London — The big international aid agencies have been hugely successful. Organizations that were once small civil society operations - groups of friends with a passion to make the world a better place - now have thousands of staff members, multi-storey headquarters buildings and multi-million dollar budgets. But insiders fret that they have become too big and have lost the flexibility and responsiveness they once had.
They also worry about the future, and whether big international agencies are still the best way of doing things. It's hard to imagine a world without Oxfam or Save the Children, but 20 years ago it would have been hard to imagine a world without Kodak film and cameras, or multi-volume editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now both have gone, swept away by technological change they were slow to see coming.
In Britain a lot of soul-searching is taking place inside what is known as the START Network (once called the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies), which brings together 19 major NGOs and their worldwide partner organizations.
The Network's Director, Sean Lowrie, thinks the way the sector works is cumbersome and old fashioned. "NGOs are stuck in a Victorian model, which requires people to suffer and die to get on the front page of newspapers, and the newspapers trigger public donations and that triggers political will. It's a reactive model," he says.
It's also very slow. The START Network is explicitly looking for a new and better way of working, and has made a beginning with the START fund, a pot of money provided by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and Irish Aid, which can be mobilized immediately in a crisis and channelled to whichever organization, international or local, is best placed to use it.
The key is that the money is already there - it doesn't have to wait for a crisis to get on the television news. Smaller emergencies or slow-onset crises may never give rise to that kind of money-generating publicity.
Olivia Maehler, START's business manager, said they aim to consider proposals and release funds within 72 hours of receiving an alert. "We could get an alert on a Tuesday and the funding could be going out by Friday morning," she told IRIN.
This demands a collaborative way of working, and an unusual degree of selflessness on the part of member organizations, who may in the past have competed for funding and public profile. The principle is that the money goes to whoever can make best use of it straight away, and so far over half the money has gone directly to local implementing partners.
The fund is still in its 'design and build' stage, but has already been able to respond to the violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and to one of the sudden spikes in conflict and displacement in South Sudan. Until now the meetings to allocate funds have taken place in London. "We are hoping that for future project selection we will be able to do the decision-making in the field, at the local level," Maehler says.
But the tools that make this kind of devolved, collaborative way of working possible also threaten to disrupt the traditional roles of the big NGOs and perhaps bypass them altogether. At a public debate in London, linked to START's first annual conference, speakers presented the kind of innovations that have the power to shake up humanitarian action.
Paul Skinner, whose organization, 'Pimp My Cause', matches marketing volunteers with charities and social enterprises that need their skills, spoke of the need to harness people's underlying participatory spirit, and "make a humanitarian of everyone".
"Whereas the NGO of the past may have been something you chose to support, maybe in quite passive ways, the NGO of the future is likely to be something you will turn to because they can help you achieve something worthwhile yourself," he said.
From your armchair
Luis Morago, of the online campaigning organization, Avaaz, described getting involved in a form of international activism which can bypass conventional NGOs altogether by using the example of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar in 2008.
The government was blocking aid flights so Avaaz's online followers rapidly raised US$2 million and sent it via a network of Buddhist monks who had been appealing for help online. "I didn't leave my armchair," Morago said, "But still I was feeling very happy and it cost me ten dollars... But it's what happens after the clicks that matters - how we use that support. That's what can bring incredible change."
Other speakers in the debate included Laura Walker Hudson from Frontline SMS, which has created tools to conduct mass campaigns using basic mobile phone technology, and Harry Wood from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, a free collaborative mapping project that came into its own during disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The possibilities presented were exciting but also unsettling for many in the audience. Powerful new tools for mobilization, like Avaaz, could be used for good purposes, said Frances Stevenson of Help Age International, but also destructively. "Just imagine if they had been around in the 1930s," she said. "It could be used either way, so I suppose we had better grab it before the other side does!"
John Borton, a senior research associate in the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK think-tank, was struck by the way all this fizz of innovation was happening outside the established humanitarian NGOs.
"They create their own organizations, and that makes me uncomfortable. I guess it's all part of the sector becoming more diffuse, expanding from dozens of organizations to hundreds," he said. "There's something here about the way that the established organizations embrace technology."
That concern got short shrift from Ken Banks, author of 'The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator', which covers the stories of 10 people who solve unexpected problems.
"Money kills innovation," he says bluntly. "Look at Ushahidi [a non-profit open-source software development company]. Why didn't the Red Cross build Ushahidi? They should have done. The Red Cross needed something like Ushahidi many times in the past. I think people taking their ideas to the bigger NGOs would absolutely kill them, and drive them [innovators] to despair!"
The message is clear. Change - disruptive change - is inevitable, and the humanitarian sector needs to be prepared to work differently, and also to play a very different role in the future. What can't be predicted is whether change will kill their traditional business - as it killed the traditional business models of Kodak and Encyclopaedia Britannica - or whether - as in the case of digital publishing - it will give the sector a new lease of life.
Either way, says Luis Morago, change is coming. "Across the world now, there's a bubbling sense of democracy on the march. You will only be able to transform the humanitarian sector if it becomes part of that. Otherwise, the sector is doomed."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]