15 January 2009 - 17 January 2009

The nature and role of international NGOs

Chair: Dr Huguette Labelle 

Ditchley opened the New Year with a conference examining the role of international NGOs.  This was part of a continuing series on global development efforts, following our study last summer of the effect of population growth on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and preceding conferences later in 2009 on the effectiveness of development assistance and on global human rights efforts.  A wealth of expertise was represented at the table across a wide range of specialities, though we would have benefited from a stronger voice from the developing world.  The conference was also unfortunate in losing its UN participants shortly before it began.

The discussion voiced strong concerns about the way the world was changing, with governments and civil society alike struggling to meet the requirements of those in need of help.  Power was shifting to new centres and economic opportunities were spreading more widely.  But climate change, population growth, conflict and failing states were leaving vast numbers still in poverty.  It was felt that we were failing to understand the pressures of time:  policies were changing too slowly to cope with developments that had millennial implications. 

International NGOs were caught up in this evolution.   Because they were less directly accountable and less restricted in their choices, they had a greater capacity than governments, to think strategically and to innovate.  They were conscious of their responsibility to warn society of trouble to come, to set the right examples and to lead on new action.  But they were not yet effective enough in getting their message across and not substantial enough, individually or collectively, to make a global difference.  Moreover, INGOs covered a huge variety of sizes, tasks and characteristics and were not easily coordinated.  The six biggest INGOs had a turnover of around $6 billion a year, double the figure of 1999.  But the number of smaller NGOs had proliferated significantly in recent years and this had meant a fragmentation of their responsibilities and objectives. 

We were told that, from the government perspective also, the picture was a mixed one.  At its best, the NGO community had powerfully affected the evolution of international development policy.  At its worst, it could be reduced to ambulance-chasing, to justify their claim on funding.  At times their advocacy could become shrill and thin.  Nonetheless civil society was undoubtedly taking on a global character and it was felt that intelligent management and cooperation could produce more significant results.  NGOs had to recognise that the recent past had in many ways been a golden age, when the opportunities for useful action and the access to significant funding had been optimal.  The pressures would now grow for consolidation and for scaling-up, as the competition increased.  They would also need to recognise that communities in the developing world were showing a greater understanding of their own requirements and were making their own choices.  INGOs would need to justify their activities not just to their memberships and donors, but also increasingly to their beneficiaries. 

The conference took a closer look at the relationship between INGOs, governments and other international actors.  NGOs felt strongly that they had to protect their own integrity.  This made it important for an organisation’s mission and agenda to be clear, with inputs not just from their own and donors’ views of development requirements, but also from sources within the country concerned, including its local organisations.  This helped to prevent NGOs from appearing to be outsiders, dictating to governments or local organisations what should be done.  Differences in approach often had to be negotiated between Head Office and the team on the ground.  It was also important to handle data with great care, not just as the field became more complex but also because credibility could be damaged by falsehood or exaggeration.  The whole field of climate change was a case in point.  If mistakes were made, it was best for NGOs to admit them transparently.  Proactive self-reflection in this respect was a better policy than running into external criticism of the value of projects or the validity of arguments. 

The independence and integrity of INGOs could also be affected by funding sources.  Money might be the life blood of INGOs, but it could affect their perceived neutrality.  This was not just a matter of political partnership or association, with local recipients resenting a source of help with cultural or political overtones.  It could also be problematic for an NGO to benefit from the generosity of a company whose behaviour in other fields drew criticism. 

The conference found it difficult to reach clear conclusions on the degree to which INGOs should coordinate with each other or with governments and other international institutions.  Most NGOs had a strong wish to work independently and to project their brand.  But there were too many examples of competition and duplication, especially in the delivery of humanitarian assistance to disaster areas – Darfur came up several times in this context – and most participants supported a stronger effort to coordinate.  Several government agencies were now using incentives to get NGOs to cooperate and avoid duplication. 

This connected in our debate with the role of the United Nations.  In many ways the UN system continued to work well, for instance under the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs.  Yet the overall UN system was showing plenty of weaknesses, not least in the political arena.  It was suggested that governments and INGOs could not be expected to sort out all their organisational problems unless and until the context for international cooperation improved more generally.  As for the role of INGOs within the UN itself, most participants considered that, while NGOs had some recognition within UN structures, there were no strong arguments for bringing them further inside the system.  It was normally much more productive to work with particular INGOs in specific circumstances than to try to achieve a different formal structure.  It often made excellent sense to bring in NGOs to work with governments in certain technical and operational areas.  It would also be useful for NGOs to coordinate with local governments and amongst themselves on salaries and working conditions, to avoid competition in the use of available talent on the ground where the government might be struggling to pay their own higher-quality civil servants.

We took a close look at ways of ensuring INGOs’ accountability and legitimacy.  Progress was being made in a number of ways to encourage NGOs to be more transparent and accountable, not least in demonstrating that what they did made an important difference.  Participants regarded the International Accountability Charter as a good basis, on which more could be built.  We recognised that, given the wide differences in the nature of INGOs, no one model fitted everyone.  Nor did we think that NGOs should be expected to meet the accountability levels of governments in what they did.  It was preferable for them to remain, on the whole, self-regulating.  The point that came through strongly was that, while NGOs have multiple accountabilities, not least to donors on funding, downward accountability, to the beneficiaries on the ground, was a very important concept to pursue.  This carried its own disadvantages, because downward accountability could be inconsistent, unstructured and subjective.  But if accountability meant the justification of an NGO’s claim for attention and funding, it was in the end the criterion likely to convey the greatest legitimacy. 

An INGO’s legitimacy stemmed, we thought, not just from its working within international and local law but from working with the approval of its different stakeholders.  Again, a single set of criteria for legitimacy could not apply across the varied range of NGOs.  The concept raised questions of power and influence and the context could be very different as between situations where the local government welcomed the activities of outside NGOs and when it did not.  Increasingly the international context placed an onus on governments to allow space for development and humanitarian activity and an NGO could not always control its own legitimacy context.  The bottom line was that NGOs should act in conformity with their own clear mission and agenda, to win the approval of the people they were dealing with and live up to the claims they were making for their own operations.  In practice the sector had made a good deal of progress over the last decade, but participants thought there were still misperceptions about the nature of accountability and legitimacy even within the INGO community itself.  Things were not likely to get any easier with the emergence of large, private sector funded, philanthropic institutions in which large amounts of money were being dedicated to objectives and operations set by powerful individuals.  They too needed to show that they were accountable to and winning approval from local communities on the ground. 

When we came to look at the overall effectiveness of the NGO community in the roles which they chose to play, participants reached a sense that INGOs and their donor partners had not yet sufficiently grappled with the question of their function and effectiveness in a rapidly changing world.  While recognising the valuable work that most INGOs managed to perform, a strong consensus emerged on the need for a re-evaluation of their identity and purpose and for reform of their ways of working.  There was one area in particular which illustrated this.  Participants thought that the delivery of services was not really the function of INGOs.  Rather, they saw their role as enabling government to perform more effectively or letting local communities or the private sector fill the gap.  In public administration globally, there was a general move away from a service delivery model to a system where government set policy frameworks and then partnerships formed with private companies, local NGOs or communities to create value.  INGOs increasingly had to take into account national development strategies and actively examine how they could enable governments to perform their functions more capably.  This trend towards partnership emerged as one of the more pronounced guidelines coming out of our discussion.  This should not preclude the responsibility INGOs had to step in to relieve disaster and save lives in emergencies.

Similarly, we thought that NGOs needed to evolve their role as innovators.  There was no doubt that they performed a valuable function in this respect, because examples of best practice in one area could be passed on or scaled up in others.  But we voiced caution in two areas:  first, that the receptiveness of local communities to innovation could often be misunderstood or exaggerated;  and second, that in a rapidly changing environment success could often be mis-described.  If innovation was to be supported by donors, then they would have to develop a higher tolerance for risk and failure in the experimentation process.  Even in the area of advocacy and campaigning, where INGOs had implemented a number of very effective global programmes, it was increasingly becoming relevant to take account of developing world stakeholders and to move to a role of enabling and supporting local agencies at international fora, rather than taking on the burden as a developed world NGO. 

A consensus began to emerge that, if these considerations were borne in mind, then a different definition of effectiveness could develop.  While efficiency would remain related to competent and cost-effective operation, relevance was beginning to take on a different character, being more closely related to a partnership between north and south than to quantifiable service delivery.

With a company of such experienced INGO operators at the table, it was encouraging to see their willingness to explore the problems and failures of their sector.  These included the difficulty of transforming a domestic civil society function to a foreign context;  the uneven conversion of good work at a micro level to a policy framework at national scale;  the tendency to push forward western culture and downgrade the southern perspective which reflected local traditions and local ownership;  a tendency to undermine local government or local market systems by attracting away competent staff;  a failure to identify the right problem to remedy;  and over-promising and under-delivering because of the dynamics of fundraising.

Other challenges were not necessarily the fault of INGOs.  They operated in difficult and complex contexts with multiple stakeholders and awkward questions of political legitimacy.  The world was changing at an unmanageable pace and very few systems could cope with the threats posed by climate change, global recession, new security threats, migration flows and with the increasingly influential role of non-state actors.  Nevertheless the conference thought that it was right for NGOs to try to raise their game just as much as any other part of society.  We were offered a convincing description of the overall mission on which INGOs should focus:

–       delivering assistance to people in need across a range of fields, intelligently and productively;

–       performing policy and advocacy work on the basis of strong analysis and in partnership with others as necessary;

–       sensibly holding governments to account, in both the developed and developing worlds, for how they helped people in need.

In performing these three main tasks, NGOs needed to develop greater professionalism, relevant specialisations, a stronger sense of collaboration, a capacity for innovation in the right places and greater accountability and responsibility.  They might also have to accept that, as competition grew, some consolidation in the sector was a natural answer to the proliferation and fragmentation of NGO activity.  At least it now appeared that NGOs were getting together more frequently, both amongst themselves and with donor partners, to refine their policy approaches and coordinate their activities with less duplication and inconsistency.  To the extent that they found this difficult to do, they might have to accept more guidance from governments or from the UN system, usually in the form of incentives for an increase in funding.

This conference did not come to any hard conclusion about whether these forms of cumulative improvement would be enough to meet the growing sense of crisis in the world of need.  Like many other sectors, NGOs were taking advantage of new technology and forms of communication which were beginning to change their methods of work in radical ways.  The question was asked whether these instruments might enable the sector to change quickly and fundamentally enough to respond to the full set of challenges it was confronting.  Since this would mean carrying unpopular messages back into their own ranks, as well as convincing governments and other powerful actors to play their part in a massive change of approach, new sources and forms of leadership might be necessary;  and it was difficult to see where this might come from.  Focussing on doing better what was already happening, as in the three areas above, might be a more manageable alternative.  So a sense of uncertainty remained with us to the end, even though we did not stop paying tribute to the enormous amount of good work that was being done.

Perhaps this discussion reflected the nature of the INGO community itself, full of quality but uncertain in its overall direction.  That so many useful points emerged was in no small part due to the experience and calm wisdom of our chairperson.  But there was no doubt in our minds as we left that there was still an enormous amount of work to do before international civil society realised its full potential.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chair : Dr Huguette Labelle 
Chair, Transparency International;  Chancellor, University of Ottawa;  Board Member, UN Global Compact.  Formerly:  Deputy Minister of Canadian Government Departments including Secretary of State, Transport Canada, Public Service Commission and Canadian International Development Agency.

Ms Elissa Golberg

Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Canada;  Representative of Canada in Kandahar, Afghanistan (2008-09).
Mr Parker Mitchell
Co-Founder (2000) and Co-CEO, Engineers Without Borders.

Professor Louis-Georges Tin

Vice-President and Spokesman, Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires (2005-);  President, IDAHO Committee (Committee for the International Day Against Homophobia (2004-).

Ms Vivienne Walt

Writer, TIME Magazine Paris (2005-).  Formerly:  Baghdad correspondent (2002-04);  Contributor, Fortune Magazine.

Professor Dr Georg Cremer

Secretary-General, Caritas Germany;  Associate Professor of Economics, University of Freiburg.
Dr Burkhard Gnaerig
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Berlin Civil Society Centre (2007-);  Chair, Save the Children Germany.  Formerly:  Chief Executive, International Save the Children Alliance.

Dr Siddharth Agarwal

Executive Director, Urban Health Resource Centre, New Delhi.  Formerly:  Country Representative and Urban Health Director, Environmental Health Project, USAID.

Ms Vivienne Claire Liu

Founding Director, Philanthropy Works, Singapore;  Global Board Director, Médecins sans Frontières.

Professor Dr Alan Fowler

Affiliate Professor, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague;  Research Professor, Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Mr M Lennart Reinius

Deputy National Director and Programme Director, Plan International, Sweden;  Chair, NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ms Siham Bortcosh

Chief Executive, Alfanar, UK.  Formerly:  Voluntary Service Overseas;  Freelance Assignments, British Red Cross Society.
Mr Jeremy Carver CBE
Consultant, Head of International Law, Clifford Chance LLP (2003-);  Co-Chair, International Rescue Committee (IRC), UK;  Trustee/Director, Transparency International (UK).
Dr Mark Collins
Director, Commonwealth Foundation.  Formerly:  Director (Biodiversity), UNEP.
Baroness D’Souza of Wychwood
Life Peer (Crossbench) and Convenor of the Independent Crossbench Peers, House of Lords.  Formerly:  Redress Trust:  Director (2003-04), Consultant (2004-06);  Executive Director, Article 19 (1989-98).
Ms Anna Feuchtwang
Chair, British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND) (2008-);  Chief Executive, EveryChild (2004-).
Miss Jennifer Grant
Global Rights Adviser and Advocate, Save the Children UK (2006-).  Formerly:  Human Rights and Reintegration Monitor (Indonesia), Human Rights Officer (GAM, Guatemala), Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr Martin Hayman
Trustee, and Chair of the Programme Committee, Care International UK;  Consultant, International Community Programmes, Standard Chartered Bank.
Mr Nicholas Hopton
HM Diplomatic Service;  Deputy Director and Head, International Organisations Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Ms Sarah Hughes
Director, IRC-UK (2005-).  Formerly:  Christian Aid (1980-2005).
Mr Paul Jenkins
Head of National Society Support and Programmes, British Red Cross.
Mr Peter Madden
Chief Executive, Forum for the Future (2005-);  Board Member, Groundwork UK;  Board Member, South West of England Regional Development Agency;  Member, Green Globe Network.
Mr Moazzam Malik
Director, United Nations, Conflict and Humanitarian Division. Department for International Development.
Ms Marina Narnor
Head of Africa and Rest of the World Programmes, Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
Mr Nick Roseveare MBE
Chief Executive, British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND);  Trustee, Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund (2001-).  Formerly:  Humanitarian Director and Deputy Director, International Programme, Oxfam.
Mr Roy Trivedy
Head, DFID Tanzania (2007-) and Head, Civil Society Department (2008-), Department for International Development.

Mr Michael Hammer

Executive Director, One World Trust (2006-);  Co-Author, One World Trust Global Accountability Report;  Trustee, British Overseas NGOs for Development Network (BOND);  Board Member, Greenpeace Germany.
Ms Judit Arenas

International Secretariat, Amnesty International (2001-);  Head, Office of the Secretary General.  Formerly:  Media Director for Amnesty International’s Annual Report launch (2008).

Ms Aissatou Sow

Executive Director, Digital Links International (2008-).  Formerly:  Partnership Adviser, Acord (2006-08).

Dr DeAnne Julius

Chairman, Chatham House (2003-);  Non-Executive Director, BP, Roche, Jones Lang LaSalle.

Ms Carina Perelli

Vice President for Development and Outreach and Chair, Executive Advisory Committee, International Foundation for Electoral Systems.  Formerly:  Director, Electoral Assistance Division, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations.
Mr Theodore Piccone
Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for Foreign Policy, Brookings;  Advisor to the Club of Madrid.
Dr George Rupp
President and CEO, International Rescue Committee.  Formerly:  President, Columbia University (1993-2002).
Professor Thomas Weiss
Presidential Professor, Political Science, and Director, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The Graduate Center of The City University of New York;  Co-Director, UN Intellectual History Project.

Ms Clare Lockhart

Director, Institute for State Effectiveness (2006-).  Formerly:  Adviser to NATO ISAF (2006-07);  Adviser to Government of Afghanistan and UN adviser to the Bonn Process (2001-05).

Mr Bernard Kuiten

Information and External Relations Divisions, World Trade Organization (1999-).