Future-proofing Irish NGOs – Thoughts after the BOND conference
Article by Hans Zomer, Dóchas.
The members of Dóchas have spent the last few years thinking hard about the challenges facing Development NGOs. In 2008, for instance, we wrote a paper with our thoughts on what would be the major challenges facing Irish Development NGOs. In essence, the paper argued that the context in which Development NGOs are operating is changing rapidly, and that their independence, integrity, credibility and relevance were increasingly called into question (see also this article and this study by Trócaire). Apart from the growth in aid budgets that we predicted, many of the other challenges we identified in the paper have come to pass in the meantime. And the solution we suggested – increased NGO accountability and the introduction of NGO Codes of Conduct still is relevant today.
But we have also come to realise that that will not be enough. Accountability is very important, as it allows us to learn from anyone affected by, or interested in, our work. Being accountable helps us improve the quality, and relevance, of our programmes. But we also need to learn how to better engage with people who are not yet interested in our work. People and organisations that can make a huge difference for us (see this blog post on how to do that).
The NGO of the future knows that “partners” are not just the donors and the NGOs in developing countries. It teams up with companies, academics and any other institution or individual that can help it achieve its mission. It knows that innovation is key, and it has the curiosity to want to learn more. It knows how to reach people, how to engage them, and how to inspire them to action.
And this means that we need to look how we partner with others.
And how we communicate about our work.
NGOs have been very successful in informing people of the problems associated with global poverty. People across Ireland know that there are many poor people in the world and that poverty brings with it hunger, poor health, poor education and oppression. But we have not managed to inform people about the causes of poverty.
Our opinion poll shows that people think global poverty is essentially due to corruption and failing governments in the global south, along with “lack of education”. In the 21st century, most people in Ireland still think that the solution to global poverty is the transfer of knowledge and money from the rich North to the poor South. This is a problem, because without an understanding of the causes of global inequality, people will not relate to our suggestions on how to combat long-term poverty.
As Irish NGOs, we are united in our belief in the importance of building civil society: of organising poor and marginalised people into groups so that they can work together to claim their rights and to provide the services their communities need.
We know that development cooperation is about more than building roads and schools – but we have not managed to bring that knowledge across to our hundreds of thousands of supporters.
And this is why we in Dóchas will continue to talk to our member organisations, about the way we communicate Development.
We hope that initiatives such as our Code of Conduct, and “the world’s best news” can help move public understanding in Ireland beyond “pity” and “charity”, towards an engagement with global issues based on a profound commitment to respect, solidarity and equality. We want to shift public perceptions of developing countries from “a problem” to “a part of the solution”. And most of all, we want to combat the feeling of powerlessness that two-thirds of the adult population in Ireland are experiencing.
And we know we are not alone in this. Earlier this week, I attended the BOND annual conference (BOND is the UK equivalent of Dóchas). The theme of the event was Innovation in Development. A range of speakers spoke of examples of innovation across the work of Development NGOs, from fundraising and communications, to H.R. and programmes. But the key themes that kept popping up again and again were the same ones we are discussing here in Ireland:
– How can we innovate in the way we engage with our overseas partners?
– How can we innovate in the way we engage with the public at home?
At the conference, participants spoke (and tweeted) about technology certainly being helpful, but “innovation” not being just about the latest apps and social media platforms. And they stressed that Innovation is about knowing what you want to achieve, and being creative about the ways in which you want to get there.
And this requires having the courage to examine your daily routines, and the assumptions about your work. “Innovation” means asking yourself some tough questions about whether the way you work is really as smart as it can be, or whether there are others that can do the same thing better/faster/cheaper. It is about testing your “theory of change”. A good video on that is this one from the International Civil Society Centre (icscentre.org), which looks at how Civil Society Organisations could react and adapt to change and disruption.
Finally, they did conclude that, to remain relevant, Development NGOs must:
– Put more emphasis on shared messages, and a more coherent “narrative” about the key solutions to global poverty.
– Do more to tackle the key reservations people have about global aid, in particular the issue of Corruption and the role of Government in the development process. (Irish NGOs should use the Dóchas myth-busting document on Corruption)
– Engage with issues that affect social justice and poverty at home, too. Development NGOs cannot continue to ignore issues such as taxation, living wages/decent work, debt or domestic energy and transport policies that affect climate change.
– Collect more evidence about social change, and do more to communicate that evidence. (One of the best examples in this context is this marvellous video by Hans Rosling)
The challenge is clear. And Dóchas members have already done the hard bit: acknowledging that the challenge is there. Now for the next steps!