International aid sector in a ‘crisis of legitimacy’, study finds

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The Guardian

International aid organisations are in danger of losing relevance and need to start thinking about “the world beyond themselves”, a study has found.

Academics talked to 50 chief executives of the world’s leading development charities and found a sector in a “crisis of legitimacy, of core identity and of relevance”.

The researchers, from the University of Oxford, found that, rather than focus on critical external challenges including how to decolonise their mainly western organisations, many confessed to being “stuck” in internal dynamics.

Critics of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), have long said their dominance is out of line with a changing humanitarian and geopolitical landscape.

The report’s author, Prof Andrew Thompson, said: “What we found really striking was there was so much more focus on their internal dynamics. They were less forthcoming on things like climate change and Covid. The localisation and the decolonisation challenge is far bigger than their responses suggest.

“They have clocked the reality of all this but did not have nearly as much to say as they did on their board of governance. The ‘earthquake’ question, which is the rise of China, had less airplay than you would have thought,” Thompson said.

“Russia’s invasion has not only amplified existing challenges, but signals a new chapter in the history of international relations: a chapter which demands a reimagining of global political horizons and the rightful place of humanitarian action within that. As our research has shown, if INGOs are to survive then leaders must look to redefine their purpose and rightful place in a fast-changing world,” he said.

The study was carried out by Nuffield College researchers in partnership with Save the Children UK and the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

Many INGOs, which have delivered aid and supported long-term development for decades, are powerful global organisations. They face increasing questions about legitimacy, funding, accountability and their closeness to governments and donors. Some, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have been beset by sexual abuse scandals and transparency issues.

Many of the CEOs said they are hampered by the need to pursue funding, by the expectations and demands of donors (including governments), the demands of risk management, and their own internal governance structures.

Thompson said: “If they are moving away from the white saviour phenomenon they have to take a risk, to delegate to local actors. So you get the rhetoric on localisation but the reality is very different.”

CEOs are not “stepping back” to see the bigger picture, he said. He cited the WHO chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who criticised the world community’s focus on the war in Ukraine.

“What we are seeing playing out is Ukraine is an unhealthy concern with certain geographies at the expense of others,” said Thompson.

“We haven’t seen any CEOs say that while the mobilising for Ukraine is marvellous it can’t be at the expense of the looming famine in the Horn of Africa. They are not throwing that gauntlet down.

“What we had from some of the CEOs is that they thought aloud about diversifying funding but there was clear reluctance to do that, as they were too dependent on the Foreign Office. Their boards were more conservative, with a small c. Many wanted to go for growth.”

Welcoming the report, Saleh Saeed, CEO of the Disasters Emergency Committee, said: “This survey comes at exactly the right time, when the need for our work is perhaps the greatest it has ever been, but when there are fewer resources to meet those needs.

“Strategic decisions today will shape the role and impact of INGOs, not just for the few years ahead but possibly for decades. I’m inspired to see that, despite the sense of ‘stuckness’ and the many challenges we face, there is an emerging sense of purpose and connectedness; qualities which will create a stronger and more impactful sector for all the people and communities we serve.”

Gwen Hines of Save the Children UK said: “It is striking how far leaders find their time and energy being taken up by the same concerns: the biggest leadership challenge for me as CEO of Save the Children is to get past these challenges, so that we maximise the impact of our work for the children we are here to serve, now and into the future.”

July 14, 2022 at 05:51PM Karen McVeigh

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