What If We're Not Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs): The opportunities ahead for international development NGOs
International development NGOs (IDNGOs)* have both flourished and been objects of cogent critique over the past twenty years. The populations and budgets of IDNGOs continue to grow even as concerns about accountability, quality, and cost persist. Meanwhile, major inroads have been made on reducing poverty, driven not by official development assistance (ODA) but by market forces. This economic growth comes with widening inequality, civil strife, and “...escalating discrimination and persecution of members of vulnerable groups—often racial, religious or ethnic minorities, but also women, members of indigenous communities, children, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups that lack the political power in their societies to defend their own interests."
This conjuncture of contradictory trends puts IDNGOs in an odd position. On the one hand, our long-stated poverty mission is being stripped away. Developing country governments are putting stricter rules in place to control their activities, and Southern partners are more vocal about IDNGO inefficiencies and patronizing procedures.
On the other, a new generation of actors is on the rise–social entrepreneurs, philanthropreneurs, social venture capitalists– and taking aim at spaces long monopolized by IDNGOs.
This is a classic learning moment, a moment in which we can re-imagine the NGO sector. To do this, we must capitalize on four opportunities.
OPPORTUNITY 1: PUSH BACK AT NARROWING DEFINITIONS OF SUCCESS
If the 1980s can be categorized as “the NGO decade,” the 2000s may well come to be known as “the intervention epoch” of randomized controlled trials. Spurred by dismal results from four decades of post-independence development projects, provoked by the desire for efficiency and scale, and catalyzed by the Center for Global Development’s report Why Won’t We Ever Learn: Improving Lives Through Impact Evaluation, major international donors have turned to increasingly narrower technical interventions amenable to experimental designs, quantification, and attributable causal pathways. Their laudable goal is to uncover more efficient policy-relevant technical fixes that developing world governments can massively scale up. But these narrow fixes institutionalize blindness to the realities of power, supporting "…only those programmes claiming to deliver easily measurable results rather than to support transformative processes of positive and sustainable changes in people’s lives…many development practitioners cynically comply with the performance measurement demands, often with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic bureaucrat equally despairing of what is now required…The methods demanded of us to be more accountable are actually having the effect of our becoming ever less responsible for seriously enquiring of ourselves how we can most usefully contribute to transformative social change and be held accountable for our actions in that respect."
This new concern with proving narrow relationships between interventions and outcomes–misleadingly labeled impact by many–deploys certain forms of social science rigor to alleviate poverty’s symptoms.
IDNGOs need to both support this shift and push back at it. There is an important niche for approaches like randomized controlled trials, but IDNGOs should cede the narrow, technical, X causes Y world to others. We should push, more strongly, for a new social market–and additional resources–that
focuses not on symptoms but on root causes of inequality and injustice, on context, and on comparative cases of structural change. This entails strategizing, investing, and acting within longterm time frames. Such work calls for 10 to 15 year investments—or more— in specific sites, with refutable theories of change, and deep understanding of context. IDNGOs need to enlist social scientists, historians, and other unusual disciplines to measure such changes.
OPPORTUNITY 2: MULTILEVEL COALITIONS THAT BRIDGE WELL-KNOWN DIFFERENCES
Focusing on root causes of poverty and injustice means that IDNGOs need to build mission-driven, multilevel coalitions that act at community, national, and international levels simultaneously. Such strategies combine technical interventions that address symptoms in the short term with policy advocacy, constituency building, and opinion shaping over a decade or more.
But this requires IDNGOs to unlearn and relearn a few things. We have to unlearn the fixation on attribution—perpetuated by symptom-focused projects—because no single IDNGO can do this kind of work alone. We have to unlearn, also, ways of communicating achievements and obstacles to boards and other important stakeholders. And we have to learn that fostering social transformation requires a multiplicity of skills over time, a variety of financial resources, and more egalitarian relationships between international and local NGOs. Yet this is difficult:
"Coalitions are essential to civil society organizations seeking to influence events beyond the ordinary scope of small, economically limited, locally-based actors. But building trust and understanding across gaps of wealth, power and culture does not come easily to civil society leaders, who are more accustomed to influencing those who share their values, aspirations and expectations. Learning to build bridges across major social, political and economic differences is pivotal to gaining that influence."
The most central change is to ask not “what does my organization do and how do I prove it to my stakeholders?" but rather, “with whom do we need to join forces and resources and how, together, will we tell our impact story?” This approach flies in the face of 2000s’ accountability discourse–and emerging procedures from watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator–which focuses on the effectiveness of individual agencies.
OPPORTUNITY 3: STRUCTURALLY REINVENT DOWNWARD AND LATERAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Coalitions that stand the test of time and that achieve results beyond the grasp of any one member require trust. They require a safe space for critical discussions of performance. And they require honesty. Unfortunately, project and competitive bidding modalities instrumentalize collaborations between us, making the creation of such trust and honesty more difficult. IDNGOs need to take advantage of the current conjuncture—reduction in global poverty combined with radical increases in inequality and human rights abuses—to advocate for changes in the ways projects are developed and implemented, ways we have all known about for two decades but which always get marginalized. But more interestingly: we need to promote entirely new ways of measuring relationships between partners, and between partners and poor people.
One of the most promising of these is Keystone Accountability’s work on constituency voice. Borrowing from J.D. Power and Associates, Keystone adapts customer satisfaction methodologies from the private sector and deploys them among collaborating partners and eventually, we in Oxfam America hope, between partners and
the poor. The goal is to build an objective and comparative database against which organizations can benchmark themselves, and which equips partners and the poor with information about whom they are working with. The constituency voice approach deliberately takes the power to define success out of IDNGO hands, injects anonymity into mutual performance reviews; and treats trust, honesty, and coalition effectiveness as accomplishments over time, as learning processes. Making such methodologies a requirement—like generally accepted accounting principles—for all donor and IDNGO efforts would result in a structural transformation that no amount of good intentions will ever achieve.
OPPORTUNITY 4: ANSWER THE QUESTION, "WHAT IF WE AREN'T NGOS?"
NGOs tend to stay in a very small room of the international resource mansion, a room called ODA. In 2007, ODA totaled around $103 billion, while private capital flows to developing countries totaled around $325 billion and remittances $240 billion. These last two figures are likely underestimates. At best IDNGOs tend to compete for far less than 10 percent of all capital flows that affect poverty, inequality, and injustice in developing countries.
We need to think more deeply about the other 90 percent. Corporate social responsibility is a low-leverage approach. We need to think differently, and bigger. For example, more consistently influencing the basic rules of Wall Street might pay huge dividends. So too might helping multinational corporations understand how their supply chain and local policies can benefit poorer and more marginalized populations. Influencing governments to unrig rules, regulate capital flows that can severely impact the poorest, and be more transparent about private sector contracts and distribution of profits are all things that merit greater attention. And we need to probe for counter-intuitive hybrids: is there a cross between a hedge fund and a social justice organization, and if so, what is it? Where is the intersection between trading commodity futures and social justice? Can nonprofits help for-profits—themselves working under restrictive and terribly short-term metrics—find new ways to reach the poor that is good for growth, and good for equality, such as helping to test low-margin products like crop or weather index insurance for Sub-Saharan farmers? Working with international capital, and understanding capital markets, are not standard core competencies among IDNGOs. They probably need to become so.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect Oxfam America’s organizational policies or official perspectives. *IDNGO, while still a fuzzy category, specifies more closely the population of international NGOs that this article is interested in; that is, those that engage in development programs and projects in developing countries, either directly or through local partners.
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