INGOs and aid’s Middle Income Country trap – what are the options?

Oxfam country directors face an unenviable task – juggling the daily management bureaucracy of the aid sector with the need to keep their eyes on the prize and think about strategy. Luckily, they are also some of the smartest, most politically savvy people in the organization. Here is a 16 minute segment of Philippines country director Lot Felizco, discussing the ‘middle income trap’ (my term, not hers).

What I take from this is that INGOs operating in a fast-growing, but increasingly authoritarian country have 3 options, all of them daunting in different ways:

  1. Resist/work against the grain. For example human rights organizations have taken on the government over the bloodbath of the ‘war on drugs’. That may be the right thing to do, but it is both dangerous and closes every door to influence on other issues such as economic policy
  2. Stay away from government and do long-term work on areas such shifting norms on violence against women (see yesterday’s interview with Jurma Tikmasan on the way that is happening in Mindanao)
  3. Target those areas and functions of the state where ‘working with the grain’ is both possible and morally acceptable. In the Philippines, that seems to lead to a lot of work on economic policy and state service provision. The Asia Foundation’s ‘coalitions for change’ programme is working in this space and one of the reasons for my visit was to take a look at its practices – watch this space for more on that.

But my impression from Lot is that to work effectively on any of these, you have to get away from the dead hand of orthodox aid, with its linear programmes, short time scales and obsession with metrics and indicators fixed in advance and set in stone. That means either finding a donor willing to innovate, as TAF seems to have done with the Australian Government, or reducing dependence on aid, which in any case tends to fall away as a country grows.

That’s tough, as Lot spells out, but I’m not sure there are many options.

Finally, a shout out for what smart social media can do in a hyper-connected country like the Philippines. This unashamedly schmaltzy 45 second video on the need to rebalance carework between women and men got 17.8 million views, the majority of them men!

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