Hey NGO, forget what you are, it’s useless for your future!

(Versión en español)

It is so common to think the context evolves very quickly that too frequently we forget that such evolution has deep implications in our work. Let me tell you a little story about how we were and how we are now….

What it was like?

 Up to a few years ago lines of demarcation in the development world were clear.

NGOs were the good people; they worked in difficult places; they worked with the poor; they helped governments in crises; they had dedicated staff who made sacrifices to achieve their missions. Everyone; donors, governments (aid recipients and donors); common person on the street (in poor and rich countries) appreciated NGOs. And just for the record, still my mummy does, maybe she does not get completely what I try to do but she still tells her friends, my son is a good man, he helps others!

Also NGOs were the humanists who were alone in their space, maybe together with the missionaries. Other actors, governments, private sector and multilaterals had their own spaces and the overlap was limited. We had the mandate and the legitimacy, we were the ones expected to fight poverty. To some extent we had the monopoly of the aid. The UN was there, but they were always something different to us.

The Development paradigm was driven by western, mainly European, thought. Almost as if the developed nations had the responsibility to deliver the poor nations from their miseries. Like a White Man’s Burden in fact. The goals & approaches were clear – once the poor countries have health services, education, infrastructure and free enterprise; they could all aspire to become like developed countries. The paradigm was mirroring Sweden or Finland, if they achieved it, why others are not going to do it? In fact part of the paradigm was “we live better than our parents and we expect our children to live better than us”

What has it changed to?

 NGOs are no longer the blue-eyed entities, which can do no wrong. Their space is being constantly challenged. By donors asking for evidence of results, given the financial crunch, asking for “value for money”, pressing to count, even what is not countable. By governments in the developing (&in some cases developed) world where NGOs are raising uncomfortable questions about citizens rights, transparency and accountability.  Civil society space is shrinking everywhere – Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar), Africa (Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan), LAC (Nicaragua, Honduras) and even in Spain or France. By the common person on the street who thinks every time more, what are you doing with my money, I’ve been giving it for years and still you need more! But as said still my mummy and her friends consider us the good guys!

At the same time and suddenly we are not the only players in the development world. Monopoly is over. The private sector has moved in and is moving in a big way. It is true that they are at the service end and not the transformative change end but their presence is sufficient to change thinking. They are more competitive and efficient in service delivery and management. As a result, NGO space is further shrinking in terms of what they can do. It’s not only a matter of what we do, but mainly on what is our value added. What can we do that others can’t or can’t do better, if something.

The financial crises in Europe and North America has brought the entire idea of the western development model into question. Children born after 1970 are no longer likely to be more successful and wealthier as compared to those born in the 1950-60 decade. Inequality is actually deepening in the Western World and nowhere is the issue more prominent than the USA and the UK. Moving into the vacuum are the BRICS countries with their own model of change; which poor countries are now looking towards. We have no longer “the paradigm”! In the pace to development, things are messy and volatile, plenty of innovation and some people taking advantage of the chaos, but not anymore a straight avenue.

What does it mean?

 The world that we started working in has changed significantly. The world of today has little resemblance to that world. We need to change. In fact we are already late. We can no longer hope to hang on to the older models of change but must look to new options. When in XVIII century the train was gaining traction, there was not point for the carriages owners to add a couple of horses to their carriages, the change was much deeper than that!

  • Service delivery will eventually end and may be survive only in extreme humanitarian crises situations.
  • Brokerage, leverage beyond our narrow reach and focus on governance may be the mantras of the future.
  • This will mean a change in mind-set, the people we have, the partners we work with and in fact how we define ‘work’

Are we ready? Let’s hope so, but let’s work for it.

Fran Equiza & Makarand Sahasrabuddhe

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One Response to Hey NGO, forget what you are, it’s useless for your future!

  1. Javier Pardillos says:

    acertada reflexión.

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