Simon Maxwell

Is there a future for Northern NGOs in a world of MICs?

Many official aid agencies are rethinking their mission, geographical range and instruments; and among those that aren’t, many will be considering their score on the Kharas/Rogerson stress test and wondering whether it is about time they did. I wonder whether the same is true of NGOs? Certainly, the underlying drivers are similar. I propose six guiding principles and a stress test for NGOs. Many will find they are already meeting the standard. Some may not.

For the world of mainstream official aid, the issues are now well known: the rapid rise in the number of middle income countries which can be argued not to need traditional grant aid; the need for new and more political approaches in fragile states, blurring hitherto sharp boundaries between diplomacy, development and defence; the crying need for greater political and financial investment in global pubic goods, notably climate change, but also global macroeconomic management; and the proliferation of aid suppliers and modalities, including the rise of emerging donors and the active role of philanthropic institutions (including those which by-pass intermediaries, and link donors directly to individual recipients). Kharas and Rogerson refer to these as ‘disruptors’. I have been writing about them for many years, most recently gazing into the crystal ball to try and discern the future of development and humanitarian aid.

At the DANIDA 50th anniversary conference in 2012, I talked about ‘same mission statement, new job description’, meaning that the overall objective of development would remain unchanged (well-being, social inclusion, sustainable development) but that the task of getting there would require different interventions – as well, incidentally, as different competencies in development agencies. The figure below illustrates the kind of thing I mean: fewer old style poverty programmes in poor countries, run by aid departments or ministries, more systemic interventions at global and regional level, probably in a multilateral context, and run by cross-cutting development departments working explicitly across Government. This is not to say that poverty reduction does not remain central, nor that the aid effectiveness principles of Rome, Paris, Accra and Busan should be thrown out of the window. Nevertheless, a substantial change is implied as we begin to vision the aid or development agency of the future.

I know that some of this is modestly controversial; that much depends on how the geographical distribution of poverty is likely to change, as between MICs, LICs and fragile states; and that the very categories are up for discussion. I follow the writings of SumnerChandyKharas and Ravallion as assiduously as anyone. But indulge me for a moment, and assume that the job description of official aid will change. What, then, of NGOs?

A number of scenarios might be possible. At one extreme, we might find Northern NGOs following the same trajectory as official aid agencies: ceding territory in middle income countries, working more at global level and on policy work, and entering into new kinds of partnership with official actors in fragile states. At the other extreme, we might find them exploiting new ecological niches: perhaps replacing official aid in MICs, engaging in different ways with indigenous movements and organisations, forming new kinds of political partnership. The NGONon-governmental organisation community is diverse, of course, and doubtless will follow many routes. The sector is always changing – for example setting up new cross-country federations (Action Aid International, SCFSave the Children Fund International), or incorporating well known ‘brands’ as independent local NGOs (e.g. Oxfam India).

In thinking about this, I found it useful to distinguish between development and humanitarian aid, on the one hand, and between MICs, LICs and fragile states on the other. Actually, I restricted the range of fragile states, to focus on those that are conflict-affected. In general, I find the category of fragile states unhelpful these days. Look at the list in the table below: there are too many different kinds of country, facing different kinds of problem. Does it really make sense to have Kenya and Haiti in the same category? Or Nigeria and Gaza? I don’t know how those engaged in the New Deal for Fragile States manage such diversity.

Anyway, my three by two classification gives the table below and leads to the following reflections.

First, there is no reason to suspend development work by Northern NGOs in middle income countries, but the need may be less for money and more for solidarity and capacity-building with respect to local NGOs, helping them to develop programmes which provide voice to their client groups and hold their own Governments to account. In principle, Northern NGOs should not be substituting for state or civil society action in countries which ought to be able to provide the resources necessary for basic service provision. This is not a straightforward proposition, I know. NGOs provide valuable service provision functions even in developed countries, though Northern NGOs in developing countries should by default work with local partners even in this area. More generally, Northern NGOs supporting voice and accountability programmes in developing countries venture into a moral and political minefield. Is it the job of Northern NGOs to foment political protest – in Egypt, say, or, currently in India. Much better if protest is locally rooted and independent – but there will often be a role for Northern NGOs in offering advice, providing external validation, bearing witness, and, if possible, offering protection. Think Amnesty International, for example. Such support can be mutual and work both ways, with global civil society movements supporting organisations in developed countries. Certainly, NGOs in North and South will want to work together on global issues, like trade policy or climate change.

This enables us to complete the box in the top left hand corner of the table, offering an exciting set of possibilities to Northern NGOs and to Governments which fund them. It would be especially interesting to explore opportunities for twinning, involving universities, civic associations, business associations and others in genuine partnership.

Second, similar principles apply to humanitarian work in middle income countries, with the addition of direct provision of resources in emergencies - where needed, and remembering that some countries, like India after the tsunami, either do not want or do not need outside help. Here, it seems to me that the strict delimitation of development and humanitarian space can be problematic. Humanitarian principles are essential in conflict-affected fragile states, to preserve the neutrality and impartiality of assistance, and to protect the lives of humanitarian workers. But humanitarian approaches can also make it more difficult to work with local organisations, especially those of an official variety, and to build local capacity. If they can safely be adapted, then there may well be benefits. It is notable that the number of natural disasters is increasing, with the number likely to rise further as climate change takes hold. Some such, but not all, require international relief. In cases where international relief is not required on a large scale (as in the China and Chile earthquakes, for example), it is usually because there has been serious local investment in disaster prevention and preparedness. This is surely a top priority for Northern NGOs, working with organisations like ISDR and GFDRR, engaging with local authorities and organisations, and with local and international business. That is the top right hand corner of the table taken care of.

In low income countries, the same principles apply, but there will be a greater and justified need for resources. This leads to the third point, that the priority for targeted resources should probably lie in low income countries, for both development and humanitarian purposes, and for the area in between, currently graced by the term ‘resilience’, but which we used to call ‘linking relief and development’. Note that this can only really happen successfully if the boundary between the two spheres is suitably porous. That covers the middle row of the table.

Fourth, then, we come to conflict-affected fragile states. As with the general category of ‘fragile states’, this is a heterogeneous class: conflict can be large- or small-scale, more or less local, more or less long-term. In general, however, the presumption must be that humanitarian space must be carefully protected and unpolluted. Development space for local NGOs is also likely to offer a more difficult operating environment, and there are likely to be fewer partners available for Northern NGOs to choose. This suggests that Northern NGOs are likely to be more operational. Even so, however, they should look for opportunities to build capacity, certainly on the development side, but also on the humanitarian side, as countries move towards peace and reconstruction.

Put all this together, and the picture in the table below emerges, with a specific and differentiated strategy for Northern NGOs in different circumstances and with respect to different activities. I suppose this is not especially radical?

Radical or not the approach may be, whether or not it conforms to current practice is another matter. I have observed before that the humanitarian community necessarily concentrates more on those emergencies requiring international assistance and the international organisations providing it, rather than on the universe of need and how it might be met. I would love, for example, to see overall estimates of numbers affected by different kinds of disaster and needing help, whether the help is provided by the international humanitarian aid system or domestically.

Some basic principles follow from the analysis, applicable to Northern NGOs in their work in-country and in their interactions with their own Governments and supporters:

  • Be explicit about the niche in different kinds of country;
  • Develop operational strategies to exploit different niches, including a ‘theory of change’ to guide interventions on voice and accountability;
  • Focus on capacity-building and partnership, and build reciprocal partnerships with Southern NGOs;
  • Develop the right organisational competencies, not just service delivery;
  • Work with Governments on new roles, ways of working and funding; and
  • Take the public on a journey, so that the new roles and ways of working are understood.

It would be interesting to adapt the Kharas/Rogerson stress test for aid agencies to reflect these ideas. For example, NGOs would score highly if they had worked through their niche and could demonstrate appropriate operational strategies and partnerships.

A final issue is how donor approaches to NGOs might change. At present, practice varies widely, as the figure below illustrates. At one end of the scale, France spends only 1% of bilateral aid on or through NGOs. At the other extreme, Ireland spends as much as 37%. The balance of funding as between money directed specifically to NGOs and that which NGOs are contracted to deliver on the donors’ behalf also varies: the EU, Italy, Spain and Norway are all countries which appear, in these DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) statistics, to provide no core support to NGOs, but to use them mainly as contractors.

I suppose there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ figure, but the analysis above suggests that NGOs can play an important role in helping donors meet their objectives, including in MICs. Active engagement with NGOs would seem to be called for.

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