The INGO modus-operandi: Hyper-supermarket, Department store, or Boutique? – Part 1

This is the first in a three (3) series blog, that discusses the modus-operandi of the International Non-Government Organisation (INGO), specifically in the East African region. This first blog in the series explores how the orthodox INGO operates in this part of the world. This blog argues that the INGO may choose to operate like a hyper-supermarket, department store, or boutique. The second and third blogs shall discuss the case for the INGO operating like a boutique and moving a notch up into the wholesale function respectively.

East-Arica's emerging Hyper-Supermarket

East-Africa’s emerging Hyper-Supermarket

One has to assume that deep strategic analysis informs any INGO modus-operandi.  Well, you have to trust me on this one, the orthodox INGO and strategy-making are bedfellows. Strategy determines the manner in which an organisation brands itself in public and provides value to those it serves. A linear view of strategy considers strategy-making as setting goals, determining action to achieve the goals, and mobilising resources to implement the actions. A non-linear and perhaps more progressive view of strategy, considers strategy as a “pattern in a stream of decisions” Henry Mintzberg from McGill University or “a system of finding, formulating, and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully’’ Dr. Vladimir Kvint

Effective organisation strategy is informed by a number of external and internal factors.  These include good mastery of the organisations operating environment both internal and external, the resources available to the organisation both secured and potentially ‘securable’, factors needed to create value for both the opportunities and challenges in the operating environment, and a robust leadership. Obviously, the INGO known for its management systems complexity and mastery, has scanned, analysed, and chosen what I believe is logical business-foci from its operating environment.

Those of you familiar with INGO operations in East Africa, witness a pattern in its modus-operandi. The INGO offers multiple products and services in its East-Africa operations. A typical INGO deals with multiple poverty-eradication sectoral foci, from health, education, economic empowerment, to women rights. This INGO pattern, that manifests in this modus-operandi, leads me to ask if:

…the INGO is: a hyper-supermarket? A department store? Or, a boutique?

My answer to the above question is that the orthodox INGO tends towards the ‘hyper-super’ market or in the guise to focus more, department store modus-operandi.

What shows that the INGO operates like ‘hyper-supermarket’?

1. Hyper-supermarkets (by the way we are starting to see them in Uganda) sale all types of merchandise. If you walked all its isles, you would quickly reach the recommended W.H.O 10,000 daily steps. [the INGO offers various approaches to poverty eradication: from WATER, HEALTH, Economic Development, to and surprisingly ‘helping’ those that were ‘born in poverty, define and understand poverty; it will also earn you more than the W.H.O recommended 10,000 steps if you traversed INGO work in any East African country’]

2. Hyper-supermarkets typically target service to extended communities and are territorial. [the INGO wants to serve the breadth and depth of a country or district of operation in country – geographical scope is a factor in revenue attraction]

3. Hyper-supermarkets are one stop shops and want you to find everything with them, including inviting specialist service providers like Pharmacia to set up shop in them. [the INGO works hard to provide a one-stop facility to donors and beneficiaries + is starting to host specialist services like Research-think-tanks]

4. Hyper-supermarkets are hyper out of the need to maintain or grow profit margins, moreover on mostly narrow-margin products. [the INGO is forced to operate like a hyper-supermarket, in order to have multiple beneficiary impacts (as poverty is multifaceted). But, also, to ensure a grant portfolio big enough to cover ‘donor-hated’ overhead cost]

5. Hyper-supermarkets and consumerism are twins. You and me know the dangers associated with consumerism like obsession with cost of production and the resulting sacrifice of quality (China-effect); creating a lifestyle, that is unsustainable and creates inequity; shifting all manufacturing operations to China and the Far-East without analysing the cost of shipping goods back and the effect on climate etc. [The INGO cannot exonerate itself from increasing obsession with cost-reduction and the unintended loss of quality in its historically quintessential work – this will actually simply get worse, unless the INGO makes some very tough choices going forward; power shift to the South (and i personally like this one) & the handing over resources and power of the INGO to the East African Civil Society Organisation (EACSO) is unwittingly creating an urban based ‘elite’ club of EACSO CEO’s etc – this sounds like solving immediate problems and creating long-term ones!]

6. Hyper-Supermarkets are a brand that believes in visibility – there is something about visibility, brand, and competition in business. [The INGO to, simply wants visibility, after all, it is an INGO with a very powerful history]

So what, if the INGO operates like a ‘hyper-supermarket’?

I am not sure any of us, can blame the INGO for the above choice of modus-operandi. After all, in any industry, different actors have different strategies, and this is no different for the INGO. This multi-dimensional nature of strategy causes differentiation, a key driver of value creation in a sector or industry. If differentiation is normal and creates value, why should I labour discussing the modus-operandi for the INGO and its choices around the same? What is the big deal, for this vibrant ‘hyper-supermarket’ like INGO entity that seeks to do good for the worlds’ vulnerable?

Well, my problem is that having poverty-eradication ‘hyper-supermarkets’ littered all over this wonderful East-Africa terrain vs. slightly smaller, perhaps more focused poverty-eradication ‘boutiques’, brings different results to the development industry, and work of the INGO. Size and complexity, created by the ‘hyper-supermarket’ modus-operandi, tends to:

1. create attention-seeking complexity for management at the INGO

2. dilute impact of the INGO in poverty eradication

3. and is unfortunately driven by a ‘survival’ instinct i.e. offer everything in this so called poverty-eradication ‘hyper-supermarket’ and the INGO is sure that on any one day, the cashiers till shall have cash + survive another day.

If the development industry and the INGO were about survival and seeing another day, week, month, year, decade, and century, I would not at all have a problem, with the above ’survivalist’ approach to business. After all, why would I not want my employer to meet sustainably, my pay expectations, to such a time, that I retire to my village in Nakabugu, Uganda? Unfortunately, development deals with LIFE, and life of a vulnerable lot, that should see as much positive impact of strategy-choice, on the INGO work as possible.

I suppose the point I am trying to make above is that while there is impact from mine and your work, are we asking enough if we cannot do things different and better? The INGO has the obligation to think beyond its survival, and do things different, even if that meant changing the modus-operandi to something less ‘sexy’ and visible, but more impactful.

…and the way forward?

Actors and Observers continue to challenge the INGO on the lack of impact and effectiveness in its operation. Many tell me that without revolutionary change, the INGO risks becoming stale. Others, especially those from the powerful North, allege that as long as Northern governments are interested in Southern poverty as a political tool, the INGO will survive with or without change. The question that needs asking is whether the INGO is a foreign policy tool for the Northern government.  However, let us get into that another day, after all I am not even sure that I have enough skills to provide a sensible answer.

Coming back to what is more useful to my poor beneficiaries, friends, and poverty ridden kin in Nakabugu village Uganda, INGO leaders need to ask if the hyper-supermarket modus-operandi is viable, long-term. If it were viable, which is not impossible given the above potential for geopolitics, ask if there is not a better approach.

It is no longer about ‘does it work for the INGO?’ but ‘what can work better for the INGO?’

The way forward for the INGO modus-operandi would be to consider the case for a departmental store, boutique, or even shifting ground to a wholesaler.

Tune in next week, for blog 2 in the series.



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  1. The INGO modus-operandi: Hyper-supermarket, Department store, or Boutique? – Part 2 | Gabazira's Blog

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