Time to bite the bullet

Civic Action,Development Policy09 Dec 2011Ellen Lammers

Was the welcome smell of oven-fresh apple pie meant to soften the controversial question on the table: is it time for INGOs to retire? A small group of Dutch NGO people and academics, joined by Michael Edwards (Demos), Joanna Maycock (ActionAid) and Duncan Green (Oxfam GB) was invited by Hivos to discuss the role of their organizations in a world where aid is rapidly becoming a totally new ball game.

Mike Edwards, author of the kick-off think piece, argues that it is time to retire the foreign aid frame. World problems have become ‘thicker’ (Duncan Green doubts this is so) and it is a fantastical illusion for INGOs to think they will achieve their goals – a more equal world? the end to poverty? – by simply getting better (more effective) at their job. The solutions INGOs offer are far too ‘thin’. Based on a romantic view of what technology can do and a false quantiphilia. Instead, says Edwards, what is needed is a deep transformation – of power, property, and personal consciousness. It is time to bite the bullet. And it’s an exciting one to chew.

But are today’s INGOs equipped to be transformers? Are they not too comfortably nested within ‘the system’ (despite the N in NGO, most of their funding comes from governments) to even seek radical transformation? This is a value issue, and one that most organizations have not got their heads round yet. Being a catalyst, a counter movement of activists instead of queuing up at the many civilized multi-stakeholder forums, is risky. Not least in terms of constituency and funding. Do you want a more democratic world or do you want to cure malaria? There’s a place and need for both, but INGOs must be much clearer on this fundamental choice.

One tension here is: even NGOs that want to be involved in progressive social change ‘outside’, find that inside their institutions are locked in inertia. But wanting a different distribution of power in ‘the world’ implies that NGOs must turn the analysis of what that requires onto their own organization. ActionAid conducted this exercise ten years ago. As a result, the leadership understood they had to give up power in order to be relevant and do the right thing in the future. HQ moved to South Africa and worldwide staff work from a changed consciousness. Most other INGOs however, so Kees Biekart (ISS) suggests, have not achieved more than a few cosmetic changes.

One change that is needed is to rethink not only values, but also who one’s allies are and what coalitions can be usefully forged. For instance, why is it that no one from the aid establishment seems to see or want any connection with the Occupy movement? Even though their issue appears very close to our hearts: the fundamental problem of unequal power distribution. Or if you wish, the ‘thick’ problem that 90% of the world is not being listened to. The development INGOs have not even begun understanding how to respond to the massive issue of ‘the economy/global financial system’. While this is probably the number one obstacle – past and future – to achieving equality and human well-being. What is the INGOs track record in this area? The now fashionable focus on value chains? Plenty tricky questions to answer even in this one area: will NGO activity boil down to connecting people to systems that make them more vulnerable? And in the words of Edwards, are we pushing people into more participation, but in unsustainable societies?

Thick problems, complex problems. And aid is only one – tiny – part of the solution. And therefore, said Duncan Green, we need to rejuvenate away from the aid industry, not towards it. Engaging with the complex – that’s not the same as complicated – challenges of our time requires different coalitions and different things to be good at. ‘We don’t need to get clever, we need to get more aware.’ Look at the Arab Spring. Transformational change is impossible to predict. But INGOs need to get much better at seeing the change that is truly transformational for what it is. And at recognizing the windows of opportunity that come with such change.

And then act. Because that’s what it is about in the end. Acting can be different things, including: challenging dominant stories, and challenging them with substance. Remko Berkhout (Hivos) said: ‘We think we exist to do things, but our knowledge role has a lot of potential.’ ‘Bearing witness’ is what others call this. Another form of relevant acting promoted by Duncan Green was: spotting innovation. NGOs need to get much better at spotting other people’s innovations and starting joint ventures.

Mike Edwards is a little alarmed by this vocabulary. ‘The mantra of the moment is social innovation, but many changes in history are not the result of innovation, they are the result of doing, and doing more.’ More distributing power, more talking honestly, more being useful and authentic to people. That is what will change the world over time. We are nearing the end of the afternoon, and clearly called to get our feet back on the ground. He says: ‘You bring the future closer by acting, not by scenario planning.’ And Joanna Maycock adds: ‘We should probably spend a bit more time using our judgment of what’s wrong. And a little less time studying it.’

And yet if we may, we’d like to continue this discussion, join us! (send your contribution to or comment on the pieces of others)