Apologies for the long silence since my last posting… I’ve recently taken up an interim position as COO for the Disability Rights Fund, which has left me a bit less time for writing…
Anyway, by the time I finished six great years at ChildFund Australia, I had been working in international non-governmental organizations (“INGOs”) for nearly 30 years. Some have said that those were Golden Years for the sector…
In this post, I want to reflect a bit about those so-called Golden Years, and what comes next.
I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Hale, and go directly to my reflections on the future of international NGOs, click here.
The Climb – Mt Hale
I climbed Mt Hale and Zealand Mountain on 11 September, 2017, a beautiful, clear and cool day to be out and about in the White Mountains. This time, I want to describe the (short) hike up Mt Hale (4054ft, 1236m).
I thought that getting to the top of both Mt Hale and Mt Zealand in the same day might be a challenge or, at least, a very long walk, so I decided to leave Durham fairly early. So I left town at 6am, and (after stopping for coffee and a sandwich, as usual) arrived at the Hale Brook Trail trailhead at 8:30am. The trailhead is on Zealand Road, which I would have to walk down a fair distance at the end of the hike.
For the very first time in all of these (42) hikes, I think, my car was the only one parked at the trailhead as I prepared to depart. This made me guess I wouldn’t see too many people, at least until I got up to the Appalachian Trail (which would be after summiting Mt Hale):
Hale Brook Trail is immediately steep upon leaving the parking area, and pretty much keeps climbing steeply the whole (short) way up. I crossed Hale Brook about 30 minutes after starting to climb. Very beautiful place:
After a series of switch-backs, the trail gradually became somewhat less steep as I neared the top. At 9:45am the trees began to thin out, and become shorter, so it got lighter as more sunlight got through. I arrived at the summit of Mt Hale at 9:51am, an hour and 20 minutes after leaving the parking area; as was typical, this was faster than what the White Mountain Guide indicated (2 hr 15 mins.)
This was summit number 42, of 48!
Even though the day was clear, there were no views from the summit of Mt Hale. The top is marked by a large cairn of rocks, next to the fittings from what appears to have been an old fire-tower, long gone:
Despite the lack of any view, the top of Mt Hale is pleasant, with a nice feeling, perhaps due to the relatively spacious cleared area around the rock cairn. So I stopped for a quick rest before continuing along the “Lend-A-Hand” trail, initially dropping down into a beautiful fern and moss area, hiking towards Mt Zealand (which I will write about next time!):
It had been a very pleasant, though pretty relentlessly-steep, 2.2 miles from the car.
A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed – What Next?
I have described this series of blog posts, my “4000-footer” articles, to be the story of the rise of international non-governmental organizations in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). That’s useful shorthand, because my story began in 1984 (when I joined Peace Corps), long before the MDGs came into effect (in 2000.)
During that period, international NGOs emerged into the mainstream of international development. Our organizations grew rapidly as a result of the massive public response to the famine that struck the Horn of Africa in the mid-1980’s; I’ve used this figure in an earlier posting, showing the phenomenal growth of Plan International in those years:
(The article that I’m taking the Figure from is available here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)
Plan International doubled (in terms of field expenditure) between 1987 (when I joined) and 1990! And we then doubled, again, by 1995!
And Plan was changing in other ways, too, partly related to our growth. For example, the number of countries where we worked, and places in those countries where we had operations, grew rapidly. We grew in other dimensions, too: for example, moving more towards working to influence governments at national and local levels through advocacy and, too timidly, seeking to influence public opinion in countries where we raised funds.
(See my earlier posting in this series describing how we created a growth plan for Plan International.)
Finally, internally, as I have described in earlier articles in this series, Plan was professionalizing in my early years with the agency. I think this was, in part, due to the financial growth illustrated in the figure: our board of directors began to pay much more attention to financial risk, and started to recruit senior staff with experience in the business world, including Alberto Neri.
As I’ve described in this series, I myself benefited enormously from this “professionalization”. Joining Plan in Tuluá, our Field Office was a pilot for all of the changes that Alberto wanted to put in place. We were implementing stronger financial and audit systems, along with stronger internal controls; much more extensive HR management and development practices; and a sophisticated Monitoring and Evaluation system. I grew up in our sector learning about these improvements, benefiting from the attention and support that we had as a pilot office.
Other INGOs experienced very similar trends; so, in purely financial terms, these were clearly Golden Years for our sector. In addition, and more importantly, given the later success of the MDGs (putting aside for now the very important question of causality – what caused the great progress made with the MDGs?!), this was arguably also a “Golden Age” for development…
Several authors have reflected on this “Golden Age.” In this blog entry, I want to share thoughts from a few authors, including me, and reflect a bit on where we stand today.
One good example of these “Golden Age” reflections comes from Paul Ronalds, the CEO of Save the Children Australia, in this fairly recent article (2017), : RONALDS – End Of The Golden Age.
For me, Paul portrays the situation accurately – “… this unprecedented increase in resources and influence is over: the golden age for INGOs has ended.” But his analysis of why this is the case seems a bit simplistic, which leads him to propose what seems to me to be “more of the same”; for Ronalds:
- we need to produce more evidence of effectiveness, and to
- share this evidence with better communications;
- we need to invest more in capturing and communicating evidence of impact; and
- donors need to be willing to pay for that increased cost.
He argues for mergers to gain efficiencies of scale, and the use of new technologies to “respond to the rise of nationalism and xenophobia.” This somehow will lead to more support for the SDGS.
In other words, I’m sensing that underneath Paul Ronalds’ thinking there is a sense that there is nothing wrong with what we are doing, we simply need to consolidate the sector and demonstrate we are doing the right things.
Paul Ronalds is a great thinker, with long and successful experience in the sector. In fact, I was delighted that he accepted my invitation to speak at a ChildFund program gathering a few years ago, in Sydney, when he was working in the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office, in Canberra. His thoughts then were very helpful.
But we’ve been making the case for better demonstration of effectiveness, and for consolidations in the sector, for decades. Despite this, and despite progress, the situation that Paul Ronalds portrays, accurately, has come into being.
So I think we need to go a bit deeper if we are to deal with the situation we find ourselves in.
To be fair, my own views on the situation a few years ago were far from deep enough. For example, during the preparation of the ChildFund Australia Strategic Plan in 2014, I prepared a presentation about trends in our sector for our board: I pointed out four trends that we needed to grapple with.
I began by pointing out the enormous progress made over the last couple of decades, using MDG tracking data to prove the point. Then I outlined four trends that were creeping up on us. Firstly, progress on the MDGs, along with demographic shifts, meant that 75% of the world’s poor were now living in middle-income countries:
My second point back in 2014 was that continuing social conflict, fueled to a great extent by climate change and globalization, was leading to increased vulnerability and a concentration of poverty in fragile states:
The third trend that I highlighted was that we were living in an era of major social transformations, involving: historically-high levels of income inequality; continuing urbanization; the collapse of the post-World-War-II institutional arrangements; and the rise of civil society (for good and ill).
And, finally, echoing what Paul Ronalds would point out later, it was clear that the previously-privileged role for INGOs was rapidly eroding, with the arrival of for-profit managing contractors, strong civil society in the Global South, and donor fatigue in the Global North.
(A version of this presentation is here: Mega-Trends for Blog.)
For me, in 2014, this meant that ChildFund Australia needed to grow our expertise in child protection and social inclusion, and protection; take the investments we had made in our Development Effectiveness Framework to demonstrate tangible results and “value for money”; and build our partnerships with other development actors upward, sideways, and downward.
A good analysis, and good recommendations, for that time in history. Nothing very original, though: I echoed a lot of Paul Ronalds’ thinking and recommendations, which is not surprising, since there was a lot of this kind of thinking going on in 2014.
Looking back, I can see that, in those days, there was a significant “cottage industry” of INGO thinkers who were pretty well aligned, making quite similar recommendations. But there were people, even back then, who were ahead of the curve. For example, my colleague Alan Fowler took me by surprise once when he told me he thought that INGOs would focus in the future only, or mostly, on service delivery! The implication, for me, was that he thought that social-justice advances would only come from local organizations. That took the wind from my sails for a while…
And Enrique Mendizabal had similarly taken me by surprise in an ACFID University Linkages conference in Sydney when he shared his sense that international development, as such, was no longer relevant… see an earlier post on this site. His brave and convincing keynote made most of uncomfortable, but we did sit up and pay attention!
Since then, of course, things have evolved. Though progress has continued in many senses, and there have indeed been some mergers and consolidation in our sector, nationalism and populism have surged and support for the work of INGOs has continued to ebb.
So the third example I want to share here is from Penny Lawrence, who is a bit bleaker than Paul Ronalds or myself, perhaps aligned more with Alan Fowler and Enrique Mendizabal but not quite as radical.
Many of my readers will have paid close attention to the recent challenges faced by Oxfam (and, more to the point, people in Haiti who had been preyed upon by Oxfam’s staff there.) Penny Lawrence left Oxfam, taking responsibility for the situation (she had served as Chief of Staff for Oxfam International), and later spent some time off to think about our sector. For me, the resulting article is a bit more realistic about our prospects: LAWRENCE – Whither Large International NGOs?
Having interviewed many senior managers in INGOs about the profound changes we face, Lawrence ends up advocating fairly radical change, but seems to pull her punches at the end, perhaps simply trying not to forecast the end of our sector, hoping that bold action now will keep INGOs alive and relevant:
“Whilst each large INGO has to find its own way, each also needs to ensure they devote sufficient time and resources to exploring the next horizon whilst they are also under such pressure and when the current aid grant/contracting model is not yet so broken and can continue to be exploited. Is contracting really large INGOs’ niche? I am not sure it is and unless large INGOs diversify and divest quickly, the disadvantages of their size will increase their irrelevance to make them the dinosaurs of the golden age.
It will require courageous, connected leaders to make tough choices on functions and then rethink structures, financing models, and people strategies, in order to deliver an agile organisation capable of continued learning and change. They will need to inspire, listen to and engage change weary staff and volunteers to drive and support change and to overcome the considerable blockages that stop change within their organisation too.
Form must follow function, but it seems to matter less what structure you change to – what really matters is that you understand your role and do not just ‘sit there’ when all around you is changing…”
(Duncan Green from Oxfam GB analyses the Penny Lawrence paper here.)
A final analysis of the prospects of our sector – actually a series of blog articles – comes from my colleague Daniel Wordsworth. Daniel is exactly the kind of courageous, connected leaders” that Penny Lawrence is thinking of.
I like Daniel’s articles very much, because while he shares a grim view of our organizations’ likely future, he points out a way forward: a return to the values and principles that, long ago, underlay our sector:
- The Refugee Part 1: The Disruption Is Here;
- The Refugee Rethink: Part Two, Losing Our Religion;
- The Refugee Rethink Part 3: The Abundance of Everyday People;
- The Refugee Rethink Part 4: What If Maslow Was Wrong?;
- The Refugee Rethink Part 5: A New Way, How to Build a 21st Century Organization.
Daniel doesn’t spend any time lamenting the situation that INGOs find themselves in. In his usual forthright style, he welcomes “today’s era of populism” as a wake-up call that should lead us away from some big mistakes:
- We have focused on basic, physical needs, ignoring higher-level aspirations that all people have;
- We have embraced technocratic solutions, “divorces from human aspirations,” and thrown money at problems that, sometimes, are not amenable to project solutions;
- We have professionalized and distanced ourselves from the people we attempt to serve (who have become us, ourselves, to a great extent);
- We have become dependent on official donors, thinking that they have the answers or, at least, we have to accept their “answers.”
I have made very similar arguments in the past: see my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series. In that article I argue that:
“… the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:
- We began increasingly to view the world as a linear, logical place;
- We came to embrace the belief that bigger is always better;
- “Accountability” to donors became so fundamental that sometimes it seemed to be our highest priority;
- Our understanding of human nature, of human poverty, evolved towards the purely material, things that we could measure quantitatively.”
I will attach a copy of the article I wrote on this topic here: mcpeak-trojan-horse.
In his fifth and final post in the series, Daniel Wordsworth calls for a return to what I would argue was our sector’s starting point: grounding our work in the actual situation and experience of the people we actually seek to serve, their expressed needs and opinions. What I would call solidarity and accompanyment, human connection and respect, embracing human compassion and turning away from the sterile professionalism and technocratic mental models that took over our sector.
Wordsworth wants us to:
- Replace Largeness with Closeness;
- Replace Control with Collaboration;
- Replace Models with Empathetic Design;
- Put the Passion Back in Our Profession;
- Emphasize Vision, Not Money.
Daniel’s organization, the American Refugee Committee, has taken a bold path and is embracing these inspiring ideas as a way of addressing the dire situation that Paul Ronalds, Penny Lawrance, and I have all pointed to. His way forward is the only viable path I have seen. It’s a frightening path, partly because as we reject the institutional arrangements that have funded our work, our organizations are likely to shrink (at least for a while.)
But going in this direction at least will allow us to stay true to ourselves. Our work will be more relevant to the people we serve. The current wave of nationalism and populism does not mean that human compassion has disappeared; most people still want to connect with others, to reach out to those who face the massive challenges (displacement, inequality, racism) of our time. Which means that it might work…
And, anyway, the old structure is dying, so let’s celebrate its success and bury it. And be part of a new wave, building on some of our sector’s values and that fundamental yearning for human compassion, that could take us forward, together.
The great American writer, Wendell Berry wrote, in 1990, that “we are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period in the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable.” In these Trumpian times, it’s hard to disagree with Berry’s assessment – we would probably all agree that things have gotten worse since 1990.
But then he goes on to say that “history simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use.” I think we all feel this way a lot of the time: how can we, as individuals, influence the enormous forces around us that form this “destructive and stupid” period of history. And in the INGO sector, the technocratic, dehumanized way that we have evolved has led many of us to lose at least some of the original spirit that brought us to this work.
Berry continues, however, and saves the day by saying that “protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
Here I think that Wendell Berry is really on to something. We realize the best qualities in our hearts and spirits when we take action to make things better, fairer, more just.
For me, there are only two choices:
- We can try to resurrect our organizations by getting better at what we’ve been doing, professionalizing and scaling up, despite overwhelming evidence that the world around us has changed. This will be, I believe, a blind alley;
- Or we can take the path that people like Enrique Mendizabal, Daniel Wordsworth, and other pioneers are showing us, returning to the values of our sector, believing in people and putting aside our egos. Our organizations may be smaller that way, at least for a time, but we will be able to make a real difference and our hearts and spirits will rise.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
- South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
- Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?;
- Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
- Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
- Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
- Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
- Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
- Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…