The International Crisis Group: Who Pays the Piper?

By Jan Oberg, TFF director, The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, Press Info #219, 15 April 2005

2005 is the tenth anniversary of the International Crisis Group, ICG. “ The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, multinational organisation, with over 100 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.”—it states on its homepage.* It works with about 50 conflicts.

In a media release of April 13, 2005, Crisis Group describes itself—with limited humility—as “widely regarded as the world's leading independent, non-government source of information, analysis and advice to governments and international organisations on conflict issues.”

By whom, one might humbly ask, by what circles? It is true that mainstream media often describe the ICG as prestigious or well-respected. People who are not too familiar with politics and conflicts may go for the names and public relations of an organisation, and in those terms, ICG is certain world-leading, in spite of the fact that virtually all the top names are “have-beens”.

However, professionals in conflict-analysis, -resolution and peacemaking may find reasons to question the image ICG promotes of itself. In what follows, the focus is on general status and connections as well as on intellectual/research pertaining to a couple of conflicts—thus not excluding that Crisis Group may do better work elsewhere.

Non-governmental? Independent?

A visit to Crisis Group's website reveals that 40% of its funds come from governments:

Agence Intergouvernementale de la francophonie, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Holland, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Taiwan, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the US. Isn’t it a bit hard to believe that those who pay the piper would continue to do so, if reports were critical of government policies—Western governments and their conflict “management” in particular?

ICG is also supported by various foundations (covering 43%)—Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur, US Institute for Peace (established by Ronald Reagan), Carnegie, Sarlo Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Hewlett, etc. and private sector donors (16%).

In short, major mainstream American policy-oriented foundations, none of which are known for spending just a fraction of their millions of dollars on grants that could result in building a knowledge base about, say, peace by peaceful means, non-violence and reconciliation. Neither have they promoted studies of why violent conflict-management and so-called humanitarian interventions—e.g. Kosovo—have failed so miserably since the end of the Cold War—let alone promoted criticism of the only superpower's reckless militarist, unilateralist policies these years.

But let's imagine the ideal world in which, year by year, more and more government funds would come with no strings attached whatsoever. Are non-governmental people leading ICG?

No, they are not. Among its board members we find Gareth Evans President & CEO, Former Foreign Minister of Australia and Lord Patten of Barnes, former European Commissioner for External Relations, Co-Chairman. Two pro-Kosovo-Albanian Americans, Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Stephen Solarz, former U.S. Congressman. And George Soros. Among other names that catch the “independent, non-governmental” eye you find: ambassador Kenneth Adelman (US), Wesley Clark (former NATO-commander who lead the destruction of Yugoslavia in 1999) (US), Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor to the President, Ruth Dreifuss, former President, Switzerland, Leslie H. Gelb, former President of Council on Foreign Relations, U.S.

Among other former-governmentals: Bronislaw Geremek, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Poland, Lena Hjelm-Walln, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Sweden, James C.F. Huang, Deputy Secretary General to the President, Taiwan, Fidel V. Ramos, former President of the Philippines, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former Secretary General of NATO; former Defence Secretary, UK, Salim A. Salim, former Prime Minister of Tanzania and former Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity, Pr Stenback, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Finland, Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway, Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico; Martti Ahtisaari, former President, Finland, George J. Mitchell, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Denmark, and Mark Eyskens, former Prime Minister of Belgium.

In all fairness, there are also some business people, a novelist and a professor. But one can’t help being struck by a) the overwhelming presence of (former) politicians and diplomats, b) the virtual absence of people from academia with professional training in field conflict and peace work, and c) the degree of overlap between the governments that support the ICG and the governments these board member once served.

The Washington office of the Crisis Group consists of only Americans who—no exception—have a background in the US government—Peace Corps, State Department, the National Security Council, USAID. In a couple of cases Bachelor and Master degrees are stated.

If Crisis Group was really non-governmental—rather than so clearly near-governmental—it would work with civil society and promote early warning, conflict-prevention and policy-proposals from below, in partnership with local groups in conflict regions. It doesn’t even try, it has an exclusivist, elite-policy of change, expressed in this manner in its Annual Report:

“Much of Crisis Group's most successful advocacy is done behind closed doors. Our major advocacy offices, in Brussels, Washington DC and New York [notice the choice among 191 UN members, JO] continued to ensure Crisis Group had the access and influence at the highest levels of the U.S. and European governments, the UN, EU and NATO; our Moscow office improved our access to Russian decision-makers; and our London office continued to strengthen Crisis Group's high profile and influence in the UK. All Crisis Group offices, both advocacy and field, receive a regular flow of senior political and official visitors.”

Elsewhere it is stated in these self-flattering terms, “Crisis Group today—with its 110 full-time staff spread across some 25 locations on five continents, working simultaneously on around 50 areas of actual and potential conflict, and with an annual operating budget of nearly $12 million—is universally regarded not only as a serious player in the policy debate on just about every major conflict prevention and resolution issue, but as probably now the world's leading independent, non-government source of information, analysis and advice to governments and international organisations on conflict issues.”

Closed doors, close interaction with elites who have all the formal and informal connections to power! What power? Most often the power of governments, such as the US, the UK—but also Australia, Japan and Denmark—that have repeatedly chosen to not do something about conflicts when they could but later chose to aggravate the conflicts by exporting their arms and simplifying images of “good” versus “evil” by bombing and occupying—power who does not even bother to learn the history, philosophy, vocabulary, methods or potentials of non-violence but, instead, increasingly promote violence as an integral part of their worldwide conflict “prevention”—power that is pretty isomorphic with the structure of ICG and its worldwide operation.

Research or commentarism?

“Crisis Group's staff administer the organisation, develop policy proposals for consideration by the Board and promulgate Crisis Group analysis. They are professionals with extensive experience in advocacy, law, politics, the private sector, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and human rights,” one reads on the homepage.

So, what about the reality of another statement, namely that “Crisis Group's approach is grounded in field research”?

The President was a university lecturer in law and practising barrister 1970-78, but since then a politician and prolific writer. What about the advisory board? One would believe that an advisory board had some professionals. But supporters who contribute more that U.S.$25,000 p.a. are offered International Advisory Board membership, so the advisory board, it seems, consists mainly of people who have donated money but are not necessarily experts in, say, conflict analysis or -resolution, peacemaking, dialogue and negotiation, or early warning.

The CVs of the staff list what Crisis Group members have done before joining, but conspicuously leaves untold educational background in quite a few cases. About Nicholas Whyte, PhD and director of Europe Program, it is written that he is Trifun Kostovski Research Fellow. You wonder who Trifun Kostovski is? He is an MP in Macedonia, founder of Kometal Trade Gmbh, supported as Mayor of Skopje by the opposition and—you guessed it—member of Crisis Group's board. One looks forward with excitement to Whyte's forthcoming independent research reports on Macedonia's future. Would you be reading this now, if it wasn’t useful to you? Get more quality articles in the future

The HQ in Brussels has four staff members with titles indicating research. You’re informed that one is director of advocacy and research (sequence hopefully accidental), he has a BA and MA and has worked as a commercial lawyer. One has worked at an embassy and holds both a BA and MA. One is completing his PhD after internship at the EU Commission. And one has been an intern with the EU Commission and holds an MA in international studies.

It appears that, contrary to the research image, none of those doing research at the HQ have reached the level of PhD yet.

What about ICG staff around the world? A “senior analyst” on Central Africa is a former officer in the Australian Army and “slowly progressing a PhD”. About some of the regional project directors and analysts, it is stated that they have PhDs. Not so with everyone. For the main/only analyst listed under Macedonia, no CV is provided on the website. Having checked a few CVs, but admittedly not all, we found one with a PhD in conflict studies. Hopefully there are more, or will be more soon.

The general ICG report does not seem to be based on any consistent theoretical or conceptual framework pertaining to conflict analysis, early warning or world system/international relations schools. While ICG reports are certainly not without information and knowledge, much remain on the level of commentarism and piecing together data from interviews with representatives of formal power, such as politicians, and readings of newspapers.

CrisisWatch is a 12-page monthly bulletin “designed to provide busy readers … with a succinct regular update on the state of play in all the most significant situations of conflict or potential conflict around the world.” It is based on a Crisis Watch database and a Conflict Histories database, country by country. However, for the former Yugoslavia for example, there is no history database for the whole entity and thus no understanding possible of the interrelatedness of the region. Those for Serbia and Kosovo leave much to be desired as they are merely journalistic and contain both some factual mistakes and simplified interpretations as well as lack every systematic conflict- theoretical approach, thus making impossible cross-country comparison. By the way, there does not exist any conflict history database for Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia.

In these databases—in reality very short descriptions—as well as that for Iraq, one notices a conspicuous absence of any information that could place Western interests, historic and contemporary co-responsibility for conflicts, counterproductive conflict-management or failed peace-keeping in a problematic light.

Anyone who has worked a few years/decades with just a few complex conflicts can only wonder how it would be possible to say something deeper or analytically original about 50 conflicts—early warning, conflict management and peacemaking in a broad sense—in so many different cultures, even with 100 highly qualified and experienced professionals.

It is worth discussing whether the above-mentioned deficiencies are compatible with characterisations such as “the world's leading conflict-prevention organisation.” Let's hope that there is actually much more professional substance behind the real ICG than meets the eye, and that it is only the virtual ICG, i.e. the homepage, that doesn’t do justice to such de facto excellence.

Conflict prevention: No!

Part of the ICG's logo is the text: Working to prevent conflict worldwide. This, in a nutshell, gives you the level of intellectualism and vision. For—can there be any life, any family, any work place or any country in which there is no conflict, i.e. no differences, different views, disagreements, disputes, no differing world views, norms and visions of the future? Can there be any individual or civilisational development without conflict? Of course not! Preventing conflict literally means making life poorer. Without conflicts, there would be no need for democracy, no possibility of freedom. It would be an Orwellian world. Conflicts happen. Conflicts exist. “Conflict prevention” is intellectual nonsense.

What we all need to work with instead is, how to prevent, reduce and, admittedly long-term, abolish violence and war as legitimate means to deal with unavoidable differences and conflicts.

The day the ICG could work for that as successfully—in terms of public relations, funds, civil-society based and for non-violence—as it does today its near-governmental conflict “management” work, the world and the times would indeed have changed.

Finally, Lord Patten of Barnes, Chair of Crisis Group's Board of Trustees writes in the Anniversary media release that “What Crisis Group does is to fill the need that policy-makers in national governments have for smart, honest analysis and practical proposals for preventing disaster, or at least mitigating its consequences. We often find ourselves saying the things that governments would like to say but find too difficult”.

The last sentence is probably slightly more revealing than the Lord himself intended. But in spite of the intellectual crisis in his Group, it's getting well paid for saying exactly that. Media that gladly quote neon signs on shiny facades would perhaps be surprised at what is sometimes found, or not found, behind them.

Political correctness is rewarded in our increasingly authoritarian times. Crisis Group is not the only near-governmental organisation posing as non-governmental in the field of conflict “prevention” and peacemaking.

It's time to separate the sheep from the goats.