INGOs and policy shaping

Civic Action20 Dec 2011Alexandru Balasescu

Discussing the future of INGOs is more relevant than ever at this moment, not least because over the global financial system looms a resilient question mark (the crisis), and because simultaneously we are undergoing a redefinition of the sovereignty of the nation-state. This puts a double strain on the availability of development funds; the future of INGOs is intimately correlated with the shifting structure of states, both donors and recipients of aid.

INGOs are usually active in countries that most would characterize as being ‘failed states and/or ‘renter states’. This is not surprising. Failed states are called failed because they do not control domains of life (or even territories), cannot or would not involve themselves in building the framework for the wellbeing of their citizens (starting with education and health), etc. These are interstitial spaces that INGOs, up to now, predominantly moved into to supplement the absence or the strategic retreat of the state.

The success of resource allocation and channeling may be different in conformity with the situation on the ground, the strategy deployed, and even with the time-frame of success evaluation (short-, medium- or long-term). Receptivity to aid and culturally dependent factors (to mention only these two) may play strongly in any development project, and the strategies of financing development must definitely be sensitive to them. At the same time, evaluation of development efforts may search for results too early. It sometimes takes one or two generations to really see change on the ground.

More important even is the fact that those efforts are highly dependent on a domain that INGOs structurally have no access to, but which they may seek to influence in the future: policymaking and implementation. Policies build the framework that can turn any development effort into a success or a failure. For example, more often than not it is a futile effort to build a school in a place that has no solid policies for the future development of the education sector. Sometimes money changes hands, a school is built, a festive opening takes place after which it all comes back to business as usual. And probably unusual times like ours may call for unusual business…

Add to this already historical situation, two facts:

  1. Development funding decreases, but the need for development stays the same.
  2. The ‘national logic of things’ reshapes itself, and there are no incentives for the states (especially those targeted) to ‘win back’ the domains they lost (or that they never had in the first place). However, for a while at least, states will keep the lion share of policy making.

It may be the case that INGOs, while becoming more flexible, will also become more interested in the possible influence they may have on policy shaping, through expertise and using their already accumulated knowledge. Helping and pressuring for the creation of frameworks allowing the economic and social actors in place to take a more effective action may pay off better in the medium and long-term. A framework that allows for example for alternative types of financing, micro-credits, etc. to arrive straight to those who could benefit, empowering them in the long-term instead of helping them in the short-term. This may reshape the very form of the states concerned, and certainly the form of current INGOs. As the old fable goes, better provide the tools and the knowledge to fish than the fish itself (brought from afar and dependent on haphazard availability).