9 Useful Roles INGOs can play as Intermediaries in an Age of Localization

January 25, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Thanks to Ivan Campbell for alerting me to this really good (and brief) paper from Peace Direct, looking at useful roles for INGOs as intermediaries, as they seek to localize and/or step back from direct implementation. Edited down version below.

In recent years, there has been growing scrutiny of the largely unchanged role that INGOs have played in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts. This scrutiny includes the push towards greater ‘localisation’, systems change processes that aim to ‘shift power’ towards more locally led development and global discussions around how to ‘decolonise’ the sector.

Peace Direct has identified at least nine additional roles for intermediaries, which reflect our experience working with local partners for over 20 years.


Donors and policymakers often publish statements and policies that are inaccessible and couched in jargon. This makes it difficult for local actors to interpret what they mean. Intermediaries can play a useful role in translating these policies to be more accessible. This can help to ensure that local groups can engage in wider geopolitical and thematic discussions, enabling them to share their perspectives and expertise.

Knowledge Broker and Producer

While the expertise needed to tackle complex humanitarian challenges is often found locally, there is also a wealth of knowledge and expertise elsewhere. It is found in the practice, research and insights generated by activists, communities and organisations all over the world. Yet local actors rarely have the time or resources to locate this knowledge and use it effectively. Intermediaries can play a useful role in bridging this gap. This can be between local actors in the Global South and actors in the Global North as well as facilitating knowledge exchange across different countries or continents in the Global South.

Intermediaries can also play a useful role in producing and sharing knowledge about the work that they support. This should be done with great care, since the production and consumption of knowledge is dominated by Global North actors. The need to decolonise research is widely acknowledged and any role for the intermediary as a knowledge producer should therefore be handled very sensitively.

Trainer, Coach and Co-Learner

Peace Direct’s ‘Time to Decolonise Aid’ report outlined how some INGOs and donors argue that local groups and communities ‘lack capacity’. Local actors argue that INGOs use the ‘low capacity’ argument to justify their own plans, which results in them directly implementing activities, not working with local partners and maintaining a distorted view of countries and communities in the Global South. When local partners are included as partners, INGOs often justify their role as ‘technical experts’ even when this is not necessary.

While local organisations are rightly very critical of the problematic framing of ‘capacity building’ they also acknowledge that there are skills that they are keen to develop and strengthen and that they are keen to learn from others.

Intermediaries can plug this gap by providing training and coaching where necessary, for example training in donor reporting, advocacy and campaigning, or strategic planning. Intermediaries can also play a useful role in co-learning. This could mean developing a joint learning agenda with local partners and not assuming that their role is in facilitating the learning of their partners.

As with knowledge production, the role of trainer and coach should be handled with great care since ‘capacity building’ often masks deeply entrenched and often racist views of the superiority of ‘Global North’ approaches and expertise.


Opportunities for collective reflection and learning among civil society actors are extremely limited. Shrinking civic space, increasing competition and suspicion among local actors means there are few opportunities to bring local groups together. In addition, the current system of funding for CSOs often pits local organisations against each other, which reinforces competition rather than collaboration. As a result, local groups rarely have the opportunity to strategise together and learn from one another. This leads to a weakening of local civil society.

Intermediaries can play a useful role in providing spaces for local groups to reflect, plan and learn together, either in-country or outside.

While in-person convenings are almost always the most rewarding, online convenings can be powerful spaces too, if online access can be provided.

Connector and Ecosystem Builder

Civil society in most Global South countries can be characterised as suffering from horizontal and vertical fragmentation. Horizontal fragmentation happens when local groups cannot connect with one another to learn and work together. There are a range of reasons for this: funding constraints, competition/suspicion, and logistical constraints such as poor roads, communications infrastructure, equipment, and lack of transportation.

Vertical fragmentation happens when local groups cannot connect to national and international organisations and processes. Horizontal and vertical fragmentation share many of the same causes. However vertical fragmentation often happens when ‘elites’ including INGOs and decision makers deliberately exclude local actors.

Intermediaries can help bridge these divides, by connecting local actors both horizontally and vertically. This can happen by playing a convening role (see point 4 above) but also through facilitating and funding exchanges and visits.

Advocate and Amplifier

One of the most impactful roles an intermediary can play is to use its power to advocate to policymakers on behalf of local actors, create space for local actors to advocate directly and ensure that local organisations receive a profile, credit and a platform for their work and achievements. The protection, power and influence, proximity to geopolitical power and visibility enjoyed by many intermediaries can be utilised to amplify the voices of those who aren’t afforded these opportunities or who can’t speak out due to security concerns.


In countries around the world, space for civil society to operate freely is declining. Civil society organisations, campaigners and leaders are facing increasingly repressive policies and actions by their own governments, leading to risks of impunity, violence and an erosion of human rights.

Intermediaries can play an important role as watchdogs, monitoring trends in the policies and practices of repressive and democratic states and raising this in the international arena. This is not only a way of utilising the power of the intermediary to uphold the rights of others; but is a powerful demonstration of solidarity which is highly valued by local partners.

Critical Friend

Many INGOs consider local actors as ‘implementing partners’ and treat them like subcontractors with commercial-style agreements to deliver specific outputs. Very few local actors want to be treated this way, but they feel that they have no choice. What local actors want are long term partnerships based on mutual respect, trust and flexibility.

Peace Direct has grown to understand that the role of the intermediary as a critical friend is highly valued. A critical friend does not use their power to dictate the terms of the relationship. Instead, they provide advice and guidance when asked and offer themselves as a sounding board for ideas, challenges and opportunities faced by the local partner. The ‘friend’ part of the equation is to be in solidarity with the aims and mission of their partner, to offer support when they make mistakes, and to see their partners as people we care about at a deeply human level.


The least known role for intermediaries is being the sidekick for local partners. By ‘sidekick’ we mean a subordinate role, one that supports the local organisation in whatever it needs, but doesn’t overstep the support role.

While the role of the sidekick may mean performing many of the roles outlined in points 1-8 above, it is also a state of mind or philosophy which aims to reverse the status quo. This means that Global South actors are acknowledged as being in the driving seat, while Global North actors are passengers. The sidekick manifesto is a good example of how INGOs can conceptualise this commitment.

January 25, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. A good post Duncan, but I am not sure that there is something new, something that INGOs haven’t been saying for a decade at least. Also, why do I get a feeling that this was written ONLY from the perspective of Peace Direct? I wonder what piece and how many ‘roles’ might emerge if a group of ‘local’ NGOs were to write the paper. I ask because in an exercise I facilitated a few years ago, the roles identified for an INGO by the INGO staff members themselves and local partners had almost no overlap! I saw it repeated in other places too.

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    2. Hi Makarand. Thanks for your input. You are absolutely right that this is based solely on our perspective, which I hope is clear from the introduction to the paper. In other words, this is not based on empirical research that we conducted, but rather an internal reflection of the different roles we have played and continue to play, to varying degrees. And you’re absolutely right that there’s nothing particularly new here, though we are constantly surprised at how few INGOs consider themselves the support team or ‘sidekick’ to their local partners, to name just one example. We’ve heard from our partners how many of these roles are really valued, hence us wanting to share this with the wider sector. Right now most INGOs are still fixated on their roles as so-called self appointed ‘experts’ in some form of direct implementation. We are hoping and encouraging INGOs to relinquish these roles, as we believe they are no longer needed. But the paper does hopefully point to other useful roles that INGOs can play.

  2. All very laudable, but in Myanmar where some INGOs have practised some of these approaches for the past 10-15 years, following the military coup in February 2021, INGOs have ignored their local ‘partners’ (what a misused term) and have increased their direct work through, and therefore under the control of, the military junta. It is possible to fund local groups from outside Myanmar, but donor rules and the desire to maintain a presence (of highly paid foreign staff) in country means that pleas from these local groups to be supported flexibly, from outside, have been largely ignored. ‘Localisation’ has been dropped, and the power inbalance between large, effective national organisations and their INGO ‘partners’ has been laid bare. When aid becomes a weapon of control, many INGOs, hanging on to their 3-5 year funded programs, become a tool of de facto powers.

    1. Thanks Zunetta. Your story is all too familiar. What I should have made clearer in the paper is that we see the nine roles as being ones that INGOs can play when they are not based in-country. In other words, we are looking at a time when INGO country offices close down and INGOs transition out of their implementing role. This doesn’t mean that the nine roles can’t and shouldn’t be played by INGOs in-country where they have country offices. But we are highly critical of country offices, because they often are a means of control and we find it very difficult to imagine how they can play some of these nine roles humbly, given how power is so deeply entrenched in these structures.

  3. Since a couple of years I keep reading and hearing the future for INGOs lies in taking up new roles, as different kinds of non-financial intermediaries. The shared report very nicely summaries most of them, thanks. INGOs need to take up a view beyond merely minimising transaction costs when they think about their intermediary role.
    However, I do lack good practical examples of organisations that have taken up some of these roles? And by good examples I mean organisations that have really emphasised these as core roles.
    At best I see INGOs couple their core “financial intermediary role” (in case they do work through CSOs or other “local” NGOs) with some of the roles laid out in the report. But I have not seen an example of an INGO ready to shrink its budget and really take up non-financial intermediary roles… Budget maximisation seems to be a vested interest… How do we change INGOs incentive structure?

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      That strikes me as the right question Nicola – asking any institution, even a not-for-profit, to work against its own incentives seems unlikely to succeed in the long term

    2. Thanks Nicola. You are right. There are too few examples right now of INGOs reducing their organisational footprint. But, at least from Peace Direct’s perspective, we are trying! A few years ago I made the decision not to grow the organisation and when I took this to my Board, they agreed. We are also trying to persuade our donors to fund our local partners directly. This is not happening as quickly as we would like but we are making some progress. And as for the nine roles, we are spending more time on these roles than we have ever done before. Finally, I do hope we will get to the point when our role as a financial intermediary becomes redundant. Fingers crossed that this happens in the next 3-5 years.

  4. In Pakistan interestingly the experience is the opposite. Pakistan has some strong local institutions with capacity to deliver aid on a large scale and also addreds both upward and downward accountabilities effectively. In most instances the International organisations are associated with the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum which excludes the largest deliverors of aid locally and is made up of smaller organisations with smaller capacities. Little effort is made to bridge this gap because the issue seems to be more of power than delivery of aid. This is sad because a great deal of the knowledge of the local context and instititional memory lies with this group of local institutions. International organisation miss this knowledge out and since they are well connected to the internationally funded and managed policy forum this knowledge does not feed into it

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    2. Masood, your experience is sadly very common worldwide. But I sincerely hope that things are changing. From what we see, there is growing unease among local organisations who are unwilling to accept this status quo. This came out in our ‘Time to Decolonise Aid’ report, which I hope you’ve had a chance to read.

  5. Duncan – Thanks for promoting this paper. The ideas may not be new, but they provide INGOs a straight-forward basis for evaluating specific interventions. And while it would be easy to rationalize specific interventions as meeting one or more of the nine roles specified in the paper, just going through the exercise of matching the intervention against specific roles should be productive, particularly if a skeptical view is taken to the rationalization effort.

  6. There is no justification probably insecurities, issues of power. Small organisations are easy to control. It doesnt look good but that is the way the humanitarian architecture operates. What i do find sad is when the figures of damage assessment after a catastrophe like floods come. The community infrastructures these local institutions have helped built gets missed out. Its like the government missing out community infrastructure because it was not built by the line agencies. Fortunately the government has become aware of this dilemma and has started correcting it at their forums set up for natural disasters.

  7. Thanks Dylan for responding in detail. I did not mean to cavil about your 9 points; sorry if that is how the comment came across. Was just voicing my experience of working with NGOs in the south. What we see in the relationship depends on where we sit. Power still remains unequal and decides a lot of how actors come through.

    1. Hi Makarand. Yes you are absolutely right. Power is still so unequally distributed in the system and so few INGOs appear willing to give up their power. We need agitators from within the organisations and institutions as well as agitators from outside to continue to keep pushing for change. In the meantime, we hope that our ‘nine roles’ paper may give some INGOs food for thought about a different future for their organisation.

  8. Hi everyone, thanks to all of you for your contributions to such an interesting and important debate. The point about the fact that the voice of local actors is missing in this article reminded me of the research published last year by Ringo. They captured views from 609 global south CSOs (mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa) about their experiences with INGOs and it touches a little bit on the type of support that they want/need from INGOs. Here is the link in case someone wants to take a look:

  9. Hi, great engagement on this topic and to Dylan for writing up your thoughts in the first place, it really helps to take the conversation forward. Mark Abrahams and I were going to work more on a response, but I see the engagement is already great – so I will add our view. From Dylan’s response I understand now that it was written purely from the perspective of an INGO, but there is something in the general points and message in the article we find difficult. It still positions the Global North or INGOs as saviours of the Global South, needing to be “very careful” not to step on our toes; watching us “suffering” from poor coordination etc. … But it is not just the language, the perspective is based on a deficit and not a strengths model of local capacity. Further, it purports to reinvent the role of the INGO in a more palatable way, in a way that INGOs maintain more than a sense of relevance but become necessary. The responses point out that there are very few examples of INGOs acting as genuine intermediaries, instead, they take control of the local implementation strategies. The author also admits that INGOs take on strategic roles to ensue their own relevance and sustain themselves rather than empower the local.

    INGOs have become powerbrokers and they have the power of resources and networks. While the roles identified in the paper clearly do have value – knowledge brokering, amplification – it is essential that Southern Voices are HEARD in global spaces, and not appropriated in INGO glossy publications, or crowded out by more polished presentations. As the decolonisation activists have been saying – sit back and listen.

    There are many good individuals within these formations and some of them are progressive but very few will ‘work themselves out of a job’ -because that is the purpose of a catalytic intervention/ strategy. Some of the institutions are in it for the long run, as are development agencies. They need to reflect on if there is real knowledge transfer, if power relationships remain the same for decades, if the marginalised stay in the margins, if the North – South gap continues to grow – if yes to these then INGOs are failing. Or they are not learning from their failures.

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