Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #8: Localisation and the future of Australian NGOs and INGOs

Aarathi Krishnan

17 Oct, 2016 | Humanitarian Response

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.

Our world is experiencing change at an unprecedented pace. ANGOs across both the humanitarian and development space, know the challenges that are being faced [pdf, pg 915]: number of those in need growing, climate change, resource shortages, urbanization, the entrance of non-traditional actors, new technologies, protracted conflicts. These challenges and trends are interlocked and they will continue to play out in a highly networked world. Though we in the sector know what these changes and challenges are, we either lack the skills needed to navigate through them, or we don’t understand their implications for the future of our organisations.  

This much is certain. Our current baseline will not continue. To think so is based on an assumption of a continuing Western hegemon.   It is not just that we don’t connect the dots with future trends and challenges, but it also lies in the huge assumptions we make about the context in which such trends and challenges might occur. For example, it is not that ANGOs are not aware of the rise of such emerging powers as Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa or indeed the resurgence of sovereignty around the globe. Rather we find it difficult to move beyond our traditional systems and approaches to accommodate new paradigms. We fall back on approaches where we try to find ways to have traditional systems and approaches fit into new contexts [pdf] rather than exploring new systems and approaches for accommodating changing contexts.

Further, our discussions often only address the first order effects of those trends on our operations, not the second-order impacts on our business models. Failing to see the interconnections between trends, we risk being at the mercy of oversimplified framings of complex issues.

In its landmark 2016 report Time to Let Go, the Humanitarian Policy Group noted that “there is a growing sense, both from ongoing research on the changing humanitarian landscape and in conversations with policy makers and practitioners that the traditional humanitarian sector is on the cusp of a decisive moment in its history”. Policy makers across the development and humanitarian sector argue that the prevalent ‘charity/aid’ model is clearly creaking as it fails to capture the imagination of emerging generations and to enable sustainable transformation for people in poverty.

Merely re-arranging the deck chairs in the proverbial sinking ship won’t result in real change in the new paradigm we exist in. We can no longer talk about future changes or trends as something happening somewhere else or indeed, talk about future changes through a lens of ‘protecting our space’. Fundamentally the challenge is not capital, or capacity, but a paucity of vision and appetite for a scale of innovation. The time for change has come and if we don’t adapt along with it, we risk running irrelevant programs, unwanted by the communities we work within. It involves recognizing that neither the individual nation state nor the present humanitarian/development sector has the tools or the scale of tools to deal with this systems and interdependent reality, and fundamental shift to a clear slate is required.

Based on all the changes and trends we know, I hypothesize that in the next 5-10 years the traditional structures and operations of Australian NGOs and INGOs will look vastly different from the models we know today. To fully grasp the implications of the changes on the future of ANGOs, I posit that we need to interrogate these trends deeply and ask ourselves questions that go to the underlying assumptions of our organisations.

I pose a few of these questions here as a start to a bigger conversation:

  1. If an increasing larger amounts of humanitarian financing is flowing directly from donors to local actors, bypassing the ‘middleman’ operational models of ANGOs – what is our future role?
  2. If local actors can access a wider variety of international actors from which to procure funding, goods and services (rising new actors), why would they pay relatively high costs for Australian services over more cost efficient regional models?
  3. If national governments want to significantly decrease the amount of international ‘boots on the ground’ in development and humanitarian programs, what does this mean for the traditional ‘fly in fly out’ models or indeed even international programming operational models with expat staff, in country?
  4. With the spread of innovative mobile technology (Facebook’s ‘I’m OK’ replacing tracing programs, Kickstarter replacing traditional donor grants) enabling DIY solutions to many issues ANGOs traditionally help with, what does this mean for traditional ANGO programs?

There isn’t a crystal ball that we can look into to see what the future ANGO would look like, but my hypothesis is that the ANGO in 2025 will have a much smaller space to operate in and will potentially evolve to non-programming functions. With the advent of localisation and the increasing practice of Doing Development Different (DDD) for example, it is also very likely that ANGOs will shift towards programs significantly led by local actors. If we consider the rise of sovereignty and the increasing resistance of national governments to external intervention, it appears logical that international deployment response models will be drastically reduced in favour of regional and local deployments in emergencies and crisis.

So here is my next conversation starter: Is it likely the future models of Australian ANGOs will be much narrower in focus, concentrated around the enabling environment of development and humanitarian programming? Does the ANGO of the future become more of an enabler rather than a doer?

Could this possibly be what the Australian ANGO in 2025 looks like?

ANGO 2025 is an organisation that focuses its efforts on facilitating an enabling environment for emerging economies to implement their own development and aid programs. The organisation has moved away from directly programming projects and activities, and it works with indigenous local civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments. It has very few expat staff or satellite offices in-country. Its operations in Australia are focused on seven functions. Contract Management and Fundraising:  Australian based staffs are contract managers and fundraisers that manage and facilitate contracts between donors and local partners, drive fundraising and impact investment strategies. It also supports the back office operations of local CSOs to manage contractual requirements. The ANGO acts as a multiple-actor coordinator, to coordinate partnerships across a range of traditional and non-traditional actors.

The ANGO leverages its brand, experience and reputation to drive policy changes in the sector. It works to raise public support and awareness for global development and humanitarian issues, and the Australian Aid program through targeted communications and advocacy. ANGO 2025 also focuses on capacity development activities and training with local actors to foster regional and local programming and deployments. In addition, the organisation prides itself as an incubator of research and testing, driving a range of academic and applied research projects and creating spaces for testing new approaches to development and humanitarian aid.

In short, the role of Australian ANGOs in 2025 is fundamentally different to what we are used to. If our actions are to truly match our rhetoric, then the time to ‘let go’ is upon us and we need to focus on how we change our models of operations. If our focus is truly on fundamental changes to systemic issues of poverty, inequality and injustice, then changing our focus from budget size and power to ‘relevance’ is absolutely essential.

We cannot afford to merely appear to be “about change” while relentlessly holding to paradigms which are no longer relevant. My hypothesis is at the end of the day, a hypothesis. But it is fundamentally aimed at getting us as organisations and as a sector to start the very difficult conversations on ‘what next for us?’

For a deeper discussion of the impacts of localisation on ANGOs, register for the concurrent workshop Don't Speak the LINGO: Localisation and Humanitarian Response at ACFID National Conference. Registrations close Wednesday 19 October.

  • Aarathi Krishnan
    Aarathi Krishnan

    Aarathi Krishnan is an International Policy Manager, looking at emerging issues and trends in humanitarian aid and innovation. The views expressed in this article are hers alone.

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