Andrea Ordoñez, Director at Southern Voice

In this month’s blog, Andrea Ordoñez, Director of Southern Voice, shares her reflections on a new role for INGOs. What would a new system look like? And, how can INGOs adapt to a more equitable development system? For sure this will require a proactive shift in power relations.

The number of voices calling for change in the traditional development and humanitarian aid system is growing. Despite the ongoing transformation discourse, it is frustrating that reforms have been elusive.

What would a new system look like? 

Not too long ago, a friend of mine posed the question: “Should a true decolonizing vision of development mean eradicating aid altogether?” It is clear how such a proposition may scare many off. Organisations in the Global North may feel that this would mean that they cease to exist. Organisations in the Global South, on the other hand, may feel that this affects funding availability for their work, without alternatives in sight. Some might say that this proposition minimises the positive impact of development assistance. It may also underestimate the need to fund many activities that are otherwise overlooked by governments and the corporate sector in the Global South.

I do not foresee a future where aid disappears completely. Yet, I hope it will change for the better. This would entail rebalancing power dynamics among funders, recipients, implementers and beneficiaries to promote ways of working with dignity and in diversity. Debates so far have led to agreement on key characteristics of a good development system: more national and local ownership, mutual accountability, stronger partnerships and policy coherence. These changes, however, require a proactive shift in power dynamics among the actors involved, including International NGOs.

How can INGOs adapt to a more equitable development system? 

They can find the unique value proposition for a dynamic scenario. INGOs are known for being large and having presence in multiple countries. It has enabled them to become an important vehicle for aid. I would argue, however, that this should not be seen as their main added value. Other aspects seem more critical when imagining a new development sector. For example, INGOs could connect various organizations to work and strengthen positions around key themes. It is an essential step to transform power dynamics. Global South organisations often work in silos and exchange activities can counter that. Enabling environments for discussing and developing new ideas is also something that INGOs may be well positioned to do. These, and other key functions, may become the new key characteristics of INGOs.

It is useful to think about an optimal scale for activities to have the most impact. Big is not always better. Although the prevailing paradigm suggests that organisations should keep growing in size, this does not necessarily translate into more impact. When impact is at the centre, the business models may differ. For example, this may force us to consider the idea that smaller, more context-specific organisations, may be best to promote change at the local level. This has become clear during the pandemic. Small, self-organised organisations were quick to identify issues. They are arranging solutions to critical problems around food security, safety and so on. Considering an optimal scale would also lead to more conscious specialisation, and stronger partnerships based on strengths.

Organizations can embrace transitions proactively. am inspired by organisations that walk the talk of rebalancing power. They are explicit about how they are transitioning to new models. WeRobotics, for example, is openly embracing a transition of power to partner organisations in the Global South. It translates into clear changes in strategy, but also fosters open dialogue with partners and friends. The emergence of new donors, a growing number of middle income countries, and the rapid digitalisation are some of the trends that will continue to drive change, independently of whether organisations are ready for it or not. This is a good opportunity to embrace these transitions proactively.

In the end, change in power dynamics in global development can only happen with a proactive approach from Global South organisations. Many have already found creative ways to exercise their agency. For example, by finding mechanisms to co-invest in projects that they are committed with, or stretching the funds to make more than required. However, now is the time to be more proactive and open about the need to be in the driver’s seat of development projects. It is through the joint actions, decisions and stances of organisations in the Global South and Global North that we will ultimately find the key to a power rebalance.


Andrea Ordoñez, Southern Voice Director