I often write about a spectrum of international engagement as illustrated here –  from organizations that just ‘dabble’ in the international arena to organizations that operate globally.  I try to touch upon issues that organizations deal with and lessons that can be learned at those different stages.  This blog post focuses on organizations at the global side of the spectrum.

There are international NGOs (INGOs) that have been operating for many years, with the most well known of these being international development groups.  And there are many newer INGOs that have been created over the past decade or so, most notably those that  advocate for a particular cause (such as clean water or climate change) or focus on new services or technologies.   Although newer organizations often have a larger predisposition for change, and the nimbleness to change quickly, there have been a number of changes recently in the INGO environment that are moving all INGOs in new directions.  These trends are also ones that NGOs on the more local end of the engagement spectrum can learn from as well.

  1. Accountability –  An INGO Accountability charter was signed in 2006 after several years of discussion around  codes of conduct.  Some of this was driven by the INGO leaders themselves, others influences were external – evolving public perceptions and expectations of INGOs.  Last year a reporting process was initiated.  Over the past few years the INGO Accountability Charter’s website has also become more sophisticated and transparent,  providing information of help to INGOs and NGOs alike.  Here is an example of how one Charter member, Oxfam International, has placed more prominence on this type of information on its website: Oxfam Accountability. As of April 2011 the Charter has a new five year strategy.  In the sector at-large, all NGOs will increasingly need to find ways to better convey key information to their stakeholders and beneficiaries.
  2. Internal Communication – I have written on internal communication before  but no list like this of trends impacting INGOs would be complete without a mention of internal communications.  Again, this trend is being driven by internal and external factors.  The increased use of different types of communications technologies [such as social media and mobile phones, together with continuing use of e-mail, etc..] has created an information overload that needs to be filtered for the most relevant information.  An additional challenge is to have structured systems that allow for a flow of information that is deemed ‘important’ for everyone throughout the organization, while remaining flexible in responding to changing circumstances and allowing local units the ability to respond to their local needs.  While this has always been a challenge to NGOs, and especially geographically far-flung INGOs, the sheer increase in volume of messages being exchanged has called for increased internal attention to managing this process.  Even small steps can make a difference such as creating summaries for long reports, or clearly indicating in e-mails what action is being requested.
  3. Better integration of beneficiary groups – The two trends noted above, together with growing expectations and capacities among beneficiary groups, has led to a pressure for INGOs (most of which are still Western, developed country based) to better integrate their beneficiary groups into their decision-making processes and program delivery.  ActionAid International is an example of an organization that has made a particularly strong commitment in this direction.  In 2003 it relocated its secretariat to South Africa to be closer to the ‘global south’ and the perspectives of its beneficiary groups, and began to redesign its governance to better integrate its local affiliates into its decision-making structure.  Language on its website reflects this commitment: “We don’t dictate solutions. We work with communities over time, using our resources, skills, knowledge and contacts to strengthen their own efforts to end poverty.”

Peter Moore, a London based consultant colleague who also works with INGOs, helped me pursue this question a little further pointing out the following aspects being explored for better integrating beneficiaries:

1)      Participation of communities in decision-making about programs that directly involve them: the modern emphasis on empowering communities to lead rather than ‘white men going to tell them what they need’.

2)      Working with partners as partners rather than as local groups to whom action is sub-contracted.

3)      Establishing governance structures where possible in countries of activity, whether rich or poor, so that strategic decisions and oversight are by local not distant boards.

4)      Bringing beneficiaries into local governance structures. This is not easy. In particular it requires additional attention to the processes by which members of governing bodies are recruited/elected, inducted and developed.

4.  Implications of worldwide crises in government finance and questioning of effectiveness of INGOs as service deliverers.   Governments are trying to do more with less.  As they do there is a reconsideration of the most effective use of international development funds.  Brian Pratt, Executive Director of thee International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC) discusses this further in  “The Decline of the INGO Empire: What next for international development organizations?”

What trends are you seeing?