The survival instinct: How international NGOs can adapt for the future

Published on 3 March 2016

IDS’ Digital Cluster Leader Ben Ramalingam shares his thoughts on INGOS in a complex and uncertain future from this week’s BOND Annual Conference 2016.

The science fiction author William Gibson wrote back in the 1980s that the future is here already, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

This is something that international NGOs (INGOs), with one foot in developed Western countries and multiple toeholds across the developing world, were probably already well aware of. Although they might qualify it slightly: the future is here already, but the benefits are not evenly distributed.

We can see the principle at play around the world today in visceral and emotive ways. People in some parts of the world are using algorithm controlled drones overhead to walk their dogs. People in another parts live in mortal fear of what algorithm controlled drones overhead might mean for their families, their homes, their livelihoods and their futures. We can see it at play in NGOs too, where we are seeing some genuinely novel and imaginative approaches to campaigning, advocacy and delivery. But these are struggling for space and legitimacy alongside approaches that would not – for all their digital wrapping and marketing spin – look out of place in the aid world of twenty, thirty or even fifty years ago. It may well be that the INGO future is also here already, but it too is not distributed evenly.

There are three shifts that I think are necessary if INGOs are to get serious about operating in a more uncertain and dynamic future, and a priority idea to focus on within each shift.

The first and most obvious issue is around money, in terms of access and distribution

NGOs have participated in something of a Faustian bargains when it comes to financing, both with donor governments and with individuals. With government donors, the implicit message has been: ‘we will work in the way you want us to, where you want us to, and doing the things you want us to, if you promise to support us and help us grow in predictable ways’. With individuals in has been, ‘we want be your middle men for compassion, fulfilling moral obligations and alleviating any sense of guilt about your relative good fortune’.

Both of these relatively cosy sets of relationships are currently being disrupted. Institutional donors are looking for, and finding, alternative partners – driven by a quest for efficiency, for novelty, for results, and sometimes for ideological reinforcements. The new UK aid strategy, co-authored by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, sets out the new direction for aid work very clearly. So too will the Civil Society review currently being finalised by DFID. New and emerging donors like Korea, Turkey Brazil are not proving soft targets, with more visible effort going to building up the domestic INGO capabilities in those countries.

Nor are NGOs able to rely on individuals in the same way they did before. New tech savvy generation of aid givers are taking development into their own hands, finding their own more direct ways to demonstrate their compassion – from peer-to-peer financing such as Global Giving to more direct forms of financial transfer. The age of the reliable monthly aid payments may well be coming to an end. People are also using technology to circumnavigate INGOs operationally, by getting involved in direct action. We have seen this prominently in the refugee crisis in Europe and in the countries neighbouring Syria. The importance of effort is illustrated by the Nobel prize nomination for Greek islander communities on the frontline of the migration path into Europe.

We need to think in radically new ways about how NGOs are funded, and by whom, and for what. Those who survive the future are going to be the ones who find novel and imaginative ways of combining new kinds of grant income with philanthropic money, social impact investments and new configurations of partnerships with public and private sector.

An immediate priority here is more in-depth strategic and operational and financial collaboration between NGOs: we’re going to have to get much more serious about inter-organisational efforts. We tend to talk the talk, but maintain the distance, apart from in pockets here and there. Where are the INGO and NGO equivalents of joint ventures?. Partnerships based on better more equitable resource sharing between big INGOs and between Northern and Southern NGOs may well be the answer to calls for greater nationalization, for greater reach and contextual relevance, and for greater efficiency and value for money.

We need stronger, sounder approaches to innovation and adaptation

 Secondly we need approaches to innivation and adaptation that are more grounded in development and humanitarian contexts. There are corporate examples and ideas aplenty. Google engineers spending 20% of their creative projects. 3M setting down targets that 30% of profits should be from products that didn’t exist 3 years ago.

But these ideas are not easily cut and pasted into a non-profit development environment. The question goes begging: in a sector characterised by strong and enduring competition, why has no truly innovative INGO emerged?

Despite the growing attention to innovation, this is a revolution that risks being side-lined into marketing or communications rather than being embedded into core programme and advocacy work.

From my research on innovation (see here, here and here) the really notable innovations are those which rethink and transform relationships with poor communities (or ‘end-users’ as they seem to be increasingly described). Think cash, community-based feeding therapy, or Community-Led Total Sanitation. If innovation is going to get serious the immediate priority for INGOs should be to get much better at dealing with creative and entrepreneurial people from amongst their ranks. Potential disruptors should not be squeezed out of organisations but placed in positions where they are licensed to explore and push boundaries. They need to be able to work closely with leaders who will harness their vision and ideas and have the humility to handle the implications for their own status and power.

The third area is about culture and what Mary Douglas called the ‘thought world’ of our organisations

I think we need anticipation and foresight that focuses on the things that really matters for development and humanitarian objectives. In one of my previous roles, I set up and ran one of the first programmes on foresight in international organisations – the Humanitarian Futures Programme. We found that organisations were most interested to look into the future when it impacted on their budget. Back in 2005, the head of a global NGO network asked after one of our presentations, ‘but what does climate change have to do with our humanitarian work?’ Although it seems risible now, this form of resistance to rethinking INGO purpose and mind-set is still prevalent today.

When the financial crisis hit a few years later, we were inundated with requests to help think about the implications for budgets and fundraising work. And this is revealing: INGOS were more focused on the future of their growth and internal aspects of change, than in the future of poverty and vulnerability, or changes in the wider world. Consider climate change, the youth bulge, mass unemployment, middle class rise in Africa, the migration crisis, the emergence of mobile technologies. These are all things where INGOs have been playing catch up at worst, or at best are running to stand still.

So INGOs do need to be strengthen their anticipatory skills and capacities – but this effort needs to focus on how shocks, stresses and trends may impact on the communities they seek to serve. Put simply: if INGOs are going to survive and thrive in the future, it should be because they are firmly focused on the futures of poor and vulnerable communities, and how best to support them to survive and thrive. Otherwise, INGOs will risk seeing only those futures that coincide with their own wishes and interests, and neglect both the obligations and opportunities that come with a world in perpetual flux.


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