Peter Dula

Iraq Program Coordinator
Mennonite Central Committee
Constantine, Colonialism and the NGOs

Peter Dula is Assistant Professor of Religion and Culture at Eastern Mennonite University. He was the Iraq Program Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee from 2004-2006.


Constantine, Colonialism and the NGOs

1. The current situation

Some of you will recall a couple quotes that are now infamous in the aid industry. First, Colin Powell in October 2001: 'I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us and such an important part of our combat team.' Later, in June 2003, Andrew Natsios, USAID boss and former World Vision director said that 'NGOs are an arm of the U.S. government.' Natsios also threatened to 'personally tear up their contracts and find new partners' if they didn't get in line.

Some NGOs complied with little resistance. Others were horrified at what they were being asked to do. Even so, the simple fact that Powell and Natsios have that impression is very revealing. The few conscientious NGOs were horrified not just by what they were being asked to do, but by the awareness that Powell and Natsios's 'misconceptions' were rooted in something real. They understood that they bore some responsibility for the very fact that NGOs were so perceived. Such comments threw 'an overdue spotlight on the soft underbelly of the humanitarian enterprise.' (1)

Minear does not mean the old worries about humanitarianism that have been there since the beginning--that aid can prop up rogue states, that aid becomes the alibi of the Western powers non-intervention, that the influx of resources can create serious economic crises. He is also not necessarily talking about the critique leveled by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that the NGOs are the 'mendicant orders of global capital.' The soft underbelly is what David Rieff calls 'state humanitarianism'--NGOs willing to abandon neutrality for state funding and/or actively support state foreign policy, a problem that effects the American NGOs far more than the European.

What Rieff says of the human rights movement is just as true of the NGOs.

It is significant, I think, that there is no sustained critique of power qua power even in the commonsense terms of Lord Acton…let alone in those of a Michel Foucault. If anything, the reverse is true… For the vision of the American human rights movement, like that of Woodrow Wilson, has been and remains fundamentally Platonic in the most undemocratic sense of the term--a caste of Platonic Guardians seeing to the best interests of the population at  large, and accountable, in the final analysis, only to itself. (2)

Let me explain this in two ways, one the narrow perspective of the individual aid worker, and second a broader view. First, I know of no good aid workers who do not feel the sometimes agonizing tension between the two parties to which the aid worker is responsible, the donor and the beneficiary. The reason the tension can be agonizing is that those aid workers know that they expend far more energy on accountability to the donor than to the 'beneficiary.' (3) Moreover, though the NGO code of conduct includes the promise to 'build on local capacity' (instead of assuming a lack of local capacity which needs to be filled by the agency), the aid worker rarely has the time or ability to know what local capacity is, in part because so much of his or her attention is consumed by the donor.

Second, for Rieff Kosovo is a turning point because there NATO had complete control over humanitarian operations. NGOs became subcontractors to NATO. One can blame NATO for this, but Rieff sees it differently. 'Blaming states for this is unfair. Over the previous decade, humanitarianism…had transformed itself into something that readily lent itself to this official interpretation of a Tony Blair… It had all but begged for the chance to be used as a moral warrant for warfare.' (4) In Kosovo they got their wish and 'the battle for an independent humanitarianism was probably lost… The political instrumentalization of humanitarianism was complete.' (5) The NGOs had become the servants of the interests of the powers. With Afghanistan and Iraq that means servants of the interests of the US. You can see this in the way politicians like Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke serve on the boards of NGOs, in part because they provide access to donors.  'Surely it was better to have a seat at the table than to continue as a powerless outsider.' (6)

2. Christian Perspective

There is a name for what happens when a small band of outsiders becomes, over a period of time, a large and powerful group of compromised insiders--'constantinianism.' This is not my attempt to turn this issue into a theological one. Rieff himself makes it plain. 'Cooptation has been the historic destiny of most if not all large moral ideas. An obvious example is the Christian religion itself. What began as an emancipatory creed in the mystical sense, and, arguably, in the political sense as well, derided by educated Romans as the religion of women and slaves, was transformed almost beyond recognition after it had been adopted as the state religion of the Roman empire.' (7)

Among the many things that John Howard Yoder argued against throughout his life, the most prominent was constantinianism. The term subsumed a variety of things, three of which are particularly important: violence, hierarchical forms of power, and philosophical foundationalism. Each of those things significantly inhibit what Yoder is most concerned to promote, what he calls 'the posture of radical reformation.' (8) Because faith continually turns itself into religion, because humans continually grasp for security and for power, because the church is, in a word, sinful, Yoder argues for an ecclesiology that remains open to challenge from within and without. Because Jesus refused when the devil offered him all the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world, the church doesn't need a seat at the table. Because Jesus went to the cross rather than take the zealot option, the church is not ashamed of being a powerless outsider.

Moreover, he argues that 'the vision of the Christian cultic commonwealth [is] a model for the civil commonwealth.' (9) When that happens it becomes clear that 'the irreducible bulwark of social freedom is the dignity of dissent; the ability of the outsider, the other, the critic to speak and be heard. This is not majority rule; it is minority leverage… The crucial need is not to believe that "we, the people" are ruling ourselves. It is to commit ourselves to defending their right to be heard.' (10)

For the moment I will not be so ambitious as to argue, with Yoder, that ecclesiology is a model for a nation-state's political arrangements. I intend only to suggest that the vision of the Christian cultic commonwealth is a model for the NGO, an example of how not to be Rieff's Platonic guardians. In other words, the time is ripe for a radical reformation. 

In that reformation, according to the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, the agency most diligently working on this, 'accountability [to the beneficiary] would surely be ranked as a substantive principle alongside impartiality… The failure to account to or to consult with "victims" or "beneficiaries" is arguably as profound a failure as one that leads to a deficit of food, water, or shelter.' (11) The courage of HAP's proposal should be missed. They are not calling for a recovery of the 'neutrality' that Rieff argues was lost in the '90s. They are forcing us to notice that even Rieff's most 'neutral' and 'impartial' exemplars often exhibit a profound failure to listen.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.


1. Larry Minear, 'A Moment of Truth for the Humanitarian Enterprise,' Foreign Policy in Focus, July 9, 2003.
2. 'The Specter of Imperialism: The Marriage of the Human Rights Left and the New Imperialist Right,' At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 161. Here Rieff is talking about the human rights movement but it applies just as much to the aid industry.
3. See, for example, Nicholas Stockton's 'The Accountability Alibi,' Stockton, former emergencies director for Oxfam, writes that OCHA's 'Humanitarian Response Review consulted over 400 members of the humanitarian system, but not one 'beneficiary".' He went on to say, 'Humanitarian accountability declines in direct proportion to the relative power of the stakeholder.' Humanitarian agencies are good at accounting to official donors, fairly good at accounting to private donors and host governments, and very weak in accounting to beneficiaries.'
4.  A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), p. 209.
5.  A Bed for the Night, p. 197.
6.  A Bed for the Night, p. 224.
7.  A Bed for the Night, p. 288
8. The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), p. 5.
9.  The Priestly Kingdom, p. 166.
10.  The Priestly Kingdom, p. 167.
11.  Nicholas Stockton, 'The Accountable Humanitarian,'


David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon and  Schuster, 2002).

David Rieff, At the Point of a Gun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

Nicholas Stockton, 'The Accountable Humanitarian,'

John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984