Facilitator: “Describe an INGO to someone who doesn’t know what they are.”

Respondent: “A white guy who shows up with a wallet and a savior complex.”

A few weeks ago, the head of Amnesty Canada left over accusations of serious racism in the organization. This should not be surprising. Challenges lodged at multiple INGOs by their staff and partners have been growing in recent years, echoing the rising voices of Black Lives Matter and the emerging decolonization and #shiftthepower movements.

Moreover, issues such as racism are long-standing. A recent blog by a former colleague, John Mitchell, shows that even in the 1970s, calls for decolonization in aid were already taking root.  Indeed, John and I worked together in the 1990s on something called “The Humanitarian Ombudsman Project” — responding to calls to improve accountability of the aid system to local people after the humanitarian response to the Rwandan genocide.

What is surprising, however, is that even after all these challenges and calls for reform in recent years (not to mention the decades preceding them), the INGO in its current form endures, resisting rather than fully embracing change.  John Mitchell helpfully calls this “functioning inertia.” This is where Rights CoLab’s RINGO project comes in.

On May 11 and 12, a group of 55 influencers, thinkers, leaders, and disruptors from across civil society and around the world — representing human rights, development, humanitarian, environment, and peacebuilding — selected for their desire to transform the sector, come together in our first global meeting. This is the formal beginning to our two-year process to identify and implement pathways for genuine change, addressing recent challenges around power, diversity, resourcing, and more.

As one eminent academic asked via a RINGO webinar, “Why will this time be different?” I think there are several reasons for optimism. Aside from the obvious shadow of COVID-19, which makes initiatives like “localization” more reality than theory, other factors are also playing out, some revealed in our pre-workshop briefings with participants.

The current context does feel different, and the pressure for change stronger. Participants identified that donors are increasingly seeking to drive funding straight to local organizations, and that they must eventually unblock the routes to do so. They noted more consistent attacks on civil society, accelerated by COVID-19 putting pressure on international models.

Perhaps more profoundly, Black Lives Matter and the decolonization movement mean that the emerging generation of leaders and activists are unprepared to live with the status quo. Concerns are no longer merely whispered in the hallways of INGO offices or Southern CSOs; they are spoken about — even shouted about — almost anywhere civil society exists.

RINGO convenings are only the beginning, of course. We have a lot of work to do over the coming 18 to 24 months. We must identify and break down the barriers to change and then pinpoint the key enablers to help us make these changes. What will be the actions we can take together as a group and with our wider communities in civil society? We and many of our stakeholders in international civil society have already harvested useful ideas. And this is where our actual process becomes important.

With our systems change facilitation experts, Reos Partners, we’ve spent the past few months designing a creative, energizing process that poses questions to move us beyond one organization or sector. What levers are common and recurrent? How do we identify “prototypes” that can be launched? How can we enable greater and more rapid change in the sector? How do we put these ideas into action? Though RINGO is centered on structured conversations, the process is very much about facilitating action, and accompanying that work, not about “talking.”

One can feel a bit hesitant about starting a process without a clearly defined outcome, but our onboarding calls only served to reinforce our original premise, and our approach. Not only is an overhaul of the INGO model long overdue, people are now ready to address the criticisms lodged against the sector for more than two decades. We hope that we’ve created the space to do so.


To get involved in and/or support the Ringo project, contact ringo@rightscolab.org.


Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash