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How should INGOs prepare for the coming disruption? Reading the aid/development horizon scans (so that you don’t have to)

February 21, 2014
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Gosh, INGOs do find themselves fascinating. Into my inbox plop regular exercises in deep navel-gazing –both excessively self-content-horizon-scanningregarding and probably necessary. They follow a pretty standard formula:

  • 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!


OK, I’ve embroidered a little. The even-more-awful truth is that the prose in these reports is some of the worst I come across in the aid biz, and that’s a pretty high bar. Try this: ‘This report explores whether INGOs can leverage their distinct assets to proactively create greater impact to benefit the people they serve.’ I tell you, I’m taking one for the team by reading these.

Deep breath. On with the summary:

Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future, (written by the Foundation Strategy Group, funded by the Hewlett Foundation) surveys 50 big US NGOs receiving large chunks of the US government’s $4bn annual spending via NGOs (so not Oxfam America, which keeps its distance on this). Overall, the authors are unimpressed:

‘Most INGOs are neither proactively assessing these disrup­tions nor fundamentally changing in response. Rigorous, long-term, multisector collaborations needed to address complex challenges are rare. INGOs continue to look at the private sector as a source of phil­anthropic funding, rather than as a mutual partner for scaled impact. INGOs with a higher dependence on U.S. government funding have little time, resources, or incentives to think beyond the next grant or cooperative agreement.’

Ahead of the curve figThe paper sees four options (sorry, I mean ‘future-oriented approaches’) for INGOs (see graphic): ‘(1) enhancing direct implementation; (2) influencing systems change; (3) harnessing the private sector; and (4) leading multi­sector action.’ And has some sensible recommendations for our beloved leaders:

  • To influence systems, INGOs can develop the capac­ity of country staff to identify systemic solutions and synthesize learning to establish thought leadership positions on complex challenges.
  • To harness the private sector, INGOs can develop criteria to guide partnerships, create new messag­ing for corporate partners, and demonstrate the benefit of shared value to donors.
  • To lead multisector action, INGOs can build up the capacity to assist low- and middle-income country governments to coordinate collaborations, explore shared measurement systems, and make the case to donors about the value of collective impact.


Riding the Wave (rather than being swept away) comes from the International Civil Society Centre, with dosh from the Rockefeller Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. Its focus is on what it sees as the multiple ‘disruptions’ currently threatening business as usual. At a global level, these include the breaching of planetary boundaries, but at a more prosaic level of INGO business models, they include ‘disintermediation’ (will organizations like GiveDirectly that transfer cash straight to the SIM cards of the poor make intermediary NGOs – i.e. the rest of us – redundant?) and closing civil society space in many countries (where did all our partners go?).

The answer (wait for it) is ‘building a disruption resilient organization’. What does that mean? You may well ask; luckily there are some disruptionanswers:

‘We identified three different strategies for how to position ICSOs towards disruption: the “active disruptor” actively advances potential disruption rather than trying to avoid or mitigate its effects. An ICSO that merges with a “virtual CSO” (a civil society organisation that supports projects or runs campaigns predominantly through the internet) or forms its own virtual entity might be an example of this strategy.

The “opportunistic navigator” carefully screens changes in its environment and prepares itself to quickly embark on a deep-rooted process of change should that become necessary. An example of such might be an ICSO that cooperates or partners with virtual CSOs, social entrepreneurs and other new and potentially disruptive entities in order to strengthen its awareness of change and to be prepared in case disruption occurs.

The “conservative survivor” builds on its reputation, size and bank account. This strategy tries to navigate around disruption as much as possible and is the riskiest approach once disruption becomes unavoidable. An ICSO that monitors developments and growth rates in the virtual CSO sector and reviews its own income in comparison, but otherwise takes a “wait and see” approach, could illustrate this tactic. To date, most ICSOs tend to lean towards this strategy.’

Finally, a rather breathless paper from IDS, Re-imagining Development 3.0 for a Changing Planet by Jon Morris. This is a pure distillation of a slightly different genre: a high speed canter through an apparently random series of recent trends (urbanization, capital market liberalization, identity politics, wars involving non-state actors), leading to an apparently unconnected, and largely politics-free ‘If I Ruled the World’ shopping list including gems like ‘fair trade to replace free trade’ and (fanfare please) ‘working with all people in all nations.’ Good luck with that guys.

There, I’ve given some of you back hours of your lives, but at what personal cost? Heading for a darkened room and some therapeutic screaming.

On holiday next week (probably just as well, judging by the snark-ometer reading on this post), but there is no escape for the rest of you – I’ve scheduled posts throughout.

Update: Ken Caldwell sends in a comment to say that there is an entire website devoted to this kind of thing. Check out the Baobab site



  1. Duncan, thanks as always for your stimulating blogs. This month I end eleven years of working with USAID. The point about INGO with “…a higher dependence on U.S. government funding [that] have little time, resources, or incentives to think beyond the next grant or cooperative agreement” is accurate. There is definitely a need for rethinking their approach. Unfortunately, the impetus must first come from within funding agencies. If funding agencies are asking for more of the same the INGO will give more of the same!

  2. Indeed there is a growing list of documents charting the challenges facing INGOs – sadly a growing number of which are full of management jargon and empty statements of the obvious.

    If you would like to save some more hours of your lives in future, you might like to know about Baobab, the new online resources hub on leadership and governance issues for INGOs. This has been set up by a small group of us who work on these issues regularly, as a service to the INGO community – we plough through lots of these documents for you every month, and only post the ones that – in our view – have something new or interesting to say to the sector. (We may even disagree with Duncan occasionally!) We produce updates every couple of months summarising useful new resources. You can find us at baobab.org.uk.

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