How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? Summary of my new paper

My navel-gazing paper on the future of INGOs and other big aid beasts came out last week. Here’s a summary I wrote for the Guardian. Thanks to all those who fed in on earlier drafts. Oxfam’s Deputy CEO Penny Lawrence gives a semi-official response.

A miasma of existential doubt seems to hang over large chunks of the aid industry, even here in the UK, where I’ve argued existential crisis 2before that a combination of government, NGOs, think tanks, academics, media, public opinion and history constitutes a particularly productive and resilient ‘development cluster’. The doubts materialize in serial bouts of navel-gazing, worrying away about our ‘value add’ and future role (if any).

So when asked to add to the growing pile of blue sky reports, I decided to approach the topic from a different angle: what does all the stuff I’ve been reading and writing about systems thinking, complexity, power and politics mean for how international NGOs and other big aid beasts function in the future?

The result, published this month by Oxfam, is a discussion paper, Fit For the Future? But if you can’t face its 20 pages, here are some highlights:

Systems thinking raises profound challenges for international NGOs. It highlights the folly of simple, linear interventions and the merits of alternative approaches such as bringing together stakeholders to find joint solutions (convening and brokering), multiple experiments and rapid iteration based on fast feedback and adaptation.

The non-linear nature of most change processes also underlines the need to be able to spot and respond to potentially short-lived windows of opportunity, such as economic or climate shocks or moments of political flux.

complexity signUnfortunately, a tradition of central planning, epitomised in the reification of ‘the project’, and a simplistic interpretation of private sector thinking pushes aid agencies towards a linear ‘Fordist‘ (assembly line) approach to going to scale, even though large parts of the private sector have long since abandoned that approach in favour of systems thinking, disruption and innovation.

How could international NGOs do better? How can they plan and operate within complex systems, accepting that they cannot know in advance what is going to happen? There are numerous options, most of which would entail a substantial change in working practices.

For Oxfam, this would mean relinquishing a command-and-control approach across all aspects of its work in favour of embracing a systems approach. In terms of investment, this means increasing the ratio of ‘change capital‘ to ‘delivery capital‘.

The paper goes into far more detail on all this, and the risk of trying to cram it all into a blog post is that it ends up sounding like the standard format of the over-excited and extremely vague blue sky paper (‘Everything is changing. Mobile phones! Rise of China! → Everything is speeding up. Instant feedback! Fickle consumers! Shrinking product cycles! → You, in contrast are excruciatingly slow, bureaucratic and out of touch. I spit on you and your logframes →Transform or die!) Umm, thanks.

But if I had to boil it all down, one big question captured a lot of the issues for me: does size matter? According to a recent paper by Hugo Slim: ‘The question of NGO scale will become a major issue in NGO politics over the next twenty years.’ Who is best placed to adopt the new ways of thinking and working: major international NGOs with their advantages of large knowledge bases and economies of scale, more agile ‘guerrilla’ organizations like Global Witness, or single-issue specialists like the Ethical Trading Initiative? Is it the case that ‘you can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting’?

One option might be a ‘conscious uncoupling’ in which large international organizations transition from a supertanker to a whitewater raft 2

So which is it to be?
So which is it to be?

flotilla, with a medium-sized mother ship and a fleet of small, independent spin-offs and start-ups. The smaller, more nimble rafts could include individuals rather than the more cumbersome world of projects – backing potential leaders (whether inside the international NGO circle or beyond) with money and support and letting them get on with it.

But there are trade-offs. Scale allows organizations to experiment and exchange ideas between countries and programmes. When it comes to influence, small is seldom beautiful – governments are more likely to listen to bigger players, particularly when they have ‘skin in the game’ in the form of programmes and staff on the ground. What kind of hybrid combination of scale and subsidiarity provides the optimal blend of flexibility and clout?

Should we ever manage to agree on size and structure, the next question is what is stopping us radically changing the way we work? It’s too easy to blame the funders, with their logical frameworks and simplistic demands for tangible and attributable results. Many of the barriers lie within, rooted in institutional practices, ideas about what does/doesn’t work, or just plain ignorance. Any attempt at changing our role will have to begin with a searching and doubtless painful examination of our internal patterns of power and prejudice. Maybe navel gazing isn’t such a waste of time after all.

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2 Responses to “How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? Summary of my new paper”
  1. Allan Moolman

    My favourite topic…
    The failure to embrace more adaptive management approaches across the entire ambit of development programming is proving costly. The inertia is probably due to over-adherence to the well worn development maxims that we should not be ‘overly responsive’ or that we have to demonstrate out ‘value add/uniqueness’ in order to remain relevant. While large agency supertankers wallow about, the world around them is shifting and changing at a rate that was impossible to comprehend even ten years ago.
    It seems some days that the large development actors are viewing the the world at sub optimal frequencies and are responding to the stop motion images that are getting with no sense of the things that are happening between the shutter blinks. The sector is just not agile enough and has not evolved the nervous system to see beyond its frequency limits. if it is to evolve, it is going to have to start developing new muscle memory.
    The sector is going to have to get more used to taking risks, has to get used to moving faster and failing and learning more often and has to become very comfortable with a more mutable form or organisation. This is not an impossible thing. Adaptive management, iterative learning, adjustment and refinement on the fly are all very comfortable process for human beings and can be applied in a long term development context provided you have the right people and processes to do this. I have seen the approach applied in practice with significant results and its going to be interesting to see the learning from these experiences in the Oxfam Australia program in South Africa documented and shared in the coming months

  2. Heather Marquette

    Thanks, Duncan. Great blog for a great paper. One plea – I’d love to see ‘adaptive’ and ‘experimental’ separated out, because they’re not the same thing, nor are they on the same spectrum. It seems a given that development programming should be more adaptive. It isn’t a given that it should be experimental. If our government wants to experiment on us, its citizens, it needs (or at least is expected to!) to conduct pilots, go through some sort of ethical review process, get consent from subjects, etc. But how does experimentation work when its foreign governments or organisations experimenting on citizens elsewhere? Who authorises the experiment? Who ensures consent? Who is ultimately responsible for failure? Who pays the price? ‘Adaptive’ should be a no-brainer. Though there’s nothing at all inherently wrong with it, ‘experimental’ needs a lot more discussion, in terms of both the politics of it, the practice and the ethics.
    In the UK, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the new IDC in Parliament. Lots of tough posturing so far on how each of the potential heads will hold DFID to account even more than before. How that fits with a more adaptive, flexible etc approach, with longer time horizons and where failure *is* an option…I don’t really know yet.

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