Book Review: NGOs, Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution


Daniela Irrera, NGOs, Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution: Measuring the Impact of NGOs on Intergovernmental Organisations (Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar, 2013). 192 pp., £67,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9781782546542.

According to some authors, the massive concern over the foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria is “more smoke than fire,” while others consider the current conflict against the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as a “game changer” for the extremist threat to Western countries.

From a wider perspective, it is worth noticing that since the end of the Cold War, sub-national and transnational actors have played a growing role in global politics. For instance, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have acquired an increased relevance in development aid and humanitarian interventions. In order to understand the evolution of the post bipolar international relations, it is crucial to examine the main features and approaches of those actors and especially the ways they interact with intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), participating in their decision-making process. Since the end of the Cold War, debate over security has widened the traditional state-centric perspective, devoting mounting attention toward non-military threats and non-state actors.

Daniela Irrera provides an interesting contribution to this debate. Her manuscript NGOs, Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution aims to better illustrate civil-society’s capacity to influence global politics and especially the so-called “humanitarian system.” The main goal of the book is to “shed new light on the relationship between non state-actors and IGOs.” In addition, Irrera addresses the “potential” for non-governmental organizations to take up innovative roles in humanitarian action while offering empirical findings on NGO perceptions of existing relations with governmental actors in the field of security management.

After a theoretical overview on civil-society and NGOs, the book focuses on formal and non-formal procedures that shape the interaction between non-governmental organizations and the UN and the EU. Then, the “humanitarian system” is introduced, before illustrating the different models of dialogue crafted by the United Nations and the EU for engagement with NGOs in conflict prevention and peace support operations. Finally, the last chapter shows the results from semi-structured interviews conducted with several NGOs, exploring their views regarding roles, identities and actions.

The manuscript has four main merits. First, it clarifies controversial terms and concepts related to civil society, non-state actors and “humanitarian” NGOs. Indeed, the broad literature review (from International Relations theories to Political Philosophy) helps the reader to better understand the nature of civil society and its growing function in contemporary global politics, especially thanks to the specific attention devoted to the organizational dimension of transnational non-state actors and their participation in the governance of the UN and EU.

Second, the book explores “dialogue and tensions” with those universal organizations, highlighting so-called NGO institutionalisation, the mechanisms for involving non-governmental organizations, and the bottom-up and (mostly) top-down approaches adopted by EU and UN governance. The first part of the manuscript is extremely useful to comprehend the process through which preferences are shaped and different models of interaction crafted by the EU and the UN, with their points of strength and weakness. The book observes the extraordinary evolution that occurred in the post-Cold War era, the role played by agencies such as the ECOSOC and the “doctrinal” transformation in the EU in terms of “civil-society” participation (from the European Transparency Initiative to the Civil-Society Register). At the end of the analysis it seems that both models are imperfect and need significant improvement to better mix flexibility to formal mechanisms of accreditation.

The third merit of the book is that of shedding light on the role played by NGOs in the governance of the UN and EU peace support operations. The types and degree of involvement of NGOs in the “humanitarian system” is well illustrated, after introduction to the lively debate on humanitarian intervention. As stated by Waever in his seminal work on securitization and desecuritization, there was no tradition of security studies in non-state terms at the beginning of the 1990s. However, after the end of the bipolar confrontation the international community has started to deploy forces in order to contain emerging regional crises while “new” concepts of security have emerged, “broadening” and “deepening” the subject, as said by Paris. This part of the volume pays insufficient attention to critical analyses of “humanitarian intervention” (the vast branch of literature that has critically pointed out the paradoxes of humanitarianism, from Duffield to Rieff). Nevertheless, the review widely illustrates the human dimension of security and the current debates in the field of conflict management and conflict resolution, as well as features of “humanitarian NGOs.” Indeed, the core of the manuscript is a description of the ways through which those NGOs have shaped the EU and UN humanitarian system. Irrera correctly identifies coordination among different actors (such as civil-military relations) as the key-element to better assess effectiveness and the impact of peace support operations.

Despite accurate information and data provided by secondary sources, most of the book is a description of the participation of NGOs in the security management of the EU and the UN, while the authentic original contribution is the last chapter of the volume, which illustrates the results of 28 semi-structured interviews conducted between 2009 and 2011 with “humanitarian NGOs.” Thus, the fourth merit of the book is the highlighting of the NGO’s perceptions regarding their nature, their role and their interaction with IGOs, especially in peace-building operations. Some stimulating results are portrayed, such as the growing importance of networks (mainly for reducing costs and enhancing impact), the lack of frequent and structured interaction with the military, and the significant function played by private donors.

In sum, thanks to the book the reader acquires detailed knowledge on a controversial but relevant issue. In methodological terms, an effective “measurement” of the impact of NGOs is not really provided as was promised at the beginning. In fact, a different type of analysis should have been conducted to carry out a proper impact evaluation, looking also at the context on the ground using a cross-time investigation, with different approaches and field research. However, the survey at the end of the book guarantees an original contribution to the debate, although interviews with IGOs could have added a more comprehensive framework to explore the interaction between governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In conclusion, the book is useful reading for those interested in NGOs and humanitarian interventions and especially for those who need a detailed description of interactions between non-governmental organizations and IGOs.

Fabrizio Coticchia, European University Institute, Florence

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