Case Study
International NGOS in
the Caucasus and Ukraine
Varvara Pakhomenko describes the work done by NGOs in some of the more complicated corners of the former Soviet Union.
Our speaker, Varvara Pakhomenko, is going to refer to her own experience – this is something she normally doesn't do. And there's a lot of it. Think twelve years working with NGOs in Chechnya and South Ossetia, mostly with Islamist extremists. She'll start a project in Donbas (East Ukraine) quite soon. And she's here to address a couple small questions, the first being: what do NGOs do? The second: is there any chance they can help stop a war?

If today's topic is broad, it's because international non-governmental organizations (I/NGOs) end up doing a lot of different things during (and after) an armed conflict. But first she wants to start with describing the work of NGOs in general before focusing on specific roles they might have, like conflict analysis, humanitarian aid or UN development work. For example.

So you have different kinds of NGOs and they vary by mandate, size, creation and so on. There are local NGOs inside a particular country, but then you have these INGOs that usually specialize in a topic or a region. If its a topic (children's rights, post-disaster relief, women's empowerment) they're usually shuffling from one context to another – following the conflict, so to speak.

International human rights NGOs tend to focus on peacebuilding processes and public dialogue, although there are ones that work specifically with dialogue of the non-public variety as well. Think helping to reconcile broken connections and broken communities. There are also conflict analysis NGOs that try to go deep into the causes of a war and try to make recommendations that can be passed on to policy makers, or generally to people who might actually be able to something about it. Then there are humanitarian assistance NGOs that provide food, hygiene kits, shelter – the essentials.

And sometimes they don't play nice with each other. Think about human rights defenders: when you're dealing with abuses, violations of rights (especially by gov't actors) and restoring a sense of justice, there's the slight likelihood that you're going to be loud. And critical. This might not make certain people happy, especially if there's a war going on. It can threaten your access. Now, if you're providing humanitarian aid, access (and the relationships that provide you with it) are basically like gold. Worrying too much about torture or repression might make it harder to help folks with infected legs or starving grandmothers.

In Ukraine there was a Czech INGO called People In Need and they tried to combine both and it was hard to balance – they had to separate into two teams because the things done for one mission messed with how effective the other was. So in the end most organizations are forced to pick a side.

Even within these two types there's lots of diversity. In the post-Soviet space there are a number of ("very brave", Varvara reminds us) organizations working professionally in the field – the Helsinki Movement is one long-standing one, as well as Memorial in Russia. Many of them end up having to do all kinds of jobs because people come to them with different needs. This is especially the case for local NGOs in small towns or cities. If you're the only one around, you can't really specialize. Maybe over time some specialty develops: addressing issues of torture, for example, or illegal detentions or women's rights abuses.
Then there are different approaches to the same work. At one meeting of Russian organizations, Varvara heard a group say their goal is simply to help. They'll step in if someone needs assistance. Another group said help isn't enough: they want to change the system. They take on cases that are willing to continue working after their loved one is released and try to set precedents in law. Both approaches work and have their place.

Then there are international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – they might look similar but the work they do is really different. HRW focuses on reports and research, while Amnesty is about trying to mobilize as many people possible. For action. Again, the best situations are the ones where they cooperate and complement each other. We see a lot of good collaboration in the post-Soviet space – unfortunately, she says, this happens often in places where civil society is under constant pressure.

Returning to the conflict-analysis NGO, these ones are less about addressing a specific violation than looking deeper into the causes of a deep-rooted fight. They would then advocate with people in power for particular policy decisions. Varvara worked for this kind of INGO for five years, and the most challenging part isn't the years of research so much as making the recommendations themselves. They need to be specific, connected to reality, aware of the players involved (gov't, international organizations, civil society, influential personalities) and how everything fits into the international context.

They're the type that can't limit who they're willing to shake hands with. They need to talk with everyone, understand every side. Which means speaking with some rather nasty folks and trying to figure out what's going on inside their minds. This can complicate relationships with human rights organizations: how can you talk with this person, they ask? Do you know how much blood they have on their hands? But what happens when you don't talk? Maybe we have to talk. Maybe it's too complicated not to.

There are a number of such organizations making good policy papers, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, for example. But you also get new ones responding to needs in the field.

The fighting in the Balkans was such a shock to Europe that people wanted to know what to do, and the Crisis Network was made by a diplomat and an urban engineer. They understood that government-affiliated networks (or gov't bodies themselves) may not be making independent analyses and so they wanted to do something that could give a broader picture of what was going on.

Then there are the dialogue practitioners trying to establish contract between sides. This is often on track two, but sometimes when there's a war this doesn't work and the only thing that's accessible is track three dialogue between civil society leaders. This is important because conflict can sever traditional ways of talking to each other, and dialogue NGOs can make conections again. Maybe conversations take place in another country, maybe right there in the field, maybe there's complete confidentiality with a media blackout. It all depends.

Then there are organizations focusing on community security and empowering local activists – this often rises from an awareness of the community's needs. If there are international NGOs they rely on local ones for information before bringing their expertise to bear. But this only works if there's a high degree of cooperation between agencies. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not so much.
Ukraine is an interesting case because it's the first time these organizations are coming back to Europe in more than twenty years. Most are coming from Africa or Asia, and the problems are so different. Varvara chuckles remembering the time hygiene booklets were distributed in Donbas – they were mostly about washing hands, something that Slavs are generally better at than their Western counterparts. If you don't know basic things about the place you're working in, you look like an idiot.

But even if Ukraine isn't the same as many other conflict zones, INGOs can still bring knowledge of how to operate, how to find funding and how to advocate for particular issues on national and international levels. It was a high-priority area for about two years but the media moved on and now its a challenge to find money. The conflict keeps going, though, and that cash is still very necessary.

Another factor is how these agencies need to cooperate with UN agencies. Once a conflict starts it's usually the UN that does the groundwork, heads in, opens an office and brings the money. There are specific UN agencies focusing on refugees or migration or children or women's needs, and many of them will first offer humanitarian assistance. They'll all be active in distributing food boxes, hygiene kits, shelter materials and things like this – it's hard telling them apart at that stage because they're doing pretty much the same thing.

Something unique is the UNDP, which normally comes in after the immediate humanitarian wave (which itself usually happens after the fighting stops) to start the work of rebuilding society. But things aren't always so clear-cut, like how in Ukraine you have front-line communities that are perpetually in humanitarian crisis and, in villages 30km away, you might not see the war at all. These places need less soap and more roads/local government. Response teams in the area have to think about both realities.

Many UN agencies don't implement their projects directly so much as act as donors. This means that most INGOs move around from conflict to conflict because they're following UN money – you can't operate without getting their approval first. The money often goes through three links in a chain: from a UN agency to an international NGO who then hires local partners.

But even with all the bureaucracy this can be a good thing, because international actors bring experience and control over the funding. This is important in conflict zones where banking systems have collapsed, like in Donbas. Everything there happens in cash, which makes it open season for manipulation, violation and such. Then there are areas like Syria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia where you can't transfer money at all – you need to set up a good system for regulation, verification and monitoring.

But while bringing in money, supplies and wo/manpower is always welcome, the soft stuff (training, psychological assistance, empowerment) tends to be a harder sell. Agencies are often treated with suspicion by officials and locals – all they see are foreigners coming in and asking lots of questions. Like they're spies. Psychological assistance has been banned in a lot of areas because of this. Then, of course, there are the tensions when NGOs support locals in lobbying the government for change.

Organizations themselves understand that food isn't the only thing that needs to happen. Steps have to be taken to make sure a country doesn't become too dependent on foreign aid. People have to be creative with all this – but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

There's another problem: the UN has a tendency of employing some of the best, smartest and most capable locals and then take them when they go. Which is completely understandable, because they offer better salaries, training and social packages. You can always feel this tension on the ground.
Then there's the speed the UN works at, which is slow at best. If you do manage to push something through, it just sits there on the conveyor belt until someone does a bit more work on it and then it waits all over again.

Then there are consequences related to creating dependencies, or disrupting local economies or political systems. In Ukraine, for example, a couple UN agencies made an agreement with the government to make up a budget for importing all needed medicine. It saves a lot of money locally, but it disrupts the work of a very powerful pharmaceutical mafia. Plus, with approval needed every year, there isn't a whole lot of long-term stability on the table. Then there's how these agencies sometimes wonder if they should be working with the government at all. But it's never black and white – you have to go in knowing what you're willing to sacrifice and why.

Right now in Ukraine, Varvara says, people on either side are killing each other. There isn't a clear-cut hero or villain, and the main purpose of the organization she works in right now is to advocate for everyone to follow international humanitarian law when it comes to war. So she has to go in and, instead of trying to stop the fighting, convince warlords to do war more humanely.

The Geneva Conventions, themselves the basis of how we should behave during war were signed with the country-vs-country model in mind. Armies against armies. This isn't the case anymore, and with hybrid war we're often seeing non-state actors, stand-ins for more powerful governments and such. They slip between the cracks of these sorts of regulations – they never signed any international treaties and recognize no obligations. But sometimes they control huge territories with millions of people in them. They have control over sophisticated weapons that can destroy towns and cities.

Geneva does give a little window into dealing with such situations – there's this thing called Article 2, and it refers to non-international armed conflicts. The main thing is that you shouldn't torture, destroy civilian objects, rape, recruit children, the works. Her organization, Geneva Call, tries to find creative solutions to engage these non-state groups and get them on board with the Article.

They use different tools – sometimes dialogue, sometimes just explaining things. We shouldn't forget, Varvara says, that sometimes people just don't know the rules of engagement. Many of them are doctors, businessmen or community leaders who organized themselves, and when you tell them that torture is prohibited (Always? someone asked her – always, she replied) there can be a surprisingly open response. But then you have to make sure implementation happens.

Sometimes there are a lot of questions: if someone shoots you from the school, can you shell the school? If fighting happens in the streets, how do you warn civilians? These are complicated issues on the ground. Often you want to have trainers who can communicate this information. But if the zone is too hot you might to be able to send folks physically to the place – what do you do in that situation?

They developed an app called Fighter Not Killer, and it's like a game where you have to answer questions about what's allowed or not in war (according to international human rights law). When you pass enough quizzes as a soldier you get promoted to commander and can play on a higher level. She describes how many fighters are young, bored, standing at posts all day with not much to do. So the ones who have phones play – there were a couple million downloads in Syria almost immediately, and about ten million in Yemen. It's being translated into Ukrainian and Russian as we speak.
Then there are projects like Their Words, which track commitments to the Geneva Accords from non-state groups. Or at least to something resembling them. For example, Kurdish fighters in Turkey were encouraged to create a code of conduct for fighting after fifty years of the conflict. It's not perfect but it's certainly better than before.

Then there's Geneva Call, which itself cooperates with different armed groups while making no political demands. This helps engage non-state actors and makes space for them to be educated on the protection of civilians. It also gives them a chance to display their committment to international law. The NGO invites different armed groups to conferences in Geneva where they discuss their problems and invite academics for advice or just to listen.

So, someone asks, you'd cooperate with terrorists?

Yes. We will work even with groups labelled by various states as terrorist organizations.

Aren't you legitimizing them?

Maybe. It depends on to whom they would be legitimized. But if we can help them not recruit children then that in itself is a success.

One of the hard things, she continues, is about what language you use. Some governments don't even recognize there's an armed conflict, like Thailand, so you have to avoid that kind of language. Some don't recognize international law, like certain Islamist groups, and so maybe you have to define things in a way that's compatible with Sharia. You have to be creative.

In the end, her group is mainly about the protection of civilians and POWs. They don't recognize these groups but they're committed to talking to everyone involved – this might be the only way to really understand what's going on. Stopping the war isn't their mandate – making it more humane is. And this can be seen as a response to hybrid techniques: if ISIS is going to use social media, then her group will use it too. Whatever it takes.

Are you working with ISIS?

If they'll talk to us, yes.


The biggest question remains the one of making non-state actors actually want to come to the table. Some of them want the appearance of legitimacy, some want to create grounds for peace talks. It's always in their interests to look better and save face.

Every situation is different, though, and you're looking for contacts on the ground. Fighters, former fighters, these are all people first and foremost – they were someone before they picked up a gun. And they might listen to you. That, and they have a better chance of going to a former commander and convincing them to listen to you. So make friends, the moral goes, with terrible people.

Someone else raises their hand: What about mercenaries or private military companies? How is it getting them to talk.

They're really hard, she says. Then laughs: probably harder than ISIS.