What’s killing us in international NGOs?
“There are just a lot of uncomfortable truths many of us need to face.”
For some years now I’ve been writing about international development and supremacy culture as a product of colonialism, capitalism and geopolitics. In response, I’ve heard from many other people who’ve watched much of the international NGO (INGO) world morph into an industry in all the ugly senses of that word - an assembly line mentality that sees people as replaceable widgets, data and resources as things to be extracted, and projects as product lines which generate revenue and market share.
“There are just a lot of uncomfortable truths many of us need to face,” as a former colleague wrote to me recently, “really looking inward as to why we are doing what we are doing and what approach we are taking to it...There are many people that would not like their little Global North/traveling with airline Gold Status lifestyle to stop, you know?”
That may sound like over-generalisation, but she and others like her represent the unused fuel that could make transformation happen in the international development sector, people who are focused, thoughtful, innovative, effective and efficient. They know that their work has a moral basis, and that it’s supposed to make a meaningful difference to people on the wrong side of the inequality equation.
But by and large they are mostly invisible. They don’t promote themselves and - beyond a certain point - they don’t get promoted. If they do speak out they can be punished for questioning the status quo, gaslighted, frozen out, or laid off - or not laid off if they keep any negative opinions to themselves or win more projects that cover their organization’s overhead.
Call me romantic, but at least in my experience many of the NGO leaders of years ago had stronger international development credentials. Many had lived and worked in different countries and maybe in actual low-income settings. But more recently some have been replaced by executives from unrelated sectors like the credit card and pharmaceutical industries, or mega-companies like Unilever.
The shorthand proof of their brilliance is supposed to be the size of their old portfolios, measured in hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of people under their management. One has a Wikipedia page that touts her top status at an elite British school as one of her key accomplishments. Another’s opening blog for her new INGO staff centered on a $100k Tesla car she owned as an inspiration for the great design we should be using in development.
I myself worked for a development policy outfit that was bought by a company whose record included running a prison, and is described on transparency-website Glass Door as having a management style reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Their head of HR was also the former head of HR for the South African prison system. When a colleague of mine was killed in a terrorist attack, within hours they had put out a press release that gave an equal amount of space to promoting their company as it did to describing the life and work of our lost friend. The CEO once explained to me they had a plan to generate extra revenue by getting it from overhead. Last I heard, they were considering investing in mining.
Next on my list of most-depressing experiences was a venerable global health association that suddenly went broke. As a facilitator, I was a fly-on-the-wall of the emergency meetings that were hurriedly convened by the members. None of the star-studded board agreed to participate, including the Board Chair. The outgoing CEO (from the pharma industry) had already left to step into another plum job at a foundation.
Another ruined organization was a capable 50-year-old non-profit whose CEO’s annual remuneration package at the time had ratcheted up to nearly a million dollars. It was doomed because of the fallout from financial problems that had unfolded on the CEO’s watch, but which had been ignored despite the vigorous efforts of insiders further down the food-chain.
I’m sure you could add your own examples, but why don’t those of us who care take a stronger stand against this kind of thing? Perhaps because like me, we’ve tried and it doesn’t end well. On the first day of a recent job I was told that the CEO always asks for questions, but “don’t ask them” because he doesn’t actually want to hear them. Like you I need health insurance, have a mortgage, and want to pay for my kids' college expenses. My younger colleagues are paying off student loans. We’ve learned to sit quietly in innumerable meetings thinking doubtful thoughts, sometimes texting each other about them in real time as we eat our catered fruit from the Corner Bakery at $125 per tray.
Meanwhile, charismatic CEOs boast of “impact” tallied in terms of the numbers of “beneficiary” lives saved/improved/empowered, whatever those terms mean. Behind the scenes, brand managers shovel more coal into the communications engines. Periodically, NGOs acquire each other when one runs into financial trouble, picking up new lines of business on the cheap from others, made profitable with a little “restructuring.”
One INGO I worked for spent a year positioning itself as a “thought leader” for the next big thing: “integrated development.” A splashy conference was held and tweets went out like clockwork, but “humanitarian aid” became the next big thing instead. Integrated development was dropped. High-profile humanitarian experts were hired. A new conference was organized backed by a different set of tweets. Then “nutrition” flashed on the horizon, so the communications team came down a few floors to the nutrition people’s cubicles to get input on for a nutrition conference. Throughout this process the needs of the “beneficiaries” were barely mentioned, except in keynote speeches.
All development organizations need to submit proposals and raise funds, of course, but we used to bid on opportunities only when we felt they were aligned with our mission, and that our organization would best maximize the use of those resources. Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for the health and technology NGO PATH we poured our heart and soul into proposals, based on our best knowledge and experience, while budgeting painstakingly and with integrity.
Today, many NGOs have full-time proposal-production teams whose jobs depend on “win rates” - the number of successful bids they secure. They don’t need specialized technical expertise or experience because there’s the internet. Skilled writers read between the lines of each “Request for Proposals” to feed back winning language in a process some derisively characterize as “isomorphic mimicry.” That’s biological term for when a butterfly, for example, ends up looking like a moth so it doesn’t get eaten. You want gender? We do gender! You don’t want gender? Forget about it. As a gifted proposal writer once wrote to me about her work:
“I find myself wondering about the balance between making subtle but important changes and towing the line. I might change ‘capacity building’ to ‘capacity strengthening’ and struggle to come up with an alternative term to ‘target population,’ but at the end of the day it just feels like a systematic overhaul is needed, and I wonder whether it can/will happen.”
Even more aggravatingly, some organizations won’t let those who are going to implement a successful bid actually read the winning proposal because it’s proprietary. How are people supposed to implement a project if they don’t know what it is? But no one in HQ is paying attention or cares (unless the donor complains.) The win has already been chalked up.
All of this is funded by “overhead” - the cut (often between 35% and 50% of the total budget) that’s built into every bid, ostensibly to keep the lights on and pay for the receptionist but mostly used to pay for expensive consultants, conferences, catering, and leadership perks and salaries. One of my employers sent the CEO to Davos every year, which likely cost upwards of $50,000 a pop. That’s about as much as most of the multi-year grants we paid in-country organizations to implement our projects.
In my current work with The Movement for Community-led Development I regularly meet Africans who sadly recall the multimillion dollar projects they’ve seen come and go that made no sustainable difference. A Liberian colleague told me of a $75 million agriculture project that ended in 2016, leaving not a trace. That’s right, $75 million. In Liberia. Probably about 10% actually went to Liberian organizations. The rest went down the INGO plughole. No one seemed to care.
I’ve been in many HQ meetings where local civil society organizations have been cut from the budget with few objections, while our own jobs, travel and per diems (often unspent so providing us with a nice extra bonus) were always fully funded, with the overhead kept sacrosanct.
The dark side of international development needs to be dismantled, and then transformed by developing different systems that are humane and restorative. To do so we have to face up to our own responsibilities, call out wrongdoing when we see it, and foster a new generation of INGOs of which we can be proud.
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