The development sector isn’t doing too well. In the United States, President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to foreign aid and development have sent most U.S.-based NGOs into panic mode, leaving them stranded in a funding model that, stripped of government contributions, no longer meets their organizational needs.
Last month, the administration’s new budget revealed 32% overall cuts to the International Affairs Budget – also known as the Function 150 Account. The new budget nullifies the “International Organizations and Programs” line item, among others. The rationale behind this? The administration “seeks to reduce or end direct funding to international organizations whose missions do not substantially advance U.S. foreign policy interests, are duplicative, or are not well-managed.” While no one knows for sure how this will affect funding for NGOs, there is reason to believe this will have a devastating effect on many within the industry. Needless to say, the industry is holding its breath.
But funding isn’t the only problem the development industry is facing. It has also begun to question its very purpose. As revitalized global and national social movements are taking center stage in the fight against poverty and inequalities, positioning themselves as the primary conduit for sustained social change around the world, International NGOs (INGOs) are now facing a crucial question: “Are we still relevant?”
INGOs can no longer position themselves as the single driving force behind poverty reduction (think private sector) and furthermore, the moral high ground, on which the sector has been positioning itself, no longer seems relevant to many. In January 2017, the Harvard Business Review reported that for the first time, there was a decline of people’s trust in business, media, government, and NGOs. This is a serious – although not new – public relations crisis for an industry that has historically benefited from public support. The aid-centric model of development is no longer seen as the solution to the world’s problems: it might actually be part of them.
In addition to this PR “crisis,” the development industry is being challenged by the reemergence and revitalization of social justice movements. Since the U.S. presidential election last November, social movements in the U.S. have built alliances and reclaimed public spaces. Citizens, advocates, women, and men are taking their future (and the future of the world) into their own hands. And they aren’t only focusing on domestic issues. The Women’s March is an example of how a common elevating goal can turn a demonstration into a movement and integrate global issues as well as domestic rights. All around the world, movements are connecting and building cross-sectoral partnerships. They are joining forces to tackle gender inequality, climate change, racism, and poverty. And while strong social movements have been powerful agents of change for a long time, we are witnessing them taking central stage in an area of digital activism and online mobilization.
But most importantly, these movements are putting forward the importance of politics within social change and gender justice agendas. They are criticizing the very neoliberal models that most INGOs are based on: mainly that philanthropy and charity can fix the poverty gaps left by globalization. While the development sector has long sailed the seas of bi-partisanship or apolitical positioning, it is now facing the tough decision to take a stand for a collective social and gender justice agenda that has some political twist to it. For if women’s rights are human rights, then shouldn’t political agendas reflect that?
So where does the development community stand? And what comes next?
First of all, it has to reposition itself within the global landscape of social justice work. Since the industry’s target is ending poverty and inequalities worldwide through social change and gender justice agendas, how does it fit into the newly identified pool of actors also doing just that? NGOs are going to have to build an alliance with grassroots movements and align themselves with the renewed collective vision of what ending poverty and inequalities really entails. It won’t come without risks, but it is the only way to remain accountable to the people we serve. And while some eyes might be focused on what is happening in the United States, grassroots movements all around the world are taking the lead in implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The women’s rights movement, in particular, is at the forefront of national and regional advocacy to hold governments accountable to their promises. Its approach to rights and justice is all-inclusive and political in the sense that it goes deep into dismantling patriarchy and ending decades of lack of rule of law for the rich and powerful. This is the new deal. This is what INGOs have to do better engaging with if they care about sustained social impact.
Second, it needs to look deep within its values and programming models. The world is no longer geographically defined. Localized programming is no longer the only way to address global trends and communities are no longer defined by their geographical limits. How can INGOs work with global communities and movements? In a time when local and national obstacles to rights and opportunities are evolving on a daily basis, it is ludicrous to think that Global North organizations can bring in timely technical solutions to local problems. INGOs need to shift from a pre-defined programming model to a flexible inclusive and collaborative programming system that is supportive of local initiatives and agendas. It’s time to ensure the transfer of power and resources to Global South actors instead of maintaining the industry’s stronghold in the Global North. And while this will take time and will come with painful decisions and metamorphoses, organizations like Oxfam and Women Thrive Alliance are taking the lead on this crucial transition.
Third, it needs to find a new business model. While millions of dollars have been fed into sustaining Northern-based NGOs that maintain an industry supposed to lift others out of poverty, the time has come to develop business models that balance out the financial attributions to programmatic work and local leadership with increased fairness. Technical leadership has to be based in the Global South, and U.S.-based offices should act as connectors between donors and communities in a way that reinforces local ownership. But it’s not just about doing the right thing – the fact is revenue is decreasing for many INGOs, and there is still no Plan B. Looking at diversified and representative consortiums might be one solution to this – as well as joining forces in cross-sectoral initiatives or investing in movement-building. Either way, it’s time to get creative!
Whether we like it or not, the development industry can no longer go on as business as usual. It is left with two choices: adapt to new global trends in social change and gender justice work and find innovative ways of generating and disseminating revenue, or slowly disappear. History will tell us which one it chooses.