Sam Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The changing role of civil society in global development was a major theme earlier this month at the annual forum hosted by InterAction, the association of U.S.-based humanitarian NGOs.

There was a lot of buzz around what InterAction President and CEO Sam Worthington calls the “changing ecosystem”: how nongovernmental organizations partner across sectors, including with youth and the private sector.

We spoke with Worthington about his take on the state of iNGOs and their shifting role in global development.

What’s your takeaway from speaking with the leaders of international development NGOs at the InterAction Forum 2013 earlier this month?

One of the interesting things was that 30 percent of the CEOs were new in their jobs. They came from all different sectors, meaning we have more private sector CEOs leading large nonprofits now. So the degree of partnering and knowledge of each other is increasing. There’s significant interest in groups such as Microsoft and Abbott Laboratories or FedEx in figuring out ways that they can align their business and work with the NGO community.

How quickly will these CEOs change iNGO culture?

I think these transitions will be slow and complicated. To some extent, it depends on the scale of the organization. Large organizations with scale and brand are already equipped with the types of partnerships, the diversified resources, the specialized knowledge and capacity to recover costs. The challenge is for organizations that have become dependent on any one funding stream; they have to explore new partnerships not just with each other, but learn how to work with and provide services for new actors.

What are the main concerns right now of NGO leaders in international development?

How do we become better catalysts in the role that we play, which is an issue of capacity building, among other things? How do we shape the post-2015 global development agenda? Overall, there’s sort of a recognition that our roles are changing and that we need new partners in this. And ultimately, if the U.S. government is providing less foreign assistance, then we need to ensure that these cuts aren’t disproportionate. But we also need to ensure that we start to further engage with the private sector and other actors to try and meet the missions of various organizations.

Jim Kim challenged civil society to reenvision its role in the global quest to eradicate extreme poverty. How did NGOs take that challenge?

I think they were thrilled about the idea of them being a catalyst and having leadership at the top of the World Bank that aligns with their interest. They fully understand that it takes civil society, the private sector, multilateral organizations and others to help governments to cope with these major changes. On the biggest change of all, climate change, he laid down a challenge that I believe NGO leaders embraced.

Does the future of iNGOs lie in capacity building and advocacy?

There’s a broad recognition of the advocacy role of large NGOs and that they need to act as catalysts and build local capacity. But to limit the role to those two areas would be too narrow. There will continue to be a need for direct service delivery in humanitarian settings. When it comes to aggregating efforts at scale, we often find that international NGOs play that role. There are broader partnerships with the private sector, foundations, universities and other actors.

I think one of the goals of the international NGOs is to be an entity that provides a nexus or network for other actors to work together. We’re seeing this increasingly with our members.

Is the way development-focused NGOs are organized and staffed changing?

I think the continued shift is to move away from the U.S. government, which has accelerated over the last 20 years. And that shift will continue. Resources will continue to come from many different places. And what it means for the international NGOs is that they’ll be further globalized. Instead of having 95 percent of your staff be local and a few expats, we’re increasingly seeing in international groups like what we’re seeing with World Vision Uganda, with its Ugandan staff, Ugandan executive director and a Ugandan board. All part of the World Vision family. We’re seeing iNGOs increasingly become local but at the same time remain linked to the power of a global brand and the resources that it brings.

How does that change InterAction’s priorities?

There was a real call during the forum to further increase our collective voice, in recognition that we can’t navigate these changes simply by having one organization or the other advocate, but that we need to develop common positions on the role of iNGOs, where we add value and where we need to change. And many of the CEOs look to InterAction to make that transition.

One of the issues InterAction has been honing in on lately is the NGO community’s role in hot spots such as Syria. Can you explain?

Syria is unfortunately a good example of the type of crises existing in the world that demand a political solution but the political solution isn’t happening. We as the NGO community are supporting hundreds of thousands of refugees but the space for us to operate and the resources available are constrained by the security environment. We see the limits of humanitarian work, and the temptation by nation states to use humanitarian intervention as part of their political agenda rather than resolving the circumstances. Here it’s critical that the U.S. engage appropriately and that voices on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that are calling the U.S. to disengage really think hard before we do so.

Is that a call for aid NGOs to go beyond aid and make a broader argument?

There’s a broad recognition that many of the larger aid NGOs have evolved. How do we engage the private sector in global development? How do we work with value chains? How do we engage governments so that the resources they spend on their own people are directed toward more vulnerable populations? There’s a real diversification of goals for some of our larger members. And at the same time a need for the U.S. government to remain engaged, and as we see that pull back, our members continue their globalization process, getting funding from other sources, creating partners.

I fear that in the long run, we become too disengaged from the U.S. government, which would be unfortunate and one of the reasons we’re pushing very hard for a maintaining as best we can of foreign assistance funding levels.

How big a role can NGOs play in influencing the post-2015 global development agenda that is currently being drafted?

Our members have a very clear interest in the outcome for a number of reasons. For one thing, by having some focused goals, nation states will do a better job. But also, by having collective goals, we can better align the billions in private resources that flow into this broader area. And lastly, because we’re very interested in the intersection of longer-term sustainable environmental goals and the development goals.

We know that we have a very significant engagement with the U.N., and in many ways, the U.N. has been asking us for advice and help in this regard, But the real challenge will come down to the debate among nation states and whether nation states are able to agree on some focused goals about an inclusive type of development that benefits broader populations and has some clear deliverables.

At this point in time, it’s not clear how that process among nation states will unfold, but I do know that we and civil society organizations around the world will be calling not necessarily the U.N. to task but the nation states to task: Are they able to create some post-2015 goals? There’s a lot of momentum around goals that will be poverty-focused focused, that will focus on inclusive economic growth, and that will have some targets that help us finish the Millennium Development Goals.

A year from now, around the next InterAction forum, what will we be talking about?

A year from now, we’ll be celebrating InterAction’s 30th anniversary. We’ll hope that there’ll be the beginning of clarity around the post-2015 global development agenda, that the dialog that we’re having with the private sector will further move, that the U.S. government will increasingly recognize that it needs to continue to engage and partner with our community. We are inherently optimistic, and we hope that in a year from now, we’re not still in the midst of a devastating war in Syria.

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