'To ensure innovation and resilience in the future, southern NGOs are having to focus on disruption in the present.'

Photo: iStock/George Clerk

Disruptive forces at work

24 March 2016

In the current strategic rethinking of international NGOs' roles, core strengths and futures, there's a significant undercurrent of disruption. In this context, what can we learn from how southern NGOs have managed, adapted and innovated in the face of disruptive change?

Getting good at disruption in an uncertain world: Insights from southern NGO leaders, a new report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), looks at the implications of disruption for NGOs, through a series of interviews with southern NGO leaders.

On unsteady ground

Southern NGOs are operating in turbulent and uncertain times. Powerful external disruptors – including natural disasters, emerging technologies, and climate change – are recasting the operating environment for NGOs generally. But southern NGOs are also at the sharp end of numerous internal disruptors, such as staffing challenges, succession planning, and even significant campaign success.

Our reality is a reality of 'consistently trying to overcome uncertainty'. The reality of the change process has been to learn to manage uncertainty on an ongoing basis 

– Ousainou Ngum, chief executive of Bond member ACORD, Kenya

Distinct "national disruptors" are also important, and need to be better understood by international NGOs who partner southern NGOs. These include funding turbulence, with its associated financial uncertainty; and the rapidly changing, and often shrinking, operating spaces for civil society in the south.

To ensure innovation and resilience in the future, southern NGOs are having to focus on disruption in the present.

Adaptation is dancing to somebody else’s music. Innovation is composing and playing your own music – and having the others dance to it

– Alfredo del Valle, Chile

Even so, many interviewees insisted that disruption should not inherently be seen as a negative force, but should be appreciated for its creative potential  its ability to seed innovation rooted in regionally and nationally self-directed development pathways. But even agile and innovative southern NGOs who seek to work as positive disruptors themselves can struggle to resource organisational change.

The first thing you think [about disruptive change] is always negative – but there are pluses and minuses

– Faith Nwadishi, Koyeneum Immalah Foundation, Nigeria

International NGOs are disruptors too

Against this backdrop, it's clear that too often international NGOs based in the global north are themselves disruptors of southern NGOs' efforts to tackle poverty and deliver positive outcomes.

Interviewees gave multiple examples, such as "cut and shut" changes in policy; poorly thought through relocation or decentralisation processes in international NGOs; the potential disempowerment of southern NGOs that flows from current donor-driven consortium-building practices; and reluctance on the part of international NGOs to share scarce funding for organisational development with their southern partners.  

For local NGOs, it can be hard to access donors directly, so they have to rely on international NGOs – who make their own restrictions

– Allan A. Calma, CWS, Pakistan

Are you (disruption) ready?

Patterns began to emerge that hint at the characteristics of a "disruption-ready" or even "disruption-embracing" NGO. It was clear, for example, that the most effective responses to change are those that nurture, enhance and deploy the existing internal skills base.

Some interviewees expressed their commitment to distributed leadership approaches, which incidentally had the effect of generating deep and lasting commitment to organisational mission. Many gave examples of organisational learning and the use of foresight. And in the face of funding squeezes, a number have begun to integrate social enterprise within their business models.

International NGOs can learn from these insights for their own change processes, as well as actively supporting "disruption-readiness" through their partnerships and involvement in international networks.

What’s next?

IIED's Disruptive Change Initiative continues in 2016 with a focus on peer-to-peer NGO learning, led by southern NGO insights. We are also looking to host conversations on what interviewees' insights mean for international NGO strategies and ways of working.

For more information, download the full report or view the slide deck. Alternatively, you can contact Lila Buckley and Halina Ward.

About the author

Halina Ward

Halina Ward is a senior associate with the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Lila Buckley

Senior researcher for IIED's Natural Resources Group.