Five things international NGOs are blamed for

by Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general, CIVICUS
Monday, 13 June 2016 13:17 GMT

A man carries food aid he received from a local charity in Sanaa, Yemen, June 5, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

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Are INGOs guilty of hogging resources, poaching local staff and being brand-obsessed?

I hear lots of talk – sometimes in public and often in private – about the role of big NGOs in development. For many, international NGOs (INGOs) have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. I thought it might be useful to look at the top five accusations I hear levelled against INGOs.

1.     Hogging resources. The dominant funding models of the last thirty years have favoured larger, professionalised NGOs, most of them founded and based in the Global North. This has led to scaling of NGOs at unprecedented levels; multi-billion dollar organisations, with a presence across the globe and with the ability to deliver at scale. As a result, if you take the US$4 billion international humanitarian assistance in 2014 for example, more than a third went to the 10 largest NGOs and only 0.2% went directly to local and national NGOs. This model has served to magnify and entrench capacity imbalances. Trapped in a vicious cycle of under-investment, many Southern and smaller organisations cannot pitch for the big money. Working through a chain of ‘fundermediaries’ – with money being passed from the big players to the small – reassures donors, nervous about accountability and impact, but it also creates a top layer of resource-gatekeepers, concentrating capacity at the top and undermining the potential for meaningful partnerships.

2.     Paying lip service to local partnerships. While many INGOs have partnership guides and codes of conduct, very few seem seriously committed to involving local people in the design and delivery of their programmes. Funds might trickle down, but power does not. A large part of this problem comes back to the concentration and control of resources in the hands of Northern agencies. Called ‘partners’, local organisations are more often treated as subcontractors. Prejudice and mutual suspicion undermines the relationship. The big players suspect local organisations lack the necessary skills and experience to deliver; they assume their governance is weak, leaving them vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. Conversely, domestic NGOs distrust the empty rhetoric of the big players who they see as clinging to power out of pure self-interest. The unequal playing field we have created is thwarting our best-intentioned attempts at teamwork.

3.     Poaching staff.  Often able to offer better pay and conditions than their local partners, INGOs can usually attract the best and brightest staff. While this in itself is not always a problem, sucking capacity out of local institutions can undermine their long-term development. It can also matter in acute situations. One of the most extreme examples I have heard of is a Filipino relief organisation that lost all 9 of its trained senior humanitarian staff to INGOs and UN agencies, who offered three to four times the salary, within a year of Typhoon Haiyan.

4.     Being brand-obsessed. There is no doubt that scaling up into global alliances has given INGOs a higher profile, a louder voice and better fundraising potential; all of which most INGOs have often used to good effect. But the push towards private sector style brand agglomeration isn’t only changing the look of the development sector; it’s narrowing our parameters and ambition too. Wary of upsetting donors, and beholden to the income generated by their profile, global NGOs have become risk averse, unwilling to take politically controversial lines that might damage their brand. When joint campaigns might entail sharing logo space, these large organisations are turning down opportunities for meaningful collaboration, prioritising membership and donations over delivery. Or so the argument goes.

5.     Failing to do themselves out of a job. The corporatisation of large NGOs has stitched them firmly into the political economies in which they operate. It has steered them away from radical confrontation with the system to a kind of sanitised activism, palatable to big business and capitalist states. In accordance with the demands of donors, INGOs seek to respond to huge, complex problems with discrete projects and deliverable outcomes. Rather than seeking social transformation, they trade in incremental change, prioritising stability over charitable mission. These days, ‘doing themselves out of business’ seems hardly to feature in the strategic plans of large NGOs.

So, are INGOs guilty as charged? Yes, but they are not always to blame and there are some positive signs of change.

For example, on funding, until donors are willing to support core funding and to invest directly in building the capacity of a larger number of diverse organisations, the balance of power and resources will remain skewed. I wouldn’t blame a fundraising officer for chasing the money; rather we need to convince donors of the importance of diversity in civil society. We need new aid modalities that explicitly support a more diverse, experimental, iterative development sector, one that truly reflects and has deep roots in the communities that it seeks to serve.

I do see some glimmers of hope. On poaching, it is great to see that the organisations that have signed the Charter for Change have committed themselves to providing voluntary compensation to local organisations which lose staff after a humanitarian emergency.

On branding, it was gratifying to see so many organisations came together under the www.action2015.org banner, usually abandoning their own logos. For example, it was fantastic to see Save the Children working hard to secure the campaign’s biggest ambassadors – the boy-band One Direction – and then offering them to the campaign, without any of their branding. And I sense the same post-brand awareness among many in the new #FightInequality alliance that is being created.

There is no doubt that many INGOs boast a remarkable record in global activism and social change, something which they can and should be proud of. But it is also becoming increasingly clear that their organisational model needs to undergo radical transformation to keep pace with changing needs, new technologies, and a shifting global landscape. We need a new ‘lingo’ – a more constructive conversation between ‘local and international NGOs’ – so that we can resolve some of these tensions that beset civil society.

Danny Sriskandarajah is secretary general of CIVICUS