Fit for the Future? Development trends and the role of international NGOs

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How is our understanding of development changing? What are the implications of these changes, whether practical or conceptual, for the future role of international non-government organizations (NGOs)? This short paper summarizes the main global trends in international development and then examines some pressing questions for international NGOs. It highlights the folly of simple, linear interventions and the merits of alternative approaches, such as bringing together stakeholders to find joint solutions (convening and brokering), or rapid iteration based on fast feedback and adaptation. For Oxfam, this new thinking would mean relinquishing a command-and-control approach across all aspects of its work in favour of embracing a systems approach.
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  OXFAM DISCUSSION PAPERS JUNE 2015 Oxfam Discussion Papers   Oxfam Discussion Papers are written to contribute to public debate and to invite feedback on developm ent and humanitarian policy issues. They are ‘work in progress‘ documents, and do not necessarily constitute final publications or reflect Oxfam policy positions. The views and recommendations expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxfam. www.oxfam.org.uk   FIT FOR THE FUTURE? Development trends and the role of international NGOs DUNCAN GREEN SENIOR STRATEGIC ADVISER, OXFAM GB This short paper summarizes the main global trends in international development, before exploring two pressing questions: how is our own understanding   of development changing, and what are the implications of these changes, whether practical or conceptual, for the future role of international non-government organizations? It highlights the folly of simple, linear interventions and the merits of alternative approaches such as bringing together stakeholders to find joint solutions (convening and brokering), or rapid iteration based on fast feedback and adaptation. For Oxfam, this new thinking would mean relinquishing a command-and-control approach across all aspects of its work in favour of embracing a systems approach.  2 Fit for the Future? Development trends and the role of international NGOs   SUMMARY  After briefly summarizing the main trends in international development, this short paper explores two pressing questions: how is our understanding of development changing, and what are the implications of these changes for the future role of international non-government organizations (NGOs)? The paper is intended to provoke discussion rather than offer a balanced overview. It does not represent Oxfam policy. Increased attention to systems thinking in development raises profound challenges for international NGOs. It highlights the folly of simple, linear interventions and the merits of alternative approaches such as bringing together stakeholders to find joint solutions (convening and brokering), or multiple experiments and rapid iteration based on fast feedback and adaptation. The non-linear nature of most change processes also underlines the need to be able to spot and respond to potentially short-lived windows of opportunity, such as shocks or moments of political flux. Unfortunately, a simplistic interpretation of private sector thinking is also pushing aid agencies towards a linear ‗Fordist‘ (assembly line) approach to going to scale, even though large parts of the private sector have long since abandoned that approach in favour of systems thinking, disruption and innovation. How should international NGOs respond to this changing environment? How can they plan and operate within complex systems, accepting that they cannot know what is going to happen? There are numerous options, most of which would entail a substantial change in working practices. For Oxfam, this would mean relinquishing a command-and-control approach across all aspects of its work in favour of embracing a systems approach. In terms of investment, this means increasing the ratio of ‗change capital‘ to ‗delivery capital‘ . Pursuing this kind of change would mean asking some tough questions: 1. Does size matter? Is working in this way best done by major international NGOs with their advantages of large knowledge bases and economies of scale, or by a cluster of more agile ‗ guerrilla ‘  organizations like Global Witness, Avaaz or single-issue institutions like the Ethical Trading Initiative? 2. How can Oxfam identify and address sources of inertia in its programming? Unless it does, these kinds of discussions are unlikely to reach a different outcome. 3. What does this mean for Oxfam‘s staff? What would need to change in terms of HR practices (recruitment, training, performance management, incentives and internal narratives) to become an organization with a better balance of planners and searchers (entrepreneurs)? 4. And how could such an organization be funded?  Fit for the Future? Development trends and the role of international NGOs 3   1 THE CHANGING FACE OF DEVELOPMENT This section briefly summarizes the headlines from several horizon scans of the changing nature of global development. 1   THE SHIFT TO THE SOUTH Beyond the well-documented rebalancing of the world‘s economy from West to East lie several other relevant trends: ã  Sources of financing for development: There has been a decline in official aid relative to domestic resource mobilization (better taxation of natural resources, other tax reforms) and to other forms of inflow (migrant remittances, private investment). ã  A Southward migrat ion of social and health issues once seen as largely ‗ N orthern‘  problems:  Ageing, obesity, alcohol and tobacco addiction, mental illness, the illicit drug trade and road traffic accidents all now kill considerably more people in developing countries than, say, malaria. ã  A blurring of the boundaries between South and North: This has produced ‗South in the North‘ pockets of marginalization and exclusion, as well as ‗North in the South‘ islands of extreme privilege  –  both of them driving greater levels of inequality. ã   The rise of ‗One World‘ collective action problems (climate change, planetary boundaries, the arms trade, international taxation, curbing corporate malpractice): These are problems that do not lend themselves to exclusively national solutions. THE CHANGING LOCATION AND DEMOGRAPHICS OF  ABSOLUTE (<$1.25 A DAY) POVERTY ã  In most countries, widespread poverty is giving way to pockets of chronic poverty. ã  According to the most fine-grained recent analysis, 60 percent of the multidimensional poor live in pockets of poverty outside the least developed countries. 2   ã  In the longer term, as effective states generate growth and some degree of trickle-down, fragile and conflict states are likely to become the final, most difficult terrain for ‗getting to zero‘  on absolute poverty. 3  One social and political consequence of development has been growing social complexity and diversity within developing countries: ã  Economic growth has prompted the rise of domestic middle classes, which have become increasingly important political actors, along with increasingly vocal domestic private sectors (whether individual companies or business associations). ã  Mass literacy, better healthcare and urbanization have underpinned a rise in mass political engagement, which has both fed and been fed by the spread of governments chosen through elections (albeit often some way short of full democracy). ã  Girls ‘   education, literacy and women‘s increasing role in the paid workforce have both prompted and been reinforced by a rise in women‘s politica l engagement (in mainstream politics and in social and women‘s movements ).  4 Fit for the Future? Development trends and the role of international NGOs   ã  This growing agency of a range of social actors has been enhanced by the increased connectivity available through the spread of communications technologies and improved infrastructure. ã  In most countries, growth has also been accompanied by increased inequality, sharpening political and social conflicts.
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