I’ve been having fun recently taking some of the ideas around ‘Doing Development Differently’ and applying them to INGOs, building on the post I wrote last year on ‘You can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting’. The Exam Question is: Given complexity, systems thinking and the failure of top down approaches, what future, if any, is there for International NGOs? Paper and blog forthcoming – bet you can’t wait.
Last week, I discussed the draft paper with my campaigns, policy and influencing colleagues (we seem to have stopped saying ‘advocacy’ – not quite sure why). I kicked off by suggesting some implications/questions for them:
1. For INGOs, learning to go white water rafting means big shifts, which could include
- Consciously pursuing many more experiments, built on fast feedback, learning how to identify failure and success much faster, then iterating and adapting into new experiments. How does that differ from standard campaign approaches?
- In NGO world, rafts are are small organizations, more likely than supertankers to develop innovative ideas, and respond quickly to shifting contexts. But a large NGO can support them and scale up new approaches. So the best combination might be to make more effort to identify and steal good ideas, and to spin off successful experiments as soon as possible, so that they can flourish away from the clutches of corporate process.
2. Why don’t we do more on spotting and backing existing winners (positive deviance) rather than trying to come up with our own solutions to every problem?
3. In complex systems, where organizations and ideas are constantly rising and falling, the best unit of analysis may not be the project, but the individual. Why don’t NGOs do more to support people not projects (scholarships, more investment in leadership)?
The conversation threw up some really interesting additional observations and suggestions:
What do we mean by ‘Power’? We all pay lip service to the importance of understanding the nature and distribution of power in the systems we seek to influence, but often, we mean different things by the phrase ‘power analysis’. Campaigners and advocates think much more in terms of challenging power, whereas a lot of programme people (especially in governance, but also livelihoods work on things like producer organizations), focus more on personal and collective empowerment. In terms of Jo Rowlands’ ‘3 (or 4) powers’ model, we have a bit of a Venn Diagram going on here. Campaigners think in terms of Power With and Power To, whereas programmes work on Power Within and Power With. No wonder we’re confused.
Critical Junctures: Events play a huge role in many big changes, whether of policy, politics, or broader attitudes and beliefs. Within NGOs the people who are geared to respond to events are the emergencies people – long term development and campaigns teams are often less able to respond. What could influencers learn from their humanitarian colleagues about reacting better to big events like the Egyptian Revolution, a new and more progressive government, or a financial or climate meltdown? For example, what could be put in place before the more predictable events (floods, elections), to enable us to react more rapidly afterwards (e.g. 90% cooked policy papers, coalitions ready to go public in the days after a major shock) while there is still an appetite for new ideas and approaches? Or have a system like the humanitarians to move resources and people around in response to events?
Detector networks: influencers are sometimes too caught up in their own ideas and networks to spot when things have changed in the world outside, even when those changes bring new opportunities. The first we researchers in Oxford new of the global price spike in 2008 was when journalists phoned up and asked for a comment. Field staff on the ground may be better placed to spot relevant trends in their own context, even if they don’t add those up to see global trends, as may journalists or other observers. How do we develop better ‘early warning systems’ to harvest such signals? A monthly ring round of 1000 key informants? A big data scraping exercise to spot words appearing more frequently on twitter or in our email subject headings (partnership with GCHQ anyone? – only joking)?
Global, National or City? Like lots of other INGOs, Oxfam is shifting resources from global influencing to national level. But that can be challenged on two grounds: firstly, there is still a huge gap in global governance, with few active players – INGOs may be better placed to influence there than in the crowded cauldron of national politics. But at the other end of the spectrum, many of the most interesting innovations at national level emerge through experiments by city administrations, and are then adopted at national level (think cash transfers, participatory budgeting or low carbon transitions). So is it worth consciously pursuing city influencing strategies, identifying the more promising urban authorities, and then developing the right staff, partners, networks, research, tactics etc?
Finding Funding: to some extent, all of this stands or falls on our ability to find funders willing to support this kind of innovation. I’m actually optimistic, because so many of the interesting things I see in Oxfam in part owe their inspiration to examples of ‘Good Donorship ’. But we may need to develop new kinds of funding instrument (eg innovation/influencing funds that allow us to break up larger chunks of cash into smaller, better targeted pieces that can be disbursed quickly and won’t overwhelm the recipient).
Any more suggestions?