In a conversation with a colleague from a well known NGO this week, I heard something for the first time. I heard a request to be irrelevant. My colleague told me in confidence that someday she envisions a world where all of the critical challenges facing undeserved populations disappear. She wants to be no longer needed. Ultimately my colleague wants to work herself out of a job and her employer out of existence.
How can that be? Simply put, my colleague works tirelessly to address some of our planet's biggest challenges - issues that many of us do not have to face each day - but that millions do . These include access to healthy food and clean water, a roof to provide shelter, healthcare, schooling and even a safe place to use the restroom. NGOs spend billions of dollars every year to address these and other complex and critical issues. Ensuring those dollars are well spent and issues comprehensively addressed makes NGO work inspiring and noble. Will there ever be a time, however, when NGOs are irrelevant? When these problems are no longer there? Will there be other challenges we must face? My colleague hopes and prays that in our lifetime there will be a time when NGOs are no longer needed. I loved hearing her speak so honestly and deliberately about the future she wants and works for.
Having spent several years working for an NGO, however, that idealism and the reality are not mutually exclusive. At the base of it, NGOs help solve critical, pressing problems that governments, businesses and academic institutions alone cannot address. Not one series of policies is going to solve every one of our global problems around poverty (as evidenced by the dozens of UN agencies, federal agencies and multilateral organizations working on bridging our poverty gap for decades.)
Are NGOs well poised to work themselves into irrelevancy?
We ARE making progress. As Bill Gates recently reported in the Gates Foundation 2014 Annual Letter, more than a billion people have risen out of poverty over the last fifty years and the trend is continuing.
“The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn't just mistaken, it’s harmful.” Bill Gates, 2014 Annual Report Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
That optimism fills me with a sense of joy and excitement and makes me more motivated. I am convinced that together we CAN solve some of our world’s toughest challenges together. I still question whether all NGOs feel the same way. Do they really want to be irrelevant? Some big NGOs have budgets in the multiple millions. Do their lofty visions match actual impact? Is there a method to managing non for profit work in such a way that ultimately their roles become non essential?
Some argue that businesses must take on the role currently held by NGOs. Others advocate for government to adopt policies that make permanent the work being carried out by non profit organizations. This may make sense when it comes to delivery of technical assistance, skills training, bringing together mutual interests and regulating harmful action. But can government alone solve problems that plague communities over and over, especially with rampant corruption and lack of transparency? Are businesses well poised to manage the tedious, and meticulous planning that NGOs take on in order to address hugely complex problems like access to water, shelter and nutrition?
I don’t have the answer to this complex question but do hope that one day the role of NGOs is no longer needed. In my idealist vision, our economies and markets are self regulating, and business is a permanent force for good. What do others think? Tweet me at @jsonenshine with your thoughts #NGORole
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