Is your strategy an impediment to your transformation?

Recently, I was invited to talk to a group of senior leaders from a major UK INGO about the changes sweeping the sector.

The changes I was referring to focused mainly on the need for INGOs to reimagine their role in light of calls from Global South actors to ‘Decolonise’ and to ‘Shift Power’ and I shared with the group the insights we had heard from those actors about our organisational strategies.

Look at almost every INGO strategy and you’ll see ambition to do more: to help more people, empower more communities, and deliver more services. After all, in an increasingly volatile and fractured world, our role should be to do what we can to meet the growing needs of the communities we serve.

If you’re nodding in agreement, you’ve fallen into the trap that so many of us have fallen into over the years.

The trap is to assume that in the future, our organisations will continue to matter, that our skills will continue to be invaluable, and that local civil society in the countries where we work will be no better equipped to help than we think they are now or were years ago. Consciously or not, we have enshrined deficit thinking in our strategies. We may not say it explicitly, but it’s embedded in our pursuit of growth. They need us because they are helpless and they will remain helpless.

That thinking ignores the tens of millions of community-based organisations, local organisations and the millions of activists, networks, human rights defenders and others who call the country their home, are already helping and want to do more. The painful truth is that for decades these groups have been starved of funds. In a report soon to be released by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, Peace Direct, the RINGO project and others, we’ve calculated that of all funding available globally for civil society organisations, only 8% is channelled directly to local organisations, with the remaining 92% going to INGOs from the donor countries where those INGOs are headquartered.

Looking at the statistics alone, you might wonder why local civil society organisations aren’t angrier about the scraps they’ve received for years, while the INGOs have grown fat on decades of funding meant for the ‘development’ of others.

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The consequence of receiving such an unequal share of the funding pie for so long is that the local civil society ecosystem in most countries in the ‘Global South’ or ‘Majority World’ looks rather like a giant flat pyramid, with very few national organisations at the top that can compete with INGOs, and tens of thousands of local organisations operating voluntarily or on very modest budgets at the bottom.

This situation, ironically, becomes one of the reasons that many INGOs and donors do not allocate more funding to them, because – according to the logic of the funding ‘market’ – they lack the financial capacity to manage the funds. It’s a perverse circular logic that keeps poorly resourced organisations poor, and the already well-resourced INGOs, rich.

We can break this perverse cycle and achieve our vision of a world where communities are safer, more resilient and can lift themselves out of poverty and disadvantage. However, to do that, we have to accept that instead of having strategies based on growth, we must think about how to reduce our organisational footprint. It’s what I call the ‘Growing Smaller Strategy.’ In doing so we make way for the wealth of local civil society organisations who can replace us.

As one activist said during our recent global consultation on transforming international partnerships:

Local actors know the needs of their communities best; they should be heard, and more importantly respected. They don’t need to be rescued by international superheroes, they just need a space to perform and advocate their rights.

Adopting a transition mindset is one reason why Peace Direct, with CDA and Search for Common Ground, has spent the past five years exploring how INGOs can transition responsibly, and what support they might need to do so.

Getting smaller, rather than bigger, over time feels so counterintuitive that most CEOs and INGO Boards would probably baulk at the idea. But we must kick the habit and abandon the idea that we have to grow to be successful.

Recently, Peace Direct abandoned growth targets to counter this very problem, and I was lucky to have a Board that supported this decision. This begs the question: do we have the right leaders in place if we can’t imagine a world where INGOs aren’t in the driving seat?

So, as the sector begins to think about the next phase in its evolution, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the following questions:

  • How does our organisational footprint help or hinder the growth of indigenous civil society organisations in the places where we operate?
  • What aspects of our work can we transition out of in the short and long term?
  • Do we know which local organisations share our mission and vision, and how can we help them replace us?
  • What can we use instead of growth as a measure of success?

Let’s imagine for a moment what this alternative reality might deliver.

Over time, INGOs would, as part of their strategy to become smaller, identify the local organisations that are already aligned in terms of mission and vision and invest in them. In time, and probably quite quickly, we’d realise that they have always been able to do the job, cheaper and more sustainably than us.

Donors would begin to fund them directly. Civil society in the Global South would, for the first time, be adequately resourced, leading to a thriving and dynamic ecosystem. And that would leave us in the wonderful position of contemplating a radically different role for ourselves. A role where we aim to be the best ally we can be to local organisations and groups who always should have been in the driving seat of their own development.

Surely that’s a north star we can all be proud of.