NGOs must give up power

The Netherlands Oxfam

NGOs must transform themselves from wanting to 'develop' people and do things 'for' them, but rather 'with' them. © SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

The international development Non Governmental Organizations (INGOs) are rightly very proud of their history: they have saved lives, helped people get through the toughest moments, and shown those who feel alone that others care. But if NGOs are to help contribute to a better future, they will need to change.

Traditional project work has often been helpful in responding to the immediate practical needs of the poorest communities. But it hasn’t often enough had a clear strategy to tackle the underlying issues more widely; not just in that village, or even sub-district, but beyond. On its own it can never eradicate poverty and inequality. Likewise, as I saw so clearly on a recent visit to Zambia, the type of influencing work that targets London and Washington DC can never on its own help to transform the lives of people in Zambia except as part of a coordinated effort that targets Beijing, New Delhi, Pretoria, and, most importantly, Zambia itself.

More and more, INGOs are seeking to expand their influence, to secure far greater changes for millions of people, not just thousands of people. It takes many forms, from brokering partnerships, through to advocacy and campaigns, united by the recognition that by influencing what governments, business and others do, much more can be achieved than even large NGOs can ever achieve alone.

NGOs can’t end poverty by themselves, but can help strengthen the power of the people to challenge the people with power. So as well as supporting small farmers to earn more, Oxfam – for example – also supports campaigns by people who have lost their land, like the families in Polochic in Guatemala, some of whom now have been provided with land. And as well as providing humanitarian and development support to people in Somalia, we also support groups campaigning to stop banks like Barclays from closing down the lifeline of remittances sent by Somalis to their families.

The need for NGOs to change is hastened by the changing world. What are still sometimes called ‘emerging powers’ are now fully emerged. In much of the South, growth figures continue to rise. But inequality is rising fast both in the South and in the North, and is at the heart of a social and economic crisis exacerbating instability and undermining democracy. The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest.

Take Zambia. It has become a middle-income country, but the number of poor people has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. Around 5 per cent of Indians own 50 per cent of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, ‘nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top one per cent. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.’ In Britain, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.

Domestic questions of distribution will increasingly determine whether, as countries become better off, their people do too. At the same time, the West remains home to many of the world’s tax havens, the largest financial markets, and the large multinationals who control more wealth than many countries. And climate change, which will have a profound effect on living standards, respects no boundaries. So, to make a difference, NGOs will need to develop into influencing networks that are both nationally rooted and strongly connected internationally.

INGOs that wish to continue to be relevant and useful for people living in poverty will need to do more than adapt. We will need transform ourselves into truly international organizations in which power is shared more democratically, and accountability to poor communities is stronger. For many years in Oxfam, almost all the ‘affiliates’ who together manage the organization were in the North. We started to change this with the establishment of Oxfam India. Now we plan to shift much more power in this way, to more countries.   

We will need to bring our cherished values – of solidarity, equality, inclusion, and diversity – into the governance and structures of our organizations. We will need to go further along the journey from ‘for’ to ‘by’ and ‘with’. International NGOs are not here to ‘develop’ people: we are here to accompany people in their struggles for a fairer world. That doesn’t mean the end of international NGOs, rather it means their renaissance.

International development NGOs can play an important role as part of a broad movement for a values-driven society that treats people equally and doesn’t trash the planet. But this will mean mean giving up some of the power over others that comes with money and bureaucracy. That is the only way to strengthen the most important form of power: the power, with others, to change the world.

Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director at Oxfam.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.