Hugo Slim, Associate Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.
International NGOsare a very good thing. We need them. Society cannot live by government alone. It needs a vibrant civil society that enables social entrepreneurs to have new ideas, and to challenge and complement the state.
Many of the most progressive ideas in history have been born and developed in NGOs: the abolition of slavery; human rights; public health; universal education; arms control; prison reform; environmentalism; humanitarian action; global poverty eradication and human development.
Essential government services all over the world are supported by vital NGO projects and innovations. At their best, international NGOs have often been a progressive vanguard to government policy.
But are NGOs at their best today? Even if they are, is the sector well placed to survive in the future? What will INGOs look like in ten years time?
All of these big brands have become large transnational bureaucracies, taking increasing amounts of government money but still adopting a radical tone in their appeals and campaigning. While they are still opinionated, they are no longer as independent as they were. The N of their acronym is eroded by waves of government funding. Their organizational survival is determined by tax-payers and governments not volunteers.
NGOs have fought brilliantly for wider recognition of many of the world’s biggest problems like climate change, rising inequality, millennium development goals, migration, human trafficking, disaster risk reduction and violence of all kinds.
NGO research and campaigning have shown the enormous scale of the environmental challenges facing humanity and the many ways we do great harm to one another. These problems are real and many governments are now beginning to engage with them constructively.
Global Challenges Mean Global Coalitions
The great success of the NGO movement in recent years has been to show that poverty and environmental crisis are everybody’s business. But this means that NGOs may well be the victims of their own success.
It is now obvious that big problems need big players. Aid is a very small part of the solution to reducing inequality, managing climate change and organizing fair migration policies. Leveraging commercial investments, business services and trade policy alongside government social policy will be the norm.
Increasingly, INGOs are likely to be squeezed into development coalitions in which they are small partners alongside big business and large government investments in development mega projects. In these merged alliances, radical NGO culture will be hard to sustain. Individual incentives will turn towards project results, high salaries and promotion.
Too Big to Fail?
The cliché of every NGO is to declare that they want to work themselves out of a job. Do they really?
Like big banks, mega NGOs are now too big to fail. Their boards will not let them but instead seek out mergers or government and corporate finance to keep the brand alive.
Big NGOs will be doing huge projects with big government and big business. Many are probably right to do this. It makes moral and commercial sense. But they will not really be NGOs anymore.
Mega NGOs may still be very innovative. With their business partners they may team up to find new cures, new technologies and new financial services to reduce inequality and climate change.
This new move may mean greater progress for planet and people. If neo-liberalism can save the world and deliver greater fairness, then these new strategic partnerships may achieve the scale and impact to do so in parts of the world that accept them.
But this mega move will also be the end of the first wave of radical international NGOs. They may not fail but they will be swallowed up in the triumph of their own development agenda going global.