Transforming International NGOs

Over many years GDI researchers have made major contributions to knowledge and debates on the role that NGOs can and should play in achieving development. Our research has examined the role of international NGOs and social movements; developed new conceptual frameworks for understanding the sector, and has helped improve policy, programming and practice.

A recent example is Nicola Banks' engagement with the Dutch government, which shaped their Dialogue and Dissent (D&D) funding framework. D&D helped to channel €925 million to consortia of Dutch and Southern NGOs encouraging partnership approaches, and the resources they needed step up advocacy and campaigning activities. 30,083 organisations in over 60 countries benefited, and the approach has influenced 3,577 laws, policies or norms.

Independently verified impact evaluation data shows that these changes have led directly to positive social and political change across low- and lower-middle-income countries in significant and far-reaching ways.

For example, in Somalia, trained advocacy groups have secured the commitment of clan elders to support youth and women in elections. In Rwanda, groups secured greater promotion of gender equality in the revised penal code. In Burundi, authorities in one region were pressed to start enforcing laws prohibiting gender-based violence, which culminated in the high-profile arrest of a Chief for sexual assault.

These successes highlight the strength of D&D and the new types of political action that it enables. As GDI’s work argues, shifting funding away from service delivery to political activities and placing greater power and resources in the hands of local CSOs representing their communities are critical steps forwards in integrating poor and marginalised groups into social, political and economic processes.

The OECD Development Assistance Committee has highlighted the significance of this new policy globally, explaining that D&D “marks an innovative and bold shift for the Netherlands, and has been well received by civil society partners. Lessons from this approach…will be of keen interest to other members of the DAC seeking to redress shrinking civil society space”.

The key research findings that Dialogue and Dissent is based upon include:

  1. Donor pressures push NGOs towards managerial approaches. Funding opportunities have increasingly pushed NGOs to operate as ‘clients’ working on donor agendas biased towards service-delivery. Poverty is conceived as a technical problem that can be ‘solved’ by service-oriented solutions. A managerial approach has dominated, eroding NGOs ability to promote transformative social and political change.
  2. Accountability to donors erodes local roots that facilitate political action. Upwards accountability to donor priorities, regulations and reporting requirements pulls international and national NGOs away from their grassroots constituencies within the global South.
  3. Civil society space is shrinking globally. The global trend towards shrinking civil society space places complex constraints on NGOs and their ability to act politically as agents of social change. State control of the regulatory environment shapes the space available to NGOs and place limits on what can be achieved, particularly where international funding is involved.
  4. New ‘bridge-building’ roles will strengthen NGOs’ contribution to development. NGOs must find new ways of working that facilitate political action, striving to become ‘bridge-builders’ between locally-rooted civil society organisations and local and national-level fora, thus enabling dialogue and negotiation over rights and resources to take place.

Dr Nicola Banks is currently contributing these insights to the RINGO project, a systems change initiative that seeks to transform global civil society to respond to today’s challenges.

Further reading and resources: