You can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting: what future for International NGOs?

December 10, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

This post also appears on the ‘Practice for Change’ blog

I try to avoid those endless bouts of INGO navel gazing, but don’t always succeed. Which is lucky, because recently, I had a really interesting session on ‘the future of

The Golden Age or a bunch of hippies in a zoo?

The Golden Age or a bunch of hippies in a zoo?

INGOs’ at La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change in Melbourne.

I kicked off summarising a recent paper (The End of the Golden Age of NGOs) by my host, Chris Roche & exfam CEO Andrew Hewett. In it they ask if INGOs are coming to the end of their ‘Golden Age’, subject to a swelling chorus of criticism that the secret of their success also contains the seeds of their downfall:

  • Building public trust by telling on oversimplified story that ‘aid will make poverty history’
  • Squeezing out more legitimate, representative voices from the South
  • Getting too close to northern governments, especially through funding arrangements, but  also by wanting to keep access to decision makers
  • Too big, ineffective and bureaucratic
  • Being by-passed by more nimble ‘start-ups’


Trends in development have thrown up a series of challenges to this Golden Age model:

  • Mass poverty is giving way to pockets of chronic poverty in most countries
  • Otherwise, fragile and conflict states are becoming the final, most difficult terrain for ending world poverty
  • The issues that affect developing countries are increasingly global (climate change) and/or shared (inequality, tobacco, obesity)
  • Citizen action is rising, but the political space for that action is shrinking.


The aid business is in a weird eeyorish mood. Although global aid volumes have bucked the historical trend and have not (yet) slumped after the global financial crisis, aid is under unprecedented question and self doubt is prevalent. Responses have included a much greater focus on results and value for money, and a high degree of ‘private sector fetishism’ (‘states are rubbish, aid agencies are rubbish, send in the private sector!’)

INGOs are currently responding in various ways: defending aid quantities; trying to decentralise to the South, both in terms of their programmes, but also their internal governance. There has been a rise in multi-stakeholder approaches, seeking to work with states, private sector and others, rather than go it alone. And I detect a growing divide between a service delivery and advocacy approach (are we about shifting policies, narratives and norms or delivering vaccines and bednets? Sure, everyone will answer ‘both’, but the relative emphasis varies over time and between INGOs).

What’s more, the very category of ‘INGO’ is acquiring some blurred boundaries. Are southern INGOs like BRAC International a fundamentally different beast? Where do social enterprises, impact investors and the big philanthropists fit?

Typical INGO brainstorm

Typical INGO brainstorm

So what does the future hold?

On shared problems, either we are all in this together, eg on tackling inequality, or in areas where traditionally northern problems are heading south (obesity, non communicable diseases, road deaths), aid agencies (both government and NGOs) could become signposters and networkers, rather than acting in their own right. Want to tackle road traffic carnage? Here’s the email for Britain’s road safety experts, and funding for an exchange programme.

CGD’s emphasis on advocacy around the North’s impact on development (climate change, migration, tax, aid quality) rather than lecturing developing countries, is always attractive, and won’t go away.

In the South, there is a greater focus on the role of state, building up and supporting national expertise and autonomy, and then INGOs supporting with their external links to donors, media and multilateral organisations, as well as technical expertise, where it is missing.

Always-painful efforts to increase flexibility and adaptation, introduce systems approaches etc, leading to widespread Innovation Tourettes.

But then we got on to the issue of size. The default measure of success in most INGOs is ‘are we growing?’ If income falls, it triggers painful bouts of restructuring and a general sense of malaise. But the focus on size sits uncomfortably with all that blah about being innovative and agile – as Chris Roche put it ‘you can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting’. So to my joy, we came up with every policy wonk’s favourite – a 2×2, with small v big, and advocacy v social delivery as the two axes.




  • Conventional advocacy steamrollers like Greenpeace or Oxfam (on a good day)
  • Big single issue coalitions, like Robin Hood Tax, or Jubilee 2000
Service Delivery
  • Incubators that get picked up by governments and big INGOs (examples?)
  • Disintermediated cash transfers (GiveDirectly)
  • Social Enterprises
  • Providing services where states aren’t up the job (faith organizations, Save, Care)
  • Humanitarian Emergencies
  • Big Philanthropic Foundations (GatesCIFF)


As with any typology, people are probably going to protest at the grotesque oversimplification and disagree both with the categories and their allotted box – ‘we’re in all four!’ But I’d be interested in your comments, examples and whether this leads to any implications for the evolutionary path of INGOs.

And here’s some actual white water rafting on the Nile in Uganda, in memory of the worst afternoon of my life (when I discovered I really don’t like adrenaline). Thanks to Savio Carvalho for suggesting I go……

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/youtube]

December 10, 2014
Duncan Green