John Bines

12 January, 2016

Ultimate Accountability – The INGO’s Missing Compass

Ultimate Accountability – The INGO’s Missing Compass

Once upon a time, in the north west, lived Arrogance. One day Arrogance met Greed. Perfectly compatible, they soon conceived and Colonialism was born.  Colonialism was strong and became very powerful. However, Colonialism did much damage to others and ultimately faded away to great happiness.

Arrogance blamed Greed for Colonialism’s wrong-doings and ended the relationship. However Arrogance was still fit and well and took another lover – Benevolence. Arrogance and Benevolence were not well suited; they were virtually incompatible. Despite this they too had a child called Development.

Development’s upbringing was difficult; torn by the conflicting demands of its parents. Because of this, Development struggled to build sustainable relationships and had a number of fleeting romances. As a result of one of these, Ingo [1] was born. Later and after an awkward courtship, Development settled down with Globalisation and, soon after, Collaboration was born.

The young Collaboration is now starting to thrive and put right some of Colonialism’s wrong-doings. Ingo, however, is a lost soul. Born in a different time, Ingo lives in the north west with its grandparents, Arrogance and Benevolence, as incompatible as ever. Ingo is often found wandering the streets muttering (and sometimes even proclaiming) that it needs to transform to be relevant and legitimate in the modern world.

However without the orientation or courage to truly transform, Ingo has instead tried to disguise itself as Icso [2]. Icso now plans to move south east to live closer to Collaboration. Icso would like to leave its grandparents behind, but cannot imagine life without them.


If you’ve made it this far, thank you for indulging me, and I hope that at least some of this tale resonated with you.

It is difficult to dispute that INGOs need to transform to be relevant and legitimate in the modern world. Of course, the larger ones have the resources to keep these challenges at bay for many more years to come, ensuring that their decline is both gradual and unnoticed. Occasionally, they will be forced to proclaim that they need to change, will make a tweak, and then carry on the same.

Does it have to be this way? Many of the people I talk to believe so.

I fear they’re right. The traditional leaders of INGOs, and I include myself here, took in benevolent exceptionalism with their mothers’ milk. The courage, so abundant in their organisations’ operations, is scarcer in their leadership.

However, I hope they’re wrong. So, let’s suppose that there is an INGO out there, which is both capable and courageous enough to truly transform. Where is the compass they need to navigate in the modern world?

I suggest that they should start with a straightforward six word question:

To whom are we ultimately accountable?

What might their answers be?

I suspect that the answer from most INGOs would be something like “It’s more complicated than that“.  If that’s you, enjoy wandering the streets of the north west, free of both responsibility and fulfilment.

I think some INGOs have already implicitly answered this question by their actions. Their answer is “we are ultimately accountable to our donors/supporters“. There is no shame in this. There is a market out there and some INGOs already thrive within it. If that’s you, please come clean, please don’t call yourself an ICSO, and do let me know, in due course, where I can buy shares.

My hope, in writing this blog, is that one INGO answers “we are ultimately accountable to the communities we are trying to support“. If that’s you, redesign your governance so you are led by the authentic voices of those communities, build a new strategy, include obsolescence as an option, and transform. When, and only when, you have done that can you legitimately call yourself an ICSO and move south east with confidence.  You will have my total support; I’ll even keep an eye on your grandparents.

[1] International non-governmental organisation (INGO)
[2] International civil society organisation (ICSO)


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