Fit for the Future? Systems thinking and the role of International NGOs – draft paper for your comments

April 14, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

I’m committing potential hara-kiri by giving a DFID staff talk on the future of INGOs tomorrow lunchtime (Wednesday) – if you’re an FP2P reader in DFID, do please come along. Here’s the background and a call for

The challenge: how to take a supertanker white water rafting?

The challenge: how to take a supertanker white water rafting?

comments on the draft paper I’m presenting: (INGO futures, Green v5 April 2015 (edited)).

Just before Christmas, Oxfam boss Mark Goldring collared me in the canteen and off the back of a recent blog post, asked me to write a ‘provocative paper’ on the future of INGOs. Another one? My heart sank. The standard format goes:

  • Everything is changing. Mobile phones! Rise of China! Disintermediation!
  • Everything is speeding up. Interwebs! Instant feedback! Fickle consumers!
  • You, in contrast are excruciatingly slow, bureaucratic and out of touch. I spit on you and your logframes.
  • The conclusions then flounder about a bit in the latest development jargon – resilience, leverage, disruption, transformative, innovation etc (add/delete/combine as appropriate) and urge us all to……
  • Transform or die!

Then we all go home.

Now I’m not saying this is wrong – quite a few entries on this blog follow a similar format. But how to make this paper a bit different (or at least more interesting to write)? So I decided to come at it from a different angle– what do some of the changes in the way we think about development (systems thinking; ‘doing development differently’ ) imply for INGOs?

complexity signHere’s the exec sum, but trying to summarize a 15 page paper in a single page has, I’m afraid ended up making it sound much like all the other futures papers. What I’d really like is for you to comment on the full paper, which I will revise and publish after Wednesday (unless the discussion goes horribly wrong and we all agree that INGOs have no future, of course).

‘After briefly summarizing the main trends in international development, this short paper concentrates on two main issues: how is our understanding of development changing, and what are the implications of all the above for the future role of INGOs? The paper is intended to provoke discussion, rather than offer a balanced overview. It does not represent Oxfam policy.

Increased attention to systems thinking in development raises profound challenges for INGOs, highlighting the folly of many simple linear interventions, and the merits of alternative approaches such as bringing together stakeholders to find solutions together (convening and brokering), multiple experiments and rapid iteration based on fast feedback and adaptation. The discontinuity of most change processes also underlines the need to be able to spot and respond to potentially short-lived windows of opportunity, such as shocks or moments of political flux.

Unfortunately, a simplistic interpretation of private sector thinking is also pushing aid agencies towards a linear ‘Fordist’ approach to going to scale, even though large parts of the private sector have long since abandoned it in favour of systems thinking, disruption and innovation.

How should INGOs respond to this changing environment? How can they plan and operate once they accept that in a complex system, they cannot know what is going to happen? There are numerous options, most of which would entail a substantial change in working practices.

At the heart of these changes is the need across all aspects of Oxfam’s work to relinquish a command and control approach, in favour of embracing a systems approach. In terms of investment, this means increasing the ratio of ‘change capital’ to ‘delivery capital’.

Such change poses tough questions, including:

1. Does size matter? Is working in this way best done by large INGOs with their advantages of large knowledge base and economies of scale, or by a cluster of more agile guerrilla organizations like Global Witness, Avaaz or single issue institutions like the Ethical Trading Initiative?

2. How can we identify and address the sources of inertia? Unless we do so, these kinds of discussions are unlikely to reach a different outcome.

3. What does this mean for our staff? What would need to change in terms of HR practices (recruitment, training, performance management, incentives and internal narratives) to become an organization with a better balance of planner s and searchers (entrepreneurs)?

4. And how could such an organization be funded?!’

Over to you – looking forward to your comments.


April 14, 2015
Duncan Green