More aid charities should merge, argues executive director of MercyCorps

Simon O'Connell tells a debate on the issue that it should be considered so that international aid organisations had more of an impact

Simon O'Connell
Simon O'Connell

More international aid charities should merge to help reduce costs and support more people living in extreme poverty, according to the executive director of MercyCorps.

Speaking at a debate called "Merging international NGOs: would less be more?", which was hosted by the Overseas Development Institute yesterday, Simon O’Connell said that, although he appreciated it was a "complex" matter, he believed something urgent needed to be done to ensure international aid organisations had more of an impact.  

He said: "We haven’t done enough. We’re behind on our targets. Many of us think that the system is not only broke, but broken."

He said there was a tendency for international aid sector to blame the United Nations for the failures, but added that "we as NGOs need to own some of that brokenness".

Although he appreciated the argument that "small is beautiful" and "diversity is needed" in the international aid space, O'Connell said, he still felt that more organisations needed to come together.  

He added: "There are a lot of us. We want different types of organisation, but I do think there are too many."

He cited the example of Mosul in Iraq, which has been devasted by recent conflict and now requires reconstruction that would cost an estimated $50bn (£39.3bn).

MercyCorps had been working as part of consortium of five NGOs in the city, O'Connell said, and their collective work had touched many lives, but all of those five NGOs in the consortium have "country directors, and they all have security coordinators".

He said: "I calculated that it cost $500,000 a year to run a single leadership team, or $2.5m to run all five leadership teams. Do we really need five country directors, five HR managers and five procurement people? Do we really need all of those?

"Imagine if we saved $1m on those leadership teams and pushed that out to 10 other environments. That would be $10m a year in savings."

Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Department for International Development, told delegates it was right to question whether the number of charities had "got out of control".

He said: "The number of civil society organisations in the UK has grown from 50,000 to more than 160,000 in a generation. The market is flooded with charities, some of them very small and doing very particular things."

But Amanda Mukwashi, chief executive of Christian Aid, said the aid sector needed to be concerned about its effectiveness and not about "the number of NGOs".

She said: "The projection is that we’re going to have 800 million people living in extreme poverty. For me, talking about the number of NGOs that is needed becomes something of something of a red herring. We need to be talking about the quality of what different humanitarian actors are doing."

Nasra Ismail, acting director of the Somalia NGO Consortium, which works with more than 80 organisations in the country, said "smaller and more agile organisations" were needed and there had to be "choice".

Jonathan Brooker, head of Solidarités International UK, a clean water and sanitation charity, said he understood the technical argument about the benefits of economies of scale by merging organisations, but added: "I have not seen the evidence to support it.

"Is bigger better? I would say that it worries me. Already, about 90 per cent of humanitarian funding is in the hands of the biggest players."

He added that the giants of the sector had been "riddled with scandal".

Mukwashi added that "consolidation is not going to meet the need that is there. Diversity of organisations is very important."

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