Fighting for survival – an uncertain future for the humanitarian sector


7th Nov 2019

Fighting for survival – an uncertain future for the humanitarian sector

Fighting for survival – an uncertain future for the humanitarian sector

The humanitarian sector is grappling with an uncertain future. Not only is there less money to go around, the sector is becoming more crowded and competitive and funders are looking for greater innovation with new models and ways of thinking.

This is putting unprecedented pressure on NGOs and many experts believe that NGOs as we know them are on the brink of extinction. They suggest that NGOs and other civil society actors need to start thinking strategically about how to adapt to keep pace with new demands from funders, stakeholders and the communities they serve.   

Civil society across the globe is under pressure for a myriad of complex reasons but perhaps the most significant pressures include:

  • The growing number of globally significant issues that are competing for attention - like the climate crisis, refugee crisis, gender/human rights movement, education and health
  • Shifting political environments – that includes a greater focus on local priorities rather than international development issues
  • The economic impact of the global financial crisis putting pressure on diminishing aid resources.

Our research has unearthed 20 transformative trends that are disrupting the humanitarian sector:

  1. Growing credibility concerns: There is growing recognition that philanthropy and grant making may not be the most effective mechanisms to bring about sustainable change. This is leading to growing demand for alternative financial models within the development sector.
  2. Development practices and approaches are changing: The development sector is adopting more business-like approaches to deliver systemic change while offering return on investment to funders.
  3. Greater emphasis on quality and transparency: The adoption of new global standards such as the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative and the International Aid Transparency Initiative are two key developments requiring greater commitment to best practice in the sector.
  4. A more nuanced understanding of best practice: There is recognition that best practice until now has been largely defined by Western standards. Now funders and key stakeholders see that it is necessary to be led by local context, rather than rolling out ‘best-of-breed’ standardised/global practice that is often inflexible and ill-suited to local contexts.
  5. The core concept of philanthropy is being challenged: Debates about the efficiency of philanthropy in this new development ecosystem is resulting in new funding models that offer greater effectiveness, integration, impact and sustainability.
  6. The rise of ‘nothing for us, without us’: The old way of doing things (a top down approach to development) is being challenged and one of the most significant changes is the growing recognition that beneficiaries must be engaged and participate in finding solutions to ensure adoption, authentic buy-in and support of integrated local development approaches.
  7. The foregrounding of intersectional inequalities: The momentum of movements like #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter have put inclusion at the heart of development work. No matter the type of programme, understanding issues of power, exclusion and intersecting inequalities is critical to moving the development sector forward.   
  8. It is harder to tell who the main actors are: Development sector actors have become less defined, with new organisational entrants, structures and business models emerging in the new social eco-system.
  9. Localisation of the development sector: There is increasing local ownership of programmes and initiatives. The development sector is no longer managed/guided or directed by foreign experts, increasingly local/indigenous knowledge and expertise is recognised. 
  10. Results-based funding models: International development institutions now structure funding models in line with predetermined results and outcomes with performance-based contracts.
  11. Evidence-led programme design: Programmes now focus on inclusivity, equality and are human-centred. Stakeholder engagement, theories of change, logic model frameworks and baseline data are critical elements in programme design and demanded by funders.
  12. Demands for greater transparency: As more dollars are spent through blended financial models there is a growing call, specifically from civil society, for transparency. Although there is a lot of buzz around these private sector instruments, there is also a need for clearer evidence that these tools are effective at achieving development impact.    
  13. Blended value, shared value, social capital and collective impact are the new benchmarks: Programmes that deliver multiple layers of impact rather than focus on a single objective or outcome are gaining more support and traction.
  14. The explosion of technology: Technological solutions or interventions using technology in conjunction with development practice are gaining a bigger piece of the pie as they offer the opportunity to reach scale, faster and at reduced costs.
  15. Cutting-edge evaluation: Evaluation approaches, practices and methodologies are evolving to measure new concepts (such as empowerment, equality, inclusiveness and sustainability) and consider new aspects (such as complexity, systems integration and alignment, coverage, cohesion, and materiality/relevance) while entrenching new impact measurement and management standards.
  16. A new global framework for sustainable development: The SDGs is hugely ambitious and have driven fundamental change in the sector. Not only has it given rise to new blended financial models, triggering greater collaboration, it has also given the development and investment community a common framework to track the impact of their work.
  17. Growing emphasis on scale-up: The development sector is under immense pressure to deliver make a difference, but this is hindered by gaps in resources, knowledge and capacity on how to do achieve impact at scale.
  18. The need for funders and organisations to embrace failure: True innovation of the nature needed to grow to scale requires a high failure rate. But in the development sector funding is closely tied to success and achieving predetermined outcomes, so organisations claim success to achieve continuity of funding. This contradiction short circuits the innovation cycle and prevents organisations from achieving the scale-up that is desperately needed. Philanthropists and grant makers need to have a higher tolerance for failure if they truly want to see transformative change and innovation.
  19. The climate crisis: The climate crisis is no longer just another cause, but it is now both the context of humanitarian crisis in which other development agendas are situated and a stand-alone crisis that requires urgent attention. No longer can economic, environmental or social/human development be separated, a failure to respond adequately in one area, also contributes to failure in another.  The practice of sustainable development requires organisations to think holistically.
  20. Decolonising aid: With the entrance of new actors to the development sector we are likely to see a growing decolonisation of the aid sector with not only different development approaches but also funding mechanisms. 

The challenges outlined above will see the sector overhauled in a way that will start to deliver greater benefit to the people who need it most. In the 2020 Research Report – Disruption with Impact, Next Generation not only outlines trends, but also provide insight into future practice.  To read or download the report, click here

Whether you agree with our findings – or not, we would love to hear from you.  Please send us your feedback and comments, we look forward to hearing from you.