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Bones by Regenboog

De-ossification strategy

Paul Currion | 11 December 2011

Ossification (noun): the natural process of bone formation: the hardening (as of muscular tissue) into a bony substance; a mass or particle of ossified tissue; a tendency toward or state of being molded into a rigid, conventional, sterile, or unimaginative condition.

Ossification (noun): the natural process of bone formation: the hardening (as of muscular tissue) into a bony substance; a mass or particle of ossified tissue; a tendency toward or state of being molded into a rigid, conventional, sterile, or unimaginative condition.

Remko Berkhout has pointed out that there is an increasing amount of research that tries to envision the future for the NGO sector, to which I would add work by the Humanitarian Futures programme and the Feinstein Center. Publications such as these, providing a useful focus on the rapidly changing external environment, are necessary but not sufficient for the changes that need to take place if the underlying spirit of the NGO community is to survive.

Paul Polak has described institutions as “radical ideas cast in concrete, and INGOs are no exception. The concept of the INGO is around 60 years old, more than enough time for their initially lean muscles to harden into rigid institutional bones. That isn't to say that INGOs have lost the capacity to change, sometimes in radical ways, and to raise issues that would otherwise go without discussion; but we all have the unsettling feeling that INGOs have not delivered on the promises they made to their publics.

A child of their time, INGOs clearly filled a niche in the international system, particularly as a counter to a post-war foreign policy based on military-industrial interests. Yet INGOs were based on assumptions shared by that same establishment, and took on forms that were familiar with that establishment. The fundamental problem for INGOs – as for governments and corporations – is that the world is changing in ways which are increasingly difficult to manage for these old forms.

The worst case scenario for INGOs is that they find themselves filling in where government has failed, providing alternatives that are not alternatives at all but simply poor substitutes for the old system; or find themselves filling gaps where corporations have proved unable or unwilling to extend their reach, creating pseudo-markets which are largely unsustainable. Where these scenarios come to pass, INGOs will twist themselves into new shapes not in order to challenge the systems that lead to these governance and market failures, but to prop them up instead.

Why is it important for INGOs to survive? The short answer is: it isn't important. NGOs are simply vehicles for realising a range of social and economic outcomes that cannot be realised through other means. The form of the INGO is not important: it's the function that's important, and those functions can potentially be delivered through different forms. A focus on whether the form of the INGO will survive runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dismissing the still-important functions in the same breath as the obsolete form.

Mike Edwards writes of INGOs reaching middle age and offers three possible futures: retirement, rejuvenation or replacement. There is a fourth possibility: radical transformation in response to the rapidly changing external environment, transformation which can contain all three of Edwards' proposed pathways and more besides. Complexity theory gives us some of the tools we need to face that future, but to make use of those tools we need to acknowledge not just that the world has changed, but to reflect that change, rather than attempt to manage it.

We cannot pretend to be agents of change if we are not prepared to change ourselves. The future needs flexibility, not stability; the future lies in collaboration, not competition; the future belongs to the network, not the corporation.

Photo credit main picture: Bones by Regenboog

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Paul Currion

Paul Currion specializes in information management for humanitarian operations (www.humanitarian....

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