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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

International CSOs in a differentiated, globalised and networked world: Five traits they must drop

Updated: Jun 2

Presentation to the IANGO Charter Conference, Amsterdam, 9th September 2016

“This global wave of restrictions has a rapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before, that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.” James Savage, Amnesty International

“I believe in criticism. As a Member of Parliament, criticism kept me moving over 15 years. I firmly say this now as the Minister, this Government has not sanctioned any Government body to intimidate NGOs in Kenya. It is now time to restore sanity and commence the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013)” Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, Ministry of Devolution and Planning, Government of Kenya, September 2016

“We are demanding change. Be prepared to be uncomfortable.” Degan Ali, African Development Solutions (Adeso), 2015


The world is increasingly differentiated, globalised and networked. A collapsed North-South world order has released new power centres within countries and across countries. Political elites are flexing new legal and administrative restrictions. Activists are demanding new models of civic organisations. Both are learning from their peers elsewhere in the world. Collectively, these and other challenges pose a threat and an opportunity to international Civil Society organisations. To respond effectively to these challenges, there are five traits that need to be dropped.

Changing Political Context

The historically simplicity of the cold war and the north-south classification exploded in the 21st century into a complex and ever-changing set of global relationships. Countries that would have been classified only as either Least Developing, Fragile or Highly Indebted today can be classified in a myriad of ways. For those countries that have seen economic growth, reduction in extreme poverty and strengthening of governance systems, power and influence is slowly but surely shifting homewards.

Over sixty Governments across the world have enacted new and restrictive legislation to control the operations of international and national civil society organisations. In ninety-six countries, CSOs and their staff experience vilification, funding caps, administrative harassment, closure and expulsion.

In Kenya, there have been five attempts to introduce harmful amendments to the NGO law. On at least three separate occasions, 1,400 NGOs were struck from the register on grounds of failure to report their accounts, complicity in terrorism and support for gay rights. Many of these deregistered were re-instated within days after public and official uproar.

Until very recently, the administrative unit of the Government responsible for regulation and creating an enabling environment for NGOs issued numerous decrees for NGOs to change their constitutions, close their bank accounts and justify staff recruitment. The cumulative impact of the last three years has been to infect the sector and particularly, international CSOs with a real dose of fear. Most have found themselves paralysed by the legal limbo, rent-seeking of individual officers, administrative aggression and demands for shifts in their governance.

As the democratic space shrunk, most agonised over what they could say or do. Many found themselves without friends in high places. Most delegated their public voice to national CSOs. A few relocated their staff and some contemplated re-location to a regional neighbourhood that had nothing better to offer. The uncertain legal territory had thrown at least 9,000 organisations and an annual budget conservatively set as Kshs 30 billion, development partners and the Government into disarray for the three years.

After consultations with Public Benefits Organisations on September 9th Devolution Ministry Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri operationalised the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013) without any changes. The room was packed with PBO leaders, Ministry officials and the national media.  It is hoped that the previous “passive-aggressive” chapter is now firmly behind both the state and the sector. If this does become the case, Kenya can resume its place as global example of an open society with a vibrant civic society. In many ways, this period offers a glimpse into the challenges being faced by international CSOs and offers a number of institutional lessons.

Charles Abugre and others have argued that historically INGOs were primary and secondary citizens. They have primary citizenship in the countries they are headquartered and secondary citizenship in the countries they operate in. In the former, they could speak publicly and even challenge their governments to represent their interests overseas but in the countries that they worked, this role was reserved for local CSOs.

At least two power shifts have fundamentally displaced this model. Today, most African, Asian and Latin American Governments no longer define their domestic policies on the basis of European and North American Government priorities. Secondly, a growing number of European and North American Governments are now openly framing development assistance within trade facilitation, geo-political and commercial interests. There is greater global uncertainty of the stability of bi-lateral overseas development assistance.

International CSOs have begun to respond in at least four ways. Organisations have chosen to reduce their focus to fragile states, initiate mergers with southern organisations and innovate social enterprise models. The “southernisation” of global headquarters and the growing number of ICSO national boards is another logical adjustment to these changes.

What is missing is a set of institutional culture of behaviours and traits that keep ICSOs empowered to challenge the shrinking political space and expanding inequalities in the south. To do this, they will have to drop at least five disempowering traits.

Resource concentration in Europe and North America: Less than 2% of the US$150 billion deployed by international CSOs budgets reach local CSOs in the countries they operate. The remaining 98% serves an international bureaucracy quick sand of international processes, lifestyles of the 1% and multiple layers of internal accountability processes. Until they are able to re-balance the funding and power away from the internal bureaucracies and into the hands of local actors, they will be vulnerable to the challenge of Degan Ali.

Politically Risk adverse: For those ICSOs comfortable with leaving their country and regional offices in the heads of risk adverse expatriates, they will continue to be vulnerable to increasingly muscular local elites. This does not translate into a simple nationalisation argument. While contextual acumen is critical, there is danger in national staff who also live the lifestyles of the 1%. National boards with full governance powers are one way of deepening political legitimacy and a capacity to engage local power structures.

Disinterest in social movements: Many states are embracing development duties framed within international, continental and national human rights standards. ICSOs have to shift to building solidarity with interests and communities seeking empowerment for governance oversight and self-regulation. The insurrectionist uprising in North Africa or the protest movements of #FeesMustFall #NoThirdTermism #ThisFlag #Oromoprotests #UmbrellaRevolution offer sharp lessons for ICSO executives caught flat-footed.

Older traditions of NGO capacity building have to give way to institutional strengthening, sustainability financing and cross-sector alliance building work. More ICSOs could look seriously at how to work with local CSOs to generate genuine supporter bases in the public interest. Rather than parachuting what has worked in London, New York and Paris, these must be rooted in local cultures of development education, active citizenship and solidarity.

Governance apartheid: Despite widespread agreement that international Boards must reflect the communities they serve, not much has happened for the majority. 64% of governance and 63% of the Chief Executive Officers across 500 top NGOs are still drawn from the western world according to Only 4% of CEOs are of African origin. Where they are African, there is still a preoccupation to recruit Board members from within the 1%

Closed bureaucracies: Our governance systems still slumber on a lie. The lie is that we can control the world around us. That future predictions and short-term programmes give us power to act effectively. That segmenting our programmes into neat silo-ed mirrors of the Sustainable Development Goals, we will generate transformative outcomes. That finances flows from north to south are capable of creating a sustainable financial base for equality, social justice and governance work.

These five traits and ways of being pose an ontological challenge for the ICSO in an increasingly differentiated, globalised and networked world. They can be transformed by a politically networked leadership open to working with independent social movements Greater impact could be achieved through devolving governance and resources and freeing them from internal bureaucracies and systems.

Moving forward, the work of INGOs will have power, impact and sustainability if they;

  1. Deploy tools, tactics and spaces that create mass constituency and impact;

  2. Seek to interrupt the predictable future of neglect and inaction by states, public, you and me

  3. Keep the state as primary duty-bearer for guaranteeing rights and freedoms

  4. Remain agile and exercise a constant capability to reinvent itself as the context shifts,

Useful background materials

‘We are demanding change’: The Somali woman taking on international NGOs. (2016). the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

José Antonio Alonso etal LDC and other country groupings: How useful are current approaches to classify countries in a more heterogeneous developing world? 2014

Doane, D. (2016). Do international NGOs still have the right to exist?. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Sherwood, H. (2015). Human rights groups face global crackdown ‘not seen in a generation’. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Phillips, T. (2016). China passes law imposing security controls on foreign NGOs. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Irũngũ Houghton and Stephanie Muchai Protecting civic space against #NGOMuzzle laws. (2014). Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Irũngũ Houghton: The Real Issues Over Changes to PBO Act. (2015). Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Plan to launch first ever global network for southern NGOs announced. (2016). ReliefWeb.Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Worker, S. (2016). Secret aid worker: by not measuring impact, NGOs are abusing their power. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Leach, A. & Purvis, K. (2016). UK NGOs raise concerns about Priti Patel’s new approach to foreign aid. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Worker, S. (2016). Secret aid worker: ‘High-level’ really means a club of old white men. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Africans Rising. (2016). Africans Rising. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

CIVICUS etal An open letter to our fellow activists across the globe: Building from below and beyond borders, 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from


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