Toby Porter

16 February, 2016

Closing the Gap & Transforming the Sector

I am writing this blog at Zurich airport, on my way back from the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos. Extreme global inequality was rightly a recurrent, prominent theme throughout the four-day meeting, again galvanised by the skilful publication by Oxfam of their calculations regarding the proportion of the world’s overall wealth held by the richest very few.

What is becoming clear, however, is that many civil society organisations (CSOs), working at national level, perceive a not dissimilar inequality in the global development and humanitarian system. Take the figure quoted in the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in May – a mere 10 CSOs are said to deliver 90% of the overall CSO share of global humanitarian assistance. Not surprisingly, there are a great many voices starting to say that this too is highly inequitable, and needs to change.

Older campaigners march in Haiti © Josph Jn-Florley/HelpAge International

In a recent blog for Devex I suggested that it was time for us CSOs to look at merging or outsourcing many of their functions at country level. Partly this is a matter of basic efficiency, starting to eliminate the obvious and widespread duplication in the current collective operational footprints in the countries and regions where we operate.

The recent report of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing quantified the huge gap between what is needed and what is currently pledged to fund humanitarian operations around the world. This gap must be closed, or lives will be lost and livelihoods destroyed. The gap can be narrowed partly by raising more funds from new and existing donors, but partly by more efficiency on the expenditure side, making available resources stretch much further. Hence the attraction of more collaboration between agencies, such as the shared delivery platform I proposed, or greater use of more cost-effective programming interventions such as humanitarian cash transfers. Where done well in an appropriate external context, cash transfers both please and empower those receiving them, and generate significant logistical and cost savings from more traditional modalities of aid delivery.

But for me, the major additional attraction of CSOs exploring sharing a common delivery platform or, better still, the emergence of locally-owned commercial or social enterprises introducing more outsourcing into the sector and providing that platform for us, is the potential this would create for more development and humanitarian programming to be carried out by, and channelled through, CSOs working in their own countries. There is no reason for us all to continue with a system built on the assumption that every CSO has to develop and sustain separate capability and systems for all the different dimensions involved in delivering programmes.

Could more outsourcing in the sector be the positive disruptor many in our sector seek? I am not saying it would be straightforward, but the potential benefits are so attractive. I list a few as bullets below.

  • Removing the considerable barriers to entry for new CSOs and other entities to raise funds for and deliver programmes at scale.
  • Refocussing agency time and resources on innovation, programme design, impact measurement and analysis.
  • Allowing investment in IT / financial / logistical systems to be developed by professional outsourcing companies or social enterprises and paid for in effect with project funding (which is still relatively easy to come by) rather than by unrestricted or agency general funds (which many of us the sector are finding in shorter supply).
  • Offering national organisations the same opportunities to grow their technical, policy, advocacy, campaigning and fundraising functions through overheads and direct cost lines on large contracts (international organisations have done this for years).
  • Show a path towards a significant re-distribution within global humanitarian and development assistance between international and national CSOs, in a way that is both desirable and makes sense for the fast-moving political economies in many of the countries where we all operate.

Reversing inequality is one of the great challenges of our era.  Almost all of the big international agencies are highlighting and campaigning on the need for radical steps from companies, governments and individuals to reduce it. Are we missing the inequality within our own ecosystem? This may be an instance where charities should begin at home.

The February theme for this blog series is “Leading change in my organisation”. I decided that I would write on this theme instead, and not focus on HelpAge International, the individual organisation that I lead. I am increasingly of the view that many of the most exciting and impactful changes for each of our organisations lie beyond our direct reach as individual CEOs.

Positive, disruptive and cost-effective change may, and I think will, be the reward for the Boards and executives who invest in and reward collaborative and innovative change at sector level. More use of shared assets and services to deliver programmes, greater use of payments and cash transfers, looking creatively at the challenge of positive redistribution in favour of national civil society organisations and networks – this may be the more fertile and impactful focus for our immediate change efforts, not purely starting within our own organisations.

Photo: Older campaigners march in Haiti © Josph Jn-Florley/HelpAge International

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