The future of the INGO sector? Where do we get off?


Yes, it’s been some time since I last posted.  Blame it on Christmas/New Year/Tet festivities.  Anyway, what do people do at this time of the year apart from nurse their hangovers and contemplate useless gym memberships?  Answer: they think about the future, of course.  Well, it beats venturing out into the bloody freezing cold, y’know…

So, the future of the INGO sector, aside from the obvious continuation of dysfunctional sex?

I read a great book a couple of years ago – Adrian Done’s Global Trends.  It’s not an aid book – far from it – but it gave a good synopsis of the critical global/big picture challenges going into the next ten years or so.  The best thing about it is that it’s a great example of a “nodding” book, by which I mean that you spend most of your time nodding while reading it.  There’s nothing there that’s mind-blowing or startlingly new, and that’s actually a strength: honestly, most of us would be rather suspicious of a “global trend” that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected ad nauseum in the general media…  However, what Done has done [snigger] is join these trends up into an easily digestible summary that both individuals and organisations need to ensure that they are ready for.

His 12 trends (as per the Amazon summary) are:

– repercussions from the financial crisis;
– geopolitical power shifts;
– emerging technological challenges;
– climate change;
– water and food shortages;
– educational problems;
– demographic changes;
– war and terrorism;
– disrupted energy supplies;
– declining ecosystems;
– health concerns;
– increasing natural disasters.

See what I mean when I talk about obvious?

From an INGO perspective, the first thing I take from these trends is that the need for “aid” will increase – no two ways about it.  Climate change, increases in the impact of natural disasters, shortages in food and water and other resources, demographic change and increasing social unrest/conflict are all interlinking trends which will result in increased suffering, particularly in the global South.  However, before those of us in the business of misery start popping out the champagne at the prospect of steady work for the foreseeable future – not only is the work required to respond to those demands becoming ever more complex, but the environment in which INGOs operate is becoming ever more difficult.  This is not only in terms of on-the-ground practicalities and access, but also in terms of plain organisational survival.

So, the future for Northern based INGOs is one of two models:

1. F**cking grow.  As much and as big as you can possibly become.  Big is beautiful.  Hell, big is the new black.  Size matters and anyone who says otherwise are just making excuses for lack of performance.  If you’ve had a history of separate but equal [ahem, yeah] independent affiliates/sections/members – screw that structure and CON-SO-LI-DATE YOUR ARSE.  Get them all under one roof – we’re talking building empires here.  But, you know, more politically correct if rather more dictatorial…

And the reason for that is that there are huge pressures towards growth in the sector.  Economies of scale are increasingly needed to cope with both funding pressures and a more complex environment to navigate.  Challenges are more holistic and interconnected/multi-sectoral in nature needing both greater expertise and over a broader breadth to just understand, let alone design interventions that would hope to have a positive effect.  Working environments are becoming more complex which require more resources to effectively operate.  The move towards greater accountability and regulation also require more resources to implement and review, and the resultant professionalization of the sector based on a more corporate model also favours larger organisations.

Larger organisations also argue that they have more weight with institutional donors in terms of advocacy and also less financial dependence on government agendas, therefore giving them more independence and autonomy to perform their role of global civil society advocates.  The truth of this is somewhat debatable in my opinion, but it is true that the squeeze on unrestricted income does exert huge pressures on INGOs becoming glorified cut-price service providers for government agencies.  And given the increasing politicisation of aid, this is not generally seen as A Good Thing.  And that’s only if they survive [see exhibit 1: Merlin’s takeover by Save]…

2. “So is that it?” I hear you all clamour, “Is that the really the future of the sector?  To join a huge bloated bureaucratic organisation where I will be just a cog in a wheel saving the world one ECHO report at a time?  And without all the dank perks and prestige of a cushy UN job.  Dammit, where’s that application to Goldman Sachs – it might not be too late….”

Well, I can’t really speak to your job prospects, but I do think that there is an alternative model: small, nimble, niche agencies that operate based on their contacts, expertise and flexibility – in some ways a consultancy model of operation.  These currently work either on a very micro level (usually for research purposes), or in collaboration with larger INGOs/local NGOs/directly with governments who can provide the infrastructure that they lack.  Another method of aid/development delivery is rather derogatorily named “DIY development”: INGOs with more of an entrepreneurial approach based on personal and individualised contacts made possible with the rise of new technologies and greater inter-connectivity.  Although the mainstream sector often sneer at these “garden shed” interventions and often for good reason, genuine innovation can still be possible and, more importantly, has the potential of being able to capture public imagination and small scale enough to benefit from that potential funding.

However, to me, the most promising global trend for the sector is the rise of Southern civil society fueled by growing social unrest/activism due to greater inequality along with greater available of in-country resources..  Even large INGOs tend to be so institutionally dependent on institutional donor funding to sustain them that it makes it very difficult for them to perform their role as global civil society advocates.  My experience is that they tend to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that politics doesn’t make a difference to poverty.  They are therefore moving away from being a part of the global debate over alternative agendas just when global trends are pushing the other direction.  This will inevitably fuel the questioning of the role and relevance of the current INGO model both taking into account their increasing alienation from civil society and their general assumption of “transfer” from North to South.  Although I don’t believe that demise of the generalist development INGOs is at all imminent, I believe that space is opening up for a new type of INGO built on more equal partnerships between North and South, and cooperation and alliances within a global civil society.

Note: this blog is based on an essay I wrote on the future of INGO sector for my Masters. If you want to read that essay, complete with references and with rather less profanity and bad taste jokes (academia apparently frowns on that unfortunately), then drop me a line.