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Leadership for change

August 7, 2013

The international development sector has evolved positively, though the process of “development” is still pretty mysterious. Different international NGOs contribute in different ways, but are too often constrained by the need to turn development into over-simplified projects in order to obtain funds. With projects comes the need for bureaucratic systems which often end up driving the way NGOs function, even when they have other unrestricted funding which doesn’t need to be projectised. One of the key drivers of development is leadership, support to which is hard to projectise, and hence gets insufficient attention. So perhaps this is the kind of thing that international philanthropists like Mo Ibrahim, Bill Gates and George Soros ought to support. In this article I suggest a way they could do so. It might only cost them $3m per year, or they could endow it in perpetuity for twenty times that amount.


The nature of “international development” is evolving, as ever. The 2011 World Development Report, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, the debate about what will follow the Millennium Development Goals post-2015 – these and other documents and processes in the global discourse reflect the (more important) changed practical approaches on the ground which illustrate that “development” policy and projects are resolutely more sophisticated and political than they used to be.  When I first worked for an international development organisation, I planted Acacia trees innocently in the drylands of eastern Sudan. Honestly, most of them likely died and not much difference was probably made in people’s lives over the long term, although we employed several hundred people, thus improved their incomes for a while. Nearly thirty years on, the international organisation I now work for conducts advocacy on how shadowy economic practices can be reformed in support of sustainable peace, facilitates dialogue among politicians, and helps the process of reconciliation and healing in post-conflict societies. International NGOs have certainly evolved.

International organisations help facilitate change in developing countries in many different ways: building clinics, training teachers, adding to civil society capacity, monitoring and witnessing human rights, to name just a few. One can criticise or praise any or all of their approaches depending on one’s point of view. But given the absence of any proven path to development, there are no empirical grounds for saying that this or that is absolutely the right or wrong way to go about it, at least not generically. So provided the right permissions and support have been given by the authorities and more broadly within the society where they work, and they adhere to certain basic principles and values, there’s legitimately a fairly broad and deep “ecology” of international organisations, each with its niche, all working to promote what they see as progress.

It is genuinely hard to hold them to account for their contribution to progress writ large, because such progress is non-linear in nature, and is virtually impossible to track and verify at a societal level, at least not within short time frames. But one can at least ask them to explain their rationale very clearly, and hold them to account for having an approach which is congruent with their own particular explanation of how development progress happens. Each should also have a convincing account of why its particular approach is the right one to support and engage with.

To take a simple example: an organisation which builds schools needs to have a convincing explanation of a) how school building contributes to progress in the contexts where it operates, and b) why building schools represents a good investment compared with other options. Similarly for organisations investing in health care, agricultural skills, vocational training, peacebuilding, and so on.

Explaining what we mean by progress

My personal explanation for how progress towards a better society probably happens is explained in detail elsewhere. Suffice it here to say that I see it as a combination of interrelated and largely organic processes which between them lead to a fairer, safer, more democratic society in which prosperity is widely shared, people have the wherewithal to live a decent life, and differences are resolved without violence.

Without being certain, but with a fair degree of confidence, I’d say the factors and processes likely to contribute to this kind of development include an educated population with increasing confidence and voice, creativity and initiative; the application of the rule of law to an ever-widening circle of people; increasing social mobility; a growing economy in which a growing share of the population participates; an increasingly dynamic civil society which brings together people across ethnic and other social divides in pursuit of common enterprise; increasing control of violence by increasingly accountable institutions of state; and the evolution of broadly supported values and institutions which underpin all these factors and processes.

I work for International Alert, which unusually among international NGOs (INGOs) stitched its heart to its sleeve several years ago by publishing its programming framework. This sets out Alert’s philosophy of what a better society looks like, and explains how its work aims to contribute to peace and prosperity in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Alert’s explanation is close to my own, and even though I can’t guarantee that we are helping people make progress towards the kind of society we describe, we can at least be held accountable by others for following approaches which match our publicly declared theories of change.

The perversity of projects

One thing I know I share with others working for INGOs is the frustration that comes with funding. We obviously need funding for our work, but acquiring it leads us perforce to create the bureaucracy needed to manage, report on and be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. Because so much funding is provided in the form of support to projects, we are also more or less compelled to adopt a way of working constructed around projects. What this means is we chop our work up into bite-sized chunks which can be “purchased” by institutional donors like the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the EU, the UN, etc., and managed and implemented discretely. These institutions thus become our clients or customers, even though they in no way represent the people whose lives we aim to benefit. (This creates a strange situation in which we are accountable to rich country taxpayers, rather than to the people for whom we work. But this has been much written about and I won’t pursue it further here.)

Another pernicious effect of project funding is that it pushes us to create artificial narratives of development progress, in terms which can be counted, tracked and measured in the short term. Andrew Natsios has written eloquently about this phenomenon and I recommend his essay The Rise of the Counter Bureaucracy, which explains how funding arrangements skew development programmes away from what is most effective towards what is most “countable”. Civil servants approving project funding are placed in a difficult position: they are obliged to oblige NGOs to present their work in two to five year chunks replete with predictable activity budgets – construction, training, etc., etc., etc…. –  because this gives them the data they need to report to their ministers, and which their ministers need in their turn to report to parliament…  So when looked at from afar, much of the international development sector resembles a massive flotilla of projects, each sailing along at its own speed and in its own direction. Most projects are at least partly successful on their own terms, but what does it all add up to? Meanwhile, large amounts of time, energy and other resources are expended on the design, launching, navigation, tracking and maintenance of all these boats. And perversely, once organisations develop the systems and culture of projects, they even use them to allocate their scarce “unrestricted” funds – the money they raise for general purposes, the donors of which don’t require it to be projectised at all.


Many of the obstacles to development are structural in nature, which is merely a jargon way of saying they are hard to change. One of the things needed to shift them is leadership. Leaders – at whatever level in society – are people who stand up and take a risk for their vision of change (or sometimes, to prevent change.) Not all leaders are good people with the right vision, of course. But leaders with vision, a commitment to the right kind of values and progress, and the ability to bring others with them, are surely one of the overlooked factors and drivers of development progress in their societies.

When I look back over my career in international development and peacebuilding since 1985, it is often such individuals who stand out: the villager who galvanised his fatalistic community to restore the orchards which had been devastated by drought; the father of an abducted girl who shamed NGOs into adopting a more courageous approach; women who have stood up to warlords; the girl who persuaded her mother and other mothers in the community to protect their daughters better; the HIV-positive activist who mobilised a movement demanding changed government and societal responses to the epidemic; the two students who took it upon themselves to create accessible learning materials for science students across the country; the civil society leader who persuaded and pushed political leaders to become more transparent, and was shot; the streetfighters who stopped fighting one another and reached across their religious and ethnic differences to bring peace and collaboration to their city; and so the list goes on…

It’s a high gain venture when it works, supporting women and men with the capacity to influence their society and its prospects for peace and prosperity in a seminal way. Even the best leaders can use some support. But it is very hard to obtain project funding for “providing support to leaders”. First, it’s not one of the categories overseas aid departments, ministers and parliaments readily recognise or know how to count, and secondly it’s an unpredictable game at best, so any support provided is a high risk venture.

My pitch to Mo, George or Bill

Given the frustrations of project funding, I sometimes imagine that I am trapped in a lift with Mo Ibrahim, George Soros or Bill Gates, who asks my advice on how to spend his money in support of international development. In such an instance I’d tell him of the imaginary international NGO, let’s call it Leaders 4 Change (L4C). It has a clear, simple and narrow remit:

To identify and provide catalytic support to leaders in civil society, in fragile, underdeveloped countries.

It only operates in a limited number of countries, taking a long-term approach over many years in each. Let’s say a maximum of ten countries at a time.

By providing tailored support and assistance to the right people, it helps them bring about the kinds of changes which kindle progress in their societies – e.g. changes in political discourse, high leverage policies, and political culture. L4C draws on its international, non-parochial reach and knowledge to provide them with solidarity and disinterested advice. It also provides them with small grants for learning, travel, etc., to expose them to ideas and skills. And it brings them together with others in similar circumstances from whom they can learn and on whose advice they can draw.

In each country, it has only two staff: a creative, analytical political activitist-facilitator – let’s call him or her the Catalyser – and an administrator-logistician providing support. Catalysers are not normally nationals of the country in which they operate, to help ensure their objectivity and independence – and to protect them from harassment. They are rare individuals with integrity, political acumen, empathy, humility, a generalist mindset and a talent for political economy analysis, strategy, and entrepreneurial activism. From a combination of theory and their own experiences (and what they learn with and from L4C colleagues), they have a good sense of how societal change occurs. Thanks to Mo (or George, or Bill) they do not have to be bureaucrats or fund-raisers. They sign up for at least 5 years, to make sure they have enough time to understand the context, an appropriate strategy, identify and build relationships with appropriate partners, and to make a difference. Their role is to develop a strategic country analysis for L4C, and based on that to engage influentially in civil society to encourage and contribute to debate and action. Each strategy is tailored to the context, seeking high leverage changes, with indicators for measuring progress and impact. These strategies might include for example the kinds of things I identified above: promoting an increase in the circle of people and/or issues covered by the rule of law; imbuing parts of the education system with a culture of creativity and initiative; increasing transparency in governance; reaching across ethnic, gender or caste lines; or working with parents to help their sons learn non-violent approaches to conflict.

A key part of the methodology is what I call loitering with strategic intent. This means knowing more or less what kinds of opportunities you seek, and hanging around the kinds of situations where they might occur, thus being ready to create, seize and exploit them. It means engaging in civil society, not just supporting or “strengthening” it (a common jargon of INGO projects). Needless to say perhaps, loitering with strategic intent is hard to fund through projects.

The catalyser identifies key leaders and potential leaders in civil society, and finds creative ways to support them. They might be NGO leaders, religious leaders, young politicians, who could benefit from small catalytic support. L4C develops personal relationships with them and gradually identifies ways to support them, e.g. by strategic advice and accompaniment, matching them with mentors (perhaps abroad), providing other learning opportunities, or providing small grants training to try out their ideas.

Catalysers are expected to fail from time to time – perhaps by choosing the wrong leaders to support (you have a kiss a few frogs before you find your prince), perhaps occasionally ruffling a few political feathers.

Like its country offices, L4C’s head office is also small, consisting of a CEO, a head of finance, an administrator-logistician and the occasional intern or two. Two country programmes are the subject of external, independent reviews each year (so every programme is reviewed every five years). These are shared across the organisation to ensure lessons are learned. The CEO also visits every operating country at least once every two years to monitor, advise, and learn. S/he works with colleagues and partners to publish a major report every two years based on lessons learned, sharing important ideas and knowledge about societal change processes. These are widely disseminated among NGOs, donors, etc. and their publication is looked forward to by those in the know. Finally, a small board of international trustees drawn from civil society, academia, government and business provides oversight and governance, and commissions a thorough annual external audit.

This L4C does not exist of course, but if it did it would have to be funded through endowments, and no project fundraising would be allowed. Assuming a programme covering ten countries, at a rough estimate this would cost less than $3 m per year, which at a 5% average rate needs a modest perpetual endowment of less than $60m. What do you think, Mo, Bill and George?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 12, 2013 2:38 pm

    I have worked with several UN specialized agencies such as UNESCO, FAO, UNDP/ UNFPA and UNESCAP for over two decades and fully agree with the author that most IGOs and NGOs practice project approach to development. The projects are designed by highly paid, highly educated ” smart ” people who have little or no knowledge of the problems of the people whose lives they want to change. They design projects that safeguard their own interests first i.e. continuation of projects for a long period of time so that their “extertise” are required year after year and often for decades. This approach to development does not and can not benefit the poor. In my view empowerment of people through access to information and knowledge is one of the most effective approaches to development.

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