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The Changing Landscape of International Development: The Turbulent Journey Ahead

I recently had the honor of co-chairing InterAction Forum 2012 along with Carolyn Miles of Save the Children. This year’s Forum brought more than 1,000 representatives of InterAction’s member international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) together to listen to thought-provoking speakers, share ideas, and participate in conversation on the ever-changing landscape of international development.

The take-away from this event was that all sectors of development are anticipating and preparing for big changes.

In his plenary speech on the democratization of development, Deputy Administrator of USAID Don Steinberg announced that USAID seeks to obligate 30% of its assistance through local systems—governments, NGOs, and private firms—by 2015. He reminded us that donor government assistance is no longer the main driving force behind development. Private capital flows to developing countries are seven times larger today than a decade ago, and foundations, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and corporate social responsibility are significant contributors.

The Emerging Private Sector: Doing Good for Profit

There was a lot of discussion about the emerging role of the for-profit private sector in development. Corporations want to maintain their core business and enter this space of development. What does that mean for them? How can corporations continue to increase profits by doing more ‘good’? How do NGOs best partner with them?

It’s a nut we haven’t quite cracked, in my opinion. I’m excited about the potential of private sector engagement, but also cautious. There are still people who enter development because they want to safeguard and improve human dignity; I worry that by supporting organizations that approach development with a stated goal of making money, we run the risk of losing that ‘special thing’ that makes so many dedicate their careers to mission-driven non-profit organizations. It’s an interesting dilemma and will create more conversation, like some of the conversations we began at IntraHealth’s recent event, SwitchPoint. What are the benefits of new partnerships? What are the risks?

We are living in an age of entrepreneurship that is fueling innovation. So many people are trying so many new things. I worry that we run the risk of failing to capture innovation in a scalable fashion. What is the best way to harness this young, entrepreneurial energy into sustainable change—energy like that of SwitchPoint speaker Jessica Colaço from Kenya’s iHub? While we continue to encourage the development of new ideas and new innovations, we should ensure they take place in the field, with the active participation of end users.

Changing Roles and Declining Resources

Speakers at InterAction, including Laurie Garrett of the Council of Foreign Relations, also echoed what we already know: we are entering a prolonged period of constrained resources. Funding for global health has plateaued and will likely decline.

As I have been saying to my colleagues for a while now, international NGOs like IntraHealth are going to go through a very turbulent, uncertain, and ambiguous period. I believe we should see the evolving international development environment as an opportunity for making more impactful changes. International NGOs need to re-engineer themselves, as should donor organizations and multi-lateral organizations like the World Bank and World Health Organization. NGOs have vital roles to play, but the roles are changing, and we need to accept and embrace change.

My hope is that the changing landscape, including the call to do more with less, will ultimately make us more innovative and learn to be better partners with recipient countries and local stakeholders. I continue to be concerned about aid effectiveness when the playing field is not level. The Paris Declaration on the Aid Effectiveness principles still matter. When the ‘haves’ are giving money to the ‘have-nots’ there is an inherent power dynamic. Does that inspire true dialogue? How can you ensure that countries aren’t just saying yes to your ideas because they are poor and don’t have the means?  Of course they will say yes, and they will say yes several times to several different offers which can lead to an inefficient and uncoordinated approach.

To make the best use of limited resources, we need to shift that dynamic. We’re going to see the difference when countries are so convinced of the need or problem that they invest their own money as well. Countries should be in the driver’s seat, and there should be a targeted and coordinated national development plan. Then let’s look at the plan and see what everybody’s contribution should be.

I see many potential new roles for international NGOs including as intermediaries between donor organizations and the countries, stewards of accountability and transparency, and conveners of broader civil society engagement. We are all working to improve the lives of society at large. How do we give that society an effective voice? That’s what has not yet happened. That’s what so much of the news in the world is about. It’s what the Arab Spring was about.  People want greater involvement, and international NGOs could help as conveners.

At IntraHealth, I remind our staff to keep focused on the soul of what we do and not just our day-to-day operations. Change can be hard, and we need to be creative. We need to force ourselves to look at different partners. That’s why events like SwitchPoint and InterAction’s Forum 2012 are important. They remind us that we’re part of something bigger than the work we do on a daily basis, and that our work impacts more than the sphere of global health. That reminder is healthy. Everybody has a part to play in something bigger.