The midlife crisis of NGOs

Development Policy11 Jan 2012Ria Brouwers

It’s a midlife crisis. This conclusion about the current condition of the NGOs strikes my mind after reading the think-piece by Michael Edwards for the debate on the future role of NGOs. Just look at the symptoms mentioned: i) a crisis of identity, with a perceived gap between what one wants to be and what one is (thick problems and thin solutions), and ii) the existential questions about the meaning of life: what have I achieved, will I ever be able to achieve anything at all?

The identity crisis

The identity crisis comes after a shining career. At the end of the 20th century, NGOs broke out in big numbers. Celebrated as champions of the poor and cuddled by bilateral and multilateral agencies which increasingly channeled aid money through the NGOs, the sector got wings. Not only were NGOs considered to be closer to the people and better able than governments to reach the poor, they were also expected to be a countervailing power to the state, a watchdog for corrupt governments, a promoter of democracy. Many NGOs have come to believe that the reason for their existence is to bring justice and prosperity where others fail. Innovative, alternative and fit to fundamentally change political and economic systems, has become the NGO trademark.

Even in the heydays of the NGOs there were warnings against the heated aspirations. Critics expressed doubts about the shift from service delivery to policy advocacy and political engagement, about the prospects and claims of people’s participation, and about the legitimacy of organizations to speak and act on behalf of the poor. The criticism has been growing over the past twenty years, but as long as the money kept flowing to the NGO-sector and the widespread faith in their special features continued, the urgency to respond was low. Now the tide has turned. NGOs have become subject to austerity measures and their performance is being questioned. They have to take up the gauntlet, and the current debate is one of the responses.

Existential questions

As in any midlife crisis there is the existential question about the meaning of life itself: why are NGOs on this earth? Edwards speaks critical about the thin solutions of the NGOs, but at the same time he feeds the megalomania by suggesting that they can be transformers of societies, politics and cultures, natural bridges between societies and institutions, intermediaries. He even imagines NGOs to become the transformation agencies of the future, for thick transformations similar to those led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Is it any wonder that faced with such formulas, NGOs end up in a midlife crisis?

Not that I don’t allow NGOs a vision and dreams, on the contrary, but my concern with such a presentation of the future role of the NGOs is that it is as much built on quicksand as the many sweeping statements of the past. Instead of fantasizing about their future role, NGOs better start showing their actual achievements so far. Many organizations have conducted creative programmes, Hivos for example with microfinance, art and culture, ICT and media. Why not proudly show the differences these programmes have made in the lives of their beneficiaries? Why not take these achievements as the starting point of the discussion about the future roles? Clear facts and figures will be beneficial to address the existential questions of a midlife crisis: what have I achieved and will I ever be able to achieve anything at all.

Let the results speak

NGOs have been challenged to show results for at least twenty years. A study of the Dutch NGOs of 1991 already concluded that the objectives of a program were not clearly formulated, that data about the effects were lacking, so that the impact of the support was difficult to determine. Commenting on the NGOs’ propaganda, the report called for modesty: “NGOs are not a third sector between the state and citizens and one can doubt if they will ever become so”.1

Especially since 2000, there have been many comments on the lack of results-orientation of the Dutch NGOs and the poor quality of their evaluation studies.2 Subsequent agreements for improvement made between the Dutch government and the NGOs are slow in bearing fruit. It’s not so much the quantity of evaluations that is problematic (there are many, and recently they also try to mention results attained), but the quality. Evaluations are rather a narrative of goals and activities than an analytical study of how the intervention contributes to solving problems and improving lives. They often lack firm data, apply a loose methodology of collecting views and perceptions, and end in unsupported claims of success. Apart from weaknesses in individual evaluation studies, there is no synthesis of how the different experiences add up, of the balanced outcome of the combined efforts. While I share Edwards’ concern about the current audit culture and the “metrics mania”, I disagree with his suggestion that evaluation can be an area for NGOs to phase out. The search for better evaluation methods controlled by the NGOs themselves requires investing in the development of suitable evaluation methods for the sector, and in meta-analyses to identify overall results.

A healthy starting point for this is a more realistic perception of the nature of the NGO and its potential. Perhaps Huey-Tsyh Chen’s distinction between desirable goals and plausible goals3 can be of help. Desirable goals are the official goals of a program or organization, including goals to please various stakeholders or for political purposes. They are for window-dressing, not really meant to be implemented as such. Plausible goals are of the realistic kind, the ones that prevail in practice. NGOs have always been strong in putting up desirable goals for various audiences, but weak in plausible outcomes. To assess the difference between the two, Chen suggests i) to make an analysis of the resources allocated for the goals and ii) to assess the logic behind the activities meant to attain the goals on the basis of current knowledge of the problem. Identifying the plausible goals should not stop NGOs from having broad visions and ideals, but it can help to detect the small steps towards any big change and it can keep them down-to-earth.

Retirement, replacement or rejuvenation?

Which way forward is the question in this debate: retirement, replacement or rejuvenation? For Hivos, the initiator of this debate, I find retirement no option. It is only 43 years old, not even in Italy can one retire at that age. Rejuvenation in a midlife crisis can easily become preposterous, thus not a good idea. That leaves replacement, but the big question is: with what? I have argued that the future is calling for more sobriety and for a sturdy systematic review of achievements, identifying what NGOs can and cannot be and do. Let’s continue the discussion on the basis of plausible outcomes instead of desirable goals.


  1. Stuurgroep Impactstudie Medefinancieringsprogramma (1991), Betekenis van het medefinancieringsprogramma, een verkenning (Libertas Utrecht).
  2. The comments can be found in reports like: Advies van de Commissie Medefinancieringsprogramma-breed inzake toetreding en toewijzing 2003-2006 (2002) Breed uitgemeten, (“Commissie Box”); Buitenlandse Zaken, Dick van der Hoek (2006) De Kwaliteit van de Programma evaluaties in het Medefinancieringsprogramma, 2003-2006, IOB Werkdocumenten; Buitenlandse Zaken (2006) Terugkoppeling in het Medefinancieringsprogramma, IOB Werkdocumenten; IOB (2009), Maatgesneden Monitoring ‘Het verhaal achter de cijfers’, Beperkte beleidsdoorlichting Medefinancieringsstelsel 2007-2010, Inspectie Ontwikkelingssamenwerking en Beleidsevaluatie, no 321.
  3. Chen, Huey-Tsyh (1990), Theory-driven evaluations, Sage Publications.