Simon Maxwell

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Is there a future for Northern NGOs in a world of MICs?

Many official aid agencies are rethinking their mission, geographical range and instruments; and among those that aren’t, many will be considering their score on the Kharas/Rogerson stress test and wondering whether it is about time they did. I wonder whether the same is true of NGOs? Certainly, the underlying drivers are similar. I propose six guiding principles and a stress test for NGOs. Many will find they are already meeting the standard. Some may not.

For the world of mainstream official aid, the issues are now well known: the rapid rise in the number of middle income countries which can be argued not to need traditional grant aid; the need for new and more political approaches in fragile states, blurring hitherto sharp boundaries between diplomacy, development and defence; the crying need for greater political and financial investment in global pubic goods, notably climate change, but also global macroeconomic management; and the proliferation of aid suppliers and modalities, including the rise of emerging donors and the active role of philanthropic institutions (including those which by-pass intermediaries, and link donors directly to individual recipients). Kharas and Rogerson refer to these as ‘disruptors’. I have been writing about them for many years, most recently gazing into the crystal ball to try and discern the future of development and humanitarian aid.

At the DANIDA 50th anniversary conference in 2012, I talked about ‘same mission statement, new job description’, meaning that the overall objective of development would remain unchanged (well-being, social inclusion, sustainable development) but that the task of getting there would require different interventions – as well, incidentally, as different competencies in development agencies. The figure below illustrates the kind of thing I mean: fewer old style poverty programmes in poor countries, run by aid departments or ministries, more systemic interventions at global and regional level, probably in a multilateral context, and run by cross-cutting development departments working explicitly across Government. This is not to say that poverty reduction does not remain central, nor that the aid effectiveness principles of Rome, Paris, Accra and Busan should be thrown out of the window. Nevertheless, a substantial change is implied as we begin to vision the aid or development agency of the future.

I know that some of this is modestly controversial; that much depends on how the geographical distribution of poverty is likely to change, as between MICs, LICs and fragile states; and that the very categories are up for discussion. I follow the writings of Sumner, Chandy, Kharas and Ravallion as assiduously as anyone. But indulge me for a moment, and assume that the job description of official aid will change. What, then, of NGOs?

A number of scenarios might be possible. At one extreme, we might find Northern NGOs following the same trajectory as official aid agencies: ceding territory in middle income countries, working more at global level and on policy work, and entering into new kinds of partnership with official actors in fragile states. At the other extreme, we might find them exploiting new ecological niches: perhaps replacing official aid in MICs, engaging in different ways with indigenous movements and organisations, forming new kinds of political partnership. The NGONon-governmental organisation community is diverse, of course, and doubtless will follow many routes. The sector is always changing – for example setting up new cross-country federations (Action Aid International, SCFSave the Children Fund International), or incorporating well known ‘brands’ as independent local NGOs (e.g. Oxfam India).

In thinking about this, I found it useful to distinguish between development and humanitarian aid, on the one hand, and between MICs, LICs and fragile states on the other. Actually, I restricted the range of fragile states, to focus on those that are conflict-affected. In general, I find the category of fragile states unhelpful these days. Look at the list in the table below: there are too many different kinds of country, facing different kinds of problem. Does it really make sense to have Kenya and Haiti in the same category? Or Nigeria and Gaza? I don’t know how those engaged in the New Deal for Fragile States manage such diversity.

Anyway, my three by two classification gives the table below and leads to the following reflections.

First, there is no reason to suspend development work by Northern NGOs in middle income countries, but the need may be less for money and more for solidarity and capacity-building with respect to local NGOs, helping them to develop programmes which provide voice to their client groups and hold their own Governments to account. In principle, Northern NGOs should not be substituting for state or civil society action in countries which ought to be able to provide the resources necessary for basic service provision. This is not a straightforward proposition, I know. NGOs provide valuable service provision functions even in developed countries, though Northern NGOs in developing countries should by default work with local partners even in this area. More generally, Northern NGOs supporting voice and accountability programmes in developing countries venture into a moral and political minefield. Is it the job of Northern NGOs to foment political protest – in Egypt, say, or, currently in India. Much better if protest is locally rooted and independent – but there will often be a role for Northern NGOs in offering advice, providing external validation, bearing witness, and, if possible, offering protection. Think Amnesty International, for example. Such support can be mutual and work both ways, with global civil society movements supporting organisations in developed countries. Certainly, NGOs in North and South will want to work together on global issues, like trade policy or climate change.

This enables us to complete the box in the top left hand corner of the table, offering an exciting set of possibilities to Northern NGOs and to Governments which fund them. It would be especially interesting to explore opportunities for twinning, involving universities, civic associations, business associations and others in genuine partnership.

Second, similar principles apply to humanitarian work in middle income countries, with the addition of direct provision of resources in emergencies - where needed, and remembering that some countries, like India after the tsunami, either do not want or do not need outside help. Here, it seems to me that the strict delimitation of development and humanitarian space can be problematic. Humanitarian principles are essential in conflict-affected fragile states, to preserve the neutrality and impartiality of assistance, and to protect the lives of humanitarian workers. But humanitarian approaches can also make it more difficult to work with local organisations, especially those of an official variety, and to build local capacity. If they can safely be adapted, then there may well be benefits. It is notable that the number of natural disasters is increasing, with the number likely to rise further as climate change takes hold. Some such, but not all, require international relief. In cases where international relief is not required on a large scale (as in the China and Chile earthquakes, for example), it is usually because there has been serious local investment in disaster prevention and preparedness. This is surely a top priority for Northern NGOs, working with organisations like ISDR and GFDRR, engaging with local authorities and organisations, and with local and international business. That is the top right hand corner of the table taken care of.

In low income countries, the same principles apply, but there will be a greater and justified need for resources. This leads to the third point, that the priority for targeted resources should probably lie in low income countries, for both development and humanitarian purposes, and for the area in between, currently graced by the term ‘resilience’, but which we used to call ‘linking relief and development’. Note that this can only really happen successfully if the boundary between the two spheres is suitably porous. That covers the middle row of the table.

Fourth, then, we come to conflict-affected fragile states. As with the general category of ‘fragile states’, this is a heterogeneous class: conflict can be large- or small-scale, more or less local, more or less long-term. In general, however, the presumption must be that humanitarian space must be carefully protected and unpolluted. Development space for local NGOs is also likely to offer a more difficult operating environment, and there are likely to be fewer partners available for Northern NGOs to choose. This suggests that Northern NGOs are likely to be more operational. Even so, however, they should look for opportunities to build capacity, certainly on the development side, but also on the humanitarian side, as countries move towards peace and reconstruction.

Put all this together, and the picture in the table below emerges, with a specific and differentiated strategy for Northern NGOs in different circumstances and with respect to different activities. I suppose this is not especially radical?

Radical or not the approach may be, whether or not it conforms to current practice is another matter. I have observed before that the humanitarian community necessarily concentrates more on those emergencies requiring international assistance and the international organisations providing it, rather than on the universe of need and how it might be met. I would love, for example, to see overall estimates of numbers affected by different kinds of disaster and needing help, whether the help is provided by the international humanitarian aid system or domestically.

Some basic principles follow from the analysis, applicable to Northern NGOs in their work in-country and in their interactions with their own Governments and supporters:

  • Be explicit about the niche in different kinds of country;
  • Develop operational strategies to exploit different niches, including a ‘theory of change’ to guide interventions on voice and accountability;
  • Focus on capacity-building and partnership, and build reciprocal partnerships with Southern NGOs;
  • Develop the right organisational competencies, not just service delivery;
  • Work with Governments on new roles, ways of working and funding; and
  • Take the public on a journey, so that the new roles and ways of working are understood.

It would be interesting to adapt the Kharas/Rogerson stress test for aid agencies to reflect these ideas. For example, NGOs would score highly if they had worked through their niche and could demonstrate appropriate operational strategies and partnerships.

A final issue is how donor approaches to NGOs might change. At present, practice varies widely, as the figure below illustrates. At one end of the scale, France spends only 1% of bilateral aid on or through NGOs. At the other extreme, Ireland spends as much as 37%. The balance of funding as between money directed specifically to NGOs and that which NGOs are contracted to deliver on the donors’ behalf also varies: the EU, Italy, Spain and Norway are all countries which appear, in these DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) statistics, to provide no core support to NGOs, but to use them mainly as contractors.

I suppose there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ figure, but the analysis above suggests that NGOs can play an important role in helping donors meet their objectives, including in MICs. Active engagement with NGOs would seem to be called for.


# RE: Is there a future for Northern NGOs in a world of MICs?Guest 2013-01-13 16:13
Hi Simon,

This all seems all sensible to me though of course futures work is to plan strategy across multiple scenarios so good to remember the margin of error one is working with and that something that everyone seems to assume to be static - changes in inequality - could make as much difference as double poverty numbers by 2025 vs current trends.

But my main thoughts relate more to the aggregate categories - LIC/MIC/fragile states.

The LIC/MIC line does have a historical (though very foggy) and current meaning for many agencies - IDA, DfID and EU to name but a few. Also, you could double the threshold and still get the poor in MICs. But I think we need something much, much better and fragile states is just too lacking in analytical strength so I have been puzzling over what to do on a new paper on range of scenarios on global poverty in 2025 that I'm still working on.

There's Least DCs - structurally good but bit dodgy that a third are MICs and countries have a struggle to get out whatever they do (see Patrick Guillaumont's excellent book 'Caught in a trap').

The issue with fragile states is a lot of good academic work has been muddled with the whole donor merging of various lists and conflation of conflict/post conflict and poor governance. A good example of bad use of research in policy, I think, as it's all really muddled now. I recall Klaasen did a good paper on this and ended up with CPIA fragility scores.

Of course as Nigeria's GDP data is revised poverty will (magically) fall in Nigeria so that'll be a significant change to fragile state poverty now and into the future. Possibly balanced out by India's new poverty data coming soonish. What it really points to is the fact most of the poor live in 10-20 populous countries.

I've started looking around for a list of conflict/post-c onflict and found the WB 'fragile situations' which is a bit better I think. I'm now thinking more in the 4 speed world idea, first used (?) by Jim Wolfensohn. Interestingly many fragile states are doing ok on growth (of course a million questions arise from who benefits etc).

So, in sum, I think this issue is that the analytical categories we currently use are seriously flawed. LDCs is a bit better. Or maybe your 20% and 0.2% club - now the Glennie low/medium aid thing - is better.

Or maybe this is all just too much complicating matters - I can see why simple categories 'stick'…

Best wishes, Andy
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# RE: Is there a future for Northern NGOs in a world of MICs?Guest 2013-02-05 17:58
These are precisely the type of questions that Northern NGOs should be asking themselves to ensure they are fit for purpose, in light of major shifts in the world economy and geopolitics. To adapt or die of irrelevance, that’s the question.

In a brutal oversimplificat ion of this rich analysis, we could say that Northern NGOs in their roles as “contractors” will be pushed to focus on countries hit by conflict and fragility (that’s what I call zooming in). In their roles as advocates and campaigners, they will be pushed to become much broader, to develop genuine partnerships with Southern NGOs and to become much more global (zooming out, to get better at the bigger picture).

What are (some of) the risks?

Firstly, by focusing programmes in particularly difficult areas where official aid agencies are less keen to deliver directly, NGOs could be effectively taking up the riskier bits of the business (in a move similar to that of MNCs outsourcing the least profitable bits of the business to smaller companies, while using their bargaining power to squeeze small companies’ margins and sometimes driving them out of business). From a pure business-sustai nability perspective, at the very least Northern NGOs should be careful when taking this avenue.

Secondly, by zooming out in their campaigning and advocacy there is the risk of becoming increasingly disjointed (schizophrenic? ) with their operations going in one way and their campaigning in another. This could pose serious risks to their credibility.

So, what are (some of) the opportunities?

While in the short and medium term NGO programmes will still be needed in some countries, hopefully in a world of MICs more governments will be taking up their responsibility to provide essential services to their citizens and to foot the bill for it. In this wild new jungle out there, how will the new Alpha NGO look like? Below are some provocative questions to spark debate:

1. Do NGOs need a long-term exit strategy as contractors? There’s so much that Northern NGOs can do as service providers; we can and should continue to backstop gaps where need be, as they have effectively done in the past. But we can’t and shouldn’t attempt to fill in gaps left by governments who fail to meet their responsibilitie s. As the public is increasingly familiar with debates around “ending aid dependency”, NGOs should communicate better where they stand in the debate and what are the organisational implications for them. They should also explore to expand the type of operations where NGOs might have a distinctive added-value (watchdog and monitoring programmes, citizen’s economic literacy, budget transparency, among many others).

2. Is there a long-term future for campaigning on “developing country” issues? As Southern NGOs become more effective as advocates and campaigners in their national spaces, Northern NGOs will have to find new niches and ways of working. Some have already starting doing this. But in general, they will have to work harder to become more of a partner for Southern NGOs and in broader global movements. Also, as we move on from a world clearly split between North and South (although I’m not suggesting by the slightest that big global divides are over!), Northern NGOs will have to change their agendas towards issues of global concern, ranging from transparency, to climate change, to financial sector regulation, etc. They have not few lessons to learn from environmental, women’s rights, or even trade unions movement which succeeded in sparking a sense of global solidarity.

3. Whither social and economic justice? And this takes me to the last, and probably most controversial, consideration. In a world where several social, political and economic institutions are suffering from a serious moral devaluation in citizen’s eyes, Northern NGOs – while by no means free from these risks – are possibly one of the social institutions with highest ethical credentials and public trust. Principles, ideas, and commitment to social and economic justice are some of their main assets that NGOs should build on. Too many times, for too many years, NGOs have been too shy to push certain ideas to avoid being labelled as ideological. Instead, they have taken a much lower and technical profile. But there is nothing wrong with ideas. In fact, there is a lot to gain in pushing forward big and ambitious ideas for a fairer and better world. Citizens are hungry for justice; those who succeed in entering in open, honest and bold debates with the public have a lot to gain – both for their reputation and for a better world.
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# RE: Is there a future for Northern NGOs in a world of MICs?Simon Maxwell 2013-02-26 12:39
Interesting to see that the latest edition of the BOND Newsletter, the Networker, has a whole section on the Future of Philanthropy, includng articles by Myles Wickstead, Maria Neophytou and Loren Treisman, as well as a report from A Bellagio Conference on philanthropy. See

Myles Wickstead says:

'So let us fast forward to 2025. If progress continues at the same rate as has been evident in recent years, there will be many more middle-income countries (MICs) – joining countries like India, China and Ghana - than now. They will need significantly less oda from donors, which will be concentrated on a relatively small number of fragile states. So will there be a continuing need for philanthropists and civil society organisations?

‘Yes’, is the short answer. Very wealthy philanthropists and Foundations might choose to support ‘global public goods’ – addressing issues such as diseases that cross borders, or supporting the development of new agricultural practices which have broad application. But on the whole it is likely that philanthropists will be increasingly home-grown and resident in middle-income countries, so will want to use their wealth to target inequity and inequality in their own countries or regions. Some of them at least, having made their money in the private sector, will want to use their philanthropic efforts to strengthen that area of the economy, perhaps focusing in particular on the key challenges of employment and job creation.

Civil society organisations will also have a continuing important role to play as service-deliver ers and as advocates for policy change. As they develop capacity and capability over time, local CSOs/NGOs will become increasingly able to form direct relationships both with their Governments and with philanthropists . The key role of international NGOs is likely to be to support development work in fragile states and to respond to humanitarian emergencies; and of course to continue to act as advocates for the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be.'
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