Agility trumps analysis for international NGO strategy

The holiday season for those of us grappling with the management of international NGOs can’t come soon enough. Over recent months the sector has behaved like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen by the complexity of strategic decisions which seem no longer to fall within our humble intellectual capacity.

NGO programmes to improve people’s lives in poor countries may be changing radically because the major participants are becoming restive.

Aid donors talk about channelling funds direct to social welfare organisations in the beneficiary countries. Recipient governments openly crave the end of aid dependency. Such talk implies cutting out the intermediaries in London and Europe – which busts the international NGO business model.

However, these political assertions remain unsubstantiated, especially in the very poorest countries where NGO strategy traditionally has most to offer. Donors are as spooked as ever by fears of losing tax-payers’ money to corruption and poor standards of project delivery. The old device for laying off this risk to experienced international non-profit organisations, piggy-backing their robust standards of governance, has not yet been consigned to history.

This interplay between politically fashionable grandstanding and uncertain reality creates an impossibly shaky evidence base for strategic planning. The outcome is inertia, accompanied by blogs and papers by NGO researchers, typically those who don’t have to make the decisions.

At the same time, the challenge of strategic complexity has been downplayed in some quarters as just another chapter in the business school textbook. This tells you to wait for events to unfold and then change your plans, however surprising the detail. The secret is to have the organisational agility to react quickly and decisively.

That approach works quite well in project management, subject to a sympathetic sponsor of your project. But it doesn’t work at all well in strategic planning which, by definition, calls for bets to be placed on which way the wind will blow. And it certainly doesn’t work well for finance which hates surprises because the damage they cause tends to be irreversible.

Hence the unspoken sense of inadequacy amongst overseas development NGOs. In contrast to those overconfident investment banks who “didn’t see it coming” in 2007, we see everything coming from all directions and feel overwhelmed.

It doesn’t help that the big global issues we care about are hitting the same insoluble wall. The abandonment of international law on refugees, the disintegration of Syria and Greece, the platitudes of climate negotiations – such failures occur, not because nobody cares, but because the politicians are out of their depth.

Even in my own domestic microcosm, problems weigh heavier than the capacity of well-intentioned local governance to resolve them. A necessary regeneration of part of Winchester’s city centre is patently too complex for local government officials and representatives. Even my cricket club is floundering in its response to the pace of change in sport. Perhaps we should welcome the era of artificial intelligence after all.

The vacation period this year may therefore fulfil less the traditional stress relief than a desperate need to rediscover the old confidence in decision-making. A simple choice of ice-cream flavours will feel like salvation.


How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? – blog by Duncan Green