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INGOs: Part of the Problem or the Solution?

By Dr. Tessie San Martin

Recently, CIVICUS put out a vigorous and impassioned call to transform international NGOs and to get back to local and volunteer action through an open letter and a subsequent blog by CIVICUS Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah. It was a carefully crafted and deliberate effort to shake the International Nongovernmental Organization industry out of its stuporous state. OK, we are awake and paying attention. Now what? Unfortunately, other than a general exhortation to abandon the old order, promote more inclusiveness and give a voice to the marginalized, the way forward is not clear.

Poverty reduction is an urgent issue, and it is scandalous that so many lives are lost daily to solvable problems. Making progress on poverty reduction is only possible when local knowledge is linked to information, resources and the political space to operate. In this context, International NGOs can be and have been an indispensable part of local solutions, helping to catalyze efforts, broker knowledge or accompany people to bear witness to their struggles, and creating the political space for action. New technologies and greatly expanded global connectivity can and has hugely enhanced the scope and pace at which INGOs can deliver on all these dimensions: access to knowledge, resources and expanded political space in which local groups can operate. 

But when INGOs make it their job to “fix” things for someone else, they are part of the problem. The pressure to demonstrate results and the competition for donor funds all too often creates impatience. And it all too often results in shortcuts to design and thoughtful mobilization and engagement of those we serve. Even worse, all too often donors and INGOs seeking out local organizations to support their efforts and get closer to the communities they “serve,” undermine the very comparative advantages that drew them to these organizations in the first place. 

All of which means what for INGOs? We don’t have the answers but offer four points as food for thought in this dialogue.

First, INGOs, many of which (including ours) focus a large amount of time and energy mobilizing external resources to support local development agenda, need to shift their focus. Increasingly, resources to finance local development agendas need to and can come from local sources. Total domestic sources of revenue grew in the 54 Sub-Saharan African countries from approximately $100 billion in 2000 to nearly $530 billion in 2012; these resources then contribute nearly 70 percent of all development finance available in Africa. The same is true in other regions. It is not money or ideas that is often lacking but governance. 

Voice and the civic space to exercise that voice matter a great deal. But we are not investing enough into understanding how it matters. As an organization that spends a lot of time and effort identifying, designing, refining and evaluating mechanisms for including voices of the marginalized, especially the voices of children and youth, in all our activities, we can tell you this is time consuming. We do it because we believe it is worth it in terms of outcomes, including sustainability. But most of what we know or believe to be true is based on conventional wisdom. We acknowledge a dearth of rigorous research on how transparency and accountability matter in terms of program outcomes; our organization is undertaking research to improve our knowledge of these important linkages. We encourage more research in this area. And as we further the research, it is worth keeping in mind some of the results from the 2012 World Bank Policy Research Report Localizing Development: Does Participation Work? In it, the authors examine more than 500 case studies and conclude that the greatest challenge to participatory approaches may not be responding to voices from below but how to activate these voices in the first place. In other words, participation and civic engagement may not be organic but something that is carefully cultivated based on social, political and cultural contexts. We would add that in this work, a clear-eyed view that failure is not just a possibility but central to ultimate success, and a firm commitment to feedback loops and constant learning, are critical. 

Third, while we must support voices for change, let us recognize that the agents of change exist in many places. Let’s get away from the “us vs. them” mentality that at times permeates the INGO space. There are agents for change everywhere, not just in the communities or in civil society. The art is in identifying and appropriately mobilizing each actor in the system, carefully calibrating their constructive participation for maximum effect.

Finally, while we share CIVICUS’ anxiety about how much remains to be done, this should not lead to overly pessimistic conclusions and nihilistic expectations about the state of the world. Let’s accept that incremental change, when you are trying to address “wicked problems” (and most of the issues we deal with as INGOs are in this category), can be powerful leaps forward. And let’s acknowledge that lasting, larger systemic change will only come from responsive and accountable governments; outsiders must not drive that change or they undermine the very purpose they are trying to achieve in terms of country ownership of development challenges.

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