Who’s working for who?

Dealing with the perennial crisis of confidence and identity in many large international campaigning NGOs

A multi-polar world, rise of nationalisms, and constricting space for civil society are among the factors that appear on the flipcharts in workshops exploring external trends for NGOs’ strategic planning.

In addition, welcome questions are being explored about ’where change happens’ and, partially in response, there’s a ‘move to the south’ as large international NGOs move functions ‘closer to the ground’ (from London in the case of Amnesty International, and previously Action Aid) with associated – but not new — concerns about power relations with existing civil society and ‘professionalisation’ to the detriment of informal activist networks.

When I worked for a large INGO, I was once accosted at an international conference by a leader in an African network who, when he heard who I worked for, exclaimed “Ah, the people who take our work and present it in Geneva!” Although friendly, this was not meant as a positive description.

Following the money, there are questions about the growing role of the private sector, including the big consultancy companies bidding to manage and evaluate projects; and ’disintermediation’ whereby large institutional donors are increasingly looking to directly fund work on the ground and not go through intermediary sub-granting NGOs, which also scrabble around looking for ‘partners’ to bolt onto funding applications.

Many NGOs are at the same time facing increasingly sophisticated advocacy from ‘the other side’ with governments and interest groups getting more adept in facing – and learning from – civil society campaigners.

We worry as well – or should do – about accountability, in particular to those who should stand to benefit from our work. Can one however ever really be accountable to someone who can’t cause you harm (through, for example, loss of funding, status or reputation)?

Another response to these trends?

A  careers advisor would ask what you’re good at as well as what you’re interested in.

What are the big traditionally ‘northern’ NGOs good at when it comes to advocacy? Research and policy analysis; utilizing their northern presence and supporter base; communications; and working the corridors of influential governments, the UN, Brussels etc.

What do they lack? Often, being part of the communities on whose behalf they campaign and the legitimacy that brings.

So why not play to strengths, rather than stress about trying to be something one’s not. And find a role that does that in a civil society ecosystem rather than trying to be it all.

Should then NGOs start to think of themselves more as ’Public Affairs consultancies’, with a client base of the communities they want to support.

What might this look like in practice? In part, letting the donor money go straight to those – CBOs and others — on the ground and seeing if they want to commission support. To, for example, “take their work and present it in Geneva”, or influence the approach of the UK government, or even run a capacity building workshop.

What would this look like in different sectors – development, human rights, and environment? What would it mean for governance, messaging, operations and the fixation on growth?

Of course, being deliberately provocative, this model raises as many such questions as it answers, not least how to ensure those who need the support – including those who don’t fit a nice organisational box – can afford to commission it, and we don’t deal with the remaining unaccountable power of donors (although perhaps it would free up NGOs to stand up to them!) But it suggests a radical change to dealing with disintermediation, gives legitimacy, provides clear accountability chains to the people who should matter, and focusses on a niche where NGOs perhaps have something to offer. If nothing else, it’s an interesting thought experiment.

How long would some NGOs survive, at least in much of their international campaigning work? They may do well but, if not, do they deserve to?


Martin Clark


Blog posts represent individual author’s views only

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