Thick problems, thin solutions and the future of NGOs

Hivos, an interesting Dutch NGO that is doing some big picture thinking and producing some extremely funky materials on ‘digital natives’, among other things. Hivos had commissioned a paper by Mike Edwards (development thinker and NGO watcher) to get the ball rolling. Mike’s core argument was that we face a disjunction between ‘thick problems and thin solutions’. Thick problems are ‘complex, politicised and unpredictable’, while ‘thin solutions’ are the preferred operating system of the aid industry, desperately seeking linear causation so it can ‘prove’ its impact (and justify its existence) with lots of monitoring, evaluation etc. “The world of international development is excited by the power of markets and technology, but not by the slow arc of building better Gandhi v logframe cartooninstitutions or changing values and relationships; by the efficiency of Results-Based Management but not by the task of democratizing foreign aid; by the ability of Randomized Control Trials to forecast interventions that deliver the best returns, but not by debates about what this means for the deeper dimensions of wellbeing; by “value-for-money” among NGOs as sub-contractors, but not by the need to establish financial independence for groups that are rooted in the South.” He adds some nice explanations for this trend, and argues that these solutions are ‘not going to get us anywhere near a sustainable human future’, and that the role for NGOs is to ‘act as bridges between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’, reintroducing ideas of transformation (of power, structures etc) back into development. I buy some, but not all, of this. Real life (as opposed to the uncluttered conceptual landscape of the aid industry) has always been ‘thick’ – multiple factors, messy and unpredictable change, leaving leaders, citizens and social movements to navigate through the fog of history using a blend of values, instinct, opportunism and analysis. To my mind, Mike also gives too much importance to civil society organizations per se – his paper barely mentions the role of the state, democratic institutions, faith groups etc. He’s too dismissive of the results agenda (he doesn’t think we can beat them, i.e. start measuring what counts, not just what can be counted – ‘quantiphilia is not a contest NGOs can win’ – and argues we shouldn’t join them in the first place.) And although I would personally love to heed his call to give up on international institutions and close our offices in Geneva, New York etc, I think he’s wrong to portray these institutions as on the way out. There are too many global problems that will (eventually) require global solutions/institutions, and we need to be engaged in that thankless task. Ditto his argument for leaving humanitarian response to ‘consulting firms and other specialists’, although we probably agree on the need to shift towards building national capacity to reduce risk and respond to disasters. So much for the paper, what about the discussion? It was pretty ‘wide-ranging’, as they say, so I’ll just add a few observations on the subtexts to the conversation. Firstly gloom – the Dutch NGOs feel under political and economic siege right now from government, right wingers and the media, attacking everything from senior salaries to aid effectiveness. Secondly, we kept skirting around one of the underlying questions in the evolution of the aid industry – what replaces market forces as a driver of change? Speakers contrasted the development scene with the Fortune 500, where big companies rise and fall from year to year. Not so the UN, aid agencies or NGOs. Does the lack of destruction also stifle creation, blocking the appearance of development Googles and Microsofts to break in, crush the existing powers and transform how we work or think? And does the absence of market forces to drive product differentiation explain why we all do the same stuff, herding after the latest development fads (value chains, microfinance, RCTs, whatever)? In response some, like Owen Barder, think we need to find ways to introduce or mimic market forces in aid. But I think it’s also worth thinking about how other non-market institutions (governments, religious organizations, universities) improve their record on innovation, accountability and competition. In the world of INGOs, decentralization is happening fast, both internally and through the appearance of new start-up affiliates in the emerging economies (Oxfam India and the like) who will surely challenge for power within the NGO network. Maybe large NGOs should also get better at spotting, supporting and adopting innovation from its most likely source – new or smaller NGOs? Thirdly, the discussion didn’t distinguish clearly enough between complicated and complex processes (and I’m not sure which of these constitute Mike Edwards’ ‘thick’ category). Complicated problems can be solved by thinking and studying harder. Complex ones are inherently insoluble – there is just no way of predicting that one man’s self-immolation will trigger a revolution. Complicated problems require NGOs to become cleverer; complex ones require them to think differently – to get better at spotting incipient big changes as early as possible, at finding ways to respond (promoting good change, preventing bad change), at learning how to take risks in a fog of rapidly moving events where we can never know enough to be absolutely sure. There are also things we could do differently (or better) in response to complex processes. One is bearing witness – how is the latest shock hitting poor people, women in the informal sector etc? There is a huge gap in gathering rapid, realtime data on this that academics are not currently filling. We did it a bit on the financial crisis and food price spike and plan to do more of it in the future. cartoon_truth to powerFinally, what is our role in a really big downturn and/or prolonged period of stagnation and austerity in INGOs’ traditional power bases – Europe and North America? One option is to hunker down, defend the gains (such as aid budgets) and seize the odd opportunity (like the Robin Hood Tax). Another is to say ‘there’s not much we can win here, and we have huge challenges coming down the track – let’s step back from the trench warfare of advocacy in Europe and America. Instead we should shift resources to the emerging powers (growing and changing fast, and so more open to influence) and/or long-term prophetic visioning on things like the future of economic growth, even if it damages our access to those in power today (second cartoon). As one person summed it up – do we want to be right or relevant? (And yes, in true NGO fashion, the answer is of course ‘both’). This post also appears in an online forum hosted by The Broker. Feel free to join in the navel-gazing…….]]>

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6 Responses to “Thick problems, thin solutions and the future of NGOs”
  1. From your opening paragraph, it seems that another good question would be how could NGOs engage better with academics to try to ensure that they are doing research that is more relevant to the questions that NGOs are asking, and more useful in terms of the results that are being produced? Perhaps if the NGO community worked more closely with the academic community then this could be one way in which they could be challenged

  2. As a practitioner, I see that the NGO of the future must focus on building its own skills to accompany and support local groups, community leaders, and grassroots initiatives, rather than overpower or co-opt them. The NGO of the future is able to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking local implementing “partners” to change. The NGO of the future is lowering the “glass ceiling” for local groups to participate in decision-making about aid resources, is bucking the paradigm of development without local sovereignty, and is demonstrably serious about downward accountability.
    It is in encouraging and supporting these qualities and processes that we may find the real challenges of developmental practice for NGOs. They require that development practitioners, including donors, pay more attention to the concept of organisation itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organisation and social movements.

  3. The International Comparative Rural Policy Studies summer school takes place in Quebec this summer, 2012. It would be great if you could help circulate this call for participants to your contacts and networks. I have included our website address below. Hope some of your readers get involved. Many thanks!

  4. Takumo

    I guess a crucial test for whether INGOs can stay relevant lies in its ability (and speed) to truly get rid of the habit of ahistorical diagnostics and prescription that is typical of many INGOs (although I think Oxfam is better among the herd) and that treats other regional realities only as a object of adaptation of the already established story. And we need to start understanding and engaging with the rhetoric and discourses of the emerging powers like China and India.
    We have engaged with western discourses and then criticised their actual actions against their preachings. With the emerging powers, we are currently only criticising their actions against our own values. To me this is not enough. We need to accept the fact that although they may be misbehaving to our eyes, they have their own history that has strongly shaped their world view just like our own experiences have shaped ours. The experience of having been colonised and looted has undoubtedly led to the development of discourses different from those of the west, when it comes to multilateralism, global justice, international cooperation etc., and like it or not they do sound more legitimate and just to a lot of countries that are today on the receiving end of their (in)actions.
    Duncan: very interesting Takumo – want to have a stab at summarizing those different development discourses? Guest post?

  5. As a grassroots community organiser, I can attest to the destructive power of NGOs and how they ‘domesticate’ activists’ voices. The International Alliance of Inhabitants is a non-hegemonic network trying to overcome this and works to amplify the voices of communities rather than appropriating these. When small democratic organisations, accountable to their constituencies, begin to have a place at the table, we will hopefully see a shift in the power relationships.