Why We Exist and How We Can Evolve

Effective development is ultimately local. It is driven by market economics, the private sector, and shaped by effective governance institutions, namely host governments. If this is true, our goal as international nonprofits working across borders is to “work ourselves out of a job.” Does this make sense? It does not for three reasons.

First, while government and private sector are necessary ingredients for development; they are not, however, sufficient. Many national and local governments continually make positive changes in the lives of their citizens. And private sector companies in market economies have created jobs for millions. Yet, an increase in gross wealth, even when accompanied with social safety nets, does not necessarily translate into an increase in human wellbeing – specifically for the poor and marginalized. To ensure inclusive, sustainable growth, and prevent the abuse of political and economic power, a vibrant civil society is crucial.

Second, in failed or fragile countries with weak governments and a limited private sector, under the U.N. system, U.S. nonprofits have assumed responsibilities. During major crises in poorly resourced regions – from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, to the earthquake in Nepal and the ongoing conflict in Syria – U.S. nonprofits have saved lives and offered hope. Humanitarian efforts are with us for the long haul and work across borders will continue for generations.

Lastly, we live in a globalized world. Corporations work across national boundaries and government policies continue to be shaped by international norms. Local civil society working on its own is no match for these forces. This is where nonprofits that work globally come into the picture. U.S. nonprofits are one of the world’s largest financiers and remain a powerful tool in challenging global inequality and poverty. For decades, U.S. NGOs, partnered with local civil society, mobilized citizens to influence and hold governments and private businesses accountable in a wide range of areas including inequality, human rights, gender, climate change, and peacebuilding.

U.S. NGOs have a broader role to play. Alongside multilateral governing bodies and transnational corporations, a global civil society infrastructure is crucial to shaping our globalized world by amplifying the interests of the poor and marginalized communities. To begin shaping this, we must look beyond our individual projects and work as a collective. The $6 billion worth of initiatives illustrated on InterAction’s NGO Aid Map encourage us to take a step back, identify other projects within the sector, and create partnerships to leverage existing resources. 

Our goal should not be to work ourselves out of a job. Rather is it to contribute to the global civil society infrastructure that will hold our globalized world to account.

Samuel A. Worthington is president and CEO of InterAction, the nation's largest alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations working internationally. InterAction leads, supports, and mobilizes its members to take collective action, improve the impact of their programs, increase their global reach, and advocate for efforts that advance human well-being around the world.