“Trust or Control? Private Development Cooperation At The Crossroads”

Willem Elbers, Luuk Knippenberg and Lau Schulpen, “Trust or Control?  Private Development Cooperation At the Crossroads”, Public Administration and Development, 34, 1-13 (2014).

This very interesting article considers whether or not organisations that see development as “social transformation” can, at the same time, adopt practices that the author denotes as “managerialism.”  It examines “how the belief systems and practices of northern NGOs are changing because of the diffusion of managerialist ideas and methods, and whether the managerialist approach is compatible with a number of widely shared goals, values and assumptions related to social transformation.”

Most INGOs face this issue, at least the good ones.  Our organisations were, mostly, founded to overcome poverty and injustice, and our responses are designed over the long-term, strengthening local civil society and duty-bearers; enduring solutions come from structural and transformational changes.

Over the last few decades, our organisations have responded to increasing demands for accountability and value-for-money by adopting what Elbers and his co-authors describe as “managerialism” – practices (often) brought from the private sector and government donors – emphasising effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, underpinned by financial audits, strategic planning, log frames, etc.  This move has shifted our attention towards project management and tangible (rather than transformational) results.

Projects have their place, of course; but our best projects fit into a wider framework that seeks to overcome the power imbalances and injustices that underlie deprivation.

So the article asks an interesting question: as we get better at managing projects, can we remain true to this structural view of poverty?  I like the table in which the differing institutional logics of social transformation and managerialism are compared; it’s a good way of describing the differences that create some of the tensions that emerged when INGOs began to adopt business practices, as I described in an article I published some time ago

The authors use two empirical case studies to frame their response: the experiences of Christian Aid (based in the UK) and ICCO (from the Netherlands).  Both agencies began as “solidarists”, “placing strong emphasis on addressing the root causes of poverty and social transformation.”  But over time, “elements of the managerial logic also bec(o)me visible” as the organisations respond to the “growing emphasis on tangible results and accountability.”

The article contains qualitative impressions of staff members, over many years – indeed, the longitudinal nature of the study is a great advantage.  Even with “managerialist” pressure, both agencies “still primarily follow the social transformation logic”, which is to be commended.

Is this sustainable?  Will it be possible for organisations like Christian Aid and ICCO to balance these two “logics” internally, or will this balancing act produce increasing symptoms of organisational schizophrenia?

The authors think that the balancing act “will increasingly challenge and even force northern NGOs to make choices about their future direction.”  We will either move in the managerialist direction, with the option of continued or increased government and donor funding, or we will continue to focus on “civic values and a more politicised role in development” with “reduced access to official funding.”  

The corresponding author is Dr W Elbers, W.elbers@maw.ru.nl.

Highly recommended.

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