How to keep INGOs relevant in a changing world

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, speaks to attendees of the People’s Climate March alongside the U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Lima, Peru. How can Oxfam and other U.K. international NGOs keep relevant in a changing world? Photo by: Christian Clément / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

In a fast-changing world, international nongovernmental organizations in the United Kingdom realize that their role has moved on from acting as the northern arm of global international development, sharing ideas and expertise with the “global south.”

That is according to Bond, the U.K. network that brings together more than 400 NGOs and which has embarked on a process called “Tomorrow’s World to help U.K. INGOs rethink their future role.

Devex spoke to Bond and to a number of NGOs involved in the initiative to learn more about their initial conclusions. These, it is hoped, could provide some pointers for other “northern” INGOs.

The process aims to provide U.K. NGOs with “tools and insight to help them navigate an uncertain future,” Tom Guiney of Bond’s Futures Project said. “It is also part of our ongoing relationship with the U.K. Department for International Development, which is interested in where the sector might be going.”

It is no coincidence that the project got underway in 2015, a seminal year for international development, with the U.N. post-2015 agenda discussions drawing to a close in September and the Paris COP21 climate meeting in December.

“The post-2015 agenda is intended as a global agenda for change in a number of areas, and reflects changing trends that will have a bearing on the role of U.K. NGOs,” said Sarah Mistry, director of effectiveness and learning at Bond.

7 megatrends to shape the #globaldev landscape

Bond’s discussion paper identifies seven “megatrends” that are reshaping the international development landscape: geopolitical shifts — from West to East, and North to South, coupled with the rise of middle-income countries; climate change and planetary boundaries — putting the planet’s system under enormous pressure; technological innovation, with the world, particularly young people, becoming “hyperconnected”; demographic changes, including population shifts; urbanization; natural resource scarcity; and growing inequality within countries.

These trends are creating a different operating context for civil society organizations in both the global north and south. Indeed, Mistry believes the political and economic shifts are creating a “New World Order,” while for Guiney, climate change and exceeding our planetary boundaries mean that natural and man-made crises in developing countries will become more complicated with a “long tail” of effects, requiring longer-term support.

Both Mistry and Guiney, however, are optimistic about technological innovation, helping local voices to emerge more strongly. This has also fostered “disintermediation” — the process of eliminating northern NGOs as “middlemen” to whom southern organizations have to apply for funds.

One example comes from organizations like Global Giving, which offers individuals the possibility of donating relatively small amounts to good causes. Its website asks for $360 to buy four new sewing machines for a girls’ sewing workshop in Afghanistan, for example.

Technological global interconnectedness and social media mean that southern CSOs no longer have to rely exclusively on northern donors to advocate on their behalf. It also trumps the belief that the south has all the questions and the north all the answers.

Another interesting trend is the emergence of more diverse actors in the development scene. City leaders and local government in developing countries are now more prominent, as is business — whether traditional corporates or social enterprises, or one with both profit motive and social purpose.

And Mistry is optimistic about the emergence of enlightened businesses that understand how treating employees properly brings reputational benefits as well as productivity gains, pointing out how this trend has been embraced by multinationals such as Unilever and Coca-Cola.

Guiney also talks enthusiastically about the “fusion and blending” of different types of organizations, breaking the boundaries between governments, corporates, small businesses and civil society.

Emerging economies: From aid recipients to donors

The changing political landscape and the growing strength of the emerging economies — particularly BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) — has undoubtedly altered the development landscape.

This has two implications: First, development support will likely focus on fewer countries in future — whether on fragile states or the least developed countries, or on pockets of poverty in middle-income countries, such as Brazil or India. Secondly, emerging economies will transition from aid recipients to aid donors, altering the concept of development aid altogether.

The Overseas Development Institute suggests that by 2025 emerging countries will be as important as OECD countries in development cooperation, with “foreign trade and investment interests being powerful … determinants of development cooperation for most countries,” blending aid and development tools.

This changed perspective has also affected northern INGOs, Bond noted, citing the examples of some of the big players such as ActionAid moving out of the U.K. to South Africa, and organizations with roots in the global north “morphing” into organizations based in the global south, including EveryChild — a U.K.-based development charity that has created a new global alliance, called Family for Every Child, and that is in the process of transferring the organization’s assets and resources to the new alliance.

UK INGOs need to ‘seize the nettle’

Tomorrow’s World outlines a number of practical roles for U.K. INGOs to play if they want to remain relevant. These fall into two categories: First, in developing countries, and secondly, in the U.K.

Under the first category, the four external roles are addressing humanitarian crises wherever they arise; providing technical expertise and capacity building, peace building and working in fragile states where local society is compromised, and championing the socially excluded — particularly women and minority groups.

Under the second category, the two internal roles are raising awareness in the U.K. and European Union, and being transnational advocates toward U.K. decision-makers.

In terms of addressing humanitarian crises, this must involve working with agencies in the global south. As an NGO working with young people, Restless Development CEO Nik Hartley feels his organization’s strength lies in becoming part of a hub of agencies “helping to unlock the potential of civil society and citizens beyond our own organizations, rather than focusing on how U.K. NGOs can retain a competitive advantage.”

Barnaby Peacocke, global development director at INGO Practical Action agrees.

“Everything is so mobile in terms of funding and developing strategies about merging with other actors in the development field,” he said.

Referring to INGOs’ abilities to provide technical know-how, Mistry highlights their “distilled expertise honed over many years,” including specialist skills, such as engineering or working with local people to deal with the long-term consequences of a disease.

This mirrors Restless Development’s view.

“The standout success of our young Ebola Community Mobilizers in Sierra Leone shows that unlocking community strengths — with funding from U.K. aid and the technical expertise of the Community-Led Ebola Action model — will be the 21st century way of doing both humanitarian and development work,” Hartley said.

Transferring technical expertise, particularly in the business field, is also a role that Practical Action sees itself playing in the future. According to Peacocke, “we increasingly see our role as facilitators, backing this up with technical expertise,” giving the example of a project in Sudan where the INGO supports the private sector to develop markets for liquid petroleum gas stoves to address indoor air pollution and deforestation.

In terms of championing the socially excluded, Mistry believes INGOs can offer support on their behalf — as Amnesty International has done for many years — as well as equipping people and institutions with skills and knowledge to know their rights. Linking this to the growth of ICTs means that local groups will be able to raise awareness internationally about their circumstances.

UK INGOs a ‘bridge’ to the developing world

Bond believes that, given DfID’s position at the forefront of bilateral donors, U.K. INGOs are a bridge between the U.K. audience and donors, and those communities that need support.

And flexibility must be the key for continuing NGO work, working with the governments, private sector, social enterprises, people on the ground and the informal economy.

“The lifeblood for U.K. NGOs will come from local expertise backed up by a U.K. audience. Adding this to a developing technology puts local people at the heart of international development,” Guiney summed up.

How else could international NGOs remain relevant amid the rise of emerging donors and the impact of these seven megatrends? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Daphne Davies

    Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.