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

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……

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14 Responses to “You can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting: what future for International NGOs?”
  1. Matthew Greenall

    I think the matrix is useful but I’d be interested to know if you talked about the role of INGOs Vis a Vis a couple of things that definitely do cut across the different boxes. Did you talk about “community involvement” or making sure poor people (or people affects by a given problem) are actors in whatever initiative (advocacy or services; big or small) is being discussed? How about the role of local NGOs/ community organisations which INGOs often work with/aim to strengthen?

    • Duncan Green

      Sure Matthew, and as you say, those kinds of consideration would apply in all the boxes. This was not an ‘only INGOs matter’ conversation, just one of the rare occasions when I talk about them at all!

  2. Marc DuBois

    The nature and causes of INGO growth is a tough nut. Given the enormous size of some INGOs (can we really justify thousands of people on Western HQ salaries?), and the age-old difficulty in promoting efficiency when profit is not the measuring stick, it is an important nut. We tried all sorts of growth curbs inside MSF, and kept growing, mostly beyond our collective control. It’s not just about being a supertanker, it’s about the way the supertanker keeps growing.

    Two factors that don’t get a lot of mention. First, email, internet, etc. HQ staff are busier than ever. Are they more productive? How much of that busy-ness is simply keeping on top of the hundredfold increase in information, be it daily data from the field, context reports, or updates from across the organization? Too busy and too stressed means hiring more people…

    Second, and thinking about my years in MSF in terms of evolutionary trajectory, one of the main features could be described as the Iron Law of Mission Creep. Basically, people inside the organization will look to the next ridge, taking on a new field, cause, approach etc. Some of this constitutes innovation, or improvement. Some, sheer necessity — I remember the strident arguments against taking on HIV (it’s not humanitarian issue). Some, the heavy bureaucratic dictates of so-called professionalism. Some is about trying to capture trends in funding by adding new program areas.

    But some is surely the result of populating an organization with doers and strivers, always looking for a stimulation of tackling something new; people who need a fix of feeling that they are making a difference. The result isn’t just about size, it’s about the effectiveness of generalist organizations trying to tackle everything, or multi-specialist organizations trying to coordinate/manage between silos.

  3. Allan Moolman

    I find the binary – service delivery/advocacy – quite problematic as it doesn’t actually include the many organisation who explicitly ‘deliver services’ in an effort to build an evidence base to shift the way the State delivers services. Neither does this seem to acknowledge and entire sector of organisations engaged in the strengthening civil society – so called capacity building organisations.
    These organisations, because the development sector refused to acknowledge more nuanced approaches to creating change and influencing, are far too often classed as old hat and cast aside because from the limited perspective of the policy wonks, because they are not at the UN or at that grand vehicle of change, the CoP.
    Despite the years and years of work to elevate the voice of ‘the poor’ the global policy space is still dominated by highly educated, middle class technocrats who dither about language rather than actually responding to what people are asking for – more and better quality of services rather than more and more impenetrable policy. I think this is where the INGO community has lost its way.
    It has become very difficult to distinguish them from their targets – their mode and language are the same as the institutions they have set out to force reform in, they are staffed by the same people and are tied into loops of patronage (via funding mechanisms) that make them all but service deliverers themselves.
    The only difference between ‘advocacy and ‘service delivery’ being their product. One continues to support the empty rhetorical spaces that continue to fail people while the other delivers products that people may need but never own.
    Neither seem to remember that development is still about people and power or more importantly, about people having power, rather than being helped or being represented.

      • Allan Moolman

        I think it could be Duncan.

        I have been reflecting on this quite a lot recently and am convinced that age of the big, global agency is reaching its sell by date. Mostly because they have a tendency to roll up peoples issues into grand campaigns over long periods of time. People want results and,like I have said before, all we give them is more words. Have you noticed how actions that by definition time limited (a campaign) never seem to end and are never called as successes or failures?
        INGOs are very uncomfortable with their funding role. They want to be seen as actors – even if its on someone else’s stage and all they are supposed to be are paying patrons. Its back to forgetting that fundamentally, this sector developed out of wanting to support people to take more control of their own lives and to create the change they see as important and relevant. What the sector increasingly does instead, is reinforce the idea that ‘ordinary’ people are powerless and bobbing in the ebb and flow of policy driven currents that they cant understand or engage with.
        I believe that the future role of the INGO community is a more passive one, supporting – through providing money and other support – local actors and institutions who are trying to effect change themselves. INGOs (not just BINGOs) have to become more comfortable with the idea that they should not occupy center stage. At most they should live up to their professed values and be in the back of the chorus line, but ideally be paying audience members who allow the troupe to write and act out their own stories.

  4. P Baker

    Very interesting post and comments. We could do with some independent study or case histories. For instance Practical Action decentralized two or three years ago, did it work? Greenpeace (in my estimation at least) seems to have avoided middle-aged spread, other Env INGOs have taken the private dollar and Naomi Klein gives them a bit of a kicking in her new book.

    But what you are describing is true of all institutions. Most private companies don’t last more than three generations as separate entities, have a look at an old Stock Market table.

    Are we about to see some sort of Schumpeterian cycle of destruction? Are INGOs like companies, have the small ones gotten swallowed up? Have the big ones (BINGOS) survived better? Has anyone studied this?

    I think it’s only religions and teaching establishments that survive the test of time, in which direction will Oxfam have to head?

  5. Jon Shepherd

    Surely the end of the evolutionary path of BINGOs is their disappearance.

    I believe it is only a matter of time before aid recipient country governments stop foreign BINGOs from being involved in national action plans and insist on only national CBOs are funded to work with communities. In many ways, this is already the strategy of many BINGOs who only ‘work directly through partners’. There must surely be real questions about the value added of the BINGO in this process and if there are better ways of doing this.

    Once recipient governments feel empowered enough to stop BINGOs working in their countries, I’d suggest that we abolish BINGOs and encourage UK citizens to give to collective funds (as with DEC) and this funding is used to directly support recipient governments to be able to build national plans and have the capacity to either implement directly or co-ordinate the national CBOs to fill in gaps.

    The redundant BINGO workers could apply for jobs with the UK government, working directly with recipient governments to ensure they have, or are building the capacity to help their own citizens.

  6. Nicholas Colloff

    From a funder’s perspective, I frankly do not care what the organizational form is or is not but can it deliver the outcome (against our theory of change) that best delivers systemic change in the lives of the poor. Less focus on whether or not we are ‘relevant’ (and how do others see us) that is frankly adolescent and are we or are we not effective and can we show that in story and in evidence.

    • Duncan Green

      Fair enough Nicholas (and I usually try to avoid these discussions, as you know), but decisions on future size and mandate clearly affect whether an organization is effective where it matters (on the ground), so still a conversation (occasionally) worth having I think.