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Transforming international NGOs

Reos Partners
June, 2021

How can we create breakthrough change in the way international NGOs operate? This was the question we explored in our ecosystem event on Thursday, June 17th. Reos Partners ecosystem events are a space for diverse stakeholders from across sectors, disciplines, and thematic areas to come together to exchange ideas and make new connections. Watch here:


To set the scene and stimulate the conversation, Tara Rao, Mie Roesdahl and Monica Genya started the session by sharing their journey and learnings about changing the system:

Tara Rao, one of the hosts of the Re-imagining INGOs Lab, drew on her background as an architect to explain how the civil society ecosystem can respond to and deal with the complex and real challenges on the ground:

“What architecture taught me, if we do not respect the site on which we want to build, and we do not give ourselves up to the climatic conditions for which we need to design, we might end up struggling to define it as a true design process and come out with a not so meaningful design outcome. This is a stimulating and essential challenge that we need to take on collectively and collaboratively. But are we ready to do so?”

Tara also highlighted that new spaces for discovery, experimentation, testing and innovation need to be informed by truly understanding power and redistributing power. Transforming relationships towards true partnerships enables ideas and perceptions to flow across boundaries.

Mie Roesdahl, founder of Conducive Space for Peace, started by sharing her experience of working in international institutions and her engagement with peacebuilders in conflict-affected contexts:

“I became aware of the multiple ways that international organisations reproduce power relations that compromise the dignity of people in conflict-affected contexts.”

Mie described how she felt complicit in the power inequalities embedded in the system. So she chose to step out of working in large development organisations and founded Conducive Space for Peace with a vision of transforming the global peacebuilding and development system. She believes that we can all be change agents with diverse perspectives, jointly create a systems change movement that can shift power from the international to the local level.

Monica Genya from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) South Africa addressed the complex challenge of tackling structural racism within her organisation:

“The first step of admitting there is a problem is not easy at all. The culture within the organisation is to believe that good work is done by good people. And if we are all good people, then there should not be a problem. Right?”

MSF’s starting point is the collective conclusion that there is a problem: structural racism exists in many international NGOs, including MSF. With this premise, it is essential to identify structural barriers and remove them. That entails building capacities to create safe spaces for difficult conversations. Monica emphasised that dismantling structural racism can only happen when there is a willingness of people to participate and a willingness of the people who are holding power to change.

Five points stood out for us in the reflective harvesting round at the end of the session:

  • Through an exercise called “role hacking”, we invited participants to step into the shoes of key stakeholders in the system (e.g. CEO of an INGO, representative of a local NGO, a funder from the global north, etc. ). We then imagined a future together - from the perspectives of our respective stakeholders. Interestingly, the roles of the taxpayer from the global north and community-based organisations found common ground. Today, many intermediary organisations stand between them - governments in the global north, INGOs, national NGOs in receiving countries. Connecting these stakeholders and helping them explore common interests seemed to be a newly emerging leverage point for change in the conversation.

  • Are stakeholders in the system ready to give up power? A more equal distribution of power between stakeholders in the system (funders, big INGOs, local community-based organisations, etc. ) is only possible if those who currently hold power are ready to give some of it up. What became clear is that we need a better understanding of the various levels and forms of power that different stakeholders in the system are holding. As Julie Diamond’s work on power demonstrates: Nobody in a system holds no power, but certain forms of power are more easily recognisable.

  • “Letting go of power starts at the personal level,” one participant shared. Feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of transforming international NGOs, there was a strong commitment to honour and nurture also the little steps - such as changing one relationship or collaboration at a time. “We need to understand our own complicity in this,” by accepting that we are part of the problem in order to be part of the solution.

  • For lasting change, shifts at the personal level need to go together with changes at the organizational level and a re-imagination of the wider system INGOs are operating in. A need was expressed to challenge the widespread mental model in the sector, that “good work is done by good people. And if we are all good people, then there should not be a problem."

  • Many shared an ambivalence between hope for change and frustration over lack of change. “The optimism and hope for the future and the fatigue in the present is an important tension to hold.” The international NGO sector has seen many attempts to bring about change in the last decades. One can feel an urgency to finally get it right and act. One participant described three choices for INGOs going forward: to transform, die well, or die badly. A number of voices stated that INGOs are needed in the future. "Everyone continues to have a role in the future, but the roles are new and need to be re-invented."

One participant closed by saying, “Very inspirational exercise. I have been stuck in being angry with INGOs, funders, and brokers. This session has released that thought and allowed me to reimagine a future where the funders are closer to the ground. Me being here was worthwhile.

We are grateful for the many comments we received on an earlier version of this blog post that was shared on LinkedIn that greatly helped to improve this reflection.

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