Is the NGO system broken?

A recent article by Paul Currion on Aeon.co magazine stated that “Humanitarianism is broken but it can be fixed.” Some choice quotes are below:

“It might simply be that humanitarian NGOs are no longer the right type of organisation to meet the needs of the future. It’s not merely that they are no longer fit for purpose: it’s increasingly uncertain what that purpose is. What are humanitarian organisations for? Are they delivery vehicles for humanitarian assistance – logistics companies with a side order of social concern? Or are they delivery vehicles for humanitarian principles, with any tangible assistance they provide is just a manifestation of those principles?”

With many years experience in faith-based NGOs struggling for legitimacy to access government funding, I know that this is a key question. Paul Currion and I started out in international community development at roughly the same time (in the 1990s), and we shared a similar youthful belief that through coordination and professionalism we could do better at helping the vulnerable. While being based overseas I watched our operating context changed and “we” (the NGOs) started having to compete with private sector companies for government humanitarian funding. As Paul Currion writes – NGOs are now used as Lego bricks.

“After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, many governments exploited the Wilsonian approach to humanitarianism, using NGOs as Lego bricks – interchangeable not just with each other, but also with government, military or private-sector actors. The NGO response has been an implicit acceptance that humanitarian assistance is a market, and they need to maintain their market position, primarily though professionalising, in order to fit the technocratic logic of donor governments.”

With competition for funding becoming increasingly tight, many NGOs are streamlining their approaches, ensuring that they have internal management systems that match commercial businesses. But the pressure to demonstrate the professional use of every dollar and humanitarian outcome of every management activity is manifestly more intense for an NGO than commercial businesses.

The article gives a good overview of the history of NGOs, and the changing political environments they have operated in (Marshall Plan, Cold War, post 9/11). We are in transition again, with international governments in discussion about appropriate responses to terrorism. And although a bit gloomy from the outset, the article ends on a hopeful note.

“We can’t predict the future, but we can shape it by forming alternative narratives. Humanitarianism is not a pile of Lego blocks to be re-arranged as required, but a set of organising principles that tell a compelling story about what we want our civilisation to look like; about how we wish to act towards each other.” 

Mongolia garden (1 of 1)

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