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2019: the year to be on the right side of history

  • by Sean Lowrie
  • 21 Dec 18

© John Wessels / ALIMA, Start Fund alert 160, DRC, outbreak of Ebola – May 2017

Blog Post

2018 was a turbulent year.  Not just climate change and economic transformation, but technological change at such a pace and scale that the future is essentially unknowable. 

Yet just at the time when global risks are escalating, nation states around the world are turning inward.  Nations are becoming more fearful and governments are not adapting quickly enough. But these risks require a global response - international cooperation on an unprecedented scale with unprecedented urgency.

I believe international humanitarian action is on the right side of history.  When we provide assistance in times of crisis, we build connections between people.  We reach across political boundaries, we demonstrate that there is kindness, hope, solidarity and endless possibility in human nature.  Showing the good in humans can be infectious and in the process, it can become easier for people to collaborate.

But NGOs have too been challenged in 2018 to such an extent that the existence of the current delivery model is in question.  Governments around the world are turning away from NGOs and clamping down on the space for civil society.  The safeguarding crisis in 2018 has damaged the NGO self-image, confidence and credibility.  NGOs are in a crisis of confidence while at the same time struggling with reduced funding, increased scrutiny, regulation and scepticism.

The future is calling: not to respond to this existential moment by turning inward and becoming more bureaucratic and conservative; but to make bold decisions and act with confidence and evolve. 


Future generations will ask – what did you do with the position you held in 2019?

This is a moment for radical, bold and decisive action in NGOs.  It is the time for new business models and new alliances in order to preserve and expand upon the space we have.  We need to move much more quickly to adapt to this new world.  I believe those actions should include mergers and fundamental changes to allow NGOs to collaborate with new partners and work meaningfully through networks. Others believe this too, as echoed by Penny Lawrence and Simon O’Connell’s thoughts. 

As a member of the humanitarian ecosystem, the Start Network also experienced the challenges of 2018.  Yet the Network is going into 2019 in an excellent position to help its Members evolve in response to the world we live in.  Members in the Network agreed our long-term vision and in 2018 over 200 organisations expressed interest in joining that journey along with five new donor agencies.

In 2019, Start Network will be a new independent charity with support from the Ikea Foundation after being incubated by Save the Children UK since 2010. This new charity will be fundamental in facilitating and supporting the Network’s vision.

Next year, we will design a new global NGO financing facility in partnership with the World Bank.  We will build a tiered due diligence framework that will reduce duplication and enable small emerging civil society organisations to participate alongside the largest international NGOs.  The Start Fund will continue as the world’s fastest pooled funding mechanism.  The new Start Network Charity will add new Trustees to its strong and experienced Board.  The Start Network Membership is 42 organisations that can deliver humanitarian action in 200 countries and territories with thousands of trusted local partners. 

For myself, this is also the right moment for a leadership transition, and I intend to leave the Start Network at the end of June 2019.  It has been a thrilling 8 years and a privileged mandate from the Member NGOs to lead the Start Network.  I have been inspired and humbled by hundreds of brilliant people who work within the Network or support its journey from the margins.  Start Network is in a strong position with a clear and agreed vision, engaged Membership, stable finances, and a dedicated team.  This is the right time for fresh ideas and energy to take the Network to the next level and support its emergence as a global public good. 

We can be confident that today NGOs are on the right side of history.  That said, history will judge us not on the ethics of our current position or our self-image, but on how we have acted and moved forward from this position.  Future generations are calling us to act now with courage and evolve decisively so we can contribute to a safer and more resilient world. 

The Start Network is the right thing to do – and I will always be supportive of its journey. 


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  • by SeanLowrie