Small Wars Journal

Transnational Non-Governmental Organizations in High Risk Environments: A Case Study of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 4:07pm

Transnational Non-Governmental Organizations in High Risk Environments: A Case Study of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan

Kyle Amonson

The positive impact that non-governmental organizations (NGO) make in international relations is undeniable. Many NGOs have world-wide notoriety, with brand recognition comparable to well-known transnational corporations (TNC). Several of these humanitarian aid based transnational NGOs (TNGOs) operate in the high risk, high threat, areas on earth, areas that typically have the highest demand for their humanitarian aid services. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the most well-known TNGOs that consistently operates in high threat environments to provide critical assistance to war-torn populations. Even though ICRC is a recognized non-combatant entity the hybrid and insurgent threats, in countries like Afghanistan, have recently resulted in the reduction or withdrawal of humanitarian aid providers. TNGOs like ICRC are well funded and organized but lack the protection-based security assets to ensure the safety of their personnel and operations. These challenges cannot be solved through the NGO independently. This issue can be solved through a liberal approach that leverages other institutions, specifically intergovernmental organizations (IGO) like the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to assist where appropriate in TNGO operations. This essay will analyze the structure and role of NGOs, identify the principles of liberal institutionalism, discuss ICRC events in Afghanistan and conclude with identifying viable solutions through international response with a liberal institutionalist theoretical framework.

Transnational Non-Governmental Organizations

In the past 105 years NGOs have increased from a mere 176 to 59,383 organizations worldwide (Baylis et al, 2017, pg. 348). This rapid growth of influential, non-state actors, has enabled NGOs to assume a permanent and critical role in a myriad of international relations functions. NGOs can range from the small town charity to an international organization with multi-million dollar budgets spanning several continents. Most importantly, NGOs extend beyond state interests to aggressively pursue solutions to international challenges. Well-known NGOs have progressed into key influencers in international law that represent interests outside of state actors. This fills a vital role that transcends state sponsored issues and has established a permanent presence on the international stage.

Key Principles of Liberal Institutionalism

The core tenant of the theoretical framework of liberalism is the focus on non-state actors and the importance of their influence in the international community. Liberal institutionalism, also known as neoliberalism, is based on the belief that institutions are “an important mechanism for achieving international security” that primarily focuses on the generation of collective defense based organization to “mitigate the dangers of security competitions among states”(Baylis et al, 2017, Pg.243). In a world that is constantly advancing towards even greater levels of interconnectedness that extends through thousands of non-state actors such as IGOs, NGOs and TNCs these organizations have the funding, framework and scope to solve problems with an international range. While neorealists have identified a multitude of problems inherent to these transnational organizations it does not negate the fact that they do serve an important role and are capable of applying influence and assets to assist in more than just collective defense.

The International Committee of the Red Cross Operation in Afghanistan

The ICRC, one of the oldest and well know TNGOs, was established in 1864 at the Geneva Convention in Switzerland and has been recognized as a non-combatant organization in international laws of war through the Geneva Convention mandates. The Geneva Convention specifically established the “red cross” and “red crescent” emblems as protected, non-combatant entities during warfare. While the ICRC represents a TNGO in all aspects it is unique to the fact that it was established by states rather than solely by individuals. The ICRC has displayed equality in their responses to international crisis and, as a whole, is not seen as pursuing specific state interests. The ICRC responds, “whether the emergency is of enormous concern to the states where they raise their funds or get government grants…or whether the emergency, like the one ongoing in Liberia throughout the 1990s, is of no serious interest at all to any outside power” (Reiff, 2002, pg.33). The ICRC prides itself on consistent neutrality in order to maintain it’s ability to provide aid in times of crisis.

As stated by D. Reiff in his book A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, “The ICRC is the oldest of the humanitarian organizations. It is the richest and best organized, and its mandate is the clearest. By international treaty it is the custodian of the laws of war. It is also committed to an austere and sometime morally troubling conception of neutrality” (Reiff, 2002, pg. 31). ICRC’s activities primarily consist of healthcare for disasters and conflict zones, water and habitat management, civilian considerations, economic security, restoring family links and serving as a conduit between the government and the local populace.

The ICRC has served as a critical humanitarian fixture in Afghanistan during the past three decades. ICRC operations in Afghanistan have typically consisted of roughly 1,800 staff members, located in distributed offices, primarily serving in health services support roles throughout the country (Al Jazeera News, 2017, p. 3). The biggest challenge the ICRC now faces is that the current insurgent and extremist threat does not respect or abide by the laws of war. In an asymmetric conflict, with a hybrid to insurgent threat range, the idea of non-combatants is not recognized. Terrorism is characterized, first and foremost, by the use of violence. This tactic of violence takes many forms and often indiscriminately targets non-combatants (Baylis et al, 2017, pg. 403). The ICRC employees are often targeted by the community they are there to help because of their perception as a western organization with western imperial ideals. While the Taliban employed kidnapping as a technique for gaining leverage in the international community, the new development of even more violent extremists has been marked by the progression from kidnapping to murder as a display of power. Terrorists strive to achieve newsworthy attacks, one way they do this is by targeting civilians “for purposes such as drawing widespread attention” (Baylis et al, 2017, pg. 404)

This past February, unidentified terrorists killed seven ICRC aid workers during an aid convoy, in September a doctor was killed by her patient while conducting a visit and there have been three separate abductions this past year. On 9 October at a media conference in Kabul Monica Zanarelli, head of delegation for the ICRC, stated, "Since December 2016, the ICRC has been directly targeted in northern Afghanistan three times” (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2017. p. 2). Shortly following this past month’s attack, the ICRC announced that it will “drastically reduce” operations in Afghanistan, close their main office in the state and transition remaining aid centers to responsible entities once they can be identified.

International Solutions

This decision to withdrawal, from one of the world’s leading TNGOs, represents the acknowledged decline in security for humanitarian organizations within the current climate of degraded irregular warfare consistent with insurgencies and violent extremism. However, organizations like the ICRC, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have years of experience operating in conflict, are well funded and typically have passionate professionals leading and serving the organizations. So what has changed? The service these NGOs is providing has not changed, but the environment has. As the climate of warfare has shifted from high intensity, combined arms, land warfare to low-intensity, asymmetric counter insurgency operations, the role of NGOs has inherently become more complex. As a whole, the major NGOs are often perceived by the Middle Eastern culture negatively as institutions with a western interest, regardless of their consistent neutrality. With over 40% of Afghanistan under the control of either the Taliban or other armed terrorist groups, these communities that once welcomed these organizations are now infiltrated with extremists who would gladly kill a western NGO member given the opportunity (Al Jazeera News, 2017, p. 13).

This begs the question, can these TNGOs solve their security and protection challenge internally? Yes, but it would require an extremely significant amount of financial capital expended in private contract security. The more conservative and effective solution to this problem is to reach out to the international community, specifically IGOs. The liberal institutional framework emphasizes the ability of institutions rather than just states to solve transnational challenges through their scope and influence. State support isn’t necessarily the answer to the TNGO security crisis. Organizations that would likely mutually benefit from the work of organizations like the Red Cross would be NATO and the UN, specifically the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

So how would this IGO/TNGO humanitarian aid relationship work? First and foremost the relationship would have to be established. Prior to a TNGO responding to a point of crisis they would levy, just like they would for policy or law, at the UN’s General Assembly (UNGA) or at NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC). While it is a tough sell to ask for a private security force to accompany the humanitarian aid operations, it is reasonable to identify who from those IGOs will already be operating in the region and make direct contact with their leadership to understand their mission’s key tasks, goals, and desired end state. There is a high probability that within that IGOs mission sub-tasks there is an aspect of civilian considerations that would involve the mutual benefit TNGO humanitarian aid support.

Once that relationship is established, the assumed accommodating party would need to be the TNGO. The IGO is the main effort and the TNGO would need to adjust their plans to compliment the IGO’s operational framework. The TNGO missions would ideally still remain constant. Additionally, it is not reasonable to expect a pre-existing or deploying IGO peacekeeping force to accompany TNGO humanitarian aid operations that are dispersed in geographically dislocated locations around the region. The IGO shouldn’t be expected to accept the risk of dispersing their security assets. What would reasonable happen is that the TNGO would need to centrally locate, at least regionally, it’s main offices and humanitarian medical service facilities. The risk is inherently less for the civilian population to travel to their centrally located locations than for the aid workers to travel through a non-linear battlefield to provide assistance. There is also room for TNCs to provide support considering that in some countries corporations have secured established locations to provide material and goods for sections of their supply chains. It would be mutually benefitting for these corporations who are pursuing public-private partnerships to cooperate and assist TNGOs through any means possible to increase their market brand image.

Also, the NGO would need to address their prevalent perception as a western organization that exists at the root of their challenges. The Islamic society as a whole often sees these organizations as just another method that the western society is attempting to integrate into and destroy their culture. The solution of aligning INGOs with TNCs or IGOs only strengthens the perception that these organizations do, in fact, represent what the Islamic culture calls “western ideals.” However, any possible solution to this that distances the NGO from their source of security would require a culturally appropriate façade to decrease their western perception. A recommendation would be to focus on pairing INGOs with recognized regional NGOs, even conducting all operations with the brand name of that regional NGO. Any activity outside of the proposed IGO protection would require local support.

This global issue is clearly a problem that can be solved through communication, at the right place and appropriate echelon, between international institutions. This may sound like a compromise to the assistance that TNGOs provide. It absolutely is, but withdrawing from a country due to the risk is far worse than adjusting their operational concept and reconsolidating to more centrally located secure locations where they can maintain their ability to provide support.Donnelly, M. (Ed.). (2012). Critical conversations about plagiarism (Lenses on composition studies). Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.


Al Jazeera News. (2017, October 9).  Red Cross 'drastically reduces' presence in Afghanistan. Retrieved from

Baylis, J., Owens, P., Smith, S. (2017). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 7th edition. Print.

Irwin, J. (2013). Making the world safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rieff, D. (2002). A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2017, September). Afghanistan Humanitarian Bulletin Issue 68. Retrieved from

About the Author(s)

Kyle Amonson is an active duty Army Major and graduate student at Royal Military College of Canada. Major Amonson received his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech and holds a master’s degree in International Relations - International Security from Norwich University. He has deployed in support of various operations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Opinions expressed in his articles are those of the author's and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.



Thu, 07/21/2022 - 5:18am

NGOs can go from the humble community noble cause to a global association with extravagant financial plans crossing a few mainlands In particular NGOs reach out to past state interests to seek after answers for global difficulties forcefully read more We have submitted free article tests to show you the ability and high expert level of our writers You will get what you really want.