5 Ways to Reboot International NGOs

July 2, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

I finished my 20 year stint at Oxfam at the end of April, and as it recedes in the rear view mirror, I’ve been thinking about the future role of INGOs with a bit more distance. Spoiler, I don’t think they should shut up shop in the name of decolonization or anything else – there is important work still to do, but the nature of that work needs to constantly evolve to keep up with reality and changing understanding of aid, development and their possible roles within it.

First of all, there will always be a need to work on problems that require solutions beyond the national level – climate change, tax evasion, corruption, the arms trade, species loss, reform of the multilateral system etc etc. Add to that new issues such as AI or geoengineering, or ‘new old issues’ like nuclear proliferation that could pose threats to excluded groups, as well as opportunities. With their combination of a global footprint and links to organizations working on the ground, INGOs are well placed to work on at least some of these, as we’ve seen on everything from the Arms Trade Treaty to international legal activism on the fossil fuel industry.

Second, at the national/subnational level, some of the ideas I put forward while at Oxfam look less interesting now, while others seem just as salient. In no particular order, here are five that I still reckon are worth considering (with apologies if you’ve heard these rants before).

Fundraisers without Borders: Power follows money. As long as local civil society organizations remain dependent on aid, they will always be subordinate in the aid relationship. What’s more that dependence is increasingly becoming a source of political vulnerability, allowing governments to brand them as ‘foreign agents’ (India, Georgia, Russia). So INGOs need to get serious about helping their partners wean themselves off aid, and raise more of their income locally (e.g. through zakat or tithing), which could also do wonders for their local accountability.

There is an extraordinary number of ‘without borders’ organizations – full list here. The A’s alone include Acupuncturists WB, Accountants WB and Astronomers WB. So why isn’t there a Fundraisers without Borders? INGO and other fund raisers, current or retired, could spend a couple of months a year working with in partners to boost their local income. When Caritas Nigeria asked CAFOD to send them a couple of fundraisers to see if they could tap into local Catholic giving, they were overwhelmed with the response.

Stick to Humanitarian and Advocacy, drop/greatly cut back on Long-Term Development: The logic is that there will always be a need for outside help in extremis, and advocacy will be needed at the very least on global challenges from climate change to AI to tax evasion. Long-term development is a more doubtful proposition: the development of local economies, improved education, better South-South communications etc make the benefits less obvious, and the risks of colonialism, whether intentional or otherwise, greater. For a bit more nuance on the future of the three functions of INGOs, see this intriguing paper by Penny Lawrence (or my blog about it).

Be More Amnesty: What if INGOs moved to more of a solidarity model, akin to Amnesty’s Prisoner of Conscience campaigns? When CSOs come under threat, they could come to their defence (though some of them might not want it, due to the optics of foreign interference), and INGOs would then go all in with whatever’s needed – direct advocacy to governments or donors, cash, seconding staff etc. Maybe promote something like Peace Brigades International?

Immersions: Robert Chambers, one of my heroes, is a big fan of these.  Here’s what he said back in 2007:

‘Immersions can take many forms, but an almost universal feature is staying in a poor community, as a person, living with a host family, helping with tasks and sharing in their life. The overnight stay is vital for relationships, experience, and relaxed conversations after dark and talking into the night. There may be activities like working with and helping the family, listening and dialogue, learning a life history, keeping a reflective diary or trying to explain your work and its relevance, but the essence is to be open much of the time to the unplanned and unexpected, to live and be and relate as a person. The unplanned incident is so often the most striking, moving and significant. Much is experienced and learnt, but what that will be is hard to predict.   Agreement seems universal that immersions give insights and experiences that are not otherwise accessible. Those who participate learn in a personal way about people’s lives, livelihoods and cultures and the conditions they experience. The world can be seen the other way round, from the perspective of people living in poverty.   Quite often there are stark and startling insights and impacts.’

If it sounds a bit white saviourist, think again. This is about going to work and listen alongside a community, the opposite of a ‘needs assessment’ or ‘building their capacity’. I think it could be a great antidote to the loss of real contact (an unintended consequence of localization) that I described in one of my outgoing blogs.

Positive Deviance or Cash Transfers as default: If INGOs decide to start work on a particular issue in a particular setting, where should they start? The traditional way is to identify a gap that needs filling – clean water, poor health etc etc. I think they should instead start from the assets – where are people getting better access to clean water? Why are some kids healthier/less malnourished than others? This ‘positive deviance approach’ is more respectful, acknowledging that solutions (full or partial) often arise locally, and that white saviours are not required. The approach has been remarkably effective on everything from FGM to school drop-out rates to reducing malnutrition, and yet remains firmly in development’s Cinderella camp. Why that might be so would take a whole other post…..

Another intriguing idea is to only embark on a project if you can satisfy yourself that it is likely to get better results than simply handing the funds to the people you are trying to help as a cash transfer. See one such comparison from Rwanda here.

Open to other suggestions, natch.

July 2, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Thanks a lot, Duncan.
    I have worked for and with INGOs for most of my 20-year career. Six years ago, I moved back to my home country and probably lost contact with some of the internal debates within the INGO world, but what you write is concerning.

    Sure, INGOs must change and adapt, but please do not lock yourselves into a corner!!!

    The world has changed; power is more and more concentrated globally, few people hold an increasing amount of resources, and inequality is growing as never before. For this elite, globalization never stopped.

    What globalization failed to do is promote rights at the global level, address global challenges at the correct scale, and get organized at the global level.

    Nation-states failed for sure, looking more and more inward (Sovranism, Brexit, etc.). I believe the only hope we have to rebalance this incredible concentration of power is a strong, organized, and global civil society movement. Localization should not translate into nationalizing INGOs; on the contrary, we need to rethink also our geographic categories (why INGOs are usually organized at the national level is a mystery to me)

    We never had the need for a global civil society movement as much as we do now. If we don’t want to be strangled by our national borders.

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      Thanks Daniele, agree with the sentiment, but the politics of this strike me as super complicated – most politics remains national, including that affecting/shaping CSOs, so what would be the specific targets of a ‘global civil society movement’ that gets political traction beyond the occasional upsurge in coordinated protest?

      1. I think that’s exactly the problem Duncan, politics are happening at the national level, while powers thrive unchallenged at the global level.

        How can we re-balance that, if not through strong, organized, vocal, global civil society movements?

  2. Thanks Duncan – broadly in agreement. I think a key issue here is one of identity – best to ‘own the international’ nourishing away, and harness its power. I’m tempted to also say also to finds ways to ‘own the northern’ and harness / subvert its power as well.

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  3. Go Duncan – I couldn’t agree more and thanks for the mention. The paper I wrote in 2020 is in the TSRC section of Birmingham University website:
    The challenge for big INGOs is how to get there. Having tried from the inside to ‘evolve’ such change I know its not easy when you hold such power and so many employees… so I’m left with thinking the only way is to be more radical – breakup big INGOs… keep the parts that are part of the future or allow a phoenix arise from the ashes. Tweaking round the edges wont do it and the longer INGOs wait the more out of date and out of synch they will get as the world is changing faster than INGOs seem to be capable of changing …

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      thanks for the link and thoughts Penny, hope you’re well! Agree that the inertia of INGOs is pretty striking

  4. Thank you for always making us think! I loved the ‘immersions’ bit – no surprise coming from a field anthropologist. But thanks for drawing (much needed) attention to RC’s work!

    PS: I haven’t accepted that you’ve left Oxfam yet 🙂

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  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Duncan. I found this very intriguing to reflect on.

    When we refer to unintended consequences of localisation, we have to ask ‘unintended for whom’?
    I hold a different sentiment on immersions as I think there are issues that we we need to grapple with a bit more. For many faith groups what we refer to here as ‘Immersions’ are an integral part of faith practice – for very similar reasons that development actors would have. What I’ve learnt through working with churches (in the UK and Southern Africa) on this is that although they do achieve the objectives above, there is still a silence around what cost this comes at for the communities and families hosting, not just financial, but emotionally, relationally, spiritually – particularly if it happens often. How are families and communities compensated for their efforts to host, to give their time, their labour, their knowledge? The silence on community perspectives that I’m referring to also feels present in this post (and related ones).
    We also have to continue asking what does being aware and mitigating for unequal power and different forms of privilege means for our work. Localisation efforts may encourage us to only resource individuals in that context to be immersion – but even with nationals, there are still issues of class, caste etc that individuals need to be aware of.
    So what would it look like to approach this differently and explore processes where communities initiative the invitation? What would it look like to be invited by the community into their homes, places of worship, sacred spaces? Who gets to be invited?
    I’m still hesitant on championing immersions because to me, they feel like another way we centre ourselves in communities – which we are trying to get away from.

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  6. Very interesting post, something that all of us working in INGOs think about often. I am definitely going to read Penny Lawrence’s paper! I believe part of the problem is that now the field is dominated by a few very large organizations funded through foreign aid budgets and a few very large private foundations. They still speak the language of small NGOs but for all practical purposes act like international for profit corporations. The spirit of the small charity or nonprofit organization is lost and that spirit is exactly what you are talking about – person to person assistance. What’s been frustrating to me is that the discourse on decolonization has not affected the large organizations and foreign aid departments at all but small organizations are bending backwards to prove something they were not to begin with. The corporatization of the CSO sector is the problem here, not so much the practices.
    I love the principle of solidarity you propose and it’s probably the reason why many individuals join the sector but many become disillusioned with the space and I hope it will change soon.

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  7. Very useful piece Duncan. On the issue of addressing international issues, I had a discussion with David McNair at a conference recently saying that INGOs could play a far more strategic role than they did during my period of G20 work. A a representative of a relatively small country which cares about some of the same issues that the INGOs do, i wanted to know if the INGOs could tell me what the positions of various other countries were on particular issues, were they allies, blockers or amenable to discussion. I did not get useful responses at the time. I think that the collection and use of strategic knowledge and its judicious distribution among allied and amenable states could be a powerful role for some INGOs.

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