September 28, 2023

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Aid Agencies at a watershed: Oxford report

  • Underlying assumptions and legitimacy of western INGOs challenged
  • Charities need to show they are fit for purpose – and can adapt
  • Survival of INGOs is not an end in itself
  • But millions need support and the INGOs’ mission is too important for them to be allowed to fail

Britain’s top aid charities must take urgent action if they are to continue to be relevant and legitimate, according to a three-year study by University of Oxford researchers published today [6 July].

Led by Oxford Professors Mike Aaronson and Andrew Thompson, the report says major charities are facing huge external challenges and need to ‘fight for their future’:

  • Charity chiefs admit to feeling “stuck” and beset by a plethora of internal challenges.
  • Questions over whether they are too focused on growth and whether they still occupy the ‘moral high ground’.
  • Need to be clearer on the value they create and to stick to their core purposes.

The report is being launched at a major conference today [6 July] at Oxford’s Nuffield College. The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be addressing the audience, which will include heads of leading Aid Agencies, senior academics and policymakers.

Mr Mitchell says, ‘International NGOs fulfil an essential role. They put their own lives on the line to help others.  They give people hope in their most desperate hour. And they are always striving to do more for the those left furthest behind. UKDev and the INGO community must work in lockstep to find solutions to very difficult humanitarian problems. In a world where crises are everywhere, this partnership is more important than ever.’

Baroness (Valerie) Amos, Master of University College, Oxford and a former United Nation’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, says, ‘As the world changes and power dynamics shift globally, to continue to deliver on their objectives international NGO’s need to evolve and adapt. Leadership is critical to understanding and responding to these shifts, ensuring effective and consistent response with people at the heart. This report, with its historical perspective, provides important learning for the future. It is essential reading.’

The report’s authors insist, ‘The world does not owe INGOs a living. But if they no longer existed, a vital element in our system of global governance would be missing.

‘With millions of people needing their support today, and in the future, the mission of INGOs is too important for them to be allowed to fail.

‘It is imperative they get their arms around the climate crisis, harness new technology in the form of a rapidly accelerating digital and data science revolution, and protect the capacity for international civil society to respond to the world’s major humanitarian problems during a period of intense geopolitical upheaval.’

The report explains, ‘It seems as if simply being an INGO no longer confers moral authority. Perhaps, INGOs should never have presumed that they had such authority in the first place: instead they should have been clear about the sources of their legitimacy.

‘Slowly, imperceptibly over the years, some INGOs seem to have lost sight of those sources, to the point where the humanitarianism that they practise has become simply transactional.’

The report recognises many international aid agencies have grown into large complex organisations and argues, ‘the world does not owe these organisations a living’.

And the report warns their future is by no means assured, ‘INGOs exist to serve people in need…the important question is whether INGOs can continue to play the vital role that they have undoubtedly played over the ‘long humanitarian century,’ in providing emergency aid when it is required, and helping to improve people’s lives in the longer term.’

Emerging from a series of workshops with INGO leaders, and a sector-wide leadership survey, the report sets out the multiple challenges currently faced by INGOs. In addition to shifts in the geo-political world, they are facing difficulties raising funds, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on their international activity. But the report also asks if they will continue to be relevant and legitimate in the face of new campaigning social movements and also the urgency of addressing climate change.

While setting out the challenges, the report calls for Governments and international organisations to examine their role in supporting INGOs to remain relevant and effective. And it concludes, ‘Now is the time for INGO leaders to refocus on the founding purposes of their organisations, to reassert their ideals and update their missions to take account of present realities, so they can better meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people.’

Comments from INGO leaders

Saleh Saeed – CEO Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), ‘INGOs are grappling with complexity more than ever before. Covid-19 has left its mark, a war is taking place in Europe and the climate crisis is already a humanitarian crisis. Needs across the globe have become greater and deeper, and the role INGOs play cannot just be more of the same; the situation demands real change and increased impact.  This report challenges all of us to look in the mirror and to play our part in making that happen.’

Rose Caldwell – CEO Plan International UK, ‘INGOs need to be fully focused on our purpose, mission and values to guide us in making the often-difficult decisions that will shape our future impact in a rapidly changing world. We need to evolve and transform, working with communities and partners around the world in a ‘local-first’ approach, so that we so that we earn the right to play a continued role in building a more just and equitable world into the future.’

Mike Adamson – CEO British Red Cross, ‘This report is a must-read for humanitarian leaders and donors everywhere. We all know the world is changing at pace in the ramping up of needs, the expectations of affected populations, the opportunity and threat of technology and the compounding impact of geopolitics and climate change. The report takes a historical perspective which allows us to see not only where and why we are losing relevance, but also how reflecting on our founding values and purpose can help us plot a new path which puts people at its heart and begins to address the power imbalances that bedevil our work.’

The report is visible here https://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/media/5569/ingos-report-web-final.pdf

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