What can Southern NGOs teach us about disruptive change?

Interviews with Southern NGOs reveal valuable lessons in how to see disruptive change as a force for good – and highlight how donors and Northern partners can provide more effective support.

Pakistan's Sarhad Rural Support programme deals with constant uncertainty and disruptive events. Here goods are delivered to flood victims in Chitral (Photo: Gul Hamaad Farooqui, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Around the world, development efforts are at a crossroads: the common framework provided by the Millennium Development Goals has been replaced by a challenging new agenda; global action on climate change has high ambitions set by the Paris Agreement, while the impacts of climate change are increasing; and existing aid and development practices are challenged by technological and geopolitical shifts that bring new actors and funding models.

These factors are "disruptive changes", upsetting the very conceptualisation of development as well as existing methods of achieving it. 

How development organisations, from donors and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to community-based groups in the global South, respond to these changes – as opportunity, threat, or something in between – will surely help to define the shape of development work moving forward. This is why IIED has been looking at how organisations deal with disruptive change.

While others have looked at the strategic implications of disruption and its drivers (see for example the 'Riding the Wave' report, 'Tomorrow's World (PDF)' and 'Fit for the future?', the experiences and perspectives of Southern NGOs have not generally been part of the picture.

We've put their perspectives at the heart of our investigation, with a series of 23 interviews with Southern NGO leaders and a handful of consultants working with Southern NGOs. 

We asked how they understood the idea of disruptive change; and what strategies have helped them to effectively manage, adapt, and innovate in the face of change.

What interviewees said was in turn sobering, inspiring, and sometimes just fascinating (Getting good at disruption in an uncertain world: insights from Southern NGO leaders). Their frank insights offer a window onto the leadership shown by donor-savvy practitioners in the South, but also onto the daily realities of disruption as a fact of life.

They also shared some great ideas on how development organisations in both the North and South can get good at disruption – and some flaws that  Northern 'development bubble' donors and international NGOs could usefully address. 

The daily reality of disruption 

It's clear that Southern NGOs find themselves operating in uncertain times. External disruptors aside, Southern NGOs are also at the sharp end of numerous internal disruptors – such as staffing challenges, succession planning, and even the effects of significant campaign successes.

To ensure innovation and resilience in the future, they have to focus on disruption in the present, and this needs to be recognised in the strategies and programmes of both donors and international NGOs. 

Our reality is a reality of 'consistently trying to overcome uncertainty'. The reality of the change process has been to learn to manage uncertainty on an ongoing basis – Ousainou Ngum, Kenya

These impacts are more acutely felt in regions and countries where very few NGOs have the financial reserves to cushion operating budgets during periods of uncertainty. Rapid change and the shrinking operating space for civil society in the global South also cause major disruption.

Even so, many of our interviewees insisted that disruption should not inherently be seen as negative, but needs to be appreciated as a driver for new and potentially positive ways of doing things.

There is a vast field of innovators – people with courage and capacities who are showing the way and can help us to move forward, to use disruption not as something to fight against but as a stepping stone for the transformation that is needed. We need to transform the ecosystems of development – Mariteuw Chimère Diaw, Cameroon

Adapting to change is one thing, but building lasting resilience and innovation from the bottom up potentially demand distinct organisational capabilities.

Ready for change

Through our interviewees' stories and insights, the characteristics of a 'disruption-ready' Southern NGO – many of them transferrable to Northern NGOs – began to emerge. Key ingredients appear to include capacity for organisational learning; distributed rather than hierarchical leadership; supportive organisational culture; and diverse business models. 

It's also clear that managing disruptive change may on occasion mean revising an organisation's mission or operations; that effective change processes actively nurture, evolve and deploy internal skills; and that access to networks and peer support can be a huge help to organisations managing disruptive change. 

If this looks like 'motherhood and apple pie', it's important to balance this with an understanding of some of the obstacles that Southern NGOs face. A number of these obstacles come not from global drivers or from national governance frameworks, but from within the development community, including from funders and international NGOs. 

Changes in funder policy without warning, the disempowering side-effects of donor requirements for prospective contractors to form consortiums in response to calls to tender, and the scarcity of funding for organisational development and learning were among the examples offered. 

There needs to be greater investment in developing institutions: organisations need space to develop their value proposition, a vision of where they want to go – and they need help delivering it. Projects can kill organisations when they make us lose our strategic focus – Lina Villa – Córdoba, Colombia

Engaging with change

We identified four broad channels for donors and international NGOs to engage with disruptive change while maximising their support for adaptive, resilient and innovative Southern NGOs. 

They can support effective disruptive change management in other organisations, and/or they can be 'positive development disruptors' themselves – proactively seeking to create disruption that brings positive development outcomes.

Conversely, if they react to disruption as it happens, they can face disruption themselves, and/or disrupt Southern NGOs. The dynamics look something like the figure below. 

Diagram showing ways NGOs to engage with disruptive change (IIED)

IIED's disruptive change initiative continues into 2016 with a focus on peer-to-peer Southern NGO learning led by these insights. We'll also be reflecting more closely on what this could mean for IIED's own ways of working.

And we'll be looking at how to use adaptive responses to change as a springboard for the innovation that will be needed to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Lila Buckley (lila.buckley@iied.org) is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group. Halina Ward (halina@halinaward.co.uk) is an independent consultant.