Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The NGO Challenge

Some argue that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) offer a challenge to traditional politics and the State. This becomes all the more apparent in the transnational world where borders are more fluid and temporary communities are built out of necessities. In Bel Canto, all of these aspects come into play in the figure of Messner, the representative of the Red Cross. He wields a kind of power no other person in the text maintains.

Messner's "manner was so calm, so seemingly unaware of the chaos that surrounded them, that he could have been taking s Sunday morning collection. The Red Cross was always there to help the victims of earthquakes and floods, the very ones Vice President Iglesias was sent to comfort and assess ... 'The Red Cross,' he said to the bank of guns behind him."

Where does his power, or an NGO's power come from? Is it the way they stand on a higher ethical ground that gives them protection above others, akin to clerical or some other status outside of normal relations? How does Messner embody the state of exception, and what critical ground does that offer us as readers?

13 comments:

sikes688 said...

The Red Cross acts as the universal good, abiding by the ethics and morals deemed good of mosts societies today. They can be used to relate the victims and opposition through their universal acceptance. They are the ultimate good, humanity at its best, and can be trusted to aid in crises. It is this fact that allows Messner to mediate between the government, the terrorists, and the hostages. He is the link to the outside because of his individuality and freedom to work unhindered.

Anonymous said...

Does this kind of ultimate good unhinge the framework of the state, if the NGO takes over that role?

sikes688 said...

In some respects, the state loses power. At the same time, the state is expected to assume a role of protection and an absolution for its task. NGOs are not under the same expectations. They are allowed to mediate without going to extremes to accomplish their missions. The state is constantly watched with suspicion, to maintain a balance between threat and protection. It cannot put the masses in danger for a small amount of victims. But it is also wrong for them to jump in and destroy every possibility of a threat. The public has never liked an iron fist and the NGOs allow the state to save face by accomplishing tasks in a way that they themselves are not able to do.

lindsay said...

Messner ultimately has power because he is the ONLY one to be able to cross borders and boundaries. This is a standard in which the house of hostages and guards hold him to. The Red Cross is solely held him to the higher position merely to obtain communication between the two distinct parties, the insiders and the outsiders. One is locked inside without means and accommodations while the other, the outsiders is strictly waiting for the opportunity to capture and take down the prisoners. The duties for messnor are not necessarily "normal" he is use to helping victims with floods and earthquakes, not negotiating a terrorist group that is trying to overthrow the government. Although out of his league, messner is able to connect the two communities’s together and create an opportunity for them to communicate.

amynicole said...

Messner is the perfect metaphor for an NGO; he is, or should theoretically be, a nonpartisan, unbiased source of help- in this case, the Red Cross. I think that he finds himself, as some NGO's may as well, in a catch-22. When your place in the world is so specialized, so defined, and so stripped bare of personal or individual meaning aside your larger organization, you sometimes lose who you are. Messner is used by the other characters in Bel Canto for whatever they need from him, but no one seems to take deep appreciation for Messner, the individual human being. Is Patchett trying to make a political statement with him? Absolutely.

Recoleta09 said...

It’s interesting how Patchett displays non-government organizations in this novel. What does she want us to get out of her writing? It challenges me to wonder if she is questioning the efficiency of the NGO or making note of changes that need to be implemented in the system. What exactly do NGO’s strive to accomplish? Peace? Democracy? And lastly, how effective are they?? One may look at NGO’s and see their placement in an underdeveloped society that may not have democracy nor the riches and wealth of other countries yet the people are “content” without these things. Is it because they do not know any better? Is it the government? Can democracy be effective everywhere?

tay123 said...

The power of the Red Cross is a very interesting idea that should be analyzed. How did a medical organization become such a strong, steadfast symbol of peace and fairness? It is interesting that Messner is aloud to walk in and out of the hostage site solely on the basis that he is a Red Cross member. Why does this qualify his trust? He could easily have sabotaged the terrorists efforts as well as any other .
I think that the Red Cross and other NGO's have such a high level of power only because humans have chosen to give it to them. As time went on, the Red Cross and other NGO's gained notoriety because all countries chose to represent them as so. Their power isn't because they are on a higher ethical standard, but because people chose to see them that way. Workers chose to live up to this invisible standard that was created out of nothing.
Messner embodies this state of exception simply because he chooses to. To the readers he displays the perfect steadfast symbol of trust and clarity. He is always quick to do the right thing and to properly represent his cause. His ethical highs are balanced on the basis of his volition alone.

lu2009 said...

I don't think Messner stood on a higher ethical ground. He just didn't lose sight of what was happening outside. He had a strong desire for the takeover to end so he could get back to his life. He knew the terrorists couldn't get what they wanted or needed with out him and he also knew they knew so he could do whatever he wanted. If anything bad happened to Messner then the whole thing would have been over shortly after.

It seems like the NGO's would offer a challenge to the traditional politics, whatever they may be. If Messner wasn't constantly going in and bringing the hostages and terrorists supplies, it would have ended quicker because they would have never been able to last that long with only the supplies that were in the house when they got there.

Mr Floyd Waters said...

NGO's represent one of many different and multiplying transnational organizations. Multinational corporations, NGOs and some terrorist organizations all function across borders of nation and culture. None of these groups, NGOs included answer to some higher standard of ethics or conduct. They are manifestations of increasingly fragmented interests with varying degrees of influence in proportion to their resources. Messner acts to fulfill objectives of the Red Cross - namely supplying humanitarian resources. The interests of the Red Cross are particularly commendable but not representative of the broad scope of NGO functions. Some NGOs are in fact organized and funded by state governments. This calls into doubt the supposedly impartial nature of NGO behavior. If you want to know whos ethical standard an NGO represents, find out who's writing the checks.

kyoung88 said...

The power of the Red Cross (and other NGOs as well) comes from the people for which it works at any given moment in time. In Bel Canto, the State uses Messner (The Red Cross) as the middle-man so both sides can try to work out the agendas that each wants to accomplish. However, the power is limited -- Messner can only cross the transnational borders, bring in the food and relay information back and forth in hopes of a compromise -- as an NGO representative he cannot force anything onto anyone, rather he can only suggest that certain actions be taken. This it what gives him protection above others -- he cannot harm either side in any way, only help.

hdgie411 said...

The power of an NGO comes from the empathy people have for other people. For example, when we beg NGOs to go into war and strife torn countries, it is not because we want to gain power in the country or make it a good future vacation spot, but because we do not want to see people suffer. When any organization has the backing of the people, it cannot be stopped. I do not think that they stand higher on any ethical ground, rather, they made a decision to go help someone and nobody in their right mind would tell them that they are wrong. In the book, Messner is an exception to every rule the hostage takers ask for, he is their link to the outside world. Because he can move so freely between the worlds, people look up to him with envy and dependency.

Jacob Lo said...

In the world of politics, there are essentially two major sources of law and power. These two, which are known as natural law and positive law, essentially rival each other in terms of government and are particularly relevant when answering the question of where Non-Governmental Organizations' power stems from.

Natural law, simply put, is law which sets a rational standard of conduct for human beings, stemming from reason. This means that if a viewpoint is used as the fundamentals of law and is universally accepted as being in compliance with reason and the principles of the course of thought, then this viewpoint is a requirement for law’s existence itself. In terms of NGOs this means that if one looks at law from this perspective then NGOs are perfectly legal, with their power stemming from their universal acceptance in our world.

If one were to look at this situation from a Positive law viewpoint on the other hand, then one would not accept NGOs as legal entities. Positive law is law which are set by men to men. The focus of this in government is laws which are set by political superiors to political inferiors. This being said there are very few governments which have legal statutes providing for the legality of NGOs, so technically they have no political power.

In Bel Canto, Messner who is an NGO, is a vital character. In the explicit sense, he bridges the gap between the outside world and the world inside the house, bringing food and supplies to the terrorists and hostages. Deeper than this however he raises the question of the legality of NGOs themselves, challenging the framework of law as we know it.

We live in a predominantly positivist world, with talks of border fences and the rate of litigation in the US, law made by men to men dictates mostly everything. NGOs are an example of something in society which is not governed by positive law. This causes contradiction to our laws themselves which is the point that Ann Patchett was trying to establish with this character.

Caitlin Van Wagoner said...

NGO's draw power from the nature of their design. By definition they exist outside of the government and mostly work under the umbrella of the stigma of "non-profit". The idea of an agency that fights for what most of the world deems as "good" or "right" gives NGO's their power and authority. Most believe that to not act in your own self-interest is foolish. Therefore, the unique mission of most NGO"s to fight for voiceless or bring justice to the oppressed acts against "human nature". It sets them apart, almost consecrates them in a world full of self-actualization through self-interest. However, what if NGO's become unjust in their dealings. Who has the power to keep them accountable for the actions? All in all, I believe that NGO's are an anomaly of human behavior and, most of which, deserve the support of people with the freedom to care.