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Where to for international NGOs?

International NGOs like Oxfam face new challenges to their role in Myanmar. The key question is whether they can move into a new era gracefully, or whether they go kicking and screaming.

A fascinating article this week from long term analyst of ‘civil society’ Michael Edwards, where he asks 'What is to be done with Oxfam?' (see link below).

He argues that international NGOs have ended up in an ‘uncomfortable’ middle position – they are ‘too small to be agents of economic transformation; too big and bureaucratic to be social movements; banned from politics because of their charitable status and structurally removed from the societies they’re trying to change, Oxfam and the others end up sitting uncomfortably in the middle as the real action takes place around them’.

So they are faced with a few different options for the future, Edwards suggests.

One is to scale down to take more of a behind-the-scenes role in supporting social movements and civil society around the world. This might fit with the overall vision, but it means taking a hit to the size of their budgets.

Another option for international NGOs is to try to grab as much of the aid pie as they can while it lasts, taking on big donor contracts for whatever they can get. He suggests that Save the Children has recently shown signs of heading in this direction.

Finally, Edwards argues that for Oxfam there might be a middle way – trying to reform approaches but without any revolutionary change. Being less bureaucratic and working more with local organisations, and internationalising their own structures might go some way toward this.

The big question for me from all of this is how international NGOs will negotiate these shifts in Myanmar. There are, at times opposing, pressures for reform, transformation or for INGO budget growth.

Will international NGOs be able to shift into a new era gracefully, or will they go kicking and screaming? We might see this play out in current discussions about indirect costs and localisation of humanitarian responses.

When international NGOs play the role of ‘middle man’ or bwe sa between donors and local organisations, they receive a certain percentage of the donor money as flexible money or indirect costs which they can use to fund the organisation itself.

Up until now, international NGOs have mostly kept all of this flexible money for themselves and not handed the same percentage on to local NGOs.

Surely this has to change. But as the pressure rises for international NGOs will they continue to fight to hold onto this money or will they pass it on?

Similarly in the humanitarian sector, when the next flood or other emergency hits Myanmar will international NGOs be trying to mop up every piece of donor funding and plant their own flag everywhere? Or will they take a supporting role in a locally led response? Or, more ironically, will they attempt to 'lead' the growing pressure for local leadership?

The challenges for organisations like Oxfam are very real and they do occupy an uncomfortable middle position which cannot last forever.

One hopes that Oxfam is on the more reflective end of the spectrum when it comes to international NGOs. Perhaps they can move proactively and gracefully into the new era.

And let’s hope that other international NGOs can follow that path. And not keep scrambling tooth and nail to hold onto the position they have.

Tamas Wells is the editor of the PK Forum…/mi…/what-s-to-be-done-with-oxfam

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