Let’s not look for the Holy Grail

Development Policy13 Jan 2012René Grotenhuis

Yes, the crisis affecting international NGOs working on development is real. Having had a clear role and function for 50 years, the midlife crisis, as Michael Edwards describes it, has arrived. Before moving to a new future, let’s be proud of what has been achieved. Where would development have been without the innovative contribution of NGOs in gender, microfinance, HIV/Aids and ecological farming? And NGOs have undeniably played an important part in the struggle against South American dictatorships, apartheid in South Africa and the Darfur crisis. In looking to the future, we should build on a history that proves our relevance.

I don’t see international NGOs becoming redundant in the future either. In a globalizing world, where citizens are becoming more and more interconnected every day, global civil networks will become increasingly important. With global public goods becoming one of the main topics of the future, I can’t see international NGOs becoming irrelevant. With inequality an ubiquitous and major threat for social stability, civil society organizations fighting poverty and marginalization are key players in solving this social dilemma in the future.

The crisis facing international NGOs working in development cooperation is caused by the end of a general, all-encompassing paradigm of poverty. As I said earlier,1 a satisfying overall narrative for fighting poverty does not exist, and therefore nor is there one for development NGOs either. Emerging economies like India and Brazil, who were struggling to avoid the starvation of millions of their people just three decades ago, are emblematic, but new elites and rising middle classes in all developing countries are challenging the concept of what a ‘poor country’ is. And issues like climate change, energy supply, natural resources and migration are changing the narrative of poverty and development.

We have to abandon the idea that there can be one umbrella concept that covers our work. Peter Konijn rightly refers in his blog contribution to Andy Sumner’s article, ‘The new bottom billion’, which ascertained that two-thirds of the poor are living in middle income countries. And it is clear that addressing poverty in India is completely different than addressing it in post-conflict South Sudan, violence-ridden Honduras or Bangladesh.

Development NGOs can no longer pretend to fight ‘poverty’ in a generic way, as if the same intervention strategy is applicable in today’s different poverty realities. They need to be targeted strategies that make choices and sharpen their focus and the knowledge base of their interventions. Although development NGOs are looking for a new answer in a time of identity crisis, they will discover that there is not a single new answer but several. There is no holy grail that will buttress NGOs’ future development work.

The consequence is a diversity of narratives in line with the diversity of contexts in which international NGOs operate. There are different stories to tell about the work each of us is doing, and each of us will develop intervention strategies that dovetail with the different realities we are working in.

For development NGOs, there will be three key features:

  • It’s about ‘social profit’: NGOs want to contribute to a more just and more sustainable world; they want to build ‘flourishing communities’, where inclusion is the key value.
  • It’s about people: civil society organizations first and foremost care about people. NGOs want to build a better future for people who are suffering from poverty. People are the basis of our license to operate; they legitimize us.
  • It’s about change: development organizations are organizations that want to bring about change and create a better future and contribute to flourishing communities.

I fully agree with Michael Edwards’ central proposition in his paper ‘Thick problems and thin solutions’. The challenge for international NGOs is to make meaningful and relevant contributions to the ‘thick’ problems. They are extremely complex, and as a result we shouldn’t pretend that we have a final answer. There is no blueprint that addresses today’s many complex global challenges. The changes our world is looking for will be built up piece by piece, and they will prove to be relevant and sustainable. NGOs are a key factor in finding the right bits and pieces. Today, we are too often disappointed by the fact that our contributions are not the panacea we are looking for. Such a panacea simply does not exist.

In that respect, the work of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their poverty lab is a significant and timely contribution to our debate on the future of development NGOs. Not only is their methodological contribution to development research important, but it is what their research reveals about change and the way all social, economic and political systems are offering opportunities for change that is most significant. The challenge, in the words of Michael Edwards, is whether we can thicken the thin solutions: how can we broaden the space for these thin solutions to become larger, more impactful. So let’s abandon the quest of finding a final answer.

From that same perspective of a modest, context-driven contribution to change, I refer the reader to the work of the David Booth and ODI’s Politics and Governance Programme. ‘Going with the grain’ and ‘Turning governance upside down’ are papers that offer new ideas on how to influence societies and bring about change. It challenges our Northern/Western concepts of how to organize societies, and it challenges an exclusively political orientation of change processes.

Both the studies by Banerjee and Duflo and Booth are making obsolete the debate about whether to build our intervention strategy on service delivery or on political change. They urge us to be precise and to be knowledge- and research-driven in order to know what works.

These kinds of generalizations reflect an ongoing search for a holy grail. There is no holy grail for the future of development cooperation, nor do we need a holy grail to remain meaningful in the future, as we have been in the past. The landscape will be more diverse, more colourful, but that will only contribute to our exchange of ideas and experiences.

Sometimes, critics of development NGOs seem to completely ignore the historical part NGOs have played in development cooperation.


  1. Internationale spectator, January 2010 and September 2011.