS “are officially considered by the government and international institutions and donor countries as partners in the judicial reform process and the promotion of good governance.”  According to one report, during the 13 years of UNTAC’s involvement, the activities of over four hundred NGOs were supported by members of the international community.  As in the Balkans, many of these NGOs were supported because of the belief that they are essential for “developing and sustaining the liberal peace through their contributions to the rebuilding of Cambodian society.”  Some twenty years later, some 140 NGOs are estimated to be involved in peacebuilding in Cambodia.  Yet, little research exists that examines whether and how NGOs have helped sustain peace or contribute to the rebuilding of Cambodian society.

The Origins of the NGO Boom

Living in Poland in the late 1980s, I saw firsthand how, with communism’s collapse and the reemergence of Central Europe, an NGO boom swept the region.  Within months of the 1989 elections, and thanks to generous donors in Western Europe and North America, the streets of Warsaw were peppered with the signs of human rights organizations, women’s groups, and environmental clubs.  Subsequent trips back to Poland, but also to Hungary, Romania, and Russia throughout the 1990s seemed to confirm, at least on the surface, what everyone hoped for: Central Europe was awash with NGOs, civil society had blossomed, and thus, stability and democracy were guaranteed.

This simple and happy story of political change, even if it was incorrect, justified the intensification of civil society rhetoric and international assistance to NGOs ever since.  Statistics on how much money is channeled through or to NGOs is notoriously unreliable, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that in the 1990s, Western governments made an unparalleled but concerted effort to support “the people” and progressive democratic change, and this often translated into investments in international and national NGOs.   Western governments, moreover, were not alone in championing NGOs as agents of political and social change.  International organizations, specifically the UN, and private foundations like the Open Society Foundations, aggressively supported NGOs to promote stability and liberal democracy throughout the region.  At least on the surface, their combined efforts seemed to pay off and in the decade following the Cold War’s end.  The number of international and national NGOs increased dramatically in all regions, but particularly in post-communist Europe.

As the Western mission in the East unfolded and took root, a new formula for promoting peaceful, democratic change was evolving: regardless of whether international actors were interested in political party development, cleaning up the environment, or helping empower women, they assumed that these outcomes depended on the existence of local actors and an active society.  Imperceptibly, however, the democracy dance shifted, and rhetoric and funding increasingly migrated from investing in social partners and local civil society to simply funding NGOs.  The strategy also fuelled the development of different policies and mechanisms to implement this new mission, explicitly or implicitly linking the strength of civil society to stability and democracy but also to NGOs.  Overnight, scholars and policymakers alike were using “NGO” as a synonym for local partners, and the number of NGOs became the proxy for the strength of civil society in transitioning and post-conflict societies all over the world.

There are several reasons why NGOs have become so prevalent in post-conflict peacebuilding, and throughout the 1990s scores of nongovernmental organizations were formed as a direct response to the broad requirements of the “synthesis of peacebuilding, humanitarianism, human rights monitoring and advocacy.”  The rise of peacebuilding exercises not only pushed the boundaries of what some NGOs did, but it contributed to the creation of a whole new class of international actors that were, simultaneously, committed to democracy, peace, and economic development, as well as providing relief and assistance.

What this means: NGOs and more

Within a relatively short span and because a confluence of factors, Western governments, international organizations, and international NGOs all adopted a common maxim and practice in transitioning, post-conflict, and fragile states: invest in NGOs to connect with the local population and to strengthen civil society, thereby promoting democracy and stability from the bottom up.  It was a simple and intuitive formula, and by 2004, an estimated 400 to 500 international NGOs were involved in broadly defined “humanitarian activities” around the world, participating in a range of projects, from providing traditional relief to working on conflict prevention to building civil society.  In the U.S. in particular, the new agents of peacebuilding included a number of private foundations that were committed to political and economic change.

The involvement and use of NGOs has different effects that go beyond just establishing new national NGOs.  In fact, more complicated, though less obvious, dynamics are always at work when international actors become intimately involved in the domestic processes of a country.  This is particularly true in countries that lack strong state institutions and where social organizations barely exist.  In addition to providing money to create scores of national NGOs, Western-funded conferences and workshops that took place in Central and Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s helped build local capacity.  It also allowed ideas and strategies that had helped groups in the West to be shared with NGOs in the East.  Thus, the creation of NGOs is just the most immediate, tangible sign of international involvement, but influence does not end here.

To help channel the sizeable amounts of money that were suddenly available for post-communist countries, national NGOs must respond appropriately, creating professional organizations that demonstrate a capacity for carrying out projects and, more than anything, must demonstrate results.   Thus, the less obvious effect of the NGO boom was the extensive and dense contacts that were emerging among NGO activists on different continents.  Although IR literature has increasingly drawn attention to the growth of NGOs and the importance of transnational politics and networks, it often ignores important relationships that speak to power dynamics, agenda-setting, and the development of local capacity. As the violence in the Balkans started in the early 1990s, this region, like other parts of the former communist bloc, was inundated with Western attention and assistance.  This involvement continued, if not intensified, the international community’s interest in NGOs as mechanisms to promoting peace and stability.  The conflict was also a watershed event for international NGOs.  Many NGOs started to see their role and contribution in post-conflict countries very differently.

Yet, international NGOs were not alone in insisting that they could and should be crucial agents of peace and change, as well as mercy.  Government leaders and officials of international organizations were just as likely to adopt this refrain, and by the mid-1990s, both the international donor community and international organizations came to embrace a new pro-NGO norm, actively encouraging the participation of NGOs at various levels in peacebuilding exercises around the world.  Even the UN Security Council, perhaps the most strident supporter of state rights, started to look to NGOs for help with peace operations, creating an off-the-record dialogue between about 30 international NGOs and Security Council members.

What this also means: a “disembedded” civil society

Travelling in many post-conflict countries, I saw firsthand many of the good deeds carried out by NGOs.  Whether it was an international NGO like Catholic Relief Services (CRS) or a national NGO engaged in transitional justice, it is clear that many individuals benefit directly and immediately from the work of NGOs.  Yet, with every visit back to the Balkans between 2001 and 2011, I started to notice that there were fewer NGOs operating throughout the country.  Many international NGOs simply left, others created national affiliates, but the overall number of NGOs shrank with every passing year.  There was also a discernible pessimistic, if not blatantly cynical mood among the population when asked about the work of NGOs or the state of civil society.  Interestingly, it was not just government officials who had become skeptical of NGOs or the impact of NGOs on post-conflict societies. In fact, some of the most vocal critics were those who were working or had been actively involved in the NGO sector.

When I asked one representative from a national NGO in 2008 about the decline of NGOs in Bosnia and the growing apathy, he explained how challenging it was trying to sustain an NGO in a country that had no money and little support.  A woman who had long been involved in the development of women’s organizations in the region expressed a different sentiment, claiming that internationals were somewhat responsible for people’s frustration.  In fact, with every trip to the Balkans, locals were more likely to talk about how international NGOs tried but failed to accomplish very much when it came to civil society.  After a decade or more of an NGO boom, the discussions increasingly revolved around the problems, mishandlings, and paradoxes of NGO involvement. In a sentence, the international community’s NGO promotion strategy boiled down to: a lot of money, little planning, even less input from local actors.

The Midas Touch

I contend that international support for NGOs stunts the natural development of domestic groups in post-conflict societies, and this is best conceptualized through the mythological tale of King Midas that dates back to the 8th century.  According to the story, the rich King Midas was granted his one wish.  Among the numerous possibilities, he chose the power to turn everything that he touched into gold.  Initially, King Midas rejoiced in his new power, but quickly he realized the unintended and negative effects.  After turning his own food and water into gold, he touched his beloved daughter, who immediately turned into a golden statue.  The standard interpretation of this tale is: something that is initially thought to be positive and good can also have surprising and unfortunate consequences.  Thus, the Midas touch has come to mean both phenomenal success but also self-inflicted misfortune.

This story and analogy helps capture what happens to national NGOs, civil society, and peacebuilding when the international community aggressively promotes NGOs without careful consideration of its strategy or long-term impact.  Although domestic conditions are of utmost importance to shaping national NGOs and civil society, the Midas touch offers significant insight into the power of international actors and why NGOs may look and behavior in similar ways though they are in quite different countries.  The Midas touch helps depict the sudden explosion of NGOs in peacebuilding, their disembedded character, and their ultimate demise.  In post-conflict environments in particular, the ability of international actors to quickly and disproportionately influence domestic outcomes is both easy and obvious, because of the dearth of functioning institutions and resources are in short supply.  To be sure, international involvement in post-conflict countries can have a golden effect, especially for groups in society hoping to create national NGOs.

The presence of international funds translates quickly into a NGO boom, as international and national NGOs take on various peacebuilding activities.  In many ways, internationally-supported groups and their projects are golden; they glitter with fancy technology, well-equipped offices, and often have sophisticated programming.  At least initially, this means that national NGOs are able to hire staff, develop projects, and provide assistance and training to individuals or other local groups.  Since many humanitarian NGOs arrive on the scene even before a conflict ends, some NGOs even have a privileged position, with international donors and local actors.  This can give some international NGOs, and their local affiliates, significant influence over which domestic actors and activities are supported and, thus, the peacebuilding agenda.

However, like the mythological tale, outcomes are not always positive or what are expected.  Within a period of time and as international attention starts to wane, NGO activities are increasingly constricted and the domestic environment solidifies.  In the mid- to long-term and as international actors withdraw, the flurry of activities and projects start to slow and national NGOs that lack strong indigenous roots start to disintegrate.  Individuals who have been involved in the NGO sector — often the country’s best and brightest — become frustrated and disillusioned and over time disengage from the NGO sector.

The Midas touch analogy is also helpful because it explains why success turns into misfortune.  Although the King had many good qualities, he was also greedy and his own choices, ultimately, led to his unhappiness. Similarly, although international actors have good intentions and many organizations and individuals genuinely want to promote peace and stability in post-conflict countries, they have other motivations that affect their policies and behavior toward national NGOs and post-conflict society.  With this said, the Midas touch and the boom-bust dynamic is not a permanent condition, and it does not necessarily harm all national NGOs or all aspects of peacebuilding.  States and domestic conditions can mitigate the Midas touch, but international support for NGOs in peacebuilding has undeniable effects that are both positive and negative.

There are many reasons for the Midas touch in post-conflict societies.  My research lays out three separate but overlapping arguments that are rooted in institutionalism and focuses on how structures and expectations affect behavior and outcomes.  This argument focuses on the structural environment created by international peacebuilding and the incentives and constraints facing international and local actors that are responding to their interests and organizational needs. Yet, the Midas touch is also the result of certain actors, their identities, and how particular ideas inform behavior in peacebuilding.  For example, although much is written or assumed about international NGOs and their “transformative power,” most international NGOs are, first and foremost, service providers that do not actually engage in transforming political and social environments.  The other relevant actors and policies are those of national governments; and more often than not, governments and donors are more interested in spending their money quickly and moving on, but not creating sustainable NGOs or strengthening societies.

This multilayered explanation acknowledges the rational behavior of actors while it also argues that interests are guided both by material and ideational factors that inform policy choices.  Democracy promotion and civil society development are not particularly new ideas, but in the post-Cold War era they took on great importance and urgency in shaping peacebuilding policies.  Books, articles, and policies that assert that “civil society will save the world” had an undeniable effect on the behavior and expectations of international actors and locals alike.


The idea for this project really began during my first visit to Bosnia, which was the target of extensive and intensive international peacebuilding efforts.  Given the incredible number of international and national NGOs dedicated to activities that went far beyond traditional humanitarian assistance and focused on political change and civil society development, I have since explored an important but largely overlooked question: do NGOs help, hurt or hardly made a difference to building peace?

My forthcoming book is not intended to be a comprehensive study of either NGOs or peacebuilding, but it does aim to capture the changing and diverse role of NGOs in peacebuilding and to probe the development and challenges facing the national NGOs and civil society in post-conflict countries.  The conclusion, that international peacebuilding with its emphasis on channeling money through and to national NGOs often ends up hindering the development of authentic indigenous civil society, makes the contributions of this research to both academics and policymakers obvious.  The Midas touch framework simply and concisely captures the positive, negative, and unintended effects of international involvement on peacebuilding.  This research not only hopes to clarify these patterns in different cases of peacebuilding, but seeks to explain why this is so.

Last modified: July 11, 2023