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  • Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs by Amanda Murdie
  • Claude Welch (bio)
Amanda Murdie, Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2014). viii + 303 Pages, ISBN 9780804791977.

Since 2009, Amanda Murdie has attracted increased scholarly attention. Her numerous articles in distinguished journals address perhaps the most significant lacuna in academic analysis of human rights: methodologically sophisticated studies utilizing a variety of data sources and statistical techniques. Journals such as Human Rights Quarterly are dominated by either detailed qualitative studies or abuses in a single state. Such publications also frequently feature comparative analysis of a combination of countries; or legalistic analyses of major treaties, conventions, and agreements. Help or Harm departs from these orthodox patterns. Its tables, graphs, and charts complement the great majority of existing qualitative human rights publications. The same is true for its combination of rights and development or relief, two elements of human security.

Publications on the impact of human rights INGOs have been strongly influenced since the late 1990s by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s “canonical” publication, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. This book concentrates on how loose groupings of like-minded governments and NGOs form “Transnational Advocacy Networks.” These, in turn, put pressure on recalcitrant states to support major social reforms, adopt and implement human rights agreements, or improve internal conditions of life. Where efforts by civil society proved insufficient, a “boomerang pattern” might emerge, whereby domestic NGOs reach out to sympathetic international NGOs or states to press their cause. As Murdie summarizes their argument, “INGOs serve as critical actors in normative development and then spread new norms to both states and nonstate actors.”1

Murdie starts with the basic concept of “human security,” based on a 1994 UNDP report’s definition. Two broad elements—individuals’ freedom from want and freedom from fear—figure in this concept. She focuses on INGOs active in each category. Reducing freedom from want involves organizations such as Oxfam, which are focused primarily on development or post-disaster relief. Establishing freedom from fear refers to entities such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, which concentrate on human rights. The two types of INGO differ fundamentally in nature and purpose. The INGOs on which Murdie concentrates thus include both advocacy and service organizations—in other words, those centered respectively on human rights or relief and development. Put in another way, Murdie’s contrast lies between groups involved in protection and those engaged in advocacy.

As suggested above, much of Help or Harm’s substantive content has been published earlier in professional journals. However, the arguments are developed here in a more sustained, systematic fashion. Murdie’s basic approach comes from game theory. First, she advances the “painfully simple,” argument that, “INGOs will be more likely to matter on issues of human security when and where those with ‘shared values’ or principled organizations are likely to flourish.”2 Second, the book’s basic argument comes [End Page 823] from “signals” sent by INGOs concerned with development or human rights. Third, she inquires what domestic characteristics 1) make international and domestic support of INGOs likely and 2) provide structural and institutional preconditions helping INGOs’ operations.

A special strength of Help or Harms lies in Murdie’s sophisticated personal dataset, atop the creative use she has made of other data sources. It includes over 1000 human rights and development INGOs, established in more than 100 countries. She uses the end of the Cold War as her starting point. Murdie examines their consultative status with Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), “the only way an organization can formally interact at the United Nations,” as a measure of their significance.3 She also utilizes David Cingranelli and David Richards’ CIRI indices. These enable her to include physical integrity rights and empowerment rights, including these rights for women. Service involves basic sanitation, access to potable water, and basic health services. As a result, statistical analysis using a variety of sophisticated techniques became possible.

Chapter three focuses on a famous conundrum in international politics, in terms of game theory: How can actors “signal” their intentions in a fashion that avoids...


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pp. 823-825
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