Politics of Poverty

Reflecting on the future of NGOs like Oxfam – why we need to be self-critical but hopeful

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Photo: Claudia Barrientos/ Oxfam America.

The debate about the future of NGOs is an important one – let’s focus on the opportunities

Ending the week by reading a blog post like the one by published Michael Edwards can make anyone working in the NGO  sector shrug their shoulders and pack their bags. That’s because Edwards offers a rather pessimistic assessment of the future of NGOs like Oxfam, whom he assesses to be constrained by their own size and unable to reposition themselves in the evolving nexus between states, civil society, and markets. But reading commentaries from external observers of our sector tend to captivate me, not only because they provide valuable insight, but also because they force us reflect on our day-to-day experience working at an NGO like Oxfam. So I decided to  jot down some reflections.

Anyone who has worked at an NGO like Oxfam knows that it can be a job full of tensions and contradictions. Most of these boil down to the ever-prevailing conflict between our principled motivations to work towards social change vs. maneuvering the political constraints of our evolving social environment(s). Take our limitations to be able to engage in political debates (like Brexit), our evolving (and often complicated) relationship with broader social movements, the complex challenges to ensure our accountability to the people we aim to serve, the task to adjust to a more multi-polar world order, our insider-outsider relationship with the private sector, or the tension between needing to take a backseat role in the service of broader change processes while also needing to demonstrate effectiveness. The list goes on.

These tensions are indeed part of our reality – and of our DNA as NGOs. Being challenged on them is an important exercise, particularly since NGOs rely on external feedback to retain our legitimacy and adapt to a constantly changing environment.  But some commentaries – like Edwards’— evoke the urge to respond, not because his points are misplaced, but because his analysis could be strengthened.

Sure, singling out an individual organization, in this case, Oxfam, grabs attention, but I’m not sure it serves the broader point about of debating the future of NGOs. While Oxfam and its peers are plagued by common challenges and similar trends, the sector is also marked by a diverse set of organizational trajectories and practices. Furthermore, NGOs like Oxfam don’t exist in isolation but are part of an evolving ecosystem with a rich array of stakeholders that shape how we evolve. So contemplating the future of individual NGOs in isolation can be a useful heuristic tool, it’s difficult to see its analytical value without also analyzing broader changes within the international development field.  And that includes the impacts and consequences of  an increasingly multi-polar world, changing donor expectations, and the evolving understanding of development.

I’d also argue that where NGOs like Oxfam are heading is less one-dimensional and static than Edwards argues. Yes, the NGO sector has grown over the past two decades, but this growth has slowed or stopped for several larger NGOs and will likely continue to. More importantly, growth is only part of our evolution. NGOs have shown to be capable of changing in response to stakeholder feedback and a changing world. The de-prioritization of direct service delivery work over the past decade (outside of humanitarian crisis situations), the adoption of rights-based approaches, the emphasis on national-level influencing work (not only advocacy in the Global North), the critical engagement with the aid system (not simply implementing it), and the strategic and organizational adjustments to a changing, post-aid world. It’s not a frictionless process but a sign of progress nonetheless. The open letter by NGOs that Edwards highlights (and which was signed by Oxfam) reflects, in fact, part of this evolution.

Edwards rightly highlights that NGOs like Oxfam are uniquely positioned to be intermediaries, which he argues can be an uncomfortable but also promising position. Emphasizing the potential value proposition of NGOs as connectors in this space is an exciting vision – and a more sincere one than pretending they should become more movement-like (which we can’t) or, for that matter, more business-like (which we shouldn’t).

Instead, there is a strong argument for believing in and harnessing the unique contributions NGOs can bring to global social change, despite the daily frustration that come with working for a large global organization. Like few others, we can bundle the force of a global network of activists in high-powered political settings. We can also augment the power of social change advocates within national settings by bringing of the global Oxfam confederation and its partners to bear. When we are at our worst, we can inadvertently stifle others in their social change efforts, but when we are at our best, we can play critical convening, bridge-building, influencing and catalytic roles.

The key question for me is how we can harness our organizational capabilities and global reach in service of an increasingly diverse and multi-polar social change space without restricting (or worse co-opting) its dynamic qualities? This is not only a question for Oxfam and its peers, but just as much for its external stakeholders who we depend on for support and feedback. Our answer to it will help determine which one of Edwards’ future NGO scenarios will come true. Let’s not miss the chance to get it right.

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