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NGOs and the shock of the new

June 27, 2014

Excerpts from a great article by Elizabeth Blunt originally published on IRIN on June 16th, 2014 about the Start Network and their disruptive work in the NGO sector, with insights from Paul shared at their first annual conference and public debate.

The big international aid agencies have been hugely successful. Organizations that were once small civil society operations - groups of friends with a passion to make the world a better place - now have thousands of staff members, multi-storey headquarters buildings and multi-million dollar budgets. But insiders fret that they have become too big and have lost the flexibility and responsiveness they once had.

 

They also worry about the future, and whether big international agencies are still the best way of doing things. It's hard to imagine a world without Oxfam or Save the Children, but 20 years ago it would have been hard to imagine a world without Kodak film and cameras, or multi-volume editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now both have gone, swept away by technological change they were slow to see coming.

 

In Britain a lot of soul-searching is taking place inside what is known as the START Network (once called the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies), which brings together 19 major NGOs and their worldwide partner organizations. The Network's Director, Sean Lowrie, thinks the way the sector works is cumbersome and old fashioned. "NGOs are stuck in a Victorian model, which requires people to suffer and die to get on the front page of newspapers, and the newspapers trigger public donations and that triggers political will. It's a reactive model," he says.

It's also very slow. The START Network is explicitly looking for a new and better way of working, and has made a beginning with the START fund, a pot of money provided by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and Irish Aid, which can be mobilized immediately in a crisis and channelled to whichever organization, international or local, is best placed to use it. The key is that the money is already there - it doesn't have to wait for a crisis to get on the television news. Smaller emergencies or slow-onset crises may never give rise to that kind of money-generating publicity.

 

Olivia Maehler, START's business manager, said they aim to consider proposals and release funds within 72 hours of receiving an alert. "We could get an alert on a Tuesday and the funding could be going out by Friday morning," she told IRIN.

 

The fund is still in its 'design and build' stage, but has already been able to respond to the violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and to one of the sudden spikes in conflict and displacement in South Sudan. Until now the meetings to allocate funds have taken place in London. "We are hoping that for future project selection we will be able to do the decision-making in the field, at the local level," Maehler says.

 

But the tools that make this kind of devolved, collaborative way of working possible also threaten to disrupt the traditional roles of the big NGOs and perhaps bypass them altogether. At a public debate in London, linked to START's first annual conference, speakers presented the kind of innovations that have the power to shake up humanitarian action.

 

Paul Skinner, whose organization, 'Pimp My Cause', matches marketing volunteers with charities and social enterprises that need their skills, spoke of the need to harness people's underlying participatory spirit, and "make a humanitarian of everyone".

 

"Whereas the NGO of the past may have been something you chose to support, maybe in quite passive ways, the NGO of the future is likely to be something you will turn to because they can help you achieve something worthwhile yourself," he said.

 

You can read the full article here.

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