We must be proud of our sector if we want to change it

30 July 2018

The focus on sexism and sexual harassment in the international development community has now spread well beyond Oxfam and Save the Children to encompass complaints at Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Bank, UNAIDS and many others. For the organisations involved, this is painful, but it is, in my view, worth it: short term pressure is what will enable the progress that must be made on this crucial issue. 

I recently sought to contextualise what happened at Save the Children within a wider set of problems that I believe the sector faces (I wrote about the specifics of sexual harassment in the sector here). Not everyone has agreed with my take on it all, or even on my decision to publish. 

But the overwhelming response from colleagues in the sector and from outside has been positive, in both private and public correspondence. It is clear to me that there is a thirst for talking this through and sorting it out. 

But how? 

Striking the right balance

This is a complex issue and no one diagnosis or therapy is likely to be complete. A good number of analyses have been written on this subject since the dam burst at the end of last year, and different approaches have emerged. 

In my view, the main challenge for international development NGOs, is to get the balance right between, on the one hand, an urgent need for change and improvement and, on the other, a confidence that most INGOs are already beacons of values working for a better world. 

This is not a contradiction; it is the normal way of things i.e. how to hold on to the best of what we have, while recognising what is going wrong, and adapting to a constantly (and rapidly) changing context. 

So, while the pressure is on for radical change to respond to what are undoubtedly grave abuses of trust, this new awareness of the problems in NGOs should not be confused with an argument that NGOs are a problem. 

NGOs should be proud enough of their own history and values to stand firm in their ways of working, and to celebrate the fact that they are different. Different values, different incentives, different objectives and ambitions, different partnerships, different meeting structures, different timescales, different pay-scales, different reading materials, different approaches to participation and governance – all lead to a different set of opportunities and, yes, and constraints as well. But they make the INGO sector worth having. 

If it’s not different, it really isn’t worth fighting for.

In short, if sometimes the sector has not changed enough (e.g. on recognising its own power dynamics), often it has changed too much (e.g. in overexcitedly following “best practice” in the private or public sector). 

3 themes for INGO leaders to consider

But how do today’s leaders decide when radical change is required, and when, on the contrary, constancy in long-held values and ways of working should hold sway?

Reflecting on the responses I have received and conversations I have had, there are three tiers, or themes, INGO leaders could reflect on as they seek to deal both with sexual harassment, at home and abroad, and also broader concerns about the culture and direction of their organisations.

Tier 1: Managerial/bureaucratic
This is the tier at which problems are little different from those of other sectors. Problems like harassment, bullying, over-work, etc. require tried-and-tested solutions such as encouraging powerful unions (something which, disgracefully, is not common in the INGO sector), external oversight, active and well-trained boards, active HR departments, whistle-blowing tools, etc. 

In a sector in which loyalty to people, an organisation and a cause is exceptionally high, individuals need to be explicitly encouraged to speak out and complain. There is no future in trying to sweep bad work practices (and worse) under the rug. 

The INGO sector has a history, forgotten by some, of using participative and democratic procedures to make decisions – they may take longer but they often work better. Active listening is the key to positive change. 

Tier 2: Structural/strategic 
In my articles for OpenDemocracy, I laid much of the blame for what went wrong at Save the Children firmly at the door of a rush for growth at all costs, and I believe that is a fault that many INGOs suffer from. But there are many other issues people will want to raise regarding the direction much of the sector has taken over the last few years. 

When the direction taken by an organisation, often under a new leadership, clashes with the instincts of staff, partners and supporters, based on a shared history, problems will ensue. If staff inside an organisation are not empowered to speak up and contribute, how can external communities be empowered? 

In INGOs, changes (and growth strategies) have to be argued for grounded in values and evidence. It is time for INGO leaders to re-learn how to say the word “no” to funders that push weak strategies in the name of “modernisation”, and how to hear the word “no” from their staff and partners. 

Tier 3: Political/spiritual/moral
The INGO sector serves two main purposes: urgent action on the ground to materially help poor communities, promote development and defend ecosystems now; and influencing the agenda to shift attitudes and policies to enable the longer-term more fundamental changes essential to addressing roots causes. Too often, the latter suffers because the former seems so urgent. 

The INGO sector, which in so many ways is based on sound ideals and values, on the very best human instincts, is failing badly on what is for me the most important test of all – giving voice to the under-represented, the marginalised. The sector should be a bridge between North and South, but too often there is little understanding of Southern perspectives in Northern boardrooms and strategy meetings. This is the indefensible, ironic, original sin of the INGO sector – and it has to change. 

Be the change

There is no room for complacency – people want change. But not the kind of change they are currently getting! One thing is for certain: this desire to emulate either the private or the public sector, is wrong-headed, especially in this moment where both these sectors are coming under their own renewed scrutiny. 

Rather than a crisis of confidence, what the sector needs is quite the opposite: a renewal of confidence in itself and its mission – indeed in many cases a rediscovery of them. The way the civil society sector does things has some inefficiencies but other great positives. Be proud of them. 

The good news is that the INGO sector has always been capable of profound self-reflection and of managing multiple challenges at once. At this time more than ever, it is called to be the change it wants to see. 

About the author

Jonathan Glennie

Jonathan Glennie is an independent writer/researcher on the changing nature of international cooperation.