Refugees queuing in Hamburg
Refugees queue for support in Hamburg, Germany

The rise and reality of INGO domestic programming

There is a growing interest in the idea of INGOs running programmes in their home countries alongside their projects in the global south.

These “domestic programmes” (DP) range from helping impoverished communities in the UK, Canada and the USA to supporting refugees and asylum seekers entering Germany and Sweden.

Some INGOs, like Islamic Relief Worldwide, are embracing domestic programming for numerous reasons, but this multi-mandate focus presents a range of challenges.

Why some international NGOs are working at home

DP has traditionally been an issue that receives little attention, but it has taken on a higher profile in recent years. This is due to several interconnected factors:

  1. The arrival of refugees in Europe from conflict in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen has raised the profile of the amount of development aid budgets spent “at home” on refugee support, which accounts for much of the increase in DAC-EU aid budgets. This has led to discussions about the legitimacy of spending aid budgets in this way.
  2. The agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has fostered a more universal approach to development. The goals apply to both the global north and south, reflecting changing development geographies and understandings of poverty.
  3. There is a growing public awareness of issues of inequalities in the global north made visible by events such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Flint water crisis in the USA. This has led to local advocacy campaigns around, for example, a domestic Disasters Emergency Committee and local government accountability.
  4. Accountability and trust issues are high on the agenda after the revelations in March 2018 of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in the humanitarian sector. This means that INGOs are strategising as to how to regain this trust and better demonstrate their accountability.

Between 2017 and 2018 we conducted research on seven of Islamic Relief Worldwide’s (IRW) 16 partner offices (POs) – Canada, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Sweden, UK and USA – to better understand their challenges and possible areas for expansion in domestic programming.

There are many different issues the POs face in implementing domestic programming due to the diversity of the political and socio-economic contexts in which they operate. Despite the difficulty in generalising across the network, our research identified five main challenges when it comes to domestic programming.

5 domestic programming challenges

  1. The rise of xenophobia presents several challenges for DP implementation. For example, it puts pressure on the programmes to frame their work in a way which either meets xenophobic views head on through engagement and rebuttal, or which keeps the work under the “radar” of public visibility.

    While Islamic Relief South Africa has taken the first route in their advocacy work in Cape Town, Islamic Relief Germany has opted for the second by, for example, removing the Islamic Relief logo from some children’s gifts in case their parents have right wing views.

  2. Domestic programming brings to the surface internal tensions within the organisation around strategy. In its Global Strategy 2017-2021 Islamic Relief Worldwide committed itself to significant investment in DPs. However, there was also clear internal resistance.

    A number of POs questioned whether there was really a desire to conduct domestic programming as opposed to fundraising. This is rooted in the apparent tension in the identity and purpose at the heart of DPs. Are they programmes to meet real and priority needs or are they fundraising or volunteer development vehicles? Can they be both?

    Fundraising for DPs is clearly seen as more difficult and less rewarding than fundraising for international humanitarian emergencies or development work. One interviewee said of fundraisers:

    “That’s why they are much happier to sleep in the bed of international humanitarian relief rather than in the bed of the local domestic programme. It’s back breaking, it’s a headache”.

  3. The gap between donor and organisational perceptions of poverty also posed a challenge. Islamic Relief Worldwide’s theory of change puts human dignity at the heart of wellbeing and situates poverty and deprivation in injustice and a denial of rights. This is in sharp contrast to the views of many IRW donors:

    “If you look at my parents, they are wanting to send money overseas as they say ‘oh there’s not really any poverty in Canada’, but then there’s the people who are living in impoverished areas, or the younger generations, there’s an appetite for them to help a lot more within Canada.”

  4. Unsurprisingly, a lack of resources is also a challenge for the DPs. This includes perceptions from fundraisers that there is no income in DPs and a lack of capacity for existing fundraisers to work within a new domestic context.

    These issues are connected to insufficient networks of local partners and links with appropriate government agencies. Islamic Relief UK, for example, has excellent long-standing relationships with the Department for International Development but very few with local government.

  5. Finally, the domestic programmes suffer from varied visibility. Domestic work in Malaysia and South Africa is clearly celebrated in annual reports and it is possible to make online donations to the programmes.

    However, this was inconsistent across the other POs. Islamic Relief US themed many of its domestic stories around “neighbours is need”, reflecting its well-established role as responder in domestic natural disasters, following its inception in 2004 after Hurricane Katrina.

    Sweden’s domestic work is dominated by refugee support and began in response to the arrival of 163,000 refugees in 2015. The Good Neighbour Platform, established by IR Sweden, Stockholm Mosque and the Church of Sweden, has attracted high-profile media attention for DP work and framed it within the context of being a “good neighbour”. This work has given IR Sweden new levels of visibility, credibility and networks (especially with central government) while also increasing its internal delivery capacity.

In addition to these five challenges, our research identifies possible areas of DP expansion and aligns these areas to the SDGs. The full report is now available via

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The research was commissioned by Islamic Relief/Humanitarian Academy for Development. For more information, please contact Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert, Research and Development, HAD, [email protected] or Dr Susannah Pickering-Saqqa, University of East London, [email protected]