The Future of Non-Governmental Organisations in the Humanitarian Sector

Humanitarian Futures Programme Discussion Paper for the Start Network

Foreword by Nick Guttmann, Chair and Sean Lowrie, Director, Start Network

Read this paper. Read it carefully. Take the time to think about what it says. This paper has been commissioned by operational agencies because it’s time to think ahead. The message of this paper may be gracefully delivered, but it contains a fundamentally challenging question: for how long will NGOs remain a legitimate humanitarian actor?

This paper explores just how much NGOs will need to adapt in the coming few years. No organisation survives without changing. The average life expectancy for a multinational corporation Fortune 500 Company is less than 50 years. Many international NGOs are reaching that age. Those readers who are unwilling to contemplate a dramatic scenario should be at least asking some hard questions about the viability of today’s NGO business model.

Those questions are important, because civil society delivers some 70% of the last mile of international humanitarian assistance. A crisis for NGOs would mean a crisis for the entire humanitarian system – or at least the humanitarian system as it is understood today.

The humanitarian system may already be different than the traditional actors perceive it. International NGOs, local NGOs and community based organisations will need to find new ways of working together and with others. The choice for NGOs is not about whether to like or dislike the world that is emerging in the second decade of the 21st Century, the choice is about adaptation, collaboration and re-discovering their role, or not.

The paper suggests how NGOs could add value in new ways, for example as innovators, as actors who connect the local and the global, or as brokers who bring diverse actors together to focus on issues of vulnerability or crisis response.

The future of NGOs in the humanitarian sector is not simply an important question for NGOs; it is an important question for the sector. A sector that is agile enough to address humanitarian crises in the future will need an ecosystem of organisations, rich with diversity and experimentation. If the current economic and political trends result in a consolidation within the NGO sector – a reduction in diversity and complexity of NGOs – the humanitarian system will be less resilient than it is today. Redundancy may be inefficient, but it is adaptive.

Lastly, this paper is challenging because it explores complex issues that have uncertain implications. Predictions are never certain. Yet for those who need concrete certainty before taking any action, consider these questions. What if this paper proves to be an accurate prediction of the future? What if there was a 10 per cent chance this paper was accurate? What degree of certainty about an emerging risk is required for a responsible leader to take action? Who is a leader in today’s decentralised and networked world?

If you see NGOs as part of the global safety net, we urge you to think about what you can do in response to what this paper suggests.