INGOs in a changed world order

Development Policy04 Jan 2012Peter Konijn

The future of international NGOs depends on what the post-western world will look like in ten years from now. The nature of the post-western world is likely to challenge the legitimacy, funding and effectiveness of INGOs generally and particularly of those from the West. Here I discuss a few of these challenges.

The new global distribution of poverty

An important feature of the post-western world is the changing global distribution of poverty. Contrary to what most people believe, nowadays nearly two thirds of the world’s poor (71%) live in middle-income countries (view article of Andy Sumner). To be more precise, most of the poor people live in India (38% of world poverty) and China (10% of world poverty), two of the world’s next big powers. The rapid economic growth in China and India have raised the average per capita income and lifted millions out of poverty, but still many people remain extremely poor.

How will INGOs respond to this shift in the global distribution of poverty from low to middle-income countries? Will INGOs continue to work on extreme poverty in India or other middle-income countries, in line with their core values: solidarity and compassion?

Or will INGOs take the lead from Paul Collier and focus on the bottom billion in poor, conflict-ridden and land-locked countries in Africa and Central Asia? Collier believes the poor in middle-income countries are on track to be prosperous, while poor countries are stuck at the bottom. Western donors follow Collier’s line of thought and concentrate their funding on poor countries, away from middle-income countries. If INGOs continue to work in middle-income countries they will have difficulty in attracting ODA funding from Western donors.

Funding that is still available for middle-income countries is likely to be motivated by economic and political interests, as the example of British aid to India illustrates. In February 2011 the UK government decided to end its aid to China but continue to give aid to India. The decision quickly came under fire. Why give aid to India, the 11th largest economy of the world with a billion dollar space program and its own foreign aid program? Commentators argue that the reason has less to do with a poverty focus than with the strategic interest of the UK government not to jeopardise its special relationship with the emerging power (The Guardian, 16.2.2011).

INGOs will also find it difficult to convince the general public of the need to work in middle-income countries. China and India are seen as major economic competitors and people fear that their jobs will move east. In this context aiding the poor in India is seen as aiding the competitor. Therefore fundraising from the general public has a small chance of success.

If INGOs keep working in middle-income countries, they need to address inequality and exclusion, which are at the core of a process of impoverishment. This involves challenging social norms, business practices, political structures and policies that exclude the poor from benefitting from economic growth. In his contribution to the discussion, Chiku Malunga argues that INGOs have been weak in influencing power shifts between the rulers and the ruled. I agree, although I find this weakness not surprising. INGOs do not have the means and capacities to influence the type of power shifts Malunga is referring to. Any pretension of INGOs to be a transformative agent capable of changing locally embedded power structures is false. They can play a modest role in supporting local civil society that seeks to transform exploitative structures of power. Fortunately civic agency in many middle-income countries is on the rise, partly as a result of the slowly emerging political ambitions of a growing middle class. Civic movements that demand accountability and anti-corruption measures are gaining force, as we saw last year in India and Brazil.

To sum up, the odds are against INGOs working on poverty in middle-income countries. There are fewer funding possibilities, declining popular support and a weak track record in influencing power shifts. However, a decision to stop working in middle-income countries seriously questions the morality of INGOs. Do the values of solidarity and compassion not equally apply to the poor in middle-income countries?

Collective action in a multi-polar world

The post-western world is a multi-polar world. There is no single power that can impose its view on the world order. Western leadership has ended. The question is whether the western world order, as we know it, will even persist under non-western leadership. Some argue that the rules and economic openness of the current world order are too compelling and mutually beneficial for the rising powers to undermine it. Others argue that the rising powers are game changers and will make use of any opportunity to reshape the global order in their image.

The key challenge in the multi-polar world is to establish effective governance mechanisms to manage global interdependencies. The key global problems are interconnected and interdependent: climate change, loss of biodiversity, food and financial crisis, poverty and scarcity of natural resources and energy. These problems can only be solved by global collective action. However, effective governance mechanisms to do so are lacking. This was clearly visible in the meagre outcomes of the international conferences in Durban (climate change) and Busan (aid effectiveness).

The role INGOs can play to bridge the gap between interdependence and the absence of a global democratic institutions to manage it, depends on their ability to adapt themselves to the reality of the multi-polar world. Most of the major INGOs originated in the West and are funded by governments or private donations in the West. The domination of Western INGOs limits the legitimacy of global civil society, which in turn limits its effectiveness in advocating for much needed collective action.

Strategies to adapt to the multi-polar world are now being developed by some INGOs. Oxfam India became the newest member of the Oxfam confederation in 2008. This demonstrates the ambition of Oxfam to adapt to the power shift and become a truly international confederation. However there is still a long way to go. Only three of the fifteen Oxfam members are based in a non-western country. Furthermore Oxfam India is, not surprisingly, almost completely focussed on fighting injustice and poverty in India.

Global civil society will most likely lose influence in the multi-polar world in the short term. Foreign policy makers in emerging powers view global civil society as a western invention or worse as an attempt to impose a western agenda. Although civil societies in India and Brazil are strong, they play no role at all in the foreign policies of these emerging powers.

Emerging powers share a preference for state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. They strongly reject what they see as interventionist foreign policies of the West and the US in particular. Many INGOs have advocated for and benefitted from interventionist policies. For example, they supported the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In a multi-polar world there will be less support for interventions by the international community as a reflection of the limited consensus. This limits the space for INGOs to mobilise the international community into action.

INGOs that are involved in international advocacy need to build new alliances with civil society in emerging powers. This is easier said than done. As mentioned before, civil societies in emerging powers have a very limited international orientation. Their constituency of local communities and middle-class supporters will prioritise domestic issues over international ones anytime in the near future. Their governments are very reluctant to open spaces for civil society to engage in foreign policy. In a meeting in New Delhi in 2009 a social activist from India told me that there is no public space to criticise harmful activities of Indian companies or government outside the country’s border. The government and the general public will view this type of criticism as a form of treason, an act against the Indian nation.

There are many more challenges to be discussed. However the two major issues – global distribution of poverty and collective action – clearly show the depth of the changes set in motion by the emergence of the multi-polar world. Using the terminology of Michael Edwards, INGOs that approach retirement age grew up and prospered in a western world order. This conditioned their thinking and ways of working to a large extend. Now as grown-ups they either need to fundamentally rethink their role and ways of working. Or enjoy their retirement.