How many NGOs do we need?

Around this time of year one sees lots of ‘Away On Vacation’ signs up on blogs. Alas the reason for my lack of recent posts is just that I’ve been insanely busy. Plus a temporary internet outage for ~5 days interrupted my blog reading, and I’ve been struggling to catch up ever since. But I couldn’t let this piece from J of the ‘hood just pass by. He says:

“We need fewer NGOs.

I suspect he is probably right, but I think there is a lot more to it than just a numbers game. I think we need both more NGOs and less NGOs. We need the useless ones to die as quick and as painless a death as possible, and then we need new NGOs to keep the existing ones on their toes. As David Week points out in the comments:

“We tend to forget that Oxfam, WV, STC and MSF all started out as corner stores, a meeting in someone’s living room, a zero-budget, zero-org with not much clue to begin with.”

J works in emergency humanitarian relief where the NGO scene is several orders of magnitude more crowded than that in tropical conservation and development, so my heart goes out to him for sitting in interminable cluster meetings in a vain attempt to coordinate who is doing what. I’m also broadly with him on the need for professionalism in conservation and development. If some random guy knocked on your door and suggested you send your child to a new school he was starting up you’d be mighty suspicious and have a list of questions longer than your arm, so why anyone would think poor people in developing countries should be any different beats me.

But for me it’s the whole attempt at coordination that is partly wrong. Not that coordination is a bad thing – we do it around here, and with a much smaller number of NGOs it actually works reasonably well – but there is a limit to what you can coordinate without strong metrics for determination of success and failure. Communism had lots of faults, but one of them was the fallacy that some bunch of bureaucrat planners in Moscow could effectively and efficiently oversee the economies of whole countries. In contrast, in the West for the most part we contented ourselves with letting the market sort things out. The market works on the simplest metric of all; profit. It didn’t always work perfectly (Betamax was a better technical solution that VHS), but it sure worked out better than the Soviet Union (no consumer video recorders at all).

The reason we have so many NGOs is that rich dupes keep on funding the incompetent ones. That they may then deliver the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s cars that no-one wanted to buy is as impossible for the donors to determine as it was for Moscow’s Politburo apparatchiks.

But it’s hard to blame the donors as most NGOs’ fund-raising literature is all much of a muchness; the same themes keep on cropping up and there is little basis on which the non-expert can use to choose. This works for the useless DIY aiders but also serves to protect the established BINGOs against effective upstarts (DIYers who actually hit on a better solution). It can take a long time to get much recognition in the Aid world; no from-nowhere-to-world-conquering-heroes like Google. Neither, apart from the satisfaction of a job well done, is there much in the way of reward for non-profit social entrepreneurs: BINGOs are not in the business of buying out their competition.

Too often it seems people expect too much from Aid / Development / Conservation, such that reducing their myriad outputs to one or more simple metrics would be almost impossible, ref my recent plea for simplicity in environmental certification. Simple metrics will always be distorting, but the merits of simplicity for comparing two rival service providers are substantial. Hence why I was most tickled by Sam Gardner’s recent vision of development finance in 2021, in which he posited the Sphere standards as the basis for competition amongst humanitarian relief agencies. Sam imagined this as being used by big institutional donors like DFID, but why not by the man in the street too?

How many NGOs do we need? As many as can effectively compete for rigorously apportioned funding! No cartel for the BINGOs and no room for crassly ignorant distributors of SWEDOW.


3 responses to this post.

  1. I think the fulcrum of this issue is the lack of clear failure and merger mechanisms in the NGO sector. This discussion refers…

    “The reason we have so many NGOs is that rich dupes keep on funding the incompetent ones.”

    Quite. But the competent ones have to also bear the blame perhaps, for not communicating well enough about the facts of their differentiation in competence.


    • Excellent link. And yes I fully agree. We need a weeding mechanism.

      Mergers are a more interesting case. Would Help the Aged and Age Concern England have been allowed to merge if they had been commercial companies? Competition is a good thing.


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