There is a growing movement that is of the view that many International NGOs (INGOs) are no longer fit for purpose. Their ambition to tackle the biggest challenges we currently face, and the urgency they present: climate change, populism, a backlash against human rights, are not matched with the drive and institutional agility to meet them.
Newer social movements or more modern, networked INGOs have grown up differently and are responding in new ways to the challenges. However, the dominant INGOs in international development, human rights and environmental arenas remain in force and in many ways, largely unreconstructed. And so, these institutions have been coming under increasing levels of scrutiny in recent years, from all angles.
Southern organisations, for one, question their legitimacy, or talk about the challenges of the ‘white saviour complex’; they rightly question the higher salaries given to international workers, the lack of southerners and people of colour in leadership positions throughout the sector, alongside the lack of resources flowing to the global south. Ideas are often considered to be ‘imposed’ and partnerships are perceived to be unequal and un-collaborative.
At their heart these are questions of power and legitimacy. Despite decades of debate about how to ensure that people affected get to determine and design the solutions to the problems they face many INGOs have insufficiently altered their practice to make this a reality instead consolidating their hold on to power, influence and access to resources.
There is a growing backlash, as well, against international aid, as citizens, facing their own issues at home, question high levels of aid expenditure. In other countries, there is a backlash against the perceived imposition of so-called ‘western’ values advocated by INGOs. In the global South there is also a growing demand for NGOs to be more driven by ‘Southern agendas’ and their own agency.
No one INGO seems immune. The humanitarian aid scandals of 2018 – putting Oxfam and Save the Children under the spotlight were amongst the first of recent very public scandals that threatened INGOs directly. Oxfam, for one, reported a 10% loss of supporters. Other scandals have since followed – a bullying culture at Amnesty International; alleged collusion with paramilitaries by WWF, and the lastest intervention from the Black Lives Matter movement have brought more issues around power to the fore.
At the same time, INGOs have been one of the primary target of the trend towards ‘closing space for civil society’ – manifesting in both the North and South alike. In the Global South, restrictive regimes are trying to close them down, through freezing bank accounts or using negative rhetoric, accusing them of undermining development, and feeling threatened by their influence. We’ve seen Greenpeace and Amnesty’s bank accounts shut down in India; Action Aid in Uganda raided and targeted; and after the recent Indonesian tsunami, humanitarian INGOs were frozen out altogether.
The trend towards decentralisation by INGOs has also come with unintended consequences. There is a growing concern expressed by local NGOs who feel that INGOs are taking their space and crowding out their space and resource opportunities. Some are making overtures to acquire or merge with local NGOs, further diluting domestic civil society diversity.
In the North, INGOs face further de-legitimisation as many governments are side-stepping INGOs in favour of privatised aid, or using large-scale consultancies to undertake aid related projects. While private sector actors may have a role to play in development, the unadulterated use of private sector instruments will not be sufficient to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, especially as INGOs face increased marginalisation.
They are often accused of having too much power and being ‘over-corporatised’. Kumi Naidoo, the current head of Amnesty International, for one, has said that “INGOs have become too corporatised, obsessed by brand, growth and visibility.” This can result in a focus on survival over impact.
Yet perversely, INGOs don’t have sufficient power to confront the world’s vested interests that are preventing progressive change.
What has been done to date?
Many of the longer standing INGOs – Oxfam, Amnesty or WWF, are acutely aware of the challenges they face, and there have been a number of efforts by international civil society organisations to address the critiques. Some of these include:
- Many have sought to decentralise their organisations in recent years: Amnesty, Action Aid, Oxfam, amongst others, to respond to concerns about Northern led action. Some have included shifting headquarters to the global south, others have moved towards creating more federated structures. While this has been welcome, it has also resulted in some unintended consequences, including local organisations seeing themselves suddenly in competition for fundraising with ‘local’ arms of INGOs; or being directly vulnerable to more direct attacks from national governments (such as closing bank accounts).
- Over the past year, there have been numerous initiatives progressing, to address safeguarding, such as the proposed ‘passporting’ system for humanitarian workers, and increased training of INGO workers.
- The 2011 ‘Finding Frames’ initiative looked at how better to engage the public in international development and environmental causes. It looked, in part, at the structure and ways in which organisations raise funds.Several organisations piloted new methods of framing, but the ground has yet to shift sufficiently.
- The #Shiftthepower movement has been looking at the issue of more direct and democratic resourcing of the sector, alongside important contributors to this movement such as CIVICUS or the NEAR network. A number of international funders are now responding (private and public donors) adopting new direct resourcing models as well. Meanwhile participatory funding mechanisms that allow affected communities to make decisions about how resources are allocated are being developed and utilised by a progressive band of funders including FRIDA, The Red Umbrella Fund and UHAI.
These are all laudable efforts, but the responses have yet to revolutionise the international civil society sector. Many of these have been technocratic responses to a more fundamental and indeed political challenge. Those within the #shiftthepower movement, for example, often refer to INGOs as ‘blockers’ to their efforts. Our starting point is that some form of international civil society will still be needed now and in the future, but that what we have now is no longer fit for purpose.
 Podcast: 100 Campaigns that Changed the World, 10 January 2019.