On a bookshelf in my office sits a large red book with a plastic cover to ward off mud and blood, sweat and tears. Like all new Oxfam staff I was given a copy of the Field Director’s Handbook to guide me when I arrived in Lusaka in 1984. It’s still the best job I ever had.

Conspicuously missing from the Handbook was a section on the agency itself, these being times when self-questioning was largely absent from the world of NGOs. But on a visit from headquarters my boss David Bryer told me something that really made me think.

“Our goal Mike,” he said, “is to make Oxfam the non-governmental equivalent of the United Nations.” That impressed me at the time (I was only 27), but in the intervening years I’ve accumulated many doubts, as much about the UN as about Oxfam and other NGOs.

Both institutions continue to provide useful, concrete assistance to people who really need it, but the moral energy and clarity of purpose that marked out their early years have largely disappeared as their bureaucracies have blossomed and global circumstances have shifted. Still dominated by rich country interests despite their best intentions, they have come to rest in the comfort blanket of foreign aid. No-one is willing to close them down, and no-one is willing to transform them into something more suited to the multi-polar, post-aid world that’s rapidly emerging.

So what happens next?

That’s the question that I and others debated at the 50th Anniversary of the Institute for Development Studies in Brighton in July 2016. We discussed three different scenarios, the first involving a radical change of role.

At present, all the Oxfams of the world follow a similar model: services for the poor and advocacy with the rich. This makes a lot of sense organizationally: providing humanitarian assistance and channeling resources to development projects in the South brings in lots of money to sustain a growing infrastructure (and does something practical to help); while putting pressure on governments, corporations and international institutions through research, reports and lobbying tries to get at some of the causes of poverty by using field experience as a source of experience, legitimacy and expertise.

The problem is that none of this has much effect on the big problems of our time such as climate change and inequality. That’s because elite advocacy is too thin and foreign aid is too blunt a weapon to influence deep-rooted social, political and economic forces that have to be addressed through struggles between local institutions.

Too small to be agents of economic transformation; too big and bureaucratic to be social movements; banned from politics because of their charitable status and structurally removed from the societies they’re trying to change, Oxfam and the others end up sitting uncomfortably in the middle as the real action takes place around them—doing what they can to save lives, speak out and build on small successes in the process. But what if that intermediary position were seen as a positive and used to retool these organizations as bridges and connectors?

That’s the alternative that seems to be supported by many NGOs themselves, including those who signed an open letter in 2014 that called on the sector to reposition itself in service to social movements and other expressions of indigenous civil society. One of the signatories was Adriano Campolina, now the director of Action Aid International and another panelist at IDS.

Campolina outlined his vision of NGOs as ‘whitewater rafts’ instead of ‘supertankers,’ working in the spaces between governments, civil societies and markets; bridging across different geographies and constituencies; and focused on embedding values of equality, sustainability and rights into larger systems instead of implementing aid-funded projects. There are already echoes of this approach in Oxfam’s work on supply chains, for example, and in efforts by Christian Aid and others to engage with social activism at home. It’s well-suited to the increasingly networked nature of politics, economics and social change.

But as panelist Denise Namburete from N’weti in Mozambique pointed out, working as an intermediary in these ways requires that you take a backseat to larger struggles, always giving precedence to others so that they can occupy the driver’s seat of their own social change. It’s a lesson that’s well-established in the history of social movements. Think of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, for example, and the behind-the-scenes role it played in the US Civil Rights movement; or a group like the Center for Popular Democracy in Brooklyn today.

The problem is that you can’t make enough money from these roles and relationships to sustain a large and growing organization, and no NGO is going to voluntarily reduce its size, income or status. So while intellectually attractive, this option seems impractical in terms of decision making by boards of trustees and directors, none of whom wants to be the first to see their organization shrink in the service of a somewhat abstract cause. As I’ve learned for myself after 40 years in NGOs and foundations (and despite all evidence to the contrary), in the minds of those in charge it’s still size that matters.

That brings me to option two: until the foreign aid stops flowing, why not grab as much of it as you can to deliver more of what you’re already doing?  John Plastow, another of the panelists who recently left a senior position with CARE, foresaw this happening with a number of NGOs as well as the so-called ‘beltway bandits’—consultancy outfits in Washington DC and other donor capitals who compete for huge contracts in health, education and emergency work. Save the Children seemed to be heading this way under its recently-departed CEO, Justin Forsyth.

With growth as the guiding light, the temptation is to bring back the ‘poverty porn’ in order to lever more donations; do as many deals as possible with corporations, governments and foundations; and eschew any criticism that might upset those in power. Providing more services, or even running more campaigns, won’t do much to tackle the roots of inequality and dispossession, but if such goals aren’t part of your strategic plan anyway then that’s no great loss.

For those convinced by the argument that immediate lifesaving is a better option than long term social transformation this strategy may be attractive, but most of the people I talk to inside Oxfam and other agencies aren’t persuaded. While they see problems in going forwards, they have no interest in going backwards—which is what this option represents. Instead, there’s a third model available which is the unsurprising choice of the majority: let’s try to do the best we can to improve things without any revolutionary upheavals.

This strategy still requires reforms, which is why Oxfam and the others are putting so much time into internationalizing their structures as a way of engaging more effectively with forces on the ground and answering criticisms about their legitimacy. There are also efforts to re-direct more resources to other NGOs in the South. Whether Oxfam India or Kenya will ever become authentically rooted in their own societies is a crucial question, but one that’s too early to answer now. What’s clear is that there’s little appetite for more fundamental changes, a stance that annoys commentators like Deborah Doane(another panelist) who has written along these lines for The Guardian.

Institutional inertia is a feature of all large organizations, though it’s often quite subtly expressed. Deviations from ideal scenarios like ‘putting ourselves out of a job’ or ‘handing over control’ can easily be rationalized until the boundary between altruism and self-interest eventually disappears—so what’s good for Oxfam is automatically seen as good for the people on whose behalf it works. And there’s a common belief that roles and relationships can be successfully adjusted without reducing the size or importance of the institution itself. After all, that’s how institutions think.

I don’t expect these rationalizations will go away. Externally, there are few lines of accountability through which pressure can be exerted, since donors need NGOs to deliver foreign aid and recipients have no voice. Internally, no one disruptive is going to be hired to a leadership position and there’s little of the angst that’s seen in conferences like IDS. So what’s going to happen?

Tensions between reform and transformation are hardwired into the NGO community and look set to continue, unless or until some large scale shock arrives to force through more fundamental changes—like the end of foreign aid, or the removal of public credibility in the wake of some massive scandal, or a blanket ejection of foreign organizations by Southern governments. But those prospects seem remote.

Against that background, the panel’s conclusion was predictable but well-grounded: there won’t be one common pattern, but there will be increasing differentiation within the NGO community as each agency moves forward. I have a soft spot for Oxfam, so I hope they become a pioneer at the transformational end of that spectrum.

Just like the United Nations, NGOs have become a comfortable part of the furniture of foreign aid that was first designed in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that they now look a little dated. But you don’t get rid of that old armchair in the corner of the living room just because the upholstery is frayed around the edges. Eventually, however, you do have to let it go.

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