As the aid landscape changes, a new view on NGO neutrality

When aid workers see suffering, they don't respond with pity or shake their heads at the sorrow in the world. They respond with compassion so deep that it moves them to risk their lives to provide food, supplies and hope to people in need.

But good intentions don't always lead to positive outcomes. As the global community shrinks and technology keeps us more informed and connected, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) landscape grows increasingly diverse and complex, creating difficult operational conditions.

In A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, political analyst David Rieff noted that "History is never the fairy tale of innocent victims, oppressive gunmen, and caring outsiders that the humanitarian narrative so often presents."

We're sometimes guilty of oversimplifying the world and increasing the risk of harming our global neighbors in our attempts to help them. This has caused concern about NGOs' traditional approach to neutrality, but so far, most of these conversations have happened behind closed doors.

If we don't publicly discuss our problems and explore solutions, we can never fix what's wrong and ensure our work fulfills our goals.

An evolving definition of neutrality

The UN adopted neutrality in hopes of overcoming political obstacles to deliver help to people in need. Neutrality creates safer environments for aid workers, and NGOs have sophisticated, rigorous controls designed to ensure neutrality in every situation.

But there's a spectrum. On one end, the perception of neutrality on the ground typically isn't in sync with reality. This underplayed perception gap can endanger an NGO's ability to serve the populations most in need.

On the other end, donor governments, donors, host nations, out-of-state actors and journalists combine to create an environment where neutrality is virtually nonexistent. These actors can use humanitarian aid to fulfill their agendas.

The U.S. military has directly and indirectly utilized reconstruction teams to rebuild infrastructure in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These activities blur the line between humanitarian efforts and politically motivated ones. Strengthening infrastructure has a side benefit of building capacity for future military activities — physically and in terms of local populations aligning with our nation's interests.

Even in its purest form, aid brings consequences of all kinds. We seek to change people's circumstances for the better, but inadvertent side effects can hinder our efforts.

Being realistic

The crux of neutrality is the attempt to be "good," but this comes at a price. There are times when remaining neutral requires turning a blind eye to hostile groups or even strengthening the positions of bad actors.

We sometimes see this in disaster relief. Food and supplies meant to help communities heal and rebuild can reach local terrorist groups, solidifying their strength. But if we limit our action or don't act, extremist groups will target vulnerable people for recruitment.

Even in places with healthy governments, providing aid can lead to negative side effects. Immediately following a disaster, NGOs provide necessities without discrimination. As time progresses, the local population either relies on the continuance of first-responder support or transitions to dependency upon longer-term humanitarian aid.

Getting proactive

The humanitarian community must move beyond reactionary humanitarian aid and explore the potential to act before a conflict and to build before a natural disaster. The new generation of donors demands a proactive approach and seeks to understand how we can bolster the communities we serve.

It's our responsibility to understand our role in world politics. NGOs are used as pawns in foreign policy, but with a proactive, collective approach, we can intentionally enact change.

As British Prime Minister David Cameron said, "Red warning lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy." Our world is more connected than ever, so problems in one part of the world affect others.

The impact of the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa wasn't isolated to that region; the virus had a ripple effect through the world economy. And a 2011 earthquake in Japan helped drop the Dow Jones Industrial Average 1.15 percent in one day. We must educate all actors on the importance of understanding these ripple effects.

Also, NGOs don't collaborate effectively — for the most part, because we all chase the same donor dollars. We become masters to funding and take our eyes off of our core missions. This fragmentation is a critical weakness of the humanitarian enterprise. There are solutions, but we must work together to find them.

Aid workers have sacrificed their lives to protect global partners, but the inherent decency of their work shouldn't mean they're immune to scrutiny.

Neutrality is a stance taken for safety, but it's naive to think we can deliver humanitarian aid without playing a significant role in shaping the lives and nations we seek to help. If we don't want to save people from starvation only to deliver them to the hands of tyrants and extremists, we need an open dialogue about how we can carry out change rather than ignore the truth.

Chang is CEO and president of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on children, global awareness and breaking the cycle of poverty around the world. Linking the World has been saving lives and transforming communities since 1997 through its unique emphasis on partnerships to kindle hope.

Mina Chang