It’s highly unlikely that corporate bosses regularly ask themselves if their businesses have a right to exist. Their goal is to sell stuff and make a profit. But if your goal is to alleviate poverty and human suffering – in the face of statistics showing mixed outcomes – is this, in fact, the most important question an International NGO can ask of themselves?
At the BOND conference last week, in a session entitled How can INGOs survive the future, Penny Lawrence, the deputy CEO of Oxfam stated bluntly: “we need to earn the right to survive the future.” It is like the sector’s very own Damascene moment.
Deputy CEO of Oxfam stated bluntly: “we need to earn the right to survive the future.”
Plagued with concerns about accountability and effectiveness, alongside an NGO backlash both at home and abroad, there is clearly something afoot. Oxfam International is shifting its headquarters to Nairobi. ActionAid moved to Johannesburg long before, while Amnesty International is decentralising at a rapid pace too. But aside from a shuffling of senior staff and some programme staff, none that I’m aware of – with the outstanding exception of Everychild (an INGO dealing with children’s rights) – has gone so far as to ask the question “do we have a right to exist?”
Prof Robert Chambers in his book, Development: Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last, reflects on the view that listening and participation isn’t enough: the whole idea of empowerment means development institutions need to disempower themselves too. The book is about the urban/rural and north/south bias, but his overall thesis resonates far more widely: much of the challenge of development, he argues, is to give up power. It could be argued that over the past two decades, many have done little more than pay lip service to the sentiment.
Power, ironically, is what may be holding INGOs back from achieving impact. Ben Ramalingam, from the Institute of Development Studies said that this has led to a sort of Faustian bargain: with money and access to the corridors of places from Westminster to the World Trade Organisation, INGOs have failed to take risks and instead simply pacified everyone at the expense of seeking real change. Beris Gwynne, the former director of World Vision International agreed: “We’ve become used to being in business, so we’ve become less and less courageous.”
NGOs and the Faustian bargain
If devolving power is what’s needed, it’s one thing to acknowledge it. But as with many things, by far the biggest challenge will be in the execution. It was remarked that of the $150bn (£105bn) spent in aid globally, still only 1% directly reaches southern civil society organisations. I know from experience how frustrating southern NGOs find it when there’s always money to write a report or host a workshop; but never enough for more local staff. If poverty could be overcome from report writing, then we would have solved it long ago.
Devolving power, or earning the right to exist will demand confronting some challenging paradoxes: INGOs know they need to take more risks, but donors demand control. They know we need to collaborate more, but with that comes endless talk shops and more layers of complexity … and possibly more reports. They know we need to be enablers and listeners, but INGOs still have the budgets and the power to decide what to do with what they’ve heard.
Perhaps a practical way forward is to confront the real question: what’s the value added of INGOs and what do they need to devolve to others, and to let go of? As one participant remarked: would the poor pay for your services? While marketisation in this way probably takes things too far, it’s a provocative question. Would a poor farmer think its valuable for me to write and present a paper at a high level UN panel, on the causes of her impoverishment, or would it be better to simply give her the cheque (more income than she might see in years) and let her do what she wants with it? Which action will make her less poor, both now and in the future? After 60 plus years of development in practice, it’s hard to say.
NGOs must confront the uncomfortable truths
INGOs are, thankfully, starting to confront these home truths. If, in answering the difficult questions, they don’t find strong enough answers from beyond the hallowed halls of Oxford, London, New York or Geneva (ie the South) to justify their ongoing existence, then letting go in part or in whole seems the logical and most just next step to take.
- This article was corrected on Monday 14 March 2016 to clarify the amount of funding that reaches southern civil society organisations.