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NGO Power Shift 2.0

June 30, 2015

In her seminal 1997 article, Power Shift, Jessica Mathews argued that a power shift was underway in international politics marked by a redistribution of power from states to non-state actors—mostly businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Almost two decades later, NGOs are trying to foster a new sort of power shift, this time transferring power from the global north to the global south. This power shift was one of the substantive topics of discussion at the BISA NGO Working Group workshop I wrote about last week. The BOND report and subsequent presentations by academics, Amnesty International and Family for Every Child elaborated various perspectives on the nature and perceived extent of the power shift.

From the practitioner’s point of view, the perceived power shift is occurring as humanitarian, development and advocacy NGOs, often founded and headquartered in the global North, commit to four primary activities: (1) relocating their headquarters and operations to the global South; (2) supporting capacity development in the global South by transferring skills, knowledge and resources; (3) gradually withdrawing from service delivery to permit local actors to take over these roles; and (4) where Northern NGOs (NNGOs) remain primary actors, enhancing participation in all stages of program planning, implementation and evaluation.

From a scholarly perspective, this purported power shift raises a number of interesting research questions. First, what are some ways that we can measure the power shift to determine whether it actually exists? Relocation is one indicator; many NGOs have relocated their headquarters from the global North to the South—ActionAid moved from London to Johannesburg; Amnesty International decentralized the international secretariat from London to ten regional offices; Family for Every Child has decentralized completely to become a member-led alliance. Other indicators of the power shift might include: the number of individuals from the global South employed in staff and top management positions in the relocated offices; the educational background of staff in the relocated offices (i.e. were “local staff” trained and educated in the global North?); who represents the organization in global forums; and budget allocation. Moreover, scholars might investigate how and to what extent NNGOs’ policies, programs and procedures have changed as a result of these moves to determine the depth of the power shift.

Second, how do NGOs build capacity or increase participation? Does capacity building involve simply a transfer of skills where NNGOs are the “teachers” of norms, practices and procedures? Or does capacity-building and participation require deeper processes of social learning–interactions through which social actors actively redefine and reinterpret social reality by exchanging knowledge and practices, which generate new collective understandings and identities. Investigating processes of diffusion would reveal the distribution of power and power dynamics between NNGOs and local NGOs.

Third, deliberate withdrawal suggests new ways of thinking about NGO population ecology. Family for Every Child’s goal for example is to close its offices by 2017. This planned obsolescence suggests that “NGO deaths” are not always a result of organizational failure or the inability to survive, adapt and thrive in competitive environments. We need more descriptive data on how many NGOs actually withdraw and transfer power to partners in the global South. Further research could probe the determinants of and scope conditions for planned obsolescence in the NNGO sector.

Moreover, the BOND report makes several suggestions about how NGOs might strategically “foster diversity” in the NGO “ecosystem.” Political scientists could investigate whether and how these strategies—decreasing the number of generalist NGOs while encouraging specialist organizations; innovating new organizational forms such as social businesses or hybrid organizations to reduce dependency on external sources of funding; and encouraging mergers and alliances—affect NGO population ecology over time.

Finally, while this power shift is generally viewed as a positive and desirable policy, Médecins Sans Frontière’s (MSF) critical Where is Everyone? report raises important questions about its adverse effects on emergency relief work. Political scientists could investigate this contestation to better understand the politics, power dynamics and the incentives that drive the sector.

These are some of the broad research questions that come to mind when thinking about the NGO Power Shift 2.0, which in my humble opinion, promises to be an engaging research agenda for years to come.

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Maryam Z. Deloffre is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Arcadia University. Her current work focuses on global NGO governance, accountability and legitimacy; and human security and global health governance.