Will international NGOs survive?

International NGOs (INGO), whether humanitarian, human rights, development or environment, are all facing a set of critical and far-reaching crises.

Their very legitimacy is in question from all sides: governments, southern partners, donors, and even their own staff. The critiques are myriad. Southern organizations and governments argue that INGOs are unaccountable and have too much power; humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, fail to consult beneficiaries and local groups effectively, and it’s unclear where donors’ money goes. At home some politicians argue that INGOs shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them by campaigning while receiving government grants. Conversely, they’re accused of not campaigning enough; that they are apolitical, and too close, in some cases, to the corporate sector.

In spite of what some perceive as great successes of the sector – reaching the 0.7% foreign aid target or international debt relief – there is no backing away from the view that the sector needs, at the very least, a tune-up, if not a wholesale revolution to enable it to face modern times.

Social innovation seems to be rising up around INGOs, making them appear out-dated and static. Social enterprises are rapidly occupying the service delivery space where INGOs once led, with a fresh wave of philanthro-capitalists seeking out “beyond charity” solutions to poverty.

The sector’s traditional approach to challenge has been to develop codes of practice, joint charters, or training schemes. Some go further: Action Aid and Oxfam have shifted their headquarters to the global south. But such approaches feel a bit like changing a warning sign on a poorly engineered aircraft – they still have a high likelihood of failure.

It is unlikely that INGOs will survive, at least in their current form, without a direct full-frontal assault on the sector.

[An Opinion printed in The Guardian]

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