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12 June 2012

Knowing where we have come from

Written by
Keith Johnston

(Second in a series about International NGO governance)

Who are we?  Where have we come from?  How do we honour our roots while becoming more global and more effective?  These are critical questions for the board of any INGO and they are useful starting points for a new board member.  Ask around and see what range of responses you get.

One of the things I have learnt from the Vision Works discussions, an annual meeting of the chairs and executive directors of most of the international development, human rights, and environmental alliances, organised by the Berlin Civil Society Center, is that all our organisations are seeking a holy grail of being more effective in a much more global world.  We tend to be reaching for the same organisational goals (although our missions may be quite different) but each is also both constrained and strengthened by its own history.

It helps to be really clear about where your organisation has come from, its history (or the histories of different affiliates), core values, and commitments.  While most INGOs are relatively large organisations active in many countries, the origins of these groups are usually stories of committed individuals and small groups standing up for what they believed, often in the face of ridicule and abuse and sometimes in danger to their lives. Justly we can be proud of our pioneers and of people we have served with.

As we look back from our more institutional perspective it helps to see the ways that our histories shape who we are today.  One of the reasons Oxfam International values its history as a confederation is because of the importance prior Oxfams have put on being community-based organisations grounded in their own countries.  Amnesty International values its elective democracy partly because the organisation puts a priority on human and individual rights and the rights of democratic engagement.  It suits Greenpeace International to operate as a federation, and seek to be a more fleet-of-foot federation, because of the emphasis the organisation places on acting decisively with unity, speed, and flexibility.

It helps to see the logic in each of these approaches.  It also helps to see that this is not the whole story.   Nor is it the only way to organise an international NGO. Others do it differently and for good reasons.

We want to understand and honour our histories but not be held in thrall to them.  We seek to serve the current and future mission of our organisation – whether it is eliminating poverty, enhancing human rights, building civil society, or protecting the environment.  We want to best serve the wider constituency that benefits from our mission.  In contrast, while we understand and remember our forbears and learn from our past practices we are not here to serve these past or even current interests.  Sometimes our discussions and decisions suggest we are not holding this distinction clearly enough.

A working paper I have prepared on this and related themes – “Acting Globally – Thinking Globally” – is available here. The picture here is of the original minute book of the Oxford Famine Relief Committee, October 1942, the precursor to Oxfam the international aid and development organisation.

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