Activist wearing sign 'We don't have time'

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on?

These are the views of Veena Siddharth, consultant on organisational change, advocacy and human rights. They do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach Veena at veena_s@post.harvard.edu

 “It (Transition House) survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.”
(“The Radical Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter” by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 12, 2019)

In a recent blog, Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken asks whether hiring and promoting “rebels” could be a way to transform NGOs. Her skepticism reflects the reality that the crisis many NGOs are facing cannot be solved by individuals.

A mismatch between increased ambition and systems

As NGOs have broadened missions to take on global problems, measuring progress becomes harder. The failure to radically transform contributes to a vacuum of accountability that is fertile ground for poor performance at the very least. Sometimes, it even leads to allegations of abuse, as we have seen in the last few years. The root problem, in my view, is a mismatch between increasingly ambitious objectives and systems inherited from another era.

Although I focus here on INGOs, multilaterals and bilaterals share a similar dissonance between their objectives and functions. UNICEF, UNAIDs, and the Global Fund are just a few of the multilaterals that join Transparency International, Oxfam, Save the Children, IPPF, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International in allegations that include bullying cultures, sexual harassment, lack of oversight, exclusionary internal networks and misuse of funds.

For example…

NGOs that thirty years ago specialised in stand-alone projects added campaigning, policy research and advocacy to tackle power structures and problems that transcended individual projects. Oxfam’s website, for example, says, “Eliminate injustice and you eliminate poverty”. CARE aims to “to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice” Plan International focuses on “significantly advancing gender equality by tackling the root causes of discrimination.” This expansion of the mission is not limited to development INGOs. Amnesty International moved from championing the individual political prisoner to addressing climate change, corporate accountability and “living in dignity” as priority areas of work. For their part, humanitarian organisations are signatories to the “Grand Bargain”, which aims for nothing less than a “Participation Revolution” in which those receiving aid make the decisions – a dramatic shift in power and authority.

Old structures persist

Yet…. the old structures persist. Donors still dictate terms of funding with short-term horizons without real recognition of the need for collaboration. Foundations and other funders give lip service to holistic approaches but are themselves divided into regional and sectoral divisions that do not support the cross-sectoral and institutional cooperation needed. Achieving the mission is impossible without unconventional alliances that require long-term investments and risk-taking. Such strategic alliances are distinct from the typical MOU with a corporate sponsor and may require finding allies on the other side of a political divide or reframing a divisive issue.

Systems with regard to planning, strategy, staff appraisal, evaluation and learning, fundraising, knowledge management and the internal culture form the scaffolding that determines what is rewarded inside organisations. Being clear about the overall goal while giving staff a high degree of trust and autonomy is essential, yet most NGOs still operate with Cold War-era internal structures related to regional and sectoral divides that are no longer relevant in a more connected era. While there are nods to more relevant approaches – such as developmental evaluation and adaptive management — existing systems tend to support technical expertise with static outputs.

Governance structures are also ill-equipped. The INGO boards in many of the recent scandals appear out of their depth to address profound questions of the skills and metrics best suited to the current environment. Board members may be appointed for their background in management consulting, the corporate world or the NGO sector, but few boards understand the challenges that Executive Directors face today in meeting both technical and political challenges.

What we need instead

One reaction to the scandals has been a growing business in the area of safeguarding, restructuring, and governance. This is necessary but insufficient. We need ways to establish long-term strategies with adaptability to shift tactics in the short-term, and develop boundary-crossing networks organised around change. Stress learning over static evaluation and increase the tolerance for investing in new areas. And we need Boards who understand the shifts this way of working requires in measuring progress and ways of working.

On a global level, the challenges are unprecedented, and the broader goals are exactly the right ones. If we are serious about tackling climate change, migration, political instability and inequality we need a starkly different approach to what NGOs currently value, as expressed through their systems and processes.

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