Saturday, April 15, 2017


A government official in a country once notorious for its restrictive work environment and responsible for coordinating all humanitarian activity in the country, so he had gained plenty of exposure to U.S. and international humanitarian groups over the years, explained, “I work for a government that has many issues. To many, we are the bad guys. No one expects anything good from me, or from my government.” He continued: “But you and all those other INGOs: you represent normal, everyday people who decided that they wanted to help others in need, and have crossed oceans to do it. You have freely chosen to come to places at war, to risk your lives not for your neighbor but in service to strangers. I thought you would represent the best of us, and all that was good about humanity.” He paused again, “But in truth you are all small, competitive and obsessed with your funding. You are not living up to your promise.”

In the mid-90s/early 2000s, humanitarian and development organizations grew in size, revenue and attention, getting better at their work. They were bullish and thought if they were doing “awesome” work at $100 million, it only made sense that they would do even “more awesome” work at $500 million. They believed that the rest of the humanitarian and development community could learn from them us, and that they really needed a “seat at the table,” so that we could exert our influence over the larger official donors – the U.N., USAID, World Bank etc.

First, it turns out financial growth is not a proxy for growth in impact – it’s just financial growth. The “more awesome” bit didn’t work out; at best, they just got bigger.
Second, influence works both ways. In trying to influence others, you can be influenced yourselves. You can unwittingly become part of the status quo, even become its very instrument.
 Thirdly, mediocrity at scale is worse than low-level or isolated mediocrity. Large organizations, well-intentioned or not, can become overconfident. And when compounded by immense financial pressures (bills to pay, and growth needs growth), they can move further and further away from the customer: refugees and people in need.

INGOs lost the desire to change the world, expressed through a singular and powerful mission animated by the volunteerism of everyday people. Instead we have become output-driven machines, funded by government and implemented by technocrats.  a very senior member of the USAID leadership team from the last administration visited our headquarters to speak about that agency’s challenges and desire to change. During the speech, he explained how his team thought about their approach to funding organizations like mine. He showed us the formula:
a) We (USAID) decide what we want.
b) You (INGO) bid to do it.
c) Then we (USAID) choose one of you (INGOs) to do it.
Are they nothing but contractors with better words (save, care, help etc.) in their  names?  All the same, but just with different pictures on the wall.

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