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What Makes a Successful International NGO?

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Oaktree Foundation 2012 National Conference, Queens College, Melbourne, 30 November 2012

In its relatively short life the Oaktree Foundation has already made a distinctive contribution both in Australia and overseas as Australia’s first, and largest, youth run development agency, and it is a pleasure and privilege to have been asked to address your national conference.

On the assumption that your website is comprehensive and up to date – an assumption on which I’m sure I can rely, since you’re a youth rather than greybeard organisation! – I see that you have grown in less than a decade from a handful of enthusiasts into an established NGO with fully operational state offices all around the country and 300 volunteer staff; you have a well defined program of advocacy at home designed to influence governments to embrace better aid policy; you have a sharply focused set of education focused projects in six different developing countries, on which you have already spent some $2.5 million; and you have growing annual donation income base approaching $2 million.

Although in all these ways you are already well on your way, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to talk to you about what I learned about building an international NGO from my experience with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which I joined in 2000 after leaving my previous 21 year career in Australian government and politics.

Crisis Group focused on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict rather than development assistance. That means that although many of the recommendations it has made over the years relate to the role of carefully targeted aid in long term conflict prevention and in effective post-conflict and post-crisis nation-building – and although I also had some personal oversight of overall Australian aid strategy when I was Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 – I can’t pretend to be an expert on development assistance.

But I think there are some lessons I learned about the management of NGOs working in the general human security area which you may find of interest, not least the fact that when I started with Crisis Group it had a budget not much bigger than yours, of some $US2m, and a quite small staff of 20+ full-time operating in less than half a dozen countries – but when I left 9 years later, in 2009, we had a budget of over $US 17m, and a full-time staff of over 130 (plus each year another 60-90 volunteer interns working for 3-6 months), operating right across the world, in over 60 conflict and crisis-prone countries and regions.

The Context. First let me set the context. There are an estimated 40,000 NGOs operating internationally, across state borders, and many millions more operating domestically. The overwhelming majority of them focus primarily on health, education, welfare, economics, industry, energy, the environment, human rights, justice and other social policy and governance issues, including development – not in the peace and security area that is occupied internationally by Crisis Group and just a few hundred other organizations.

NGOs that work wholly or significantly in the peace and security area usually fit squarely within one or other of three boxes, sometimes rather unkindly labelled as ‘thinkers’, ‘talkers’ and ‘doers’ respectively. They tend to be either pure think-tanks, research institutions or policy forums (like Chatham House, CFR, IISS, Brookings or own Lowy Institute); or overwhelmingly campaign-focused advocacy organizations (like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Enough, Kony2012 or Global Zero); or field-based, on-the-ground operational organisations, engaged on the one hand in activities like mediation, capacity building and confidence building (like Search for Common Ground, or the Community of Sant’Egidio, Independent Diplomat or Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative), or on the other hand humanitarian relief operations (like Oxfam, World Vision, MSF and a myriad of others).

Where Crisis Group Fits In. The International Crisis Group is best thought of as a rather distinctive combination of all three categories. It is by no means wholly a think tank (although it consistently ranks very highly in the University of Pennsylvania’s annual rankings of the world’s top think tanks), because its work is both narrower (in the sense of being geographically rather than thematic-issue focused) and wider (because regularly involving intense advocacy of positions taken, not just analysis), and also different methodologically (because of its strong field-base) than most think tanks. It is not a campaign organization in the familiar grass-roots, or now social-media sense, but it is certainly a high-level advocacy one, seeking constantly to communicate directly with government policymakers and those who influence them, and with a strong media profile.

Crisis Group is not really an operational organization either. But it is an organization that that shares with the ‘doers’ the characteristic of being very strongly field-based in its staffing profile – not something very commonly found in either international think tanks or campaign organizations.

What Crisis Group does, in short, is three basic things. First, it produces field-based, analytical research seeking to identify, understand and describe in detail the dynamics of situations where there is concern about the outbreak, continuation, escalation or recurrence of deadly conflict. Second, it seeks to translate that analytical understanding into policy prescriptions that are both imaginative and practical – identifying levers and tools that can be used, and the actors, local and international, best placed to use them. Third, it engages in high-level advocacy, designed to persuade policymakers, directly or through those who influence them, not least the media, to undertake the necessary action.

A few words about its history. The idea for the Group was born in Sarajevo in 1993 during the horror of the Balkans war, in conversations involving primarily US diplomat Mort Abramowitz, and Mark Malloch Brown a World Bank official (who later became head of UNDP, UN Deputy Secretary-General, and a UK Government minister). The idea was basically to get policy leaders to think about things they didn’t want to think about, and do things they didn’t want to do.Following a money-raising exercise around the world led by former US Congressman Steven Solarz, who persuaded me as then Australian Foreign Minister to provide some start-up funding, enough resources were put together for the International Crisis Group to start life in 1995 as a tiny two-person operation in a small back-room office in London.

Its initial focus was on building a presence in, and energising an effective policy response to, the ongoing crisis in the Balkans, and it quickly built a high-quality field staff there, and did some some useful work also in West and Central Africa. By 2000, when I joined there was still a long way to go before the initial dreams of its founders were realised.
I won’t burden you with a blow by blow account of how things evolved during that decade, except to say that two early factors were crucial: the willingness of the Board to support a rapid and ambitious expansion from a strong Balkans and very small African focus to a genuinely global one, and the willingness of George Soros to support that ambition with a grant of $2.5 million, made on the condition that I leveraged it to get double his contribution elsewhere.

By 2009 Crisis Group – by then, as I’ve said a $US17 m organization, with 130+ paid staff (and a large cohort of volunteer interns – was producing annually around 100 substantial published reports each year (each of which were sent to over 25,000 specifically targeted recipients and over 130,000 subscribers). And it was generating annually over 200 authored op-eds in the world’s major papers, over 20,000 separate media mentions, and some 2.4 million visits to our website.

That staff, budget and output growth has continued under my successor Louise Arbour – the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chief Prosecutor of the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals, and Canadian Supreme Court justice. Crisis Group now, in 2012, has over 150 staff (representing 53 different nationalities, and speaking 50 different languages between them), and is working from major advocacy offices in Brussels, New York and Washington, smaller advocacy offices in Moscow and Beijing, and 27 other field offices from which it covers conflicts and crises on a full-focus or close-watching-brief basis in a total of 74 countries. And it has not only maintained the pace in publications-output and media mentions, but is now playing the facebook-twitter social media game with an intensity and effectiveness that just wasn’t part of my own repertoire at all.

The budget of the organization, now around $US20 million, comes, and has been coming for some time, roughly 50 per cent from governments (twenty of them, mainly European, at last count); 20 per cent from major institutional foundations (mainly in the US), and 30 per cent from individuals, corporates, and gala dinners and other fundraising functions. Very importantly, and unusually, the bulk of Crisis Group’s funding comes in the form of core rather than specific project support, which gives the organization a hugely welcome degree of flexibility in the way it mobilises its resources: in recent years the ratio has been running at around 80: 20 core to specific purpose.

What matters more than all the size and output figures is of course the impact on policy and action that Crisis Group can reasonably claim to have made. However much donors yearn for quantitative benchmarks, measuring the achievements of an organisation like Crisis Group is a very inexact science, particularly given that its mission is at least as much about conflict and crisis prevention as well as resolution – where the desired outcome is for something not to happen, rather than to fix it when it does. One way of measuring may be to count the take-up rate on the many specific recommendations that are made in Crisis Group reports – and when that is done, it has usually been possible to count over a third of those recommendations bearing fruit within a year of publication.
But sequence doesn’t prove causality, and much will depend on how timidly or ambitiously the recommendations are framed. The general approach that I adopted towards crafting recommendations – and I think this continues to be Crisis Group orthodoxy – was to have recommendations that were ‘over the horizon, but not out to space’. They would not the state the obvious or trivial, but try to identify courses of action that would be genuine game-changers – and that while perhaps outside the relevant players’ current comfort zones, nonetheless were by no means unachievable in the real world if the necessary political will and leverage were exercised.

At the end of the day, assessments of the Group’s effectiveness have to be essentially qualitative, made by those not trying to count numbers but rather bringing experienced judgement to bear on whether, and to what extent, it has actually made a difference. By that score – with multiple high level endorsements of the group’s value-added on the record from senior figures across the globe, and with governments (the hardest taskmasters of all, when it comes to justifying expenditure on a largely intangible product) voting with their purses year after year – Crisis Group’s impact has been ranked very highly indeed.

What Makes for NGO Success. In my experience of working in and with a number of NGOs, not just Crisis Group, over the course of my now rather long public policy career, I have come to regard four criteria as absolutely essential for an NGO to become successful, and to remain so over time. I won’t be presumptuous enough, since I don’t yet know your organization well enough, to make any judgment about where Oaktree Foundation sits against these various criteria: that’s for you to consider, if indeed you think my criteria are right (and that’s something we might usefully debate in question time.

Meeting a need. It is crucial for a start to be seen to be adding value: meeting a need that is not currently being met well, sufficiently or at all. In the peace and security area the primary unmet need seen by Crisis Group’s founders was to compensate for the growing incapacity of governments to have an accurate take on what was happening on the ground – the issues that were resonating and the personalities that were driving them. For a variety of reasons, mainly security and budgetary, traditional diplomats have not been performing this function in as much breadth and depth as they previously have – it’s hard to get out and about when you are locked up in a fortress or have minimal staff resources – and both early warning and effective prevention capacity have suffered as a result. Another endemic problem with diplomatic reporting is its tendency to stick within unadventurous analytic boundaries, over-conscious of positions already staked out by ministers – or alliance partners.

Open source reporting and commentary by the media has not done much to fill these gaps; because of resource shortages, particularly in the quality print media, international media coverage of sensitive and difficult situations has been dumbing down to a perhaps even greater extent than professional diplomacy.

With its teams of highly mobile, linguistically expert analysts on the ground, and uncluttered by existing orthodoxies and inclined to support Deng Xiao Ping’s dictum that what matters is not whether the cat is black or white but whether it catches the mouse, Crisis Group has been seen as very much helping to fill some of these clear gaps.

Clarity of mission. The most successful NGOs tend to be those that find a very clear niche and stick to it. When Amnesty International broadened its focus from traditional political and civil rights to the whole range of economic, social and cultural rights, it for quite a long time seemed to lose its direction and impact. Crisis Group has resisted the temptation to broaden its focus from conflict prevention and resolution issues to human rights advocacy, which sometimes does lead to a different take, e.g. on peace v. justice issues (especially amnesties in ongoing conflict situations) where Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have on occasion been very much at odds.

It has also regularly resisted the perhaps even greater temptation to move into think tank territory and apply its experience in individual cases writing reports which theorise and proselytise on thematic issues. An occasional exception has been made, e.g. the report on Understanding Islamism, but only in contexts where the organization felt a strong practical need to clarify and issue that was inhibiting conflict prevention and resolution. 

The most insidious temptation to muddy an organisation’s mission comes when money is potentially available for some project which is not its core business, and for which it does not have readily available internal expertise. Resources get hired which are then difficult to fire, more project funding in that marginal activity is then chased to keep the organisation ticking over – and the organisation is on a fast track to losing its way.

Independence. Any non-governmental organisation in the business of giving advice if it wants to be taken seriously must be absolutely scrupulous about being, and being seen to be, independent of particular vested interests. Some organisations like Human Rights Watch solve the problem of potential government influence by banning government funding absolutely. Crisis Group doesn’t do that but has always been absolutely insistent on saying whatever needed to be said, however much it might offend current or potential donors, and letting the chips fall where they may, and in practice governments have been remarkably tolerant of specific criticism, provided it is well-evidenced and well-argued. The Group has been periodically attacked for the makeup of its Board – what the New Left Review described in 2010 as a ‘rogue’s gallery’ of ‘poachers turned gamekeepers’ – but I don’t think any fair-minded observer would claim that that has translated into any consistent ideological position in its reporting and recommendations. If there has been any dominant ideology over the years it has been simply pragmatism – what is most likely to works in preventing and resolving deadly conflict.

Nor do I think it possible to find any trimming of any kind in response to the views of foundation, corporate or individual supporters. George Soros has been from the beginning a significant donor, and a key member of the board, but he deeply believes in the contest of opinion, and he has been the last person to insist on his own views being embraced. Of course it makes it easier, at least optically, if no one donor has a really dominant stake in the organisation, and Crisis Group certainly now (if not during its earliest years) has that luxury, with no one stake-holder contributing more than 10 per cent of the yearly budget.

Professionalism. The final criterion that has to be met by an NGO that wants to be taken seriously, at least by government policy makers, is absolute professionalism: if you want meet governments on their home ground, you have to provide product of a quality that the best of them are used to. That meant for me, when I was leading Crisis Group, being absolutely obsessive about the quality of research, writing and presentation in our reporting; being obsessive about making corrections on the record if we ever made an error – easy at least on the website if not in already distributed printed material; and obsessive about consistency of our policy positions over time – not to the extent of never changing positions if circumstances changed, which would be mindless, but always, if such changes were demanded, explaining why they were made in subsequent reporting.

I have never doubted the extent to which professionalism in these senses played over time in Crisis Group’s favour, distinguished our product from a great deal of lighter weight journalism, and distinguishes it now from a great deal of the rapid fire blogging which is now clogging so much of the internet. But maybe I am just an old fogey in this respect.
Just a final personal note in conclusion. There's no doubt that you need a certain masochistic streak to get involved in the conflict prevention and containment business, and even more so to do it – after you have been in government – at the NGO level, when you are at least one remove from the decision-making action. When the focus is on prevention, and the blood isn't yet running in the streets, the media don't find it nearly as fascinating as peacemaking, and the attention of decision makers is hard to grab. The most frustrating thing of all is that when a government or an intergovernmental body, urged on by NGOs like Crisis Group, does actually put together a conflict prevention or containment strategy which triumphantly succeeds, so that instead of the feared violence nothing at all happens, then you can be almost certain that nobody will notice!

The frustrations notwithstanding, I found this a deeply satisfying business to be in. Few things are worse to contemplate – against the background of all the horror that has been wrought this last century – than the thought of the pain and terror and misery that lies ahead for so many men, women and children if we fail yet again to prevent what is preventable, and deadly conflict again breaks out. To play a part, however small, in making that horror just a little less likely, as I think Crisis Group can reasonably claim to have done, is to be as richly rewarded as one could ever be.

I believe that the mission in which the Oaktree Foundation is engaged, along with many other development focused organisations, is just as compelling, just as noble, and just as rewarding for those engaged in it. To be helping to make poverty history – to banish once and for all from the face of the earth the grinding misery, injustice, assault on human dignity, and shame on our common humanity associated with that terrible inequality – is to be engaged in one of the world’s great causes.

I wish you, individually and collectively, every possible success as your work makes an ever growing, and ever greater, impact