Simon O'Connell: Consolidation is key to better aid delivery

There are simply too many charities operating in international development. It is time we ourselves took action, argues the executive director of Mercy Corps

Simon O'Connell, executive director of Mercy Corps
Simon O'Connell, executive director of Mercy Corps

South Sudan is host to myriad international NGOs. The world’s newest country is in a state of protracted crisis. A combination of long-running conflict, a weak economy and drought has driven 3.7 million South Sudanese from their homes and left seven million people in need of aid.

In response, a lot of organisations are trying to help, often under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Alongside 214 national non-governmental organisations, the South Sudan NGO Forum includes 115 international NGOs. My organisation, Mercy Corps, is one of them.

There is little doubt that these NGOs provide vital assistance in a country affected by long-term conflict and food insecurity that last year resulted in famine.

The aid delivered by NGOs is, literally, life-saving. But is the NGO sector structured in the best way possible to have maximum impact?

Ensuring large-scale, lasting impact in fragile and volatile places such as South Sudan comes with significant challenges.

There are only 200 miles of paved road across the country and much NGO work is reliant on air transportation.

Risks to both people and resources are high; logistics are complex; security assessments and protection are time-consuming and difficult. All of this makes working here extremely expensive.

Extensive coordination and information sharing does occur, but there are more than 115 different international agencies in South Sudan, each taking on the individual management responsibilities and costs of operating in this highly fragile environment.

With humanitarian needs in South Sudan and across dozens more countries around the world at almost unprecedented levels, more needs to be done by international agencies to join forces to reduce duplication and improve aid delivery and efficiency.

The large number of organisations can also affect the quality of aid delivery. Recipients of international assistance are sometimes left bewildered and frustrated by the number of different agencies entering and leaving their lives.

Why are there so many international agencies?

Each individual NGO has its own existential imperatives. Each was founded with its own particular mandate. Each has to raise money and, to do that, each needs to be visible.

Intentionally or not, this puts NGOs in competition with each other – for exposure, supporters and, ultimately, money. Each NGO needs to fly its flag (and frequently those of its funders) in places like South Sudan, because its visibility is central to its ability to raise the money it needs.

The perceived competition between agencies and a focus on bolstering brands and identities also affects trust, with only 46 per cent of people in the UK viewing NGOs as trustworthy.

Yet, in today’s world of extensive humanitarian need and pockets of deep, protracted fragility, NGOs still have a crucial role to play.

Globally there are an estimated 10 million NGOs of one kind or another. They have contributed to extraordinary progress in recent decades, with both extreme poverty and under-five mortality falling dramatically.

But two billion people still live in places affected by instability, conflict and violence.

There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people, the highest number on record. Climate change is an increasingly active and urgent reality. With such complex issues and widespread needs, now is not the time to reduce aid budgets or commitments to addressing the root causes of poverty and displacement. It’s time to take concrete steps to improving how aid is delivered.

A key part of the answer to how to do this is through some consolidation of the international NGO sector – to improve efficiency, diminish duplication and ultimately be better for the recipients of their assistance.

Why not just better coordination?

Tremendous efforts have been made over many years to improve the way NGOs work with each other, with UN agencies, with governments and others: joint needs assessments, clusters, pooled funds, Humanitarian Country Teams, the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, the professionalisation of humanitarianism, the idea of "humanitarian passports"– the list of initiatives to improve coordination in the humanitarian sector is long.

NGOs have demonstrated a significant ability to work together. One example is the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies – now the Start Network – which took responsibility for a whole chunk of the UK’s humanitarian funding and has gone on to deliver extremely efficient, rapid and successful responses.

The Start Network continues to push the boundaries of cooperation in the sector, while NGOs have also played their part in the Grand Bargain, a major set of commitments agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, outlining increased cooperation in a range of ways.

These initiatives show the desire of organisations to work better together, but cooperation itself comes at a cost, with large amounts of time and resources spent on initiatives to improve NGO coordination.

There will also always be a limit to how efficiently hundreds of different organisations are able to work with each other. Each of those organisations still has to carry, to some extent, the cost of its own logistics, security, assessments and information gathering. NGOs remain independent organisations with their own identities, responsibilities and costs.

Consolidation – a solution bringing greater scale, impact and value for money

The idea of consolidation in the NGO sector has generally been controversial, evoking an image of predatory capitalism that is anathema to many in the sector.

Occasional consolidation between NGOs has occurred, but this has invariably been driven by financial imperatives.

Instead of NGO mergers happening only when organisations are in a state of financial stress, they should be incentivised to merge voluntarily, simultaneously reducing operating costs, inefficiencies and confusion for those on the receiving end of aid.

By reducing the number of NGOs, efforts to improve cooperation and coordination, including in areas such as safeguarding, would become easier.

That does not mean we should eradicate the diversity that is in many ways the NGO sector’s greatest strength. There's a tremendous need for innovation and nimbleness in the aid and development sector that is often more present within smaller organisations. 

Everywhere is different, and it is impossible to have cookie-cutter approaches that apply equally well in Yemen as they do in Mali – or, indeed, here domestically in the UK.

Locally-led, less bureaucratic structures and systems are essential.

But this is where local and national NGOs tend to excel. They often have a particular geographical or operational niche that brings something unique.

At the international level, however, there are too many organisations duplicating each other’s work and needlessly competing with each other.

Although each of the 214 local and national organisations in the South Sudan NGO Forum might be offering something distinctive, I simply don’t believe that it is necessary for 115 international organisations to be there.

How to get it done

Consolidating the international NGO sector will require incentives that outweigh the existing motivations of competing for visibility, profile, influence and funds. Donors can play a role here.

Institutional donors such as the Department for International Development and USAID have already shown repeatedly that they are willing to fund initiatives that enhance collaboration, as examples like the Humanitarian Grand Challenge illustrate.

Now they need to go one step further.

I call upon donors – both governmental and private – to establish a "Consolidation Initiative" for international agencies willing to join together permanently. This would require some one-off costs, but would make long-term sense against the ongoing cost of coordination.

Beyond funding, governments and influential stakeholders should commit to opening their doors to conversation with NGOs that show a willingness to consolidate.

Access to government representatives is valuable for NGOs as they seek to influence on behalf of the people they serve. Committing to increasing such access would provide a further incentive for consolidation.

Ultimately, though, it is up to NGOs to make the running on this issue.

I call on my NGO peers and those in the international aid and development community to join me in exploring how consolidation might be achieved, gathering evidence for the best approaches to take and committing to generating efficiencies that will deepen the impact of our work at this critically important time.

Consolidation would go beyond the perpetual incentivisation of cooperation.

It would produce a structural change that would improve how the NGO sector functions permanently.

It would boost trust in NGOs by showing sincerity about improving efficiency rather than competing for exposure.

It would elevate the role of local and national NGOs as the main source of diversity and delivery in the system.

Most importantly, it would improve the assistance provided by NGOs for people affected by poverty and crisis.

With the ongoing question of how to engage with the world, the consolidation of international NGOs could be a core part of the answer.

Simon O’Connell (@sioconnell1) is the executive director of Mercy Corps

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