How are INGOs Doing Development Differently? 5 of them have just taken a look.

December 13, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Hats off to World Vision for pulling together some analysis on where large international NGOs (INGOs) have got to on ‘Doing Development Differently’ (see the 2014 manifesto if you’re not up to speed on DDD). Up to now, NGOs have been rather quiet in a discussion dominated by government aid agencies, academics and thinktanks. World Vision asked Dave Algoso to look at examples from 5 INGOs (CARE, IRC, Mercy Corps and Oxfam, as well as WV), and he’s produced a pleasingly brief 10 page summary of what he found. Here are some highlights:

Summary: ‘The contributions that INGOs can make to the DDD movement stem from their positioning within the development sector. Their programmatic experiences and in-house expertise differ from those of academics, think tanks, donor agencies, contractors, and national or local NGOs and community organizations. INGOs’ contributions to the conversation fall into three major themes:

Localizing power and ownership in DDD practice. The DDD manifesto emphasizes the need to address local problems, defined by local people in locally owned processes, legitimized at all levels. To reach the most marginalized people and communities, INGOs wrestle with the power imbalances that often prevent those communities from engaging in development processes. Many INGOs have developed specific practices and techniques that make this possible.

Funding and accountability for adaptation. Though not mentioned in the manifesto, the effect of funding modalities on adaptation, accountability, and partnerships has been a frequent discussion topic at DDD gatherings. INGOs sit at the centre of the rapid cycles of blended design and implementation that characterize DDD practice. They are learning to navigate the constraints set by funding and compliance, while also defining better forms of partnerships that actively encourage adaptation.

Institutionalizing DDD across large agencies. From the first workshop, the DDD community has wrestled with how to best spread the principles. INGOs have contributed to the public body of knowledge, but the bulk of their effort has been focused on internal reforms. Each organization interprets the DDD principles in terms of their specific mission, contexts, and approaches, increasing the likelihood of the practices taking root across their broad portfolios.’

Of these three, I found the more in-depth explanation of the second point the most substantive:

‘The topic of funding is impossible to avoid in discussions of development approaches. INGOs’ position in the development ecosystem means they are often working directly with both the sources of funds and the communities meant to benefit from them. As a result, they often find themselves trying to do development differently while resourcing development in the same old ways. This can lead to some contradictions, which INGOs are learning to address.

Insight: Flexible funding, in one form or another, is needed for DDD

Most development funding involves planning and budgeting practices that constrain how a program adapts in response to local needs. Strict budget lines or the incentives to spend quickly and steadily (through high “burn rates”) often prevent teams from re-allocating resources when pre-planned activities become less relevant and a program needs to change direction. These factors make it much harder to blend design and implementation, to learn and iterate, or to make “small bets” that may be replicated or dropped.

Many DDD practices benefit from some amount of flexibility in funding. However, this can take many forms; completely unrestricted funds are not the only way to resource DDD approaches. Other examples include extended inception/design phases, dedicated funding for innovation and risk-taking, and triggering mechanisms for funding increases or other budget changes.


An extended inception period allowed the Three Millennium Development Goal project, in Myanmar’s Kayah State, to create a more context-specific and adaptable approach. Managed by the IRC and including six health organizations based in different ethnic communities, the project consortium used the six-month inception period to build trust through initial activities and conduct a stakeholder analysis. When the initial funding of $530,000 was expanded to a two-year grant for $8 million, the consortium had created specific plans for each health organization, based on the unique needs and capacities of their communities. There was also a flexible funding line, which was later tapped for opportunistic projects like a joint vaccination campaign run by multiple partners.

Flexible funding is also important for World Vision’s “Transformational Development” approach, which involves significant upfront community engagement prior to specific programs or grants. World Vision funds this work from unrestricted sources, especially through child sponsorship fundraising, and can then use grants for the projects that are identified through the process. This has enabled work with communities over longer time-frames than would be possible solely under grants. The organization is increasingly looking for ways to sustain the approach under shorter-term funding arrangements, especially in fragile contexts.

Insight: Adaptive partnerships go beyond budget lines

Even when funding is flexible—and especially when it is not—the way partners collaborate matters greatly in DDD approaches. Accountability mechanisms can stand in the way of program changes, as when pre-defined output measures cannot be changed to match program pivots, or when onerous compliance or reporting requirements take time and attention away from reflection and learning. On the other hand, partnerships characterized by open communication and sharing can actively encourage reflection, learning, and risk-taking.

These dynamics, between a donor and an INGO, are mirrored in the relationships among INGOs, sub-grantees, community-based organizations, communities, and other partners in a development initiative. Deep and ongoing engagement, as described above, often includes feedback/listening mechanisms that hold INGOs accountable to their partners and the communities they serve. Collaboration across organizations can bring scale to DDD efforts.


Though more focused on humanitarian relief, Mercy Corps’ South and Central Syria program illustrates the possibilities for adaptive partnerships, even in a challenging operating environment. In-country program partners, ranging from established local NGOs to more informal networks, would propose projects based on the needs they saw on the ground. The Mercy Corps team would work with them to craft context-appropriate compliance measures, so that they could access aid funding from major donors, and would also provide ongoing coaching to improve documentation over time.’

And then some sensible questions to finish off:

Localizing power and ownership in DDD practice: How might we link power shifts from the community level through to elite/ministerial levels, so that they reinforce one another? How can these links help to scale and sustain ownership?

Funding and accountability for adaptation: What types of flexible funding mechanisms, design and planning approaches, and partnership structures can best encourage collaborative DDD across agencies? And how do these vary by funding contexts, sectoral areas, and other factors?

Institutionalizing DDD across large agencies: What governance, administrative, operational, and other shifts need to happen in development institutions of all kinds to institutionalize of DDD approaches? How can voices and perspectives from the global south be valued in these shifts?’

Good to see INGOs coming to the table – I think the DDD movement will benefit greatly from their increased presence.