So Many Questions, by Orin Zebest

How are the game changers spending their time?

Jennifer Lentfer | 10 January 2012

Can INGOs harness the energy currently focused on demonstrating “results” to instead focus on the priorities of those their mission ultimately serves? Jennifer Lentfer of argues that it’s time for aid workers to focus their roles on service and advocacy, rather than bureaucratic technicalities.

“Tell the truth,” I asked my friend at headquarters. “How much of every day do you spend talking about beneficiaries?”

“Who?” she joked, the essential problem revealed.

Last month I re-entered an international non-governmental organization (INGO) after five years of working with small foundations and local groups.

It is conversations such as these that remind me of why I left.

I am once again surrounded by smart, driven, committed people. But unfortunately they are largely a group of people who are also exhausted, overwhelmed, and discouraged by fighting while propagating the very organizations in which they serve. From my still outsider’s perspective, it’s as if the system closes in and the perpetuation of the institution itself slowly, silently becomes what consumes people. Or must protecting the interests of agencies always come first, given that they ultimately rely on fundraising from donors and the public at large?

The Community Development Resource Association in South Africa describes the “particularly undevelopmental global development industry” as characterized

  • the need to urgently disburse money;
  • a tendency to focus on product rather than process;
  • higher respect for suits and ties than rages and bones;
  • a proactive rather than responsive orientation;
  • centralized and hierarchical decision-making; and
  • bureaucratic and instrumental rigidities, practiced largely (if unconsciously)
    for the benefit of those who intervene.

Many talented people within INGOs spend most of their time dealing with the constraints of donor-controlled, project-based funding, which ties their hands and shuts down the possible processes that could genuinely result in local ownership and empowerment. In truth, the corporate culture and heavy accountability systems that take up most of staff’s time and that marginalize and de-motivate people, especially local NGO leaders and activists, ultimately do not lead to any real assurance of long-term results.

Instead, we need these talented people to focus their roles on service and advocacy, rather than abstractions and bureaucratic technicalities. We need to enable and encourage these same talented people to expand their attentiveness to how to change the rules and regulations by which their work is governed.

As Dov Seidman, author of "HOW: Why HOW we do anything means everything", and Bo Burlingham, author of "Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead Of Big", encourage those in business to do, I want to see aid agencies put behavior and relationships first. To do so, INGOs must abandon the expertise infusion model of programming and require power asymmetries to be a larger part of their staff’s consciousness, and most importantly their performance assessment.

Getting partnerships right has plagued international NGOs since their creation, yet in my experience the processes of decision-making and power dynamics within these relationships are often the make-or-break factor in the success of development projects. Hakima Abbas in Pambazuka News last year questioned the role of outside entities in the developmental process, describing an "...ever-expanding NGO industrial complex separates and depoliticises service and advocacy while failing to question its own role in weakening African institutions, power and self-determination." Rather than building the capacity of local implementing partners, INGOs and donors should first focus on building their own skills to accompany and support local institutions, rather than overpower or co-opt them.

As we look into the future of aid, can INGOs harness the energy currently focused on controlling finances and demonstrating results based on donors’ needs, and use it instead to concentrate on the priorities of those their mission ultimately serves? The good news is that international non-governmental organizations do not operate from a profit motive. They can change the game until the game doesn’t look the same.

Until then, I’ll be supporting and encouraging the seasoned and dedicated humanitarian and development practitioners within INGOs to openly, bravely, and constructively question business as usual in our sector.

Photo credit main picture: So Many Questions, by Orin Zebest

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Jennifer Lentfer

Jennifer Lentfer is the founder of

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