The INGO crisis of identity

A few weeks back, I blogged about the native East Africa Civil Society Organisation (EACSO) cloning the INGO. If the INGO has a clone in the EACSO, in effect a replica entity occupying the same space, what is the role of the INGO on the development landscape in East Africa? Amidst this role/brand confusion, does the INGO still have the brand power of old? An entity known as: the saviour in times of disaster and other crisis; the ever-present provider that cares for the souls of the poor; the link between western world development aid architecture and the poor south; management systems and culture that deliver aid in any situation and context; a diversity of culture, that connects people from all over the world towards a common goal – eradicating poverty; in some East-Africa countries, the employer of choice; bringing ‘values-purity’ to contexts that are normally corrupt; trust esp. by the Western donor and in some instances southern based governments; and poverty-eradication models – this is a very long list, and perhaps that in itself is testimony to the INGO brand-power.

A quick scan of the East Africa context shows that progress the EACSO is making towards becoming a ‘western-style’ development outfit, is astonishing. The EACSO is fast encroaching on territory that has traditionally been occupied by the INGO and in the process ‘diluting’ the INGO brand-power.

Re-defining INGO identity and brand. What is the answer?

Re-defining INGO identity and brand. What is the answer?

The above is scary stuff for the INGO, is it not? What is happening to that brand power of old and, can’t the INGO conjure up alternatives? Management Guru’s advise that brand power is not accidental but a deliberate process of iteration that brings together three core elements of an organization:

  • A strong and SMART value proposition to customers – in the case of the INGO, that is the beneficiaries and development-aid resource controllers
  • A business value chain that has competencies to create and deliver to the above value proposition – in the case of the INGO, poverty eradication.
  • A toolbox of models used to leverage the above competencies – In the case of INGO’s effective poverty eradication models

Brand power is backed by a strong value proposition together with competencies/tools to deliver value. A no brainer, one would imagine, until you try applying the hypothesis to the poverty-management market, which has its unique economics.

Does the current INGO offer = ‘weak’ value-proposition?

The INGO boasts of a very strong brand history, yet encroachment on its space by the EACSO is indicative of role duplication by the INGO and its native peer. With the EACSO occupying politically-correct ground in this clash of identities, the immediate consequence for the INGO is to search for an alternative identity and value proposition. What the INGO currently offers in value-proposition will not secure it long-term demand from the development market, at least in East Africa. To make matters worse, the INGO cannot be seen to undermine the work and long-term interests of its native peer (EACSO), its heir apparent. Watching events daily from my ‘pedestal’, the INGO has to change its ways!

However, for an organization as complex, global, and sophisticated at the INGO, why is creating a strong value proposition that hard? From where I stand, I see dysfunction between the current INGO value-proposition, the competencies in the INGO to deliver the value proposition, and the poverty eradication models the INGO uses to leverage capabilities. The INGO is not entirely to blame for this situation, much as I believe the INGO can be a little ‘bolder’ and more stubborn when engaging and making choices.

This is the dysfunction I am talking about: The INGO struggle to define SMART value is mainly due to a development industry that doesn’t operate on authentic-market principles. For example, in many instances, INGO’s have articulated at least on paper, their vision of development plus action required. We see good examples of Theories-of-Change and the organizational configurations to deliver them. However, development-resource holders mostly dictate to the INGO what their money is for. Desperate for survival, and careful, not to annoy critical ‘friends’, the INGO buckles to pressure and does development in a way that is different from what it knows is best. We all have heard statements like ‘we thought it would be difficult to pull off, but that is what the donor wanted!’. The immediate consequence of this is an INGO value proposition, not always in sync with what the ’authentic’ market, the poor in East Africa, want. The INGO finds itself in a situation where what it says on paper and does in the field are entirely different. Do you like me wonder, why development-resource holders want to do business their way even when it is wrong?

The above makes it hard for the INGO to define and stick to a given value proposition and develop competencies and models to deliver SMART value. Apparently, the INGO is a jack of all trades and master of none, I assume you now understand why we (INGO) end up in that sad state. The INGO is in a catch-22 situation: on one hand it requires ‘old-school’ competencies that deliver to the needs of donors but also ensure its survival ($) and on the other hand, skills to gradually align to the demands of next-generation development like facilitating and convening roles, elimination of direct service delivery etc.

This ‘forced’ dichotomy in value-proposition has created an INGO that is at times rudderless, confused, not sure of what to do next. The INGO struggles to keep the show on the road and change at the same time.

By the way, I should have mentioned from the onset that defining value proposition starts with understanding what problem you are trying to address – but who professes to understand poverty in this world? Even me that was born amidst poverty at  Nakabugu village in Uganda, indeed knows poverty but I may not understand it always. How is that possible? Even stakeholders I have called ‘development-gods’ in my past blogs are not exactly clear on what poverty is and how to eradicate it: Some of the ‘development-gods’ implore that the solution to eradicating poverty is private sector  but other ‘gods’ including card-holding members of the private sector club caution against putting our hope to eradicate poverty in the private sector.  Perhaps we should not blame the INGO too much, for the identity struggle it finds itself in.

So, can the INGO be salvaged?

In the current crisis of identity, comes a real opportunity for the INGO to lead and inform poverty eradication discourse. When I talk about informing discourse, it is not the usual consensual/win-win/let us all talk ‘development-English’ manner with ‘development-gods’, in the comfort of development-clubs. It is about groundbreaking and risk manoeuvres. This involves so much risk and the possibility of INGO death! Can you imagine the demise of the INGO? Whilst I don’t want to hear words like ‘INGO-demise’, lest I fail to provide for my family, I also know that anything less than ‘innovative & industry-disruptive thinking’ plus ’firm’ value-proposition = death for the INGO.  After all, the ‘gods’ are shepherding a new type of follower – the private sector.

I envisage a three-step transition from the traditional INGO to a viable and sustainable ENTITY with SMART value proposition:

Stage 1: The Slumbering giant
  • Considers itself expert in poverty and with the ‘i know it all’ attitude
  • Big conglomerate running complex operations at Hqs. (northern based) and field offices (southern based)
  • Implementing programs directly and by-passing native civil society organisations like the EACSO
  • Limited attention to ‘learning and sharing’ and instead have a sharp focus on ‘designing and implementing’ projects
  • Development ideology is western-led, with the global south taking diktats from the gurus
  • Lack of attention to ‘results’ and ‘value for money’ paradigms
  • Disregard for proper problem analysis and authentic beneficiary needs
  • Mantra: ‘poverty is a complex phenomenon that will take time to eradicate’
  • Mantra: ‘how big is your portfolio ($) in ‘Uganda’?’ – big is good and earns INGO leaders respect
  • Mantra: ‘who are your donors?’ – judged by association to ‘development gods’
Stage 2: The INGO in mid-life crisis:
  • Ooooh my god, are we relevant anymore?
  • Starting to wake up to the need to redefine value-proposition
  • Though at times a PAPER exercise, emerging thinking towards a strong value-proposition like (partnership with native EACSO; playing a facilitative role; down sizing and working through new business models i.e. Theories of Change (ToC) and program approaches; thinking ‘efficacy’ via regional vs. country programming etc);
  • Waking up to the need for organisational learning and evidence based programming
  • A bipolar organisation that is slowly transitioning from the old to the new, and as a result, has a cocktail of old/new mannerisms, together with cutting edge programs
  • Struggle to understand, define, and work within ‘strategies and structures’ that deliver to a bipolar organisation above
  • Realisation that funding will increasingly come to those that show value-for-money and evidence of impact in programs
  • The ‘marriage’ albeit mostly arranged, with the private sector
  • Still follows diktats from the ‘development-gods’ even when they know its wrong
  • Starting to hand over tools of work – power – and space to native civil society organisation like the EACSO
  • Staff want to see white or black, but unfortunately, the sky is grey and may continue to be during this transition stage
Stage 3: The 4th-sector entity:
  • No longer called an INGO – comfortable with small, nimble, & effective
  • Redefined entity occupying new and higher ground in the industry sector: i.e. turned into grant management agency for donors; McKinsey like consulting firms that provide TA. to governments in policy analysis and design
  • Private companies Ltd. by guarantee with surpluses invested in private equity and other money making ventures
  • Social networking & mobile banking technology in plenty, so, Individual and institutional donors can deal directly with the poor and this 4th-sector entity provides oversight services (a monitoring and evaluation value provider)
  • Learning from the modern audit firm (with core auditing and consulting arms): have divisions i.e. the Private sector arm to do 4th-sector development & a humanitarian-development arm specifically dealing with emergency response interventions that shall be delivered on a fee basis
  • A new approach to people and $ resourcing: less than x20 staff entities that only remain open, if they have a budget big enough to operate (no subsidies!)
  • A new type of staff profile/skills that: delivers results, efficacy, and value for money; a staff comfortable with performance related pay and bonuses
  • Small entity yet with a global footprint – with development- soldiers working out of their homes and tapping the digital-technology potential the word avails to us all
  • A new way to organise globally: current INGO Hqs. turned into technical-hubs with specialised resources that are called upon within a corporate eco-system.  Big charity offices and i suspect, fundraising machines, will be a thing of the past
  • Less ‘theoretical, complex, and professorial’ content in poverty discourse and more ‘demand-driven + local’ solutions

It is my conviction that the INGO that will survive to deliver next-generation development, should have already started changing elements of its DNA. It is currently mid/late cycle of stage 2 above i.e. the ‘midlife-crisis INGO’. Given the right leadership, an open mind, and the knack to innovate, the latter entity should arrive at stage 3 i.e. ‘4th-sector entity’ five to ten years from now. This 4th-sector entity is: small, nimble, & an effective operator with a new value proposition and re-found brand-strength.

The battle will be won not on size, physical footprint, or country dominance for those countries with a culture of wanting to dominate. Instead, it will be won by people that bring 4th-sector thinking to development discourse and tailor services and products towards real needs of the beneficiary.
Is the INGO ready for this shift?


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