What should international non-governmental organizations(INGO’s) do differently in the next 5 years? This was the question posed by Trocaire--one of Ireland’s most respected INGOs--in its Leading Edge 2020 horizon scanning exercise.
This was the first time the process had been made public—previous exercises had been internal to serve Trocaire’s strategy formulation. IDS Fellows, Rosie McGee and Andy Sumner, provided some support to the process. Yesterday I attended the launch of the report in Dublin, where some 200 of the Irish development community gathered.
The report analysed some data trends, but was mainly a distillation of the views of 90 development professionals selected for a diversity of perspectives and positions about where development was going in the next 10 years and what this meant for the future role of INGOs.
The top 3 “burning questions” for INGOs that emerged from the interviews were:
1. Advocacy: how do INGOs protect their independence and ability to speak out on issues that may be unpopular with important stakeholders? In other words, to what extent does funding compromise stance?
2. Downward accountability: How do INGOs ensure that they are as (or more) accountable to the people they reach as they are to the development partners that fund them?
3. Flexible and responsive: How can INGO’s experiment and innovate without falling victim to development fads?
We had many excellent speakers, including Jan O’Sullivan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Fr. George Buleya of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, Brendan Rogers the DG of Irish Aid and Fionnuala Gilsenan head of civil society at Irish Aid and Lorna Gold and Justin Kilcullen from Trocaire. Of particular interest to me was Michael Woolcock’s presentation.
Michael is at the World Bank and is the kind of person who should be driving change in the organization, but his message is not easy for large development organizations to hear. He summarised a recent paper on how he thought the aid architecture needed to evolve towards: (a) a new ecology of giving (including investor driver and recipient driven, new philanthropies, new bilaterals), (b) low transactions costs (e.g. the global giving model of web based investing in specific projects), (c) the need for real-time results on what is working and why—no waiting around for 5 years for the impact study, (d) monitoring and evaluation that is attuned to and supplied by local knowledge, (e) support for change processes that are seen as legitimate, and (f) the creation of space for equitable contestation of aid interventions.
This agenda, especially (c)-(f), resonates strongly with me and links to the people powered evaluation I have mentioned in earlier blogs.
What did INGOs take away from the day? The report did a good job of surfacing a number of difficult issues, including:
• The need for INGOs to position themselves more clearly—at one extreme there is service delivery with high levels of government funding and at the other end of the spectrum an independent voice, less dependent on government support, funded mainly by individual contributions. Choices about where to be in this spectrum must be made by each INGO reiterating what kind of change it is trying to support and how it thinks it can do that.
• More and better advocacy, but to whom and for what? It seems to me that INGOs have two potential sources of legitimacy—their relationships with grassroots organizations in recipient countries and their relationship with their home citizens. I would like to see the INGOs focus more on influencing the non-ODA parts of the Irish Government on things like CAP reform, international financial transactions regulation, energy policy, narcotics regulation, small arms treaties, and intellectual property regimes. These governance decisions have huge implications for development, but are often outside the remit of the bilateral aid agencies.
• How to make the results agenda work for learning and improvement. Brendan Rogers urged participants not to be intimidated by the results agenda—he reminded us that it is not as if we had all suddenly discovered the need for results, but that the increased focus must not generate undue burdens, and must not deter us from working on less measurable issues. In fact, by linking their two sources of legitimacy (citizens in Ireland and citizens in recipient countries) INGOs could inject citizen voice into the results process.
So, INGOs: be less obsessed with ODA and focus on other government departments, focus more on global public goods that your own government can affect, such as climate, trade, and security regimes, and try to focus on transformative actions.
Will the results agenda disincentivise these kinds of activities? As I have said many times before, it could, but it needn’t. With a bit of creative thinking, we can measure the “meaningful” and not just the “amenable”. The INGOs, working with research organizations—south and north, east and west--could (and should) be at the forefront of new ways of defining and measuring impact.