GDI researcher supports Dutch government to help NGOs work more politically and effectively

11 May 2018

GDI researcher Nicola Banks is working with the Dutch government in shaping research that will help them reorient their funding of NGOs in a way that helps them to think and act more politically.

Dr Nicola Banks' ESRC funded research has found that International NGOs face major barriers in facilitating social transformation and justice because of their inability to engage in more transformative – and therefore more political – activities. Increasingly restrictive controls and the rising tide of technocracy that has swept through the world of foreign aid are central constraints here.

Citing this work, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to try and do things differently, creating a new policy to fund strategic partnerships for lobbying and advocacy. This Dialogue and Dissent policy framework (2016-2020) represents a serious and exciting shift in how the Ministry will spend its overseas development assistance budget.

The decision to support greater lobbying and advocacy signals a major shift in the Ministry’s operational approach away from poverty alleviation (what it refers to as its economic role) and towards tackling the root causes of poverty (which in contrast, represents its political role). It will mean that for Ministry to meet its goals, all Dutch overseas development funding on NGOs will now be spent on activities that support their political roles, building the voice and capacity of CSOs in their international partners and amplifying these in international spheres.  

To put this strategy into practice, the Ministry has allocated 3 million to fund research into how NGOs can play stronger political roles, asking projects to directly test the assumptions and hypotheses underlying the new policy framework’s theory of change. Dr Banks has been assigned Chair of an International Advisory Committee that reviewed and recommended projects to fund and that continues to monitor the progress of funded projects throughout the 18-month period of the research.

Dr Banks’s work is also making an impact with NGOs closer to home. Her work mapping the UK’s Development NGO sector (with Professor Dan Brockington at the University of Sheffield) led to a request from Save the Children International to participate in expert panel discussion, with the explicit intention of shaping their strategic planning. In June, she will Chair a roundtable discussion at the House of Lords looking at how small charities working in international development can better collaborate to deliver their services. This is an event organised by The FSI as part of Small Charities week.

It’s a critical time for the UK NGO sector: NGOs are reporting greater scrutiny and challenges from the donating public, government departments, and, most critically, from media narratives in the right-wing press. Scandals that have blighted international NGOs in humanitarian settings have rocked the sector and the public’s blind faith in charities.

"It’s an exciting time to be doing this research," Dr Banks said. "The NGO sector is incredibly professionalised but also incredibly pressured to achieve so much and within stringent guidelines. The size of the sector continues to grow, and the strength of public support for the sector speaks volumes for the public’s belief in international development as a worthy cause.

"Our research is quite powerful in measuring these aspects of growth, and how they are distributed across a sizeable sector. Perhaps lost in more over-arching narratives is that NGOs are all influenced so differently depending on their size and positioning within the sector. Understanding these patterns and processes of growth is a critical first step in working out where to go from here: to find out how governments can work more effectively with the development NGO sector, but also how NGOs can rally around specific calls that require governments to be listening and acting, or join forces to reshape public and media narratives that may not fairly represent what they are doing or the scale of public support for these ongoing activities."


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