It’s the future calling…

Development Policy02 Feb 2012Josine Stremmelaar, Berkhout Remko

What do you do when the phone rings? You pick up, or let people leave a message on your voicemail and check it soon after. The phone has been ringing for a long time now in the development sector.

What do you do when a caller starts conversing? You talk back – if only to say you’re going to hang up. We talk a lot in the sector.

What do you do when the caller starts shouting? You hang up, even if the other person has a valid reason to shout. In the development sector, we don’t like shouters. We often hang up.

What do you do when the phone doesn’t ring? You don’t exist – at least according to others. In short: you have become irrelevant.

The phone has been ringing for a long time now in the development sector. It’s been ringing particularly loudly in the corner of the NGO establishment: the large Western NGOs and their bigger Southern counterparts. Those that bothered to answer found the future on the other side of the line. Stunned, most forgot to heed Nishant Shah’s advice (see blog) to ask whose future was calling and why? Too busy, hardly anyone took the time to listen attentively. Too distracted, only a few picked up on the urgency and excitement that its voice betrayed.

Mike Edwards got a call too. He did listen and wrote an essay with the following message: while the future needs radical answers to a world thick with problems, solutions from the aid chain are getting thinner by the day. Acting as intermediaries between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’, NGOs ‘ have a meaningful role to play in the great transformations that the 21st century requires.

It can’t have sounded like an unfamiliar tune. The conception of NGOs as intermediaries in a global eco-system of transformative civic action is not new. Edwards has been cautioning against the ‘thinning’ nature of NGO solutions since the early 1990s.Yet since then, NGOs have not ventured far from what has grown to be their comfort zone: raising money in the rich world and spending it on projects in poorer countries while adding more ‘bells and whistles’ along the way. And the early implications of the confluence between declining donor support and the ‘results agenda’ is that these might be making things worse instead of better.

The protracted international financial crisis seems to be the most recent missed opportunity to make Edwards’ suggested ‘step change’ from ‘leverage’ to ‘transformation’. It’s not surprising then that Edwards’ optimism on what is possible is not widely shared, at least not on this blog. As Anthony Bebbington already wondered in Can NGOs Make a Difference? some doubt whether the patient still has a pulse. At the very least it seems too weak to pick up that phone and answer the future.

Meanwhile innovations seem to be coming from elsewhere: from social entrepreneurs and clicktivists. It comes from the groundswell of civic energy mobilized by a new global generation of digital natives that have brought about the Arab spring, the 15M movement and Occupy Wall Street. They don’t seem to be waiting for the future to call. They’re co-creating it on Facebook, twitter and on the squares of the big cities. NGOs are seemingly invisible in these dynamics. The NGO establishment might be the one thing worse than dead: irrelevant, at least in terms of its transformative potential.

Is that then, the end of the debate? Not quite. There is no shortage of generalizations about NGOs, and these are obscuring the many pockets of ‘thick’ progressive action in the NGO scene. From Oxfam’s work on the Robin Hood Tax, to Save the Children’s many achievements in the field of children’s rights. From the groundbreaking work of Just Associates for women’s movements to the courage and resolve of human rights groups fighting impunity in Central America. A new generation of Hivos programmes in East Africa connects ‘traditional’ civic actors with ICT-savvy entrepreneurs to drive citizen-led initiatives for accountable governance. If that’s the kind of innovative bridging that Edwards suggests, then it’s already happening and not only in Hivos’ neck of the woods. Yet, the good stuff doesn’t seem to have enough substance to counter the wave of NGO bashing that the sector is experiencing.

Of course, NGOs have neither helped themselves, nor their mission by hiding their most progressive work behind a terminology of charity to please the general public and by framing political work in technical terms to please donor policy. Moreover, aid fatigue and critical NGO analyses are now ‘punishing’ those Northern NGOs that have stayed backstage to allow their work and partners in the South to speak for themselves. For example, the WRR (the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy) report Less Pretension, More Ambition (p.220) introduces the innovative internet platform Ushahidi as a fresh alternative to the established NGO scene, but it forgets to mention that since its early days, Hivos has been a key investor. NGOs may have not turned out to be the magic bullets to ‘fix’ development, but there is plenty of evidence of a much more meaningful impact on the global civil society eco-system than its critics suggest.

Is that sufficient ground to keep soldiering on? We fully agree with René Grotenhuis (see his blog) that present practices and past achievements contain a lot to be proud of. But this not just anyone calling. Look at the number: 2-0-2-8! It’s the future, with important questions about the transformations required to overcome the ‘thick’ problems of our time. Global warming, inequality, the exploitation of natural resources, population growth and so forth. Coming together in what Franny Armstrong coined ‘the age of stupid’, these problems are having such a severe and urgent impact that drastic action is called for.

But what do we mean by ‘drastic’? Does it imply even bigger claims, more ambitious plans, grand schemes, more complex coalitions for change? Millennium transformation goals, with a starring role for NGOs? Here we’d like to take our cue from Ria Brouwers’ contribution to this debate (see her blog): The last thing NGOs need in these turbulent times is another shot of megalomania to swell their heads.

No, the real change from leverage to transformation is huge, yet much more subtle. It concerns developing a more qualitative understanding of how change works. It’s about treading much more lightly, but with a much sharper eye for emerging ideas, inspiring relationships and interesting questions. This includes Brouwers’ call for realism and rigorous practice, but perhaps in a slightly different way: the trust that a small impact can go a long way. Or as Michael Edwards phrases it: moving the ‘“thinnest” of innovations in the direction of deeper impact through a continuous stream of small changes that head in the same direction – “baby steps” if you will, along the road to transformation.’ Many an NGO has these skills on offer, but mostly they’re being crushed by institutional pressures, lost in quantiphilia and neglected in training programmes.

So what baby steps does Edwards offer as an alternative? There are some valuable suggestions that we’d like to draw your attention to:

We support Edwards’ call to the strengthen value bases as a key ingredient for a more transformative role. The term ‘Pragmatic visionaries’ sounds nice but demands rigorous discipline. The balancing act between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ demands rigorous and continuous reflection about what to embrace and what to let go, the latter being particularly difficult.

And yes, we’re biased, but we’d also like to point out the potential of knowledge-related interventions that may strengthen evidence, foster new conversations and inspire critical questioning and reflection. New conversations with the public beyond charity constitute another challenge that needs to be urgently pursued.

Edwards also focuses on the importance of the capacities needed for the real change we are talking about. Rethinking the ‘development worker’ might be the first step. Over the years, Jennifer Lentfer’s game changers (see her blog) have become overburdened by polishing the exterior of the development machine instead of building a different or better engine. The global debate on life in times of scarcity, or well-being in times of economic recession, is not irrelevant for the internal dynamics of the bigger NGOs. Scale is important but there’s a price to pay. Shake off the unnecessary weight of contracts and mega budgets, loosen up your structures, connect to spaces where the energy is flowing.

The final prophecy on the role of NGOs in a globalizing world is an illusion. What we make of the future is up to us. Yes, the force field in which we operate is complicated, with many temptations and obstacles on Edwards’ road to transformation. We could complain about the aid chain until we really are irrelevant. Or we could focus on all the positive forces around us. All over the world, citizens are demanding change, thriving on the very dreams that touch the essence of what many NGOs are about in the first place. There are progressive connections to be made between the North and South, and between the state, private sector and civil society. We can’t afford doomsday scenarios or self-fulfilling prophecies. The future, in the words of this U2 song, needs a big kiss: a dose of optimism and creativity coupled with a can-do attitude to make things happen.

Do you here a phone ringing?