Listen in to some of the top coaches at the World Business Executive Coaching Summit. Here some leaves of wisdom and insight - for a quick read, and a longer reflection.

The biggest hurdle for leaders and executives is their ego. Limit the role your ego plays in leading. The second biggest hurdle is the ability to have deep conversations about issues that matter.” (Eric Kaufmann)

A coaching leadership style is the most effective in raising staff motivation and engagement. An organisational coaching culture leads to better people outcomes, business value outcomes and change management.” (Tracy Sinclair)

People have value beyond performance.” (Paul White)

Who and what does your work serve?” (Peter Hawkins)

Hierarchy and humble leadership are not necessarily exclusive. It is possible to have trust in hierarchy, if there is honesty, openness, authenticity.” (Ed and Peter Schein)

Achieving more requires becoming more.” (on the wall of David Taylor-Kraus’ office)

Activate your own inner observer and learn to focus; become more skilful at shining a light on the habits of your mind, increase your body awareness, learn what triggers you, identify your emotions and their impact on you; become your own inner coach.” (Daniel Coleman)

Tune in to your own body sensations when listening to someone else. Your body is a powerful antenna.” (Amanda Blake)

What are you discovering for yourself? What becomes possible now?”  (Jonathan Reitz)

The Oxford Review


Let us review some learning about decision-making.

Decision-making styles

Conversations about decision-making quickly turn to decision-making styles. The four most commonly mentioned are: ‘directive’ (I decide); consultative (I decide with input from you); democratic (one person one vote) and consensual (we decide, and we support the decision). We may hold the view that certain styles are appropriate for specific types of situation: crisis situations demand directive decision-making; consensual decision-making is the most time consuming and therefore appropriate for questions and problems that have no urgency.

Less well known is the Gradients of Agreement Scale, developed in 1987 by Kaner and Berger and the staff of Community-at-Work, it fits with participatory styles of decision-making, but allows stakeholders to express degrees of agreement, rather than force them into ‘yes/no’ extremes. It serves to determine whether there is support for an option that enough stakeholders can live with, without pitting a majority against a minority as democratic decision-making may do or requiring full consensus.[i]

Rapid change, even disruption, is increasingly the new normal in our contemporary lives and work. Individuals and organisations are told to be ‘agile’: anticipate emerging new realities that will throw us off-balance and rapidly adapt to new circumstances. Among other characteristics, that requires rapid information feedback loops, fast learning and fast decision-making. Agile companies that are ‘ruthlessly decisive’ risk an organisational culture that is purely transactional and totally instrumentalises its employees and suppliers. The result might be a collapse of employee and supplier engagement, which carries a high cost in performance, even if it is not calculated into the accounts. ‘Agile decision-making’ therefore needs to be complemented with strong measures to boast the engagement of a core of employees and suppliers.[ii]

Centralised, decentralised and distributed decision-making

In centralised systems, virtually all decisions are made top-down. Decentralisation only happens in still centralised systems, and typically implies a well-defined delegation of authority and responsibility, with the centre retaining the option to intervene and override, if it feels the need. Distributed decision-making occurs within ‘flat’, networked organisations, where work teams have a very high degree of autonomy, although there are clear procedures for internal and external consultation and accountability.[iii] Brian Robertson, cofounder of HolacracyOne calls it ‘integrative decision-making’.[iv] Two distinctive features of integrative decision-making are: “one tension at a time”, and “it are not people but roles that make decisions”. People are not speaking their personal opinions, preferences and possible interests, they need to speak from the role they occupy within the work-team, as responsible stewards of that role.

Decision process

A commonly held theory is that we follow a rational and structured decision-making process: We state the problem clearly, remind ourselves of our goal and objectives, then consider and weigh different options against each other in light of their perceived costs and anticipated benefits or outcomes, and we make a decision conscious of the trade-offs. A decision-tree is a visual representation that helps us do this in an explicit and structured manner. In theory, though not always in practice, we subsequently monitor what really happens and adjust or adapt if needed. But research on actual decision-making reveals that many other factors come into play.

Factors influencing decision-making

At least in the work-sphere, we tend to believe, or pretend, that our decisions are essentially shaped by facts and evidence. Ample research has indicated that is not true: First, today’s interconnected and rapidly changing world means that, more often than not, we are now confronted with complexity, uncertainty, unpredictability. We have incomplete information, and past experience is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. As Marshall Goldsmith put it: “What got you here won’t get you there.” Second, all sorts of other considerations and influences come into play, such as: narrow individual or group self-interest (this may not be the best decision for all, but it’s the best for me/us); confirmation bias (I ignore facts, information and views that do not confirm my belief and opinion); group conformity and group think (also a form of consensus); first impressions (may lead us to dislike a person and by association reject her or his arguments); appeal of attractiveness (we are more open to influence from physically attractive people, a well-demonstrated factor); role interpretation (I am the leader therefore I must appear confidently decisive even if I have a lot of question marks and don’t feel that way); risk tolerance (individual or organisational readiness to try something out even if there remain some important uncertainties); external pressures (a colleague is impatiently waiting for a decision, someone has imposed a deadline); physical condition and emotional state  (lack of sleep or anxiety, for example, affect the quality of decision-making).

Research has shown frequent weaknesses in our decision-making, among them ‘Spotlight thinking’ – our focus is too narrow and too short-term; confirmation bias (already mentioned); getting emotionally attached to a decision; overconfidence about how much we really know or understand, and what we can really predict. The Heath brothers therefore proposed the WARP antidotes[v]:

  • Widen your options – look at the bigger picture and longer-term goal and consider at least two or three alternatives explicitly and seriously

  •   Reality-test your assumptions

  • Attain emotional distance before deciding

  •   Prepare to be wrong: the worst-case scenario may happen.

Our personal, organisational or community values may also impact our decision-making. What do our values tell us we should decide here and how we should decide here? Alternatively, our decisions reveal the values we practice to a wider world. Here we may discover that an individual or organisation is ‘not walking the talk’.  Perceived alignment between professed values and behaviour creates an image of integrity and is a key ingredient of trust.

Polarity management and ethical dilemmas

Polarity management’ is the term given by Barry Johnson to “ongoing issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable” and where several options are right ones.[vi] Here we are not served by ‘either/or’ thinking: there is no real choice, we need to do both – or more: Do I pay attention to my life partner, to my child; to myself? There are inherent tensions, but you cannot choose one and cast out the others. It is and will remain a balancing act.

Ethical decision-making considers what we know and believe we should be doing. We not only want to do something right; we want to do the right thing. But there are different ways of weighing difficult choices:[vii]

  • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (the Utilitarian approach)

  • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (the Rights approach)

  • Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (the Justice approach)

  • Which option best serves the community as a whole? (the Common Good approach)

  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (the Virtue approach)

Personal preferences, team dynamics; organisational cultures and cultural influences

As individuals, we may have personal preferences for certain styles of decision-making. Some of us appreciate speed, which is associated with high-energy, while others prefer slower thinking, thoughtfulness. Some of us will focus on the task objective and give less weight to how a decision-process and its outcome impact the relationship within our social or work circle. Others will give the relationship dimension higher value. Some of us prefer to be told what to do, others want to have a say in decisions that affect them.

Teams (and families or groups of choice such as a sailing club) can have their own decision-culture, sometimes heavily shaped by the team leader or (self-proclaimed) head of the family, but sometimes also by some vocal team-members.

Organisations, as we saw in the above paragraphs, have their own decision-making styles, which will have significant impact on the organisational culture.

The society we come from may also influence or individual and collective decision-making styles. The Dutch and the Swiss are consensus-seekers, which leads to long deliberations – though rapid implementation once a decision is taken, as by then it has broad support. People from other cultures may become impatient with the time decision-making takes here. There is no automatic correlation however, between hierarchical societies and top-down decision-making. Japanese organisations are hierarchical yet come with a strong practice of consultation to achieve agreement before a meeting, a process known as ‘nemawashi’. ‘American’ society can be outwardly very informal, but its companies and organisations often show a preference for fast decisiveness, with less weight given to the relationship-factor. For Germans, a decision made becomes a firm commitment, for Americans it can be a placeholder that later is adjusted.[viii] Imagine what can happen when we are a cross-cultural team!

Invitation to reflection

What is your spontaneous decision-making style? What other decision-making approaches can you still be OK with, and which ones make you feel acutely uncomfortable? Do you have different preferences for different circumstances? What have you learned from life experience about your decision-preferences? What decision-style do you want others to use with you? When was the last time you reflected on your own decision-making reflexes?

How are decisions taken within your family? Who influences this? Are there different decision-making styles or preferences? What happens when a decision must be taken that affects the whole family? When was the last time you as a family talked about your decision-making habits?

How are decisions taken within your work team? Who shapes it? What are its advantages and disadvantages? What might increase the advantages and decrease the disadvantages? What are the considerations that tend to weigh most in your team’s decisions? Have there been changes in the decision-making practices during your time with the team? What caused those changes? Are there different decision-making styles or preferences among team members? How are those interpreted: as resulting from individual personalities; as manifestation of different societal cultures; as requirements of the role someone fulfils in the team? What happens when these must come together in a decision affecting the whole team? What benefits can different styles offer to the team? When was the last time you as a team talked about your decision-making habits?

What is the decision-making culture in your organisation? Who shapes it? What are its advantages and disadvantages? What might increase the advantages and decrease the disadvantages? What are the considerations that tend to weigh most in your organisation’s decisions?  Have there been changes in the decision-making practices during your time with the organisation? What caused those changes? Are there different decision-making styles or preferences among big influencers in the organisation? How are those interpreted: as resulting from individual personalities; as manifestation of different societal cultures; as requirements of the role someone fulfils in organisation? What happens when these must come together in a decision affecting the whole organisation? What benefits can different styles offer to the team? Are there sub-units or components of the organisation that have different decision-practices from the prevailing one? Why is that? What happens when the sub-culture meets the mainstream culture? When was the last time your organisation talked about its decision-making habits?

What becomes possible, now that you are more conscious of decision-making habits in yourself and your environment?

[i] See Kaner, S. 2014: Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. 3th edition and https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/gradients_of_agreement_can_help_move_groups_forward

[ii] Holbeche, L. 2015: The Agile Organisation. KoganPage pp. 50; 185-207

[iii] See e.g. Laloux, F. 2014: Reinventing Organisations. Nelson Parker pp. 99-106; 329)

[iv] Robertson, B. 2013: Holacracy’s Radically Different Decision-Making Processhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-ik26qCILo

[v] Heath, C. & D. 2013: Decisive. How to make better choices in life and in work. Random House

[vi] Johnson, B. 1998: Polarity Management. A summary introduction. https://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/14-06-19.Barry_Johnson.Polarity_Management.pdf

[vii] Markulla Centre for Applied Ethics 2015: A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/a-framework-for-ethical-decision-making/

[viii] Meyer, E. 2017 : Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston and Beijing. Harvard Business Review July-August issue https://hbr.org/2017/07/being-the-boss-in-brussels-boston-and-beijing




EXPAND YOUR POWER. An invitation for reflection

Power over

Most of us, when we hear or use the word ‘power’, think about ‘power over’: the power that an individual or organisation has over others. That type of ‘power’ exists in a limited quantity: If you have most of it, I only have a bit; previously I had a lot but now you have taken most of it away from me.


‘Power over’ is emotionally charged: Some who have it get quite intoxicated by the thrill of it, while those who don’t have it tend to resent the situation. Because ‘power over’ exists as a limited quantity, those who have it must exclude others, while those who want more of it enter into ‘power struggles’ to get a bigger share. In those power struggles, one may try to ‘overpower’ the other.

‘Power over’ can be visible, but also invisible and even hidden. We see it visibly manifested in who gives the orders and makes the decisions. But those who set the agenda of what can be talked about and what not, and who can be present at and be heard at the decision-table and who not, are not always only those with the formal authority.

‘Power over’ can also become internalised in the image we develop of ourselves and our place in the world: those who have ‘power over’ can develop quite an inflated idea of themselves, while those who don’t have much of this type of power can live with an intrinsic sense of inferiority. When superiority and inferiority are well internalised, inequality does not get challenged so the cost of maintaining it is lower.

Rank as power

The issue of power is always present, within families, within and between larger social groups, between segments of society and between countries. And between any two individuals who meet. Sometimes we are conscious of the power we have, and how that affects our relationships. On other occasions, we may not be.

We can intentionally exercise rank to establish our dominance. Doctors, lawyers, priests, white men, wealthy people or organisations often do so, although a bit less easily today than in the past. Wealthy people still fire their lawyers more easily than less wealthy ones. Well-educated patients more easily change doctor than less educated ones.

But we may also be unconscious of our rank: Men in a male-dominated society may not fully realise how pervasively this affects all social interactions. People with a lighter skin colour in a mainstream culture that is attentive to skin colour, may not appreciate how attentive those with darker skin colour always are to signals about superiority and inferiority. Those who are self-confident tend to underestimate what it feels like to live with fragile self-confidence. Even if we want to treat people as equals, our non-verbal communications may send signals that reveal our rank: a tone of voice, a choice of words, what we express surprise about, what anger from someone else we are willing to accept.

Power is purpose-neutral

Power over is often misused and even abused, but it need not be so. Parents have power over their children (as do teachers, or at least they used to). They can exercise it purely transactionally as an alternation of punishments and rewards. But they can also use it transformationally, to teach children about necessary boundaries, instil values and healthy self-discipline. Power is purpose-neutral: it can be used to do good, broader good, or it can be used to serve only the interests of those who have it even if it harms many others.

Soft power and hard power

‘Hard power’ we recognise easily. It is the ability to reward or punish, even with violence if required. The exercise of hard power requires a use of energy that is polluting and wasteful. New energy supply is needed on a daily basis. ‘Soft power’ is the ability to influence, through persuasion or attraction. We are swayed by someone’s compelling argument, even though the person does not have hard power. We willingly follow the lead of a person, a group, a society, because we are attracted to their shine, because we see them as success models to aspire to or at least be associated with. Foreign policies of different countries use different mixes of soft and hard power. ‘Soft power’ can be another strategy used by those who also have ‘hard power’ to establish or maintain dominance and inequality at lesser cost. But it is also available to those who have less hard power, to achieve greater convergence around a shared purpose and  alignment around the pathway to get there.

Sources of power

Power can come from might: the ability to threaten or use violence. It can come from a formal position of authority, that can punish or reward. But also from social status (status of the family you were born into, the school you went to, the colour of your skin, the titles you put on your business card etc.) wealth, connections, familiarity with the language spoken, familiarity with the discourse specific to a certain topic. We tend to be impressed by those who speak more eloquently than we do, irrespective of the accuracy, authenticity or wisdom of what they say. Being a good speaker can already earn a certain power. Power can also come from education and expertise or the (exclusive) possession of critical information. Confidence is another important source of power. It will be much boosted by access to one or more of the abovementioned sources of power. But can also be present in someone without access to any of those, drawing on deep inner self-esteem.

‘Power over’ is a reality. But there are other types of power, well worth doing more with.

Power to

When we think about the power to do something it still feels like power is finite, but it is less intrinsically adversarial. I may not have the power to put this heavy object onto the top shelf of the cupboard, or to climb to the summit of that peak. But here the issue is the relationship between my current strength and a goal I may seek to achieve, not my competition with someone else. Of course, my power to achieve something can still be related to an unequal division of power: I don’t have the power to make any significant changes in this organisation, only a few others do. That is an unequal division of power I can observe, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I am in competition with those who have more of it.

 Power with

Considering ‘power with’ creates a different atmosphere. From the friction and negative energy of ‘power over’, we now can feel the positive energy of our combined strengths, to achieve something that each of us individually could not. We may not bring equal amounts of power to the table, but that is less important than what becomes possible when we act together.

Shifting or sharing power

If we stop a moment to consider these views on power, then we realise that ‘shifting power’ derives more from an assumption of power as a quality in limited supply, where the one who has more of it can decide (or be forced to) give some of it to the one who has less of it. It’s like having two glasses, one three quarters full of water and the other containing only one quarter and pouring water from the full one into the empty one. ‘Sharing power’ is more about combining or spreading power, with no loss for anyone or even overall gain. Here we take our two glasses and pour the contents together into a third glass that is now entirely full. By sharing or combining our power, we can put the heavy load onto the top shelf, or even effect some significant change in our organisation or society.

Power within

This power is a deep source of strength, within individuals and sometimes groups, not dependent on others and always with us, even if at times we have difficulty reaching it. It is grounded in a fundamental personal dignity, and healthy self-esteem and self-confidence. It is anchored in deeply held positive values, that remind us of what is really important in life and keep us authentic. It provides the nutrients that allow us to face and live through difficult situations and be ‘resilient’. It is green energy, renewable. It can be shaken by ‘power over’ but is hard to destroy. Strongest when acquired in the course of our early upbringing, it can be developed and strengthened also later in life, with practice.

Old power and new power?

‘Old power’, it is said, relies on hoarding: you protect your control over resources, assets, technological innovations, information. It is all about power over. It was well suited to the industrial age of production with its hierarchical organisations and extreme division of labour. The only thing that mattered is what you achieve. But it is no longer suited to the digital economy, where secrets are hard to keep, and your innovation today is copied by someone else tomorrow. The information age with its connectivity doesn’t reward silo behaviour and bypasses hierarchies. It encourages openness, collaboration, sharing, inclusion and participation: power with. Exercising influence has more impact than giving orders.

Many more people today want to exercise agency and participate. The once powerless now have access to much more information, new opportunities to express their views and to create new content that can become wildly popular. Someone with little hard power can now reveal information (or spread rumours) that undermines the reputation (and hence power) of those with a lot of it. Now as important as what you achieve, is how you achieve it.

That new power is also purpose-neutral: it too can be used for the greater good, or to serve the interests of a few at the expense of those of the many.

Old power, as we can see in the world today, is trying to control new power, channel it to serve its own interest. But as those stratagems are now more quickly revealed, they too get circumvented and contested.

Invitation to reflection

How is power present in your work environment?

How is power present in your family? In your wider social circle?

What power do you have, where does it come from?

What power of yours are you conscious of, which less so?

How do you use the power you have?

What purpose do you use it for?

What becomes possible, now that you are more conscious of power dynamics in yourself and your environment?


RULES AND VALUES. Develop both or limp along

Rules are external and reactive. They cannot be precise for each and every situation. Rules require reinforcement. A proliferation of rules is a tax on the system. We are ambivalent about rules. People who feel overregulated in turn feel distrusted. Rules keepers are not always there, and the rules don’t always keep us clear. With each successive failure of rules, our faith in the very ability of rules to govern human conduct decreases.  (Dov Seidman)[i]

#Wetoo: In recent weeks, we have participated in organisational conversations about a stronger code of conduct for staff and associates. It’s an exercise many not-for-profits have been engaging in over the past year, since the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers of vulnerable people they came to assist and protect, resurged. In most cases, sexual harassment, also among organisational staff and associates, is included in the codes.


In several organisations, debate re-emerged about the boundaries of such organisational rules regarding behaviour. Are they applicable also outside working hours and outside the work sphere, and can they impose limitations on what is legally permitted? If sex work is legally permitted in a country, can an organisation prohibit its staff visiting (female or male) sex workers of legal age? Has the organisation a defendable position if someone refuses to sign such a code or if a staff member challenges the organisation in court for sanctioning conduct that is legally permitted?

And how far is it applicable? Does it include also those who have only a temporary or occasional association with the organisation? Consultants, visiting journalists, Board members who meet perhaps only twice a year?  For those, does the code then apply only during the time of association, or always? The organisation can obviously choose not to use the services of someone known to have shown misconduct. But can it reasonably ask people who may get associated with it for only a few days, to sign a code of conduct that applies to their whole life? Probably not. However, the argument goes, it must apply to Board members all the time, as those who approve the rules must be willing to abide by them. 

There are tensions here, between restrictions and individual freedoms, and between the law and organisational rules.

Why now? Interestingly, it was not the #Metoo movement that started in 2006 but really surged as of late 2017, that sparked this upsurge in regulatory attention to sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, even though it revealed how widespread and systemic the problem is. It was the 2018 case of Oxfam GB aid workers using and abusing Haitian girls, possibly some under-age, from an earthquake and hurricane-affected population they had come to assist and protect. The media and politician-driven furore paid little attention to the girls and their families but focused on Oxfam GB’s ethics and integrity. The organisation’s reputation was badly tarnished and funding cuts forced programme closures with implications for other staff and intended beneficiaries. Rather surprisingly, persistent sexual harassment by senior staff in e.g. UNAIDS[ii] and Save the Children UK[iii], did not have the same consequences, even if it happened in the very core of the organisations and not in another country.

This is again somewhat surprising, because sexual abuse and exploitation, in this case by people in or associated with the aid sector, is not new. There have been long-standing allegations and cases of UN peacekeepers being accused of such misconduct and even getting involved in people trafficking. Civilian aid workers came under the spotlight earlier, in 2002, when a report found that refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had been exchanging sex for aid. The report engendered the focus on strengthening the Codes of Conducts and policies and procedures.[iv] The situation generated some attention, though over the years it also became clear that ‘persons of conscience’ - a far better term than ‘whistle-blowers’[v]- more often than not, also in this industry as in others, fairly quickly find themselves driven out of the organisation whose values they sought to protect. So what is different? Perhaps the growing vulnerability of organisational reputations in a digital age where so much more information is available, and issues and opinions spread at the speed of light? Perhaps the ever-expanding distrust of people in all types of institutions, now also hitting the not-for-profit sector that has always prided itself on being value-driven?

Rules, risks and compliance:Reputational risk’ from cases of sexual harassment or sexual abuse and exploitation, has risen significantly in the risk matrices of many organisations. We are therefore adding another set of rules that need to be complied with, supervised and reported on. Developing or strengthening codes of conduct, with associated policies and procedures of reporting, protection of witnesses, support to victims, due process investigations etc. is obviously relevant. On the other hand, only doing this leads to other possible risks: The existence of policies and procedures is too easily taken as a proxy indicator that an issue is well managed. That is a mistaken belief. Organisations where behaviours go wrong, more often than not have the set-up in place. Secondly, we risk edging further towards an atmosphere of distrust, where large amounts of energy are spent on rules and compliance. Whether we like it or not, overregulation for most people generates resentments, even among those who agree with the principles. Have you ever heard a gender-unit in an organisation, meant to promote stronger gender awareness and gender-equality, informally referred to as the ‘gender police’?

Values: What surprises in all these organisational conversations is the limited reliance on values. Values come up in the debates, for example on the tension between organisational restrictions and legally protected individual freedoms. But they are typically not used as a more active driver of behaviour, the way rules are. Ask yourself: How often do the values of your organisation come up in internal conversations? Faced with a difficult decision, how often does someone ask: What do our values tell us is the right thing to do? When someone joins your organisation, how much time and attention is devoted to discussing the values during the induction process, compared to the rules and regulations? Is embodying, living and modelling the values an attention point in the performance assessment? When you and your colleagues speak informally to outsiders about your organisation, do you make any reference to the values? When difficulties and tensions come up in the collaboration between your and other organisations, do the values come up in the reflection or only the terms of the contract or Memorandum of Understanding? Values are an intrinsic motivator, rules an extrinsic one. When employees and associates feel that the organisation does not live the values it professes, they become cynical and see the rules as driven by little more than the organisational self-interest to protect its reputation: looking right rather than doing right. The Independent Panel review of UNAID’s practices did not conclude that its rules and procedures were not effective enough: it frames its core finding in terms of “a broken organisational culture”.

Walk on two-legs: Approaches based on rules-development only, will always run behind occurrences of misbehaviour. Recently, the culture of an organisation that should be deeply value-driven, was diagnosed as deeply destructive: “bullying and public humiliation are routinely used by management at all levels.” Must further rules regarding bullying and public humiliation be added to codes of conduct? What problematic behaviour may come up next, that is not yet legislated for?

Global surveys time and again signal that a large majority of people appreciate organisations that have a compelling sense of purpose and values that are lived in its internal culture and external interactions. A proliferation of rules only risks sucking the oxygen out of the room so that the candle light of intrinsic motivation withers and dies. Rules, however justified, do not inspire. Values do.

Overly relying on rules and compliance adds to an organisational culture of fear. This is negative energy. A healthy, value-based, organisational culture generates positive energy. So develop the muscles of both your rules- and your values- legs, otherwise you will be limping along, always behind.

Koenraad Van Brabant & Smruti Patel

[i] Seidman, D. 2007: How. Why how we do anything means everything. John Wiley & Sons Inc. pp. 47/90/124

[ii] Independent Expert Panel 2018: Report on prevention and response to harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power at the UNAIDs secretariat. See also UNAIDS 2018: Management Response

[iii] Shale, S. 2018: The Independent Review of Workplace Culture at Save the Children UK. Final report.

[iv] UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin, ST/SGB/2003/13: Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.

[v] Devine, T. & T. Maassarani 2011: The Corporate Whistle-blower’s Survival Guide. A handbook for committing the truth. Berret-Koehler Publishing, with the Government Accountability Project


keep-calm-pass-the-board-exam small.png

In my many years in the not-for-profit sector, I have seen a several Board failures. I am talking here about Boards of Trustees / Conseil d’Administration in French). Some dysfunctional examples are:

  • The “Board of Friends”: Board members are chosen because they are personal or professional acquaintances of the Executive Director (ED). But many do not have any professional qualifications or experience of management, finance, organisational development, human resources management, legal requirements etc.

  • The “Absent Board”: Board members are just there for the prestige of sitting on a Board, don’t meet very often, come unprepared or not at all to Board meetings, don’t pay any attention in between, and are generally disinterested and failing in their responsibilities;

  • The “Dominating Executive Director”: The ED tightly controls all communications with and information to the Board, manipulating them into uncritically accepting his or her narrative, and where the blame for organisational failures is put on unforeseeable external events or incompetent other staff. This is further enabled by Board members not having any direct and independent contact with other staff.

  • The “Dominating Chair of the Board”: S/he denigrates and micro-manages the Executive Director, uses the organisation for her or his personal agenda, not only tolerating but even instructing financial irregularities; and keeping other members of the Board deliberately in the dark and side-lined;

  • The “Complicit Duo”: There is an unhealthy alliance between the Chair and the ED, who protect each other’s interests and positions, together maintaining a distorted narrative of the health and performance of the organisation;

  • The “Shareholder/Members Board”: Many Board members, possibly even the Chair, come from member organisations (or shareholder groups), who nominate members to the Board to protect and advance their own interests. Yet shareholder interests do not always coincide with the best interest of the organisation. As a result, the organisation loses its necessary autonomy from the members (or at least the politically active and astute ones), and with it the ability to advance norms and standards among them, exercise oversight and hold members to account.

All of this can happen easily, especially in countries where there is little or no regulatory oversight over the effectiveness, integrity and accountability of Boards of Trustees.

Fortunately, I am also part of, and able to work with, Boards that strive for integrity and effectiveness. These are Board whose meetings are well prepared, who may have an Executive Committee that meets more regularly; whose members have qualifications and who come prepared; whose Chairs work with but also maintain the necessary distance from the ED; who demand solid and in-depth strategic, programmatic and financial reports that are scrutinised and discussed. Boards being accountable for their own performance is still a fairly unusual notion.

Some of them have a structured induction programme for new Board members, a few of them organise periodic retreats for the Board members, to have more time to learn and discuss about an important emerging topic, and/or to work on their interpersonal relations.

Recently, for example, I had the pleasure and privilege to design and lead a two-day retreat for the Chairs of 15 national chapters of an international network/movement, around the central question: How to be an effective Chair of my Board? We spent half a day reviewing what the core functions of a Board are and what makes for an effective and accountable Board; half a day sharing organisational evolution pains and how to anticipate and mitigate them, and reviewing whether we are good at failing forward’; half a day on financial matters within the network;  but also half a day on understanding below-the-surface group dynamics and interpersonal relations, and skills to manage these constructively.

Some of the attention points I have picked up from my work in and with Boards are:

  • Sufficient strategic analysis and scenario-thinking: Strategic planning is one responsibility of an organisation’s senior management. Boards typically must sign of on the strategic plan and, in smaller organisations, may even get involved in the planning. There is a tendency to fairly quickly go into the planning and to do so according to a scenario that anticipates a medium-term future not radically different from the present. With a world changing increasingly rapidly and becoming more volatile, because of technological developments and significant political and financial changes and shocks, that is no longer good enough. If you have been a successful organisation, others will start coping your methods or products; if you are smaller one there is probably learning to be absorbed from others in the same field. Nowadays, we must plan for serious disruptions in our strategic environment and try to ‘think the unthinkable’. [i]

  • Distinguish different voices and conversations in the same space: Board members can and do speak with different voices and can wear different ‘interest hats’: While their primary role in a Board meeting is as stewards of an organisation whose best interests they should be considering, some or more Board members may also come from member or partnering organisations or represent certain constituencies or stakeholders. Each of these have their own interests and priorities with regard to the organisation the Board is a steward of. Conversations about ‘membership’ or ‘partnering’ or stakeholders and constituencies will come up during Board meetings. Board members then need to be explicit what role they are speaking from, or the Chair must ask them to clarify this. Otherwise the conversation will become very confused.

  • Control conflicts of interest: Several Boards have rules that oblige members to declare a potential conflict of interest, real or likely to be so perceived, in which case they can still contribute but cannot vote on certain issues. That becomes particular important when Board members of a standard-setting and/or grants making entity, are also associated with its member or partner organisations. That creates a risk that the standard will be watered down, or grant-making criteria skewed towards the member or partner agencies’ interests.

  • Time for debate, time for decision: Finding the right balance between the necessary time for debate and decision-making is a real skill that Chairs and Vice-Chairs need to have. Pushing for decisions when Board members are not ready may be perceived as if the Chair is pursuing his or her own agenda and abuses the power of position. Taking the time for quality debate and reflection, and possibly the pursuit of additional information, may lead to better decisions that have broader support. If a decision is time-sensitive, this means setting Board meeting agendas with enough anticipation. At the same time, debates should not be allowed to carry §  on for ever, nor should a Board member who is opposed to a certain proposal, be allowed to send the debate back to start.

  • Gradients of agreement: Common forms of decision making are by consensus or voting. Consensus is desirable, but also runs the risk of one or more Board members being able to exercise a de facto veto, possibly blocking much needed change, or pushing decisions down to the lowest common denominator, which may not really address the problem or challenge. ‘Gradients of agreement’ changes decision-making from 'consensus' to 'consent': Board members can still express doubts, reservations or disagreement (which can be noted in the minutes) but decide not to hold up the decision in a certain direction.

  • Interpersonal skills and group dynamics: A Board is a group of people that need to work together out of a shared responsibility towards a common purpose. Any grouping of people generates its own dynamics and atmosphere. Boards will have their formal structure, often with a Chair, Vice-Chair, Treasurer and Secretary, but need the combination of informal roles that allows groups or teams to perform: a driver and shaper; a critical thinker; the implementer, the finisher, the inclusion guardian, the positive atmosphere promoter etc. Also Boards are vulnerable to problematic dynamics such as group-think, extroverts dominating introverts, confusion and irritation arising from different communication styles, leadership rivalries, toxic behaviours, division and conflict etc. Chairs and Vice-Chairs, but also all Board members, can benefit from learning about below-the-surface group dynamics, different leadership styles, responsible followership, and the importance of emotional intelligence in dealing with one-self and other people.

  • Styles of leadership and responsible followership: Chairs of a Board of Trustees are supposed to lead. But other Board members are not supposed to simply follow. They are there to contribute their experience, expertise, contacts etc. As in any leadership role, Chairs need to develop a broader repertoire of leadership styles than the one or two must of us tend to use. Rare but impressive are those who can operate along the full spectrum between decisive and servant leadership. In practice that means being equally good at offering good answers/solutions as at asking stimulating and catalytic questions. As in all situations, personal authenticity will generate a deeper level of respect and a better working atmosphere. Board members (and servant leaders) need to demonstrate responsible followership. This means remaining focused on the purpose of the organisation (or network) they are stewards of and speaking up when positions are advocated that are not in line with that purpose or in the best interest of the organisation or erode the values and principles that inspire it.

  • Modelling accountability: Boards are typically responsible for the hiring, performance assessment and if need be, dismissal of the Executive Director. It should by now be common practice to insists on a 360 degrees performance assessment of the ED. And Board members should speak with other staff directly. Rare however are the Boards who model accountability also collectively and individually. In practice this means asking who they are accountable to for their collective performance and being proactive about this. Individually, Board members should not be simply renewed in that role, because the Statutes allow it and the individual is still willing. Why not also conduct a peer-appreciation of their individual performance, and take that into account in the renewal-or-not decision?

[i] Langdon, C. & N. Gowing 2018: Thinking the Unthinkable. A new imperative for leadership in a disruptive age. John Catt Education Ltd.  www.thinkunthink.org


Like most other people, I have worked for and with different organisations, contributing to their overall performance from different positions and in different roles. What has struck me over time, is the ambiguity around the term ‘organisational development’ (OD), and the risk of mismatch between the organisation asking for OD support, and the resource person(s) or consultant(s) they hire.

I.                   The Many Aspects of Organisational Development.

There are many different aspects that an organisation or network can seek support for. Here an overview with some illustrative examples:

§ Thematic-technical expertise: Can you help us get better at cash-programming; gender; conflict sensitivity; accountability to affected populations (‘customer relations’); savings and credit schemes; fund/capital raising; monitoring & evaluation; report writing; external communications? Etc.

§ Systems and procedures: Can you help us get better at finance management and accounting; in our human resource policies and procedures? Can you help us identify and install better IT systems or adopt more IT based solutions? Can you help us assess the overall interaction between different systems, processes and teams, and make them more streamlined and efficient (‘business analyst’)? Can you help us clarify roles and responsibilities related to decision-making? Etc.

§ Strategic analysis and planning: Can you help us do a strategic analysis of the broader landscape in which we find ourselves? Can you help us identify our particular strengths, our weaknesses; can you help us identify options of what we could be in the future; set priorities for where we want to go over the next few years, and outline a pathway that can get us there? How do we balance medium-term planning, with the need to be agile and adaptive to important changes? Etc.

§ Change processes: Can you help us work through a major organisational redesign such as decentralisation or renewed centralisation; a major internal restructuring to become more efficient and effective; or a ‘service redesign’ to offer a more seamless experience to the user or customer? Can you help us with a significant change in our business model? Etc.

§ Leadership and effective teams: Can you help us develop the leadership qualities of our senior staff and emerging talent? Can you help stimulate the ‘inner leadership’ in our larger workforce? Can you help us develop more collaborative and effective teams? Can you help us improve the decision-making processes in our organisation? Etc.

§ Governance: Can you help us assess the effectiveness of our ‘governing’ entity? What sort of experience and expertise do we need on the Board / Council? How does a Board keep effective oversight without encroaching on the roles and responsibilities of the executive team? How is the Board accountable, and to whom, for its performance? Etc.

§ Learning: How do we bring together the collective experience, how do we feed it back into our practices; how do we create a learning culture?

§ Collaborative capacities: How do we overcome the ‘silo’ practices in our organisation? How do we balance creative competition with collaboration with other organisations or social groups, that are key stakeholders or who complement us in important ways? How do we collaborate: through instrumental contracts, as a consortium, as a partnership? What do we do when tensions arise in the collaborative arrangements? How do you design and steer a multi-stakeholder process? Etc.

§ Healthy and vibrant organisation: Can you help us find ways of working better together? How do we create a positive atmosphere in which people feel motivated and energised, where talent and creativity can thrive, where people are stretched to be and do better but not exhausted and burned out, where we attract and retain talent? How do we encourage ‘innovation’ in our organisation? Etc.

 II.                 Organisations are Systems of People.

Before we look at matching ‘demand’ with the right resource people, we need to remember that organisations are

-         systems: the various aspects are interrelated, like an organism more than an engine;

-         icebergs: most of what shapes their actual functioning lies below the surface and is relatively invisible, including to those who work in them;

-         made up of people: however much automation or robotics there is in them, it are still people that make the strategic and tactical choices (so far)

-         exist in a wider ‘eco-system: that may be well balanced, volatile or in turbulence. 

III.               Matching Demand and Support.

 a.      The What: The demand for OD.

When asking for OD support, be clear and specific what you want, and why you want it.  But also ask yourself whether that specific aspect of your organisation can be really separated from other aspects? Or whether strengthening it, can have unwanted side-effects? For example:

  • Strengthening project-related monitoring systems can weaken the habit of observing wider contextual changes, because the focus on chosen indicators creates tunnel-vision that leaves us blind to the wider environment;

  • Most financial systems are designed for oversight, not as enablers. How do you ensure that checks-and-balances do not become so heavy that it is impossible to do the right thing at the right time, or to find pragmatic, perhaps innovative solutions to practical problems? We don’t want a culture of financial caution inhibiting experimenting even where, in Tony Hsieh’s words, “it is safe enough to try”;

  • Typical ingredients of ‘mainstreaming’ thematic areas and richer ways of working, such as gender, conflict sensitivity etc. are: new manuals and guidance, some workshops and trainings expanded perhaps with a ‘training of trainers’, added responsibility for the topic to job descriptions and key operating forms, perhaps creating an organisational focal point. These may be necessary, but are they enough? Do staff have the right talent and personality disposition? Does the funding, do the planning and implementation practices, allow for long-enough engagement and continuity, and adaptability? Does the organisation, implicitly or explicitly, emphasise other priorities in its functioning? How do we avoid that ‘mainstreaming’ ends up as a watered-down ‘tick the box’ checklist?

  • How do we ensure that recruitment processes pay attention to past experience and specific expertise, but also pick up the development potential of individuals (‘talent spotting’)? How do we ensure they identify other strengths of candidates e.g. related to team roles, that the organisation also requires?

  • Decentralisation can bring significant benefits in terms of greater proximity to local contexts. But how do we ensure that collective organisational learning across the geographical divides does not become a casualty of decentralisation?

 b.     The Who.

No single individual is an equally rich resource person on all possible aspects of OD. Personally, I have worked on various aspects and am comfortable doing so. Like others, I value being stretched beyond my comfort zone. But certain aspects of OD are beyond my area of expertise.

Professional integrity demands that we, as OD resource persons, are transparent about our strengths and limitations. It also obliges us to engage -and advice- a client if we have concerns over how the demand or request is currently framed in its substance or proposed approach. That is what differentiates a consultant from a contractor.

c.      The Where.

Who is the focal point for the OD resource person(s), which unit in which department? Sometimes there is an openness in a particular unit that doesn’t as yet exist within the wider organisation. This unit then may be the only entry-opportunity. But OD support processes that touch on the wider structure, functioning and even culture of the organisation, can be rendered ineffective by connecting them to an individual and/or a unit that doesn’t have wider strategic traction within the organisation.

d.     How.

Two key aspects of the ‘how’ are the duration of engagement, and roles.

a.     Duration of Engagement.

Resource persons can be called upon for specific events, time-bound tasks or longer-term accompaniment.

  • A specific event can be the delivery of a short-term leadership or mindfulness ‘training’, or the facilitation of a short gathering, for example a key moment in a strategic planning process, a senior management team meeting, or a staff retreat.

  • A time bound task can be support for the fuller strategic analysis and planning, or a thematic organisational reflection and learning process. It can be the introduction and testing of a new IT system, the production of new HR policies, or development of an external communications strategy.

  • A longer-term engagement or accompaniment involves the OD support person in the fuller implementation and resulting adaptations over a longer period, when unexpected challenges and side-effects will manifest themselves.

Overall, there is a tendency to underestimate the time required for meaningful organisational development – and meaningful OD support.

We tend to underestimate the value for the resource person to have the opportunity to familiarise her or himself with the organisation or client, even for a modest role around a short event. Organisations are like people: No two are alike, and an organisation may not be at the same point from one year to the next. External resource persons require prior conversations to gain a decent feel for the nature of the organisation and where it is now, not only in its formalities e.g. of mission, finance, products and organigram, but also in internal dynamics and atmosphere. Provide that time, to get to know each other better.

We tend to underestimate the time it takes to effect organisational change. OD support is often asked to help with the analysis and planning and/or to develop the necessary guidance or resources. Yet the bigger challenge is implementation.

Organisational change trajectories are not linear, and reversal is possible. Implementation tends to be affected by competing priorities; change overload; the slowness with which people change behaviours; possible inertia when a change in organisational culture is called for: We may be surprised by the ‘friction’, caused on the forward motion, resulting from the interconnectedness of different aspects of organisational life: seemingly ‘technical’ aspects turn out to be connected into the larger nerve system of the organisation. When implementation is slower than hoped for or planned, implementation also gets affected by ‘second thoughts’: hesitations, even among the original callers for change, when the deeper implications become clearer. Change energy evaporates when it loses momentum. But change processes also fail because of impatience: We keep changing and changing, because we are too impatient to let the effects of a change initiative consolidate and manifest themselves. A longer-term accompaniment, by a trusted OD resource person, can help you prepare for ‘process’ more than for ‘plan’, and provide the confidence to work with what emerges.

b.     Roles.

Little understood, sometimes also by OD practitioners, is the diversity of roles that OD resource people can and must play. Resource persons (internal and external) can range from being very hands-on technical experts, to mentoring and coaching roles. In between, they can act as facilitators, trainers, but also reflective observers. As strategic advisors they can also draw the attention back to the bigger picture. Unexpectedly, they may find themselves in a role of mediator.

These roles are not exclusive, and several can be played even within the span of a day. Mastery consists in being good at the repertoire of roles, and sensing which one is the best fit for any given situation. Few people are equally good at all roles.

Many OD practitioners are reluctant to be the ‘hands-on doers’, who do-it-for-you. Not because they are lazy or insufficiently experienced, but because such full outsourcing generally means the development will not take root in the organisation.

There is insufficient appreciation of when it is appropriate to ask consultants to provide ‘solutions’ (or ‘recommendations’) and when not. When a problem is ‘complicated’, such as choosing and installing a new IT system, contracting and handing the task over to an external expert, is appropriate. But because of their systems and people-based character, many organisational and operational challenges are ‘complex’ rather than ‘complicated’. They are better addressed through a process of internal creation and evolution, mentored and coached by a ‘critical friend’.


A mismatch of expectations between the organisation and the OD resource person(s) will result in tensions. Sylvia, a colleague OD specialist, responded to a request of an organisation seeking a resource person with specific thematic expertise but to also act as a ‘sparring partner’. In subsequent exchanges, she therefore adopted more of a coaching style, working with relevant questions. In the last exchange however, the organisation wanted to hear what the resource person could ‘deliver’. Though confident about the required thematic expertise, she felt that the organisation was actually looking more for a hands-on technical expert than the advertised ‘sparring partner’. With some very strategic questions also remaining unanswered, and doubts about the longer-term effectiveness of a too hands-on role for an outsider in ‘mainstreaming’ (yet another) thematic competency in the work of the organisation, she signalled that she might not be the right person. In this case, the divergent views about roles and approaches became clear prior to any formal commitment, rather than halfway in the journey.

In conclusion: Think hard about what OD development support you want, but also about how each aspect of the organisation is connected to others. Change in one aspect, while holding all other aspects constant, is unlikely to succeed. Who will you nominate as focal point for the OD support – can that focal point act as connector and catalyst within the wider organisation? As an OD support person, be clear about where your areas of strengths lie (substantively and role-wise) and where your limitations are. Then both take time to discuss seriously what approach(es) will fit best the task and where the organisation is currently at. Only journey together when there is enough fit.


The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016 led to a voluntary commitment of major governmental donors and international relief agencies, known as the ‘Grand Bargain’. One key commitment isto provide “more support and funding tools for local and national responders”. This has become known as ‘localisation’.

Over the past year, the precise and practical meaning of ‘localisation’ has generated a lot of focused work but also intensive debate. Both the term ‘localisation’, and the debate, are confusing to many.

In a new paper,  with Smruti Patel, we set out the main parameters of the debate, map out some of the controversies, and identify principal reasons why it remains so confusing. 

We look at what problem(s) with how the international relief machinery operates, localisation is supposed to mitigate, and the different interpretations of localisation this can give rise to. We consider the main arguments against an over-reliance on national capacities, but also some of the counter-arguments to these. We assert that the, legitimate, debate, will remain stuck if it continues to be waged in generalised, rather than more contextualised, terms. We are also concerned that the prominence of the ‘25% of global funding to national and local actors’ commitment, while highly relevant, also risks turning it, once again, into a competition over money. Like other international ‘statements’, the text of the ‘Grand Bargain’ document, also comes with the imprecise language that is needed to obtain consensus. The resulting discussions over the precise interpretation of key phrases is inevitable, but should not distract from the broader strategic analysis and strategic purpose question, that gave rise to the ‘localisation’ idea in the first place.




"Capacity issues have fitted awkwardly into the structured, bureaucratic processes of public aid agencies, specifically those to do with time frames, financial management, risk assessment, planning, programme design, control and prediction, and implementation and reporting. The current emphasis on achieving and demonstrating results has come to be the latest development objective which has posed a trade off with capacity-issues. (…) Most funding agencies have assumed that supporting capacity development required no special individual or organizational skills or dedicated internal units, as has been the case with gender, the environment or performance management. The assumption was that capacity issues were already mainstreamed, albeit informally. Yet, perversely, capacity development turns out to require expertise in areas such as political analysis, management theory and practice, and change management, which has always been in short supply in such agencies.”

In the past six months, I have seen around a hundred proposals and reports, and descriptions of a few dedicated projects, in which different international organisations state their intent to develop the ‘capacity’ of national organisations elsewhere, or claim to have done so.

One conclusion stands out: Rarely is there a clear concept of ‘capacity’. The word is used as vaguely and ambiguously as ‘partner’, and seems more a tick-the-box insertion in the plans and reports, than something that is thought and worked through. That is all the more worrying, given that international organisations for decades have been raising funds for the ‘capacity-development’ of national and local organisations. And continue to do so.

Here are 12 attention points, and questions to ask, when developing an intervention with a capacity-development component, or assessing proposals and reports that include such:


1.      Whose initiative is this?  No one can develop somebody else’s capacity against their will. Who ‘asked’ for capacity-support? Who determined the focus, or the priorities, who the entry point? If national organisations only ‘go along’ with an international initiative, because they want to maintain a good relationship and keep the funding flowing, the potential for sustained impact will be limited at best.

2.      Past experience: This may not be the first such effort. Does this new capacity-initiative draw on and learn from the history of ‘capacity-development’ efforts with this organisation? How?

3.      Precision: Is it clear whose capacities are to be strengthened, for what? Be precise.

4.      Effectiveness: Does the ‘capacity-development effort’ go beyond ‘training’ and ‘workshops’? By themselves, these are not effective to strengthen individual competencies and institutional capacities. Accompaniment and individual and organisational mentoring, combined with a culture of reflection and learning, are needed to effectively translate the learning into enhanced practice.

5.      Individual competencies do not add up to institutional capacities: Is a distinction made between the development of the ‘competencies’ or ‘skills’ of certain individuals and specific teams, and the institutionalisation of such competencies (which, in international organisations, is referred to as ‘mainstreaming’)? Does the planned engagement include efforts towards institutionalising capacities? How?

6.      Framework for organisational capacities: If the objective is to strengthen organisational capacities, is there a decent framework about what makes for effective organisations, to guide the engagement? Does it focus on function rather than form? Does it appreciate that organisations in non-Western societies have different societal histories, may function differently, and will evolve according to a different logic? Does it appreciate that, even in Western societies, most of what shapes organisational life happens below the surface and is not easily visible?

7.      One function among others: If the purpose is to strengthen a particular function of an organisation with a multi-purpose mandate, is attention paid to how this functional capability fits within the whole? For example, if the purpose is to develop ‘humanitarian’ or ‘emergency response’ capacities of an organisation, i.e. the capacity to respond to crisis fast, effectively and with the required skills and minimum standards, how will that capacity be maintained if such crisis situations occur only very occasionally?

8.      Collaborative capacities: Is attention paid to ‘collaborative capacities’, not just within but especially between organisations? Many problems are too complex to be tackled by one organisation alone, effective collaboration is required. Sometimes collaborative efforts become the major driver for individual organisational development

9.      Maintaining capacity: Is attention paid to the strategic problem of maintaining ‘capacity’? National organisations are not just interested in ‘developing’ capacities. A major concern is ‘maintaining’ capacities. Their funding can be too uncertain, their staff turnover too high (including the best staff being recruited by the international organisations that first invested in the development of their ‘capacity’). So is attention paid to the financial sustainability of the national/local organisation, and what it has to offer to attract and retain qualified staff?

10.  The ‘capacity to build capacity’: Capacity-development is a dedicated field, and area of expertise. Those who practice it need particular competencies that include, among other elements, a diversity of frameworks to draw on in the assessment and structuring of their support, the ability to ask catalytical questions, strong interpersonal, inter-cultural, and communication skills (including deep listening). Does the proposing agency have those competencies? What evidence does it offer?

11.  Focus on outcomes, not inputs: Is there a clear vision of what ‘success’ will look like? What do we expect to see if the desired capacity has been ‘developed’? How will this be assessed, by whom?

12.  Change in the collaboration: What will change in the relationship between the international and national organisation, if certain capacities of the latter have been ‘strengthened’? If nothing changes, then what was the point?


[i] Baser, H. & P. Morgan 2008: Capacity, Change and Performance. Maastricht, European Centre for Development Policy Management p. 116-117




‘Localisation’, the greater investment in, reliance on, and better resourcing of national and local crisis management capacities, has become the latest ‘big theme’ for the ‘humanitarian sector’ since the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. What ‘localisation’ means in practice is now intensely debated in various circles (mostly in Western capitals, with very little involvement of national and local actors). Through various blogs over the past few months I have been unpacking this rather vague topic. Here, I focus on the question of ‘localisation’ in conflict situations.

Why is this relevant? Because the cautionary argument is made that, in conflict situations, national and local actors may be unwilling or unable to act in accordance with the fundamental humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Therefore ‘localisation’ may not be the best approach: international agencies need to remain centre-stage and be directly operational, as they are better able to adhere to these principles.

I.                    A Valid Consideration.

Fang Lijung artwork

Fang Lijung artwork

The siege tactics of the Syrian government and its allies are today’s most brutal illustration that national authorities (and their international allies), when party to the conflict, may indeed be unwilling to honour fundamental humanitarian principles.

That was less the case during the long war in Sri Lanka. There the government maintained a skeleton administration in LTTE controlled areas, and allowed a controlled amount of food, medicine, and other necessities to enter in what was otherwise a zone cordoned off by an internal sanctions regime. After we, an international relief and development agency, had rapidly scaled up our relief operation in response to the internal displacement of several hundred thousand people, the LTTE started insisting that we provide the items to Tamil NGOs in that area, rather than distribute ourselves. We already had some such local collaborators, but also realised that this was likely to be an attempt to gain indirect control over the relief items. Though we did involve some Tamil NGOs, as well as several governmental ‘District Agents’, in the operation, we largely continued to run it ourselves. Not because we had evidence to doubt the integrity of our Tamil NGO colleagues, but because we knew that the LTTE could exercise pressure on them, that would be hard to resist.

In a very different setting, in what is now the Somali Region 5 of Ethiopia, my Somali colleagues and Ialso often prepared our ‘roles’ before engaging on challenging issues with other Somali actors. They would manage most of it, but I, as foreigner outside the clan-system, would come forward to deliver the more difficult messages that ‘no, sorry, but it is really not possible to…’. Even if my Somali colleagues fully supported our organisational position, an outsider delivering the tougher messages reduced the risk of them being accused of clan-bias and coming under direct or indirect pressure.

So there is indeed some validity to the cautionary tone about ‘localisation’ in conflict.

II.                  Pride and Prejudice?

Where the argument gets problematic and disturbing, is in the assumption that international agencies are generally and intrinsically much better at operating with neutrality, impartiality and independence. This ‘holier than thou’ tone smacks too much of pride and prejudice. Why?

1.       International agencies can take sides.

Certainly during the Cold War period, many international agencies provided financial, practical and moral support on the basis of ‘solidarity’ with one side or another. This was the case in Central America, in support of the ‘mujahedeen’ in Afghanistan until the fall of the Najibullah regime, in the armed struggles against the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, and in the long war of then ‘southern’ Sudan against a regime in Khartoum seen as discriminatory and repressive.

2.       Many relief agencies are not financially independent.

While some, such as the ICRC or MSF have great diversity of funding or raise significant funds directly from the public, many others fund their relief operations through bilateral or multilateral grants. At least part of this funding comes through bidding in response to a ‘call for proposals’, that has been shaped by the donor.

Grants from multilateral agencies such as the UN or the EU, may be less vulnerable to being associated with a political agenda than those directly from individual donor governments. But most official funding remains susceptible to media attention and political interest. So many relief agencies have to follow the money; fairly often that money reflects the agendas and priorities of the donor government, or can be perceived and portrayed as such. ‘Visibility’ requirements imposed by the donors, such as their logos on vehicles used in the relief operation, or on food bags, result from an understandable logic. But they clearly associate the relief provider with certain bilateral or multilateral actors.

3.       Relief agencies do not operate in a vacuum.

Anyone spending some time in Gaziantep, the southern Turkish city which has a concentration of agencies that support work in northern Syria, realises that this is not just a ‘rear base’ for humanitarian action. Other actors with military, intelligence and political interests and objectives, also operate out of Gaziantep, as they did in the late 80s out of Peshawar and Quetta. While I do not believe that relief operations habitually serve as cover for other activities, we cannot assume that there are perfect firewalls that prevent any contact, even unintentional. Minimally, information about relief work is relevant for actors with other interests.

4.       Most aid agencies are multi-mandate.

The great majority of agencies, UN, NGO or CBO alike, are ‘multi-mandate’. They don’t do just ‘humanitarian’ work. They are involved in social and economic development, conflict reduction and peacebuilding, human rights, women’s rights, good governance promotion etc. When faced with a major crisis, they also carry out relief work, which may very well be in accordance with humanitarian principles. However, as a Taliban militant pointed out the staff of an agency that had been working in Afghanistan for a long time: “Before, you were providing basic medical care to our children, and that was fine. But now you want to change our women and their place in our society. That is not acceptable.” The same agency had gone from medical relief to social transformation. This Taliban militant did not see two different agencies, but one and the same.

The ‘humanitarian sector’ projects an image of itself that partially plays linguistic tricks and relies on mental compartmentalisation: Many are involved in ‘relief’ (which may be very justified and do a lot of good), but not all of that is always fully ‘humanitarian’ i.e. in strict adherence to ‘humanitarian principles’. And doing ‘humanitarian work’ in certain situations, doesn’t make a full-time ‘humanitarian agency’. Our Taliban observer saw it differently. He is not the only one.

5.       There is no magical transformation of relief workers.

Those who question the ability of nationals, in general, to be neutral, impartial and independent in conflict situations also believe in magic. Or would like us to do so. Because it suffices then for that national to be hired by an international agency, to undergo a magical transformation, or ‘rebirth’ into a fully-fledged ‘humanitarian worker’. Indeed, the same person who, when working with a local organisation, might be the object of doubt, has a good chance of becoming a trustworthy individual by changing employer. Not only that: they are now suddenly capable of providing the necessary oversight whether the local organisation is indeed adhering to fundamental principles.

Outsiders, ‘international’ aid workers with no connection whatsoever to the environment where the conflict rages, are also not suddenly individuals without opinions. Most of us are vulnerable to the ‘good guys-bad guys’ syndrome. The good guys may be the ‘government’ and the bad guys the ‘terrorists’; or we sympathise with the ‘underdog’ fighting a repressive regime, or with a wider population long-suffering from a corrupt or authoritarian government etc. Or we like the ‘peace camp’ but not the hard-line ‘nationalists’. We may try to work on all sides or provide relief ‘impartially’. But few of us have the sustained self-discipline to ensure that our personal readings and judgments about the situation never show in our behaviour and are never overheard.

III.                The Dynamics of Security and War Economies.

The ability to abide by humanitarian principles is not only dependent on an aid agency’s intentional positioning. It is inevitably also dependent on the humanitarian space allowed by the armed groups. If an armed group, like Al Shabaab for example, does not allow aid agencies to operate (independently) in the territory it controls, or threatens the life and security of its staff, its ability to act with full neutrality and impartiality will de facto be limited.

That ability may also be affected by the nature of the goods and services provided: clothes, hygiene kits and immunisations have less value in a war economy than, say, medicines, food and construction materials. Armed groups are more likely to try and interfere, directly or indirectly, with the provision of the latter.

Surprisingly, relief-providing agencies, over the past 20 years have invested a lot in the practical competencies to systematically analyse and manage security risks. But very little, by comparison, in understanding war economies and how aid can be drawn into them. No wonder then that integrating ‘conflict sensitivity’ into programming still remains a major challenge.

IV.                Independent Assessment and Verification: Internationals Only?

Hofman and Heller Pérache have shared a fascinating reflection about MSF’s thinking about ‘direct action’ and ‘remote management’ in Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. [i] The discovery that the provincial hospital in Lashkar Gah was not operating as per its reports to the Ministry of Health in Kabul, but largely provided the supplies for its staff to run their various private practices, is a powerful example of what can happen when there is no ‘independent’ oversight. The alleged ‘passivity’ of Somali MSF staff in other project areas, to the impact of the 2011 drought in Al Shabaab controlled areas of Somalia, even if they too were not allowed access there, is another example invoked that raises the question whether the fundamental integrity of the organisation can be maintained, when only local & national staff are in the field?

Such examples are not to be brushed aside. But they need to be balanced against the reality that MSF has occasionally completely pulled out of conflict areas because some of its staff were assassinated, thereby stopping all its medical humanitarian services. My own experience with Somali and Afghan, and other ‘national’ colleagues in many countries, does not confirm the impression left that – ultimately- all local and national staff will compromise too much on principles, be it intentionally or under pressure. Indeed, it have always been -dedicated and trustworthy- national colleagues who provided me with the necessary insights and guidance that allowed us to maintain humanitarian principles and thwart the sometimes very subtle attempts at manipulation by armed or otherwise influential actors. Nor have I seen widespread political skills among international staff, to negotiate and maintain a ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’ positioning in complex and dynamic environments with a multitude of actors.

V.                  What About ‘Humanity’?

Conversations about ‘humanitarian principles’ tend to focus on the trio of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Rather conspicuous for its absence is the first one of ‘humanity’. Presumably it is assumed that anyone involved in relieving the distress of others, cannot but experience our shared humanity as a driving motivation.

Observation of relief work in action confirms that there are many individuals indeed who show strong compassion. But also that for too many others this simply seems to have become a job and even a ‘career’ like any other. Arrogance, indifference, disrespect, unwillingness to listen, sometimes even racist behaviour, are not, in practice, adequately prevented and challenged by agency’s ‘codes of conduct’.

The whole ‘professionalisation’ of ‘humanitarian’ action can also easily lead to ‘dehumanisation’ of crisis-affected populations. The language of the relief world already contributes to this: People in New Orleans affected by a hurricane, Germans and Brits affected by flooding, or Italians from villages damaged by earthquakes, by and large remain citizens of their countries, with an individual and social identity. But people affected by crises in other continents quickly lose identity. They become ‘IDPs’ or ‘refugees’, ‘needy people’, ‘beneficiaries’… labels that allow them to receive free relief goods and services, in exchange for a significant reduction in identity, dignity and autonomous ability to act.

The anonymisation of individuals and groups can continue well into the ‘stage’ of recovery and rehabilitation. I remember vividly driving around in Liberia some years ago, in the mysterious terrain of ‘signpost land’. At the entrance to every village and hamlet was a signpost summarising the project being implemented there and the responsible agency. Absent however were the names of the location: the identity of the locality was obviously assumed to be of far less interest to the traveller than its being the site for an aid project.

VI.                A Deeper Humanity? Shared Wounds, Resisting Fragmentation.

Luz Saavedra’s ‘listening research’ with Lebanese and Colombian non-governmental organisations, reveals that many of them act according to deeper motivations than just providing ‘relief’ in time of need.[ii] They also see themselves as social and political actors that are part of a shared society. They are very conscious of the deeper wounds and damage that indifferent governments and violent actors, of all kind, inflict on the natural ‘affective solidarity’ between people and within most communities. Their assistance and presence seeks to go beyond ‘saving lives and alleviating suffering’: it is also an act of resistance against these forces of fragmentation, and of positive affirmation of a belief in a healthier future society. For them, humanitarian action is not just a parcel delivery service but also a relationship. Which is, as the ‘Listening Project’ of CDA Inc. has told us clearly, also what people around the world value and expect.

They often keenly observe how the international humanitarian machinery, through its internal competition and its heavy footprint, contributes to that fragmentation, disempowerment and dependency of people. With and on behalf of people whose autonomy has already been heavily reduced, they may challenge the authority of international actors where their modus operandi contributes to the same.

In short: Maintaining humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence in conflict situations is very hard – for national and international actors alike. With very few exceptions, most agencies cannot claim to be intrinsically excellent in this. International agencies and actors tend to overstate their own track record and abilities in this regard, and to downgrade that of national and local actors. That reflects prejudice more than evidence. Every situation will require its own, ongoing, assessment. There are certainly situations where ‘outsiders’ can play a role that is harder for to play for ‘local’ actors. But the next day can bring a situation where the reverse holds true.

[i] M Hofman & A Heller Pérache 2014: From Remote Control to Remote Management, and Onwards to Remote Encouragement? The evolution of MSF’s operational models in Somalia and Afghanistan. In International Review of the Red Cross. Vol.98: 1177-1191

[ii] L. Saavedra 2016: “We Know our Wounds. National and local organisations involved in humanitarian response in Lebanon” & 2016: “Learning from Exposure: How decades of disaster and armed conflict have shaped Colombian NGOs.” London, ODI/ALNAP




LOCALISATION: The Partnership Chronicles Part 1

“The fact that we are not money-hungry confuses people.

Partnership” is one of the most abused words in the international cooperation jargon. It stands for any and all collaborations, whatever their nature and quality. Donor governments are ‘development partners’, national and local non-governmental actors are invariably ‘partners’ of international aid agencies.

While the quantity (rather than the quality) of funding to national organisations is the attention area in the post-World Humanitarian Summit ‘localisation’ agenda, aid-recipient organisations have long argued that they also want a profound change in the quality of relationship. They want to be treated as ‘partners’ and not as ‘sub-contractors’.

In this blog, the first of two, I explore some of the practical aspects of collaborative relations between international and national agencies. The orientation is mostly towards civil society organisations, but similar issues exist in inter-governmental relations, as can be seen from the declarations resulting from the successive ‘High Level Panel’ meetings, particularly since Paris 2005.

EPISODE 1: Domestic Workers?


Not so long ago I was listening to the director of an African NGO talking about the attitudes and practices from international agency staff, he and his organisation had repeatedly been confronted with:

  • Occasionally they would find themselves suddenly approached with the request to immediately sign up to a project, that the international agency needed to get going quickly. Pressured to decide very fast and not convinced by the project design, he often had said ‘no’. He typically explaining the negative response as a l’ack of spare capacity’ so as not to offend the international agency. Then silence would ensue. When subsequently encountering those who had so urgently approached him, generally they would not even acknowledge that the exchange had happened. The interaction had been purely instrumental.
  • Similarly, they were occasionally also asked to quickly sign up to a ‘bid’ for a tender. Since the deadline to submit the bid was invariably around the corner, there was no time to discuss details and terms of the collaboration. He was simply told that ‘could be worked out later’, when the funding was secured. It was obvious they were simply approached because the donor agency wanted to see international agencies bidding together with national ‘partners’.
  • With some other international agencies, there was a joint project. The terms of inequality were clear: The international agency determined how many staff the national agency needed for the project as well as their salaries. Money transfers were made only monthly, typically delayed because his NGO had to produce the expenses reports which then had to be first approved by the international agency. Though he is the director of his agency, he would always deal with mid-level programme staff from the international agency – their director always had other priorities. Many of the international agency staff would know all the salaries and benefits of the national agency, whereas they knew nothing about those of the international agency. All contracts invariably had a clause specifying that any litigation would be under the laws and in the courts of the international agency’s headquarters.
  • Though there was a joint project, the national agency was only offered ‘direct project implementation costs’. None of their core support costs were covered, though they knew that the international agency itself took an (undisclosed) ‘management fee’.
  • When he questioned the unfavourable terms of cooperation, he was told that unfortunately the rules were made by the international agencies’ headquarters, or came from the governmental back donors. So nothing could be changed, no scope for negotiation.
  • When he asked for some dedicated capacity-development support, he was told that they would ‘learn by doing’ in the cooperation.

Experiences similar to the ones of this African NGO, have also been described repeatedly for the interaction between Syrian and international agencies (both also have better collaboration experiences!). They are confirmed by the prevailing understanding of ‘partner’ as an ‘implementing partner’ – not a (joint) ‘decision-making partner’ or ‘learning partner’.

They are not radically different from that of many ‘domestic workers’, often people that have come from another country, and women: the rules are set exclusively by the ‘employer’, who has more or less the power to change them unilaterally.

EPISODE 2: A Forgotten ‘Great Charter’?

Such unpleasant relationship should surprise, given that in 2007 the Global Humanitarian Platform agreed on following Principles of Partnership (PoP): Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility, Complementarity.

Its explanatory paragraph for ‘complementarity’ is particularly interesting here: “The diversity of the humanitarian community is an asset if we build on our comparative advantages and complement each other’s contributions. Local capacity is one of the main assets to enhance and on which to build. Whenever possible, humanitarian organizations should strive to make it an integral part in emergency response. Language and cultural barriers must be overcome.”

It also issued a companion document: “Ten Practical Ways to Use the PoP” and how to monitor and report on them. Strangely enough, the guidance does not suggest a periodic, reciprocal, assessment of the quality of the relationship. Surely this is a situation that calls for such, using score cards or another such tool, as basis for a constructive dialogue?

I am not the betting type, but in this case I am prepared to stake some money that few people know about the PoP, let alone use them.

EPISODE 3: The ‘Deal Breaker’ Song.

Also not so long ago, I was listening to the director of a South Asian NGO describing why they had recently said ‘no’ -three times- to offers of project work from international agencies.

‘Coffee first’: Not surprisingly, she was emphasising the necessity to first build relationship, and to explore the challenges in the environment and whether there was a common vision about what to try and address, and how: “We don’t want to start the conversation with ‘the project’, we may end the conversation with that. We first need to build relationship and can talk about what the issues are, only later can the money question come in. Our ultimate goal is positive change, not the delivery of projects, or maintaining an office or keeping our cash flow going…our even own institutional survival.

‘Unlearning’: She was also talking about how difficult this seemed to be for many staff of international organisations: “it is hard for an international organisation to land on a local one that doesn’t seek to play the game; people need time to unlearn old habits.

‘Relation before negotiation’: As she put it eloquently: “partnership is a conversation about how together we can affect positive change, not a negotiation over resources.

With the rest of her colleagues, they had set minimum requirements with regard to behaviours and terms of collaboration, and decided no longer to waste time or look for collaboration opportunities where it quickly became clear that the international agency was not meeting those: the ‘deal breakers’.

Her being a musical person, we started playing around with phrases and musical lines to compose what might become a real hit: “The Deal Breaker Song.” (Please compose your own, post on YouTube and circulate the link!).

EPISODE 4: Reverse Risk and Capacity Assessments.

Hollow Crowns in all Realms? There are widespread problems among national and local agencies, governmental or not. Positions are obtained through political patronage; NGOs and governmental ‘initiatives’ are created to exploit the ‘aid market’; many CSOs suffer from the founder-director syndrome, failing to institutionalise and democratise. Several are ‘family businesses’. The accounting can become indeed ‘too creative’. They need to get their house in order.

At the same time, we can often see ‘wastage’ of public funds by international aid agencies (multilateral, bilateral and non-governmental). Some of them also have directors who have been in place for longer than the two terms Presidents normally are constitutionally allowed. And there definitely are more cases of fraud or misuse of funds than are allowed to become known publicly.

Reciprocal Risk Assessments: National agencies considering partnering with international ones, are also running potentially significant risks. Here are some:

  • Losing control over its direction, by beginning to implement the strategies, programmes and projects of the international agency;
  • Losing the connection to its own constituency, as the international actor becomes a stronger influence;
  • Investing less in collaborative efforts with other national actors as the collaborative energies are oriented towards the international one;
  • Counterproductive speeding up of ‘project’ design and implementation because the international aid machinery is geared towards ‘fast food’ and has no tolerance for ‘slowly cooked dishes’;
  • Being left alone for ‘post-project care’, when the international partner has disappeared because its funding ended;
  • Dependency on continued foreign funding, also because less effort is invested in developing domestic sources of funding;
  • Vulnerability to volatile funding, with sometimes too fast scaling up, followed by a need to rapidly scale down;
  • Shift in fundamental staff motivation, from service to their own society to predominantly career and salary considerations;
  • Decreased visibility as the international agency takes credit for the work achieved, and innovations made; 
  • Reputational risk of being seen or being portrayed as an agent of foreign interests (also because of the back-donors to the international agency);
  • Security risk when communications of the international actor displease certain domestic actors, who might direct the backlash at the national one.

National organisations are well advised to conduct reciprocal ‘risk assessments’!

Capacity-development for international actors: There are also ‘capacities’ that can be found in national/local organisations, that international ones could learn from. For example:

  • ‘People driven’ and ‘community-responsive’ programming
  • Programming with a strong cultural and social fit
  • Political capabilities: navigating the political space(s)
  • Making a dollar go far
  • Finding creative, innovative solutions in complex and resource-scarce situations
  • Managing disruptive change.

This is not totally extravagant: In the early 90s, 13 Dutch development CSOs invited ‘southern’ consultants to assess their performance. During 2011-2012 two Dutch development CSOs also asked ‘southern’ partners to participate in their own organisational assessment.[i] But it is certainly not the prevailing practice.

Beyond Money: There are some international agencies, both faith-based and secular, whose mission is simply to strengthen and support national/local capacities. Their ties with ‘partners’ can persist even when there is no money. That is admirable.

Yet even then questions can be asked about transparency and equitability: Some years ago, I came across a case of a national organisation running on the volunteerism of its staff for more than 18 months already. Though the long-standing political instability had not been resolved, there hadn’t been a major crisis for two years, and foreign donors had gone elsewhere than this country of low strategic interest. The long-standing international partner maintained an active relationship. But it did not reveal that its director was earning a salary roughly twice that of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. And that it had moved into more prestigious and far more expensive headquarter premises. The question of whether it could reduce some of its expenditure and share the savings with the national partner was not raised.

Giovanni Bisignani said: “If one of the partners in a partnership is losing his shirt while the other is counting his money, it is no longer a partnership.” What do you think?

EPISODE 5: Alice in Wonderland?

So what might a really ‘equitable’ relationship look like? Well, national agencies might

  • Conduct risk- and capacity-assessments of the international agency; 
  • Demand details of its organigram, staffing numbers and salary scales;
  • Check the depth of commitment and possible conflicts of interest in its governance structure;
  • Question how long the director has been in position and whether leadership is sufficiently institutionalised;
  • Request specifics about its current and future business model(s);
  • Commission an audit or an inquiry when there is a founded concern over wastage or financial mismanagement;
  • Vet its potential donors for programing in their country or region, in light of political risk management;
  • Have a full say in every strategic decision related to the work in this country or region;
  • Check every public communication about the joint programme before it goes out;
  • Provide the international agency with capacity-development support;
  • Expect to be present at every donor meeting; and expect their senior staff to give fair priority to its meeting requests.
  • What else?

Nothing of this should sound outrageous as it is what international agencies typically request and expect from national agencies. Yet it is far from common practice. We can go two ways: We significantly limit our use of the word ‘partnership’ and/or we step up to practice more equitable relationships. Both are options, but let’s start by being clearer of what we want and where we are.

In a next blog, I will explore the concept of ‘partnership’ and its use in international cooperation from a more conceptual angle. Stay tuned.

[i] It Takes Two to Tango. PSO & INTRAC Praxis Note 62, 2012







LOCALISATION & NGOs: Different Interpretations, Different Outcomes

Last year, during a flight from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, the airline crew made an appeal, on behalf of ActionAid India, for donations to support the flood victims in South India. It struck me that it was ActionAid India rather than another ‘Indian’ organisation and I wondered whether other organisations in India would have had the idea and the access to the domestic airline, to raise funds this way? Is this a silly question? Why does it matter?

1.     What is the ‘Localisation Agenda’?

Well, it goes to the heart of one of the big questions that is likely to bedevil the ‘localisation’ agenda that emerged through the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) process. The central drive behind ‘localisation’ is transforming the international humanitarian ‘system’. In its current shape, it is seen as too centralised, with a small number of agencies receiving the bulk of the funding, and international responders too often taking over and turning local and national actors into their ‘auxiliary force’. ‘Localisation’ would result in a global humanitarian system where national and local actors remain at the forefront and lead the action, and receive a much larger share of the available funding directly, rather than via international ‘fundingmediaries’.  In this reversed configuration, the international actors are the ‘auxiliary force’, helping to implement the strategies and programmes of national/local actors where their capacities are overstretched.

In an earlier blog (see below) I unpacked the ‘localisation’ process into four major areas of change: the funding streams, the visibility of national actors and their contribution, the quality of ‘partnerships’, and the objective and effectiveness of ‘capacity development’ for national actors. So far, we don’t yet have agreed benchmarks and progress indicators to tell us how we are doing for each of these change objectives. Except for one concrete and measurable target: Whereas today less than 2% of the annual global spent on humanitarian action goes directly to national actors, by 2020 this will be 25%.

Tracing and measuring the financial flows will pose some technical and reporting challenges, but at face value this is a solvable problem. The exercise is likely to become controversial however, for two reasons. One has already been pointed out by others: the insertion of ‘as directly as possible’ in the ‘Grand Bargain’ document that summarises the WHS outcomes. Who determines this?  If by 2020 most humanitarian funding continues to go to international agencies as ‘first receivers’, this little qualifier can open many loopholes for excuse. The second one is no less tricky: Who qualifies as ‘national/local’?

2.     Identity: Who Is ‘National/Local’?

The Grand Bargain document refers explicitly to “national and local first responders comprising governments, communities, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and local civil society”.

The Grand Bargain document doesn’t mention a category of NGO that appears in the categorisations of the Global Humanitarian Assistance programme: “southern international NGOs”. ‘Southern’ here refers to the fact that their headquarters are not in an OECD DAC member country. BRAC from Bangladesh, the All India Disasters Management Institute or Community World Service Asia would be examples. When BRAC responds in Bangladesh or CWSA in Pakistan, they act as ‘national’ agencies. When they act in Afghanistan, they are regional / international. That is no different than when e.g. the Johanniter in Germany provide services nationally, compared to when they work abroad. The financial tracing system should become sufficiently refined then to differentiate when a ‘southern’ agency is operating ‘nationally’ or ‘internationally’. That is doable.

A question poses itself however: Is there a meaningful difference between ‘southern’ NGOs working regionally or more widely, and the original international ones from OECD DAC countries, that needs to be recognised in the ‘localisation’ effort and in assessing its progress?

The Grand Bargain document also doesn’t mention another category of actors that the Global Humanitarian Programme (GHA) defines as ‘affiliated national NGOs’ i.e. nationally operating NGOs that are affiliated to an international NGO. ActionAid India fits into this category. So too e.g. Caritas Sri Lanka, Save the Children Jordan, CARE Peru. This leads to the second question: Do they count as ‘national’?

The Grand Bargain document is not a legal document. And it hasn’t even been endorsed by many governments and other important actors in the humanitarian ‘system’. But we can anticipate some vigorous debate, perhaps controversy, about who counts as ‘national/local’, or ‘how national’ an agency is.  Particularly among civil society agencies.

3.     The Business of Localisation.

Who will benefit from ‘localisation’? That is, literally, a multi-billion-dollar question in an industry worth some $ 24.5 billion in 2014.  A quarter of global humanitarian spending by 2020 going directly to national/local actors, is likely to mean significant income loss for the international actors, including the UN, who until now have been ‘first receivers’ and kept a % for their transaction costs before sub-granting it to others.  Some have argued that ‘localisation’ need not be a financial zero-sum game, because it will open up new sources of funding for humanitarian action. Apart from the question whether it is not preferably to invest more in prevention than in response, that remains to be seen.

We can also expect latent or overt financial competition between national governmental and non-governmental actors. In conversations about development aid, various aid receiving national governments in recent years have taken a more assertive stance. They have argued that they want more aid to go through the ‘national country systems’ i.e. their coffers, and not via parallel projects that often get implemented with national non-governmental actors. Several governments are also restricting the proportion of international funding that national CSOs can receive as part of their total annual turnover.

4.    Localisation: A technical or a political agenda?

The financial stakes of ‘localisation’ are likely to reveal two opposing interpretations.

Interpreted as a technical agenda, ‘localisation’ means ‘decentralisation’: Let those in greatest proximity to the crisis have the lead in designing and implementing the response, and support them with the financial, organisational and collaborative capacities to do so. That framing can be found in the Secretary General’s report on the ‘Outcome of the WHS’: “to devolve leadership and decision-making to levels at closest proximity to crises.” (§36)

Or ‘localisation’ is interpreted as a political agenda. Its meaning is then well expressed by the title of a project called ‘Shifting the Power’. Here localisation seeks a deeper change in the political economy of (humanitarian) aid. Local and national actors demand not only an operational lead, and more, direct, and better quality funding. They also assert themselves more widely within the overall global politics and policies of international aid-based cooperation. In South African terms: they want a landscape once dominated by a white minority transform into a rainbow nation.

5. The Politics of Identity?

Why does this matter? Because how you interpret ‘localisation’ leads to very different outcomes.

Under a technical interpretation, an international NGO can argue that, if their country office is registered in the crisis-affected country, and led or even fully staffed by ‘nationals’, it should count as a ‘national/local capacity’. With its proximity and staffing, it is equally well placed to be a fast, effective, and contextually sensitive responder as any home-grown organisation. The ‘nationalisation’ of INGO country offices then constitutes progress towards ‘localisation’.

Under a technical interpretation, an international NGO alliance can also argue that funding that goes directly to its national affiliate, constitutes progress towards ‘localisation’. It has the same proximity advantages. Moreover, it is a separate legal entity, registered in country not as the office of an international agency but as a full domestic agency (probably under another Ministry) and is not only staffed but also governed by nationals. 

In a ‘technical’ interpretation, the reform of the international humanitarian system then becomes something like Starbucks or McDonalds: international brands with local franchises. But Starbucks and McDonalds are competitors for truly local or national cafés and eateries. Such ‘localisation’ can be interpreted as simply a business strategy of multinational (aid-based) corporations. Localisation becomes de facto a strategy of globalisation. It doesn’t really shift any ‘power’ and may continue to undermine national/local capacities by establishing itself more forcefully in local markets.

Not surprisingly, a number of national agencies that are not part of an international alliance or network, i.e. that are not ‘affiliated national NGOs’ object to these interpretations. They argue that the international connection, under either of the above formulas, gives those agencies an ‘unfair’ advantage. There is not a level playing field. They want only truly ‘homegrown’ entities recognised as ‘national/local’, and the beneficiary of more and better quality funding and real organisational development support.

6.    How ‘Local’ Are You?

If the above is already enough to feed a prolonged debate, it gets further complicated by the different historical trajectories that lead an agency to being an ‘affiliated national NGO’. There are essentially three main ones, one outside-in and two inside-out:

·       Outside-in: Possibly for several years already, an international NGO has been running programmes in a country, probably already with a registered INGO office. This then transforms, or splits off,  into a legally independent national member of an international family or alliance.

·       Inside-out: An existing local or national agency accepts to change its historical identity and become part of the international alliance. That is a choice made previously by some INGOs, e.g. NOVIB which chose to become Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands. But is now also happening with existing ‘southern’ agencies. (A friend told me a story how, many years ago, Oxfam UK asked BRAC from Bangladesh whether it would not want to become Oxfam Bangladesh? The BRAC person replied: Why wouldn’t you want to become BRAC UK?)

·       Inside-out: Several nationals, inspired by an international movement, directly create a new entity under the brand name and as part of an international alliance. The emergence of national MSF associations in various Western countries would be an example.  And we can easily imagine for example a number of Sierra Leonean medical personnel directly create an ‘MSF Sierra Leone’.

Certainly the second and third trajectory already signal some of the complexities: In both cases we have a ‘home-grown’ initiative that chose to become internationally affiliated, from the outset or after a while.

Then there is also the question of ‘time’ and its influence on perception:  Many INGOs have had programmes in a country for many years, even decades. World Vision has been programming in Peru and Plan International in Nepal since 1978.  Even if they are formally ‘international’, are they still locally perceived as ‘outsiders’? Does their legal status now make them more ‘foreign’, comparatively speaking, than e.g. SCF Jordan which emerged out of the INGO country office only in 2012? Or take Caritas Bangladesh, which was founded as the eastern branch of Caritas Bangladesh already in 1967. Is it ‘national’ enough or not?

Perceptions of ‘foreignness’ are subjective. They can last long: In the late 90s José Bové led vigorous protests against McDonalds in France. It is now well established in France and popular among French nationals. But probably not many would call it a ‘French’ company. And it is still a competitor for eateries and restaurant chains whose ‘national identity’ cannot be contested.

7    Localisation and Bio-Diversity.

There is a third possible interpretation of ‘localisation’. References are creeping into the discourse about the ‘eco-system’ of international humanitarian action. ‘Localisation’ then can also be seen as a strong plea for greater ‘bio-diversity’ within that system.

At the moment the funding and power are too concentrated in too few agency hands. More direct funding to nationally registered and staffed offices of international NGOs or to ‘affiliated national NGO’s might be strengthening capacities and leadership ‘in country’. But it doesn’t necessarily protect, and in its own way can undermine, national/local ‘bio-diversity’.

In the natural world, the loss of bio-diversity is seen as detrimental to our global wellbeing. In the globalising political economy of the human species, we can see greater competition sometimes be the catalyst for innovation. But many problems result from the speed with which changes in the eco-system happen, with extinction the result of not enough time to adapt. If we adhere to this vision, then ‘localisation’ includes the active promotion of a diversity of ‘home-grown’ national and local organisations, with more direct funding consciously directed towards them.

8.    Political Equivalents.

In political terms, these three possible interpretations equate with ‘decentralisation’, ‘federalism’ and not so much ‘conservationism’ as ‘deep democracy’.

Decentralisation and federalism work reasonably well in political systems which have evolved those architectures over a long period, almost all in Western countries. The track record of decentralisation and federalism in countries with different historical trajectories, such as in Africa, show however that very often the centre remains very powerful: local authorities (with constitutionally protected autonomy in a federal architecture or not) are often not economically and politically strong enough and do not have the administrative capacities, to counterbalance the power of the centre. They also remain weak because of a failure to cooperate or because they are played off against each other in a ‘divide and rule’ game. After the African wave of decentralisation and federalism of the 1990’s there has been a lot of ‘re-centralisation’.

‘Localisation’ of global humanitarian action, along the lines of decentralisation or federalism, can still lead to an outcome with a strong controlling centre. And there are powerful arguments for such, such as superior technical capacities and efficiencies from economies of scale.

‘Localisation’ as ‘bio-diversity’ should not be a radical ‘anti-globalisation’ movement: Syrians, Nepalis after the earthquake, and Sierra Leoneans faced with Ebola, needed global assistance. But this perspective understands the deeper political economy in the current humanitarian world order. It asks pertinent questions about why, after decades of programming and presence, there are perhaps many lives saved but often few local and national capacities sustainably built? (See my earlier blog, further below, on some alternatives to the 'capacity' question)  This perspective wants to reduce the risk of operational, financial & psychological ‘dependency’, when local initiatives, capacities and creativity are, repeatedly, rolled over. It raises the question of the longer-term purpose of international cooperation, including in crisis response.

Different interpretations of ‘localisation’, different visions, different political outcomes. Let the debate begin.


LOCALISATION: Meanings & Trajectories

The ‘humanitarian system’ wants to change, and change big time. Though having provided much needed practical assistance to millions of people over the past half century, there is a sense that it is no longer entirely ‘fit for purpose’.  ‘Localisation’ has come out of the World Humanitarian Summit process, as one of the important pillars of that change.

As local as possible, as international as necessary” has become the strap line that signals the broad goal and meaning of ‘localisation’: The default mode for crisis response shouldbecome one that relies on national and local capacities (‘nationally owned’ and ‘nationally led’), only supplemented by international action if and for as long as needed.

What, however, does this mean in practice? In this and subsequent blogs, I share some reflections about the implications of ‘localisation’, and some of the challenges that we are likely to encounter.

1.     Key Dimensions of Localisation.

Going through the rapidly growing literature of reports, blogs and stated commitments that relate to ‘localisation’, we see four major areas of change emerging:

·       Visibility: Greater recognition and visibility for the efforts, roles, innovations and achievements of local actors;

·       Capacities: More effective support for stronger local and national capacities & less undermining of those capacities e.g. by hiring away the more qualified local staff;

·       Funding: More direct and better quality funding to local actors: The commitment at the World Humanitarian Summit is to increase direct funding to local actors from less than 1 % today to 25% by 2020. Local actors also demand better quality funding, longer term, more flexible, and covering core costs;

·       Partnerships: Better, more genuine, ‘partnerships’ and less sub-contracting relationships.

These different aspects of ‘localisation’ are related but not identical. The translation into practice of each will require different changes and can benefit from its own milestones. They may also happen at different speeds: If I am an INGO with 90% funding from institutional donors and 10% from my own fund raising, I may be able to better profile the local actors in my communications and fundraising materials, but not to provide them with better quality funding if my ‘back donors’ don’t enable it. Another agency may be able to provide more direct and better quality funding, but may not be well qualified to offer significant support for overall organisational development.

One of the really interesting questions is whether there can be ‘partnership’ without money transfers? If the answer is ‘no’, then the transactional nature of the relationship remains the corner stone. If the answer is ‘yes’, then we can think better about what other ‘added value’ a national actor can see in an international partner.

2.    Why Localisation and Why Now?

Listening to the conversations, two justifications are often invoked: ‘first responders’ and ‘comparative advantage’.

First responders’: The argument runs that we should invest in stronger local capacities because the ‘first responders’ to a crisis will invariably be ‘local’ (to the level of family members and neighbours), and because local/national actors will stay whereas international responders at some point will leave.  While correct, this argument is also a bit puzzling. As we have seen with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the massive influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries, the 2015 Nepal earthquake etc., sudden onset ‘disasters’ can be of such scale that they overwhelm the local and national capacities to respond. That is when international support becomes justified and sometimes absolutely necessary. Let’s remember that the WHO was severely criticised for not responding quickly and robustly enough to the Ebola outbreak.

Comparative advantage’: Local actors understand much better the context, the cultural sensibilities, speak the local language(s), are better able to navigate the local environment.  A valid observation, which is precisely why the international agencies that establish their own presence, quickly start hiring the most qualified ‘national’ staff. Not an argument then, it seems, that would compel radical change. Moreover, while local actors better understand the context, they can also be part of the context: something that becomes particularly delicate in times of conflict, when the international agencies are very concerned about ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’.

Both justifications do not seem to explain why ‘localisation’ is suddenly the ‘next big thing’. The comparative advantages of local actors, and their being the ‘first’ (and longest-lasting) responders are nothing new. This has been the case for the past half century. So why ‘localisation’ now?

Are there not deeper reasons why the ‘international humanitarian system’ (that some would simply call the ‘relief industry') should change? Such as

  • The system is overstretched: It is no longer able to finance and respond operationally to the explosion of needs around the globe. So we need many more national and local actors to step up. That would be a very legitimate and understandable reason: but it also changes the ‘tone’ or ‘colour’ of the conversation: Now the ‘international system’ is not saying: “hey, sorry that we didn’t acknowledge this earlier, but we have now (yes we know it has taken us an eternity) come to acknowledge and appreciate your roles and capacities, and want to get better at supporting you”. It is actually saying: “hey, we are overstretched and can’t handle the global burden of humanitarian needs anymore, we need your additional capacity and have to ask you to share more of that burden, please.” From a local actor perspective, the difference in message is important and will influence how I respond to it. After all, as a local actor I am well aware that the term ‘localisation’ is a bit like ‘empowerment’: It makes you wonder what happened in the first place, to make that someone has no power, or that the action is not ‘locally-led’?
  • The system is unhealthy: it is overly centralised and bureaucratic, it encourages competition rather than collaboration, its ‘technification’ and ‘professionalisation’ are taking the humanity out of it: affected populations are no more than ‘big data’.
  • The (underfinanced) system is wasteful: There are too many ‘fundingmediaries’. More fundamentally, by not effectively strengthening local capacities, it has to mobilise time and again at great cost, in response to the next crisis. The international agencies, rather than complementing the national efforts, come in with a too heavy footprint, tend to take over, in different ways undermine local capacities, and continue doing so for too long. Hurricane Matthew’s impact in Haiti, a few days ago, will be an interesting case: international capacities are needed to bring in enough food and other supplies quickly. But after many years of repeat waves of international presence, has more Haitian capacity been built?

All of this is not cost-effective: If there are major disasters in e.g. North America, Europe, China or Japan, there simply is not a ‘second tsunami’ of international agencies: overall the national capacities are enough to deal with the situation. Why don’t we simply say that ‘localisation’ is the investment, globally, in national capacities to manage crisis situations effectively. Just as all societies need to have the capacities to meet their own water or energy needs. Isn’t that a more strategically convincing argument than the reference to ‘first responders’? Unless of course we mostly want to see more ‘burden sharing’ i.e. the dominant players in the ‘international system’ are really looking for more ‘no-entry’ and ‘quicker exit’-strategies because they no longer have the will and ability to stay on?

3.      Which Local Actors & Who is ‘Local’?

While the ‘Grand Bargain’ document from the World Humanitarian Summit does not specify the nature of the ‘local actors’, conversations in INGO circles tend to focus on local ‘civil society’ ones. So what is the place in this for local and national authorities? After all, when we have a major disaster in aid-providing countries, flooding in Germany, a hurricane hitting the eastern board of the US, an earthquake in Italy, a refugee influx in Belgium, it is governmental institutions that lead the response. Major support roles tend to be played by the Civil Defence and national Red Cross or Red Crescent society, further complemented by NGOs and other voluntary associations.

In a conflict situation humanitarian actors may be more cautious about strengthening governmental capacities, as its neutrality and impartiality may be compromised. But much disaster risk reduction actively involves governmental institutions. And with increasing urbanisation, city authorities often play a major role.

There is also the thorny issue of who is ‘local’? Two of the tension-points here are diaspora-led organisations and national franchises of international NGO alliances. Diasporas are important not only for their remittances. Several diaspora members have set up their own operational organisations. Their familiarity with the mind-sets and ways of working of the 'internationals' may give them a competitive advantage over 'national' actors. While they sometimes claim to speak for their own society, non-diaspora local actors do not necessarily agree and see them as just another intermediary. The situation is also muddled by international civil society alliances and confederations creating more and more national franchises, sometimes approaching a national CSO to change its identity and become part of the international brand. Does enhanced work with them count as ‘localisation’? For the moment, other national and local organisations don’t agree: they see them as internationals-in-disguise, competing with them for limited funding.

4.   Different Trajectories.

Progress on ‘localisation’ is not going to be similar, and comparable, across the board. We can see different scenarios which will lead to different trajectories and speeds. Some key factors influencing the translation into practice are likely to be:

  •  The type of international organisation:  Developing meaningful partnerships with local actors, will come more naturally to international agencies that have a strong foundation in ‘solidarity’, and whose default mode is working with partners. The current signatories to Charter4Change are not a representative sample of the international relief actors. International agencies whose reflex is to be 'operational’, and whose business model is largely dependent on this, will find that real partnerships go ‘against their grain’.  UN agencies talk easily about partnership, but have sometimes a mandate and sometimes an unnecessary tendency to be and remain centre stage.
  • Governmental and non-governmental partners: Working with national and local public authorities is different from working with national civil society actors – or national/local private sector actors. Governmental entities can more easily assert an ‘authority’, but strengthening their institutional capacity may be harder than that of non-governmental actors.
  •  Prior History in the Context: You would expect the ‘localisation’ of relief to be easier and more advanced in places with repeat (or chronic) crises such as the Philippines, Bangladesh or the eastern DRC. Localising a major relief effort may be more demanding in response to a rapid onset (as different from a slow onset) disaster. Or where the prior collaboration was largely around development and/or conflict transformation; take Nepal prior to the 2015 earthquake or West Africa prior to the Ebola outbreak as examples. It will be more difficult where there was hardly any history of prior collaboration, such as in Syria. 
  • The various strands of ‘localisation’: As mentioned, progress in the different areas: visibility for the local actors; better capacity-support; more equal partnerships; and more direct and better quality funding, will require different actions and may happen at different speeds.  For each of these we can ask: What needs to be stopped? What can continue but needs to be changed? What do we need to do more of? What do we need to do that we haven’t done before?

These different trajectories will make it difficult to assess whether, across the ‘system’, there is meaningful progress in the next five years. It may also provide many opportunities to drag the feet and find reasons why change is happening only at a snail pace. We will have to develop refined ways of reviewing progress, and assessing whether constraints invoked are legitimate or overstated?

5     Who Determines the Balance?

As local as possible, as international as necessary” is both a powerful and a deceptive catch phrase. Because who determines whether the right balance was achieved, and whether that balance evolved appropriately, as the situation evolved? My observation, over 25+ years of work, is that the international agencies’ strong footprint may be warranted at particular moments in time, but often continuous for far too long. Sometimes national governments make the point when they start restricting the number of work-permits for expatriates, telling the international agencies that by now they should have trained enough nationals to be in charge. How do we assess this more pro-actively, with enough nuance and without excessive subjectivity?

6    Beyond the ‘Humanitarian’ Sector?

Finally, there is no reason why ‘localisation’ should be limited to the humanitarian sector or the relief world. Support for national capacities and encouragement of national ‘ownership’ are also part of development cooperation, conflict reduction and peace work, trade negotiations, research etc. Already twenty years ago, an ODI colleague was embedded as an adviser in the delegation from an African country to rounds of technically complex and tricky international trade negotiations. I would be surprised if they don't fully handle these now on their own. All of my involvement with conflict reduction and peace work has been with ‘local capacities’, for the simple reason that it is inevitable:  outsiders can help create some enabling conditions but only the people of societies in conflict can make durable peace with each other. We now have African and Asian-Pacific Evaluation Associations, and need to work more with and, if needed, further support national and regional capacities to conduct policy- and practice-relevant research.

For some 50 years international development cooperation has been shaped by Western actors because they were the main providers of ‘aid money’. Perhaps ‘localisation’ signals, and will accelerate, a more international ‘international’ system?  That is partially frightening, because a whole industry has been built on this in Western countries. But it may be inevitable - and will also open up powerful new perspectives and alignments.  



EXPERT ADVISERS: Other Competencies Needed to Strengthen Institutional Performance

I’d been in Kabul not even 48 hours. I knew already that this was a time and a place where things could happen very quickly, where bureaucratic decisions were being taken in an instance by youngsters unencumbered with history, where government departments were being run by foreign administrators barely old enough to run their own bath. Decision-making here was unimpeded by the demand to consider and reflect on experience.”   Zia Haider Rahman


Zia Haider Rahman’s book ‘In the Light of What We Know’ (2014:141) is a novel. But it is hard to avoid the impression that, where Afghanistan is the setting, he draws on first hand observation.

In an earlier blog I have explained why much ‘training’ does not contribute to sustained organisational capacity development. Here I look at the other big approach to this objective: what in Official Development Assistance terms is called ‘technical assistance’ (TA). This consists overwhelmingly of the deployment of ‘thematic-technical expert advisers’, to help aid-recipient public institutions perform better.

TA is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Yet by now many evaluations, reinforced by academic research, show that the overall effectiveness of TA in contributing to better functioning governments, is limited at best. International actors often put the blame for this on the recipient countries. Closer and more objective inquiry shows that there are also long-standing problems resulting from the prevailing bureaucratic cultures of the ‘donor’ or ‘development partner’ agencies. And that the competencies of the ‘expert-advisers’ deployed are not always sufficient.

What sort of situations can expert-advisers find themselves in, and what competencies do they need?[i]


Whether you are a British customs officer deployed to strengthen the Sierra Leonean border police, an American oil specialist seconded to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, a Dutch general working with the Burundian army, a Swiss specialist on federalism advising the Somali government or a Turkish banker helping to establish and develop a modern banking system in Afghanistan, you find yourself in a much wider landscape that will influence what and how you can do. Some important dimensions of that landscape are:

The political economy of international cooperation: Be it Mali, South Sudan or another country with a large international foot print, you will find a bewildering multitude of actors all wanting to strengthen the national institutions, many of them operating with their own agendas and priorities.

The political economy of the national public sector.  Similar disconnects may exists within the national public sector, preventing the effective pursuit of a coherent national strategy.

The hidden organisation: Organisations are like ice-bergs. Most of their real functioning lies below the surface and does not necessarily correspond to the formal structures, policies and processes. 

Certainly those expert advisers with a more strategic than operational mandate, need to develop some understanding of the undercurrents in this landscape, and how to navigate those, if they want to have a chance of being effective.


Expert advisers can find themselves with a given mandate, role and position. Ideally this has been thought through carefully, and agreed in genuine partnership with the national institution where s/he will be deployed. In practice, that is not always the case. The initial conditions may be constraining rather than enabling. Consider some factors for example:

  • Who really wanted the adviser and why? The national entity, because they recognise a real need for external expertise and not because they must take the foreign adviser to access the aid money? Or the bilateral or multilateral ‘development partner’, who wants the national entity to reform in a certain direction and/or puts in an adviser also to keep an eye on the aid money?
  • Other advisers: Many advisers are not the only or first one in working with a national public sector institution. How will you relate to the other international expert advisers working with the same institution? In principle you work towards the same goal, but do you follow the same pathways, give similar or complementary advice? Do you have similar interpersonal styles? The same sense of urgency or patience? Or are advisers, like historical courtiers, competing for the ear of the principal national counterpart? And how do the foreign advisers relate to the national policy advisers, who may not come along with a purse in their brief case?
  • ·Where do you sit? Do you sit in the office of an international mission (probably with a back-up generator and hence uninterrupted air conditioning, internet access and printing facilities)? Or in the office of your national counterparts? Being with them can help develop the relationship, mutual understanding and collaboration. But it may also increase the temptations for the ‘adviser’ to be more of a ‘do-er’.
  •      8 x 1 is not the same as 1 x 8: The 2011 World Development Report observed that significant and lasting positive changes in governance take on average between 17-27 years. What time frame are you given? Many advisers are deployed on annual, renewable contracts, some even shorter than that. This may suit the budgetary cycles of the entity who pays them, and their own interest. But by the time they begin to get some understanding of the landscape in which they find themselves, and have developed good relationships with a broad set of key actors and stakeholders, their term is up. As Alwin van de Boogaard, who was an adviser in Burundi for eight years, points out: Eight consecutive annual plans (let alone 4 to 6 different consecutive advisers) is not the same as a general plan that from the outset works with an 8-year (i.e. medium-term) time horizon – and a continuity of adviser.

Advisers may be able to create a bit more room for manoeuvre here than when it comes to the overall political economy. But they will have to work on it consciously. And it requires other skills than the technical-thematic expertise for which they were selected.


This being the setting, it is clear that advisers need certain ‘political capabilities’. For ‘political advisers’ this is of course well recognised. But not for the ‘technical-thematic experts’. A variety of reasons probably explain this. One of them is the belief that the institutional fragility and underperformance of the public sector elsewhere, is essentially a problem of ‘knowledge’. So we can solve it by offering ‘knowledge experts’. Perhaps another reason that if we wanted ‘knowledge experts’ who are also decent ‘political animals’, we wouldn’t have that many to offer? Or they might not be so open to serve the political interests of their home country?

There are other necessary competencies, many of which go unrecognised or are undervalued:

Broad and reflected comparative experience. There are still ‘expert-advisers’ who know extremely well how a certain government institution works in their home country. But have no broad comparative perspective and are not necessarily familiar with the learning from comparative experience. One of the consequences can be divergent paradigms and contradictory advice. As a senior military from a Western country told me, who had been working as an adviser with the top command of the Afghan army: “The Americans were building an ‘American’ style Afghan army. The British a British-style one. Other countries advised along the lines of their national armies. Nobody was building an ‘Afghan’ army.” Different development partners sometimes supply different types of equipment to the same national counterpart institution. Who then find themselves with additional maintenance and repair problems. So too, different organisational (and political) paradigms will reduce the functionality of the national institution they want to strengthen.

A real ‘expert’ adviser has to be familiar with different approaches from different countries, say for the financing of health care, and can explain to the national counterparts what the underlying logics and consequences of each are. None of them has to be a model to be copied. National actors can use that diversity as a source of ideas to craft their own institution. You would also expect an ‘expert’ adviser to be well familiar with the critiques and learning from wider comparative experience, say for example on the reintegration of ex-combatants, so that known mistakes are not repeated. That is not necessarily the case.

Shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’. Some, not all, experts have been do-ers. They are acting members of their national police force or army. They normally work as e.g. auditors, prosecutors or departmental managers in their home country’s tax revenue office. We can excel as do-ers, but feel uncomfortable or ill prepared to act as mentors or facilitators. Relinquishing control and resisting the temptation to take over and do it yourself – because it will be done quicker and better- can be a difficult attitudinal change.

Strong interpersonal skills. Daniel Goleman has drawn our attention to ‘emotional intelligence’, and to ‘social intelligence’. In essence this means: self-awareness and self-management, awareness of the other and management of the relationships with others. Effectiveness in our work is not only a matter of rational intelligence and argument. It also dependents on how we relate to and work with people. In which the one element that we potentially have most control over, is ‘how’ we are. Being an effective adviser, just as being an effective leader or change agent, requires conscious investment also in personal development.

Cross-cultural competencies. When I started meeting my wife’s family in India, she impressed on me several behavioural do’s and don’ts. Always showing respect to elder was one. Another, never to point my foot soles at someone else: as they carry the dirt from outside, this is very insulting. Remember the Iraqi who threw his shoe at George Bush Jr? Losing your temper in Asia is generally seen as extremely bad and shameful behaviour. When the Japanese negotiate, they seek to establish a relationship and a win-win situation. They need to adapt to Western styles of negotiation that often aim at a win-lose outcome. Small things in the eyes of some, but not for others, that can have a big impact on the overall relationship.

There are other, deeper cultural differences that have been identified through research, for example by Geert Hofstede and others building on his work. How many of us working in other societies would be able to comment on the differences in ‘power distance’? Or whether they are ‘low’- or ‘high-context’ communication environments?

There can also be big differences between institutional sectors: the public, private and not-for profit sector speak different ‘languages’ and often seem to operate according to a different logic. This can make it difficult to establish cross-sectoral partnerships. As the military got more involved in international humanitarian action and reconstruction, they and NGOs had to get used to very different institutional cultures. But there are also differences in institutional cultures between organisations in the same sector: e.g. among military contingents from different countries, as every Force Commander of a multilateral peacekeeping operation knows, and between NGOs. The ‘culture’ of MSF is not that of Worldvision.

When working in the Ogaden, I regularly found myself the mediating interface between Somalis with their ‘egalitarian’ social behaviour, and Ethiopian Highlanders with a hierarchical, deferential one. Effective advising also means learning to sense different societal and institutional cultures, and find a good fit, mostly working with the grain rather than against it.

Change processes. Technical-thematic experts are deployed to contribute to improved institutional performance. That usually requires ‘change’. But like most of us, few have a practical framework to understand and guide ‘change processes’. Only one phenomenon stands out: resistance from the other, typically the national colleagues. Foreign advisers are usually blind to the often profound ‘resistance’ to change in the international development partners, and possible ‘resistance’ in themselves. We rarely analyse the very different reasons that can underpin ‘resistance’. Perhaps the development partners have created ‘reform overload’: too much too fast? How many experts have a conscious repertoire of tactics to try and reduce / overcome resistance, and an understanding of how ‘change’ at a larger scale -and over a longer period of time- actually happens? One thing is certain: it will not be ‘according to plan’.

Different types of advice. Too many advisers still operate with the belief that they can or always must provide ‘solutions’. In some instances, this can be appropriate. There certainly will be the expectation and pressure, from both the home and host country, to do so. Is that not what ‘experts’ are for? And yet, in practice we then often end up imposing external models, that may not be the best fit for where the national institution is now, that are not owned and will not be sustained.  

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (‘Complexity, contractors and consultants’) advisers can also provide the national counterparts with ‘options’ to choose from, or simply ideas to consider. Or recommend a process that brings into a collective reflection the range of key stakeholders and experts, to collectively work through the diagnosis and develop solutions that can get broad support and will be workable.

Sometimes this happens, taking the form of a somewhat larger ‘policy community’. Recommending a process that would involve the wider public, or citizenry, is exceedingly rare however, and would probably be considered quite ‘extravagant’. And yet, that is precisely how a healthier governance relationship, between people and authorities, can be created. In Guatemala, a number of Guatemalan civil society organisations were actively part of the policy community working through the challenges of security sector reform and democratic security though there was no broader public involvement. In Burundi, a key adviser to the security sector managed to mobilise some public engagement, to get the security personnel to understand how they are perceived and what the public expects from them.

If we don’t encourage public participation in institution-building and public policy development, then our international cooperation de facto encourages technocratic elite- rather than more participatory governance.


Expert advisers can also expect to be confronted with different moral and effectiveness dilemmas.

Some common effectiveness dilemmas:

Ø Rhythms and speed: The formal planning, budgeting and implementation schedules of international and national actors do not always align. But beyond ‘formal time’ there is also ‘political’ and ‘social’ or ‘anthropological’ time, which may have a critical influence on the actual effectiveness of the effort. Whose ‘time’ and ‘rhythms’ will the advisor follow? Does s/he ‘step in’ and ‘step up’ by becoming more ‘hands on’ in order to move things forward, or does s/he stay with the often slower rhythm of nationally-driven capacity-strengthening and institutional reform? When does this become acceptance of a problematic ‘status quo’?

Ø Local solutionsinternational standards: Does the advisor encourage and support ‘local solutions’ (that, for the time being, are the ‘best possible fit’) even if they fall quite short of what are held to be ’international standards’?

Ø The right to learn through trial – and sometimes error? Does the advisor ‘allow’ the national actors to ‘experiment’ and to ‘learn-by-doing’, including to ‘learn from mistakes’, even if s/he is very sceptical that their proposed move will produce results?

Ø What responsibility regarding sustainability? Does the advisor encourage the creation of internationally driven and –supported structures and procedures, even if it is clear that they will not, in the medium-term future, be sustainable with national resources and skills only?

   Some possible moral dilemmas:

Ø Advisors may find themselves in situations where they have to work closely with people that are suspected or known to be responsible for serious human rights violations and to have ‘blood on their hands’. But who – for political purposes- have been co-opted in the current governance structure. Are they unwittingly complicit in perpetuating ‘impunity’?

Ø Advisors often find themselves in a situation where they have to answer to multiple bosses, or at least multiple stakeholders: minimally their national counterpart(s), their field- or mission-level superiors, and possibly their home government who mobilized them in the first place. International actors may ask them for insight information about what is being discussed and happening within the national entity they are working with. The latter may suspect them of ‘being spies’ for one or more international actors, and may even deliberately try to ‘test’ the advisors on this. Where do their loyalties lie, who do they see themselves as most accountable to?

Are you ready to be an expert-adviser in another country?

[i]Pioneering work to better prepare expert advisers was undertaken by Nadia Gerspacher of the US Institute for Peace. Together with Jan Ubels and Nora Refaeil, we built on this work and took it further in the development of a course on ‘Effective Advising’. For a more extensive discussion of these issues, see my papers ‘Value for Money?’ and ‘Jill and Jack of all Trades’.


'WE DIDN'T HIRE YOUR CV, WE HIRED YOU.' Approaches to Organisational Assessment and Development

I. Organisational Capacity is More than the Sum of Thematic-Technical Expertise.

A few months ago I was in conversation with a non-Western organisation, who had advertised for ‘OD support’. In 15 days they wanted one consultant to do what sounded like ‘everything’, including reviewing the functioning of the governance organs, developing stronger external communications and fundraising strategies and drafting a finance manual. My suggestion that ‘internal communications’ might be important didn’t seem to resonate. Apparently we had different understandings of ‘organisational development’, how it differs or not from ‘capacity-development’ (CD) and what an appropriate role is for an OD adviser. This is generally the case, so let me offer here a glimpse of different lenses on and approaches to OD.

First a few clarifications:

By ‘capacities’ I mean the ability of a formally or informally organised group of people to perform certain tasks with a decent level of thematic, technical and/or procedural skill. If we want to improve these ‘capacities’, we can call on specific expertise such as a finance, communications, gender or public health specialist. Developing such capacities in-house certainly adds some ‘organisational’ strength. But it does not necessarily add up to better overall organisational performance. This can, and often is, affected by internal disconnects of a different nature.

Every ‘organisation’ is more than the sum of its parts, and has a certain existence and life of its own. ‘Organisational development’ happens at that systemic level. An OD adviser looks at the dynamics of different interrelated elements within a holistic perspective.

The nuance can be observed, for example, with regard to ‘mainstreaming’. Many ‘mainstreaming’ efforts struggle because they are pursued with a technical/thematic rather than an OD perspective.

II. Capacity and Organisational Assessments: Why and Who?

Who initiates the ‘capacity’ or ‘organisational’ assessment and why, are two factors with significant influence.

In the international cooperation sector, such assessments often precede a decision whether to fund or to partner with another organisation. (Reciprocal ‘assessments’ are extremely rare.) We all tend to become defensive when something feels ‘imposed’ from outside: internally initiated and ‘owned’ CD or OD exercises are likely to have more traction. But internal ‘assessments’ are often initiated because of a perception that things are ‘not working so well’. If only the senior management’s view of ‘what is not going well’ is heard, resistance from the other people is likely.

Both triggers share an underlying concern for a potential risk, or the perception there is a ‘problem’. Why not undertake such assessment out of a more positive, developmental sense, to stimulate the potential to go to the next level?

There is a multitude of frameworks and approaches. Their choice is not neutral or simply a matter of ‘technical superiority’ of one over the other. Choices can be tactical, but also have a much deeper influence on where the exercise leads, as the following examples illustrate.

III. Pyramidal Organisations. Assessing Form and Functioning.

a. Are you properly dressed?

Here the assessment concentrates on whether the organisation under review has the markers that you would expect.  We look at its structures, policies and procedures: Is it legally registered, does it have a governing entity that provides oversight, does it have a mission and vision statement, human resource and financial policies and detailed procedures that meet minimal standards? Do people have job descriptions, are there salary scales, independent audits of accounts, no conflicts of interest at management or Board level etc.

In essence, we examine whether the ‘form’ corresponds to what we expect from a ‘modern’ organisation, particularly if it handles public money. For those familiar with Matt Andrew’s work on institutional reform in development: has the organisation successfully ‘mimicked’ i.e. imitated, the external model? Relevant as it may be, this approach on its own largely misses the ball: organisations are like ice-bergs, most of it is hidden below the surface.

b. Within those clothes, how healthy are you?

Nice clothes may hide a diseased or feeble body. McKinsey research has established a strong correlation between sustained organisational health and superior performance. One excellent framework to assess what shape different parts of the body are in, is the BOND ‘Health Check’.

The ‘Health Check’ focuses on 11 ‘pillars’ that relate to core functions: Identity and integrity; Leadership and strategy; Partners; Beneficiaries; Programmes; People; Money; External Relations; Monitoring (not a good head title); Internal relations; and Influencing. For each pillar there are several components or indicators. For each component, the participants in the exercise can choose between statements that indicate a progressive improvement, and explain their choice. For example: ‘Communications’ is part of the ‘External Relations’ function, and respondents can choose between statements that describe a spectrum, with as lowest score “We use a few methods to communicate our work. Communications are ad hoc and there is no formal planning” and as highest score “We have a communications strategy that defines our target audience and key messages and channels. (…) We are coherent in how we communicate in our fundraising, public education, and advocacy work.”

Such self-assessment can be done by senior management alone. It can better include all staff, and even other stakeholders, such as volunteers, supporters, suppliers, partners, beneficiaries etc., along the lines of a ‘social audit’.

This ‘Health Check’ is not overly focused on the ‘form’, but understandably contains references that suggest certain hierarchies (from CEO to intern), structures (departments, country offices), processes (strategy, planning) and policies and procedures (finance, HR).

When checking on the clothing, we are likely to look for what is wrong or missing, that would mean that the organisation cannot now be invited to the party. The health check is more balanced. But our tendency for ‘deficit thinking’ i.e. to focus on the gaps, the weaknesses, what is problematic, may still creep in.

IV. Going Deeper: Images of organisation.

In 1986 Morgan published his ‘Images of Organisation’. He argues that organisations are built and experienced according to certain mental images. More often than not, these are unconscious. He identifies eight different, not necessarily exclusive, images, visualised here.  Organisations can be imagined as ‘machines’ or as ‘organisms’, as something like the ‘brain’, or through the dominant lens of ‘culture’. They can be looked at as ‘political systems’, as ‘instruments of domination’ and experienced as ‘psychic prisons’. Or they can be understood as something in constant change.  

Morgan’s mental images seem to cover a spectrum. On one end there is the organisation as an instrument of domination and therefore a political arena. This can easily result in employees being treated like cogs in a machine and ‘psychic prisons’: people at all levels become stuck in certain perspectives, mind-sets, patterns of interpretation, behaviours and processes, that make it near impossible to see other aspects of reality and to adapt or innovate. Towards the other end of the spectrum is the image of an organisation as an organism, a living entity, that understands its existence in a wider eco-system. This is much more self-organising, and more open to evolution and transformation.

The ‘brain’ image considers organisations as information processing and learning systems that, like the brain, can and have to be both ‘specialised’ and ‘holistic’. This perspective is relevant on any point of the spectrum, just as that of organisational ‘culture’, the intangible ways of ‘how we do things here’.

Morgan's ‘images’ bring to the fore important dimensions of organisational life and performance, that the previous approaches did not pick up very well. Certainly those of ‘power’ and ‘culture’ that can be anywhere on a spectrum between ‘stifling’ and ‘enabling’. At a deeper level perhaps the fundamental difference in an outlook (including of the OD adviser or management consultant) that sees organisations mostly in ‘machine’ terms, or more as a ‘living organism’.

In the first view, which dates back to the industrial revolution and Taylor’s 1912 ‘Principles of Scientific Management’, employees, but also clients or patients, risks becoming functional cogs in a machine, largely interchangeable numbers. While an organisation that is a living organism is made up of a complex network of interacting living cells, that provide it with its life force. (A second image or mind set can come here into play: when some cells become dysfunctional and threaten the wellbeing of the organism, they can be destroyed by a more or less targeted intervention, Western-medicine style. Or we can change our life style and boost the immune system, in a more traditional Eastern medical approach.) Moreover, a machine is fairly self-contained, an organism exists in a wider eco-system.

Too abstract, less practical than the ‘Health Check’ for example? In a certain way yes. But it is also possible to explore where an organisation is at now, and where it wants to go, using these images. Example questions: 1. You observe that many decisions seem to be influenced by personal ambitions (Political System). How can you move to decision-making more based on information and reasoning (Brain)? What may enable that, what resistance is likely to arise from whom? 2. You feel that you are all too stuck with certain perspectives on the ‘world out there’ (Psychic Prison), and that your way of operating is losing effectiveness in a changing world. How can you create a culture that encourages adaptation and even innovation (Organism/Change Flux)?

V. When a Glass Half Empty Becomes Half Full: Appreciative Inquiry.

‘Appreciative Inquiry’ was developed as a lightly structured change strategy. But it is also a mind-set. It is the opposite of deficit thinking. Rather than focusing on the gaps and what is not going well, it seeks to identify the strengths and to do more of what works well. Appreciative inquiry sees organisations as living organisms and believes in their adaptive and creative potential. To Morgan’s attention points about organisational life, it adds another factor: energy levels and the nature of that energy.

AI invites people to focus on the positive experiences, and bring out the ‘best of what is’. It then encourages people to consider the next positive level and to envisage what that looks and feels like. Along the lines of a GROW coaching approach, it seeks to catalyse the collective energy to bring that positive future about.

There is nothing naïve about the approach. Anybody with some working experience appreciates the impact of the broader ‘atmosphere’: Where there is constant focus on the negative, our energy, commitment, sense of responsibility and creativity goes down. When there is regular appreciation of the positive, our drive to do even better is stimulated.

Deficit thinking prevails in the international development sector and in many work environments. Here and there however, an ‘appreciative inquiry’ mind-set can be detected. For example, in the now fashionable celebration of ‘resilience’ instead of ‘fragility’, and in the advice to learn from ‘positive deviance’ cases: in the real success stories, identify the key enabling factors that we need to take with us or create elsewhere.

VI. Out-of-the Pyramid: People Working Together for a Purpose.

Most of us have never experienced other than pyramid-shaped organisational structures. We understand their rationales that underpin a functional division of labour to maximise specialist expertise, command and control to ensure compliance and performance, and a strategically structured drive for greater efficiency and growth in a competitive market.

Most of us have also experienced the drawbacks: Silos and turf wars; internal politicking for personal advancement; a 'work space' where everybody plays a public persona and leaves most of who they are at the door; narrowly walled ‘job descriptions’ that you cannot grow into or grow beyond; employees that get dismissed when their unit or function is less needed rather than be enabled to change role to another part of the organisation, general frustration with the obligatory annual performance reviews, and top managers who – only in the private space with their coach- admit to their exhaustion from all the politicking and sense of emptiness because they live inauthentic lives.

Yet there is a surprising number of not-for-profit and for-profit organisations, across a range of sectors from manufacturing and services, that operate very differently. Some comprise thousands of people. Some are even publicly listed.

The foundation of this is the collective responsibility and accountability for the overall performance, survival and development of the organisation. These ‘organisations’ shape as networks of teams instead of a pyramid. Teams make commitments among each other and with other teams and hold each other accountable on an ongoing basis, not once-a-year. The fundamental functioning of individuals is framed in terms of ‘roles’ rather than a ‘job’. People can shift roles, picking up something that needs to be done, or do so for a longer period if their colleagues believe they qualify for it. Leadership is distributed and not monopolised at the top. Decisions are not constantly pushed up and down through management systems that generate a lot of friction. No decision can be taken by anyone without a mandatory advisory process. Inevitable divergence of opinion is channelled into constructive rather than toxic ‘conflict’. All are trained in constructive conflict resolution. If need be external coaches can be called upon.

Self-managing organisations also face internal and market place challenges: But they tap into the collective commitment, creativity and positive energy, to deal with them.

This is not some sort of hippie idealism or post-communist collectivism. Twelve fairly ‘radical’ such cases are well described and analysed by Laloux in his ‘Reinventing Organisations’. (You don’t need to subscribe to his evolutionary perspective, to appreciate the case research). But there are many more trends and examples in the same direction. We’ve heard about Google company giving its employees 20% of their time to pursue their own projects (they didn’t invent this). They have made the choice to create innovation space for all, rather than set up an ‘innovation unit’. But Laszlo Bock’s (Google's top HR person) ‘Work Rules’ book (2015) reveals wider working practices that encourage collective responsibility and high degrees of self-management. Google still has ‘managers’, but their ability to abuse their power and make unilateral decisions is strongly controlled. Google has its own version of ‘kaizen’: continuous improvement, for which everyone in the company can bring up ideas. And because it chooses belief in people rather than distrust as starting point, it also practices great internal transparency. Good only for geeks? Bridgewater Associates, one of the world's major hedge funds, records every meeting and makes it available to all employees.

Not convinced? Are ‘hackathons’ and ‘crowd-thinking not approaches to tap into the collective talent?

Not possible for really serious matters? Well, in 2012 Swiss voters in a national referendum rejected a proposal to increase the annual paid holiday from 4 to 6 weeks. Because they felt it might affect their economic competitiveness. In the political community of Swiss Inc., citizens have much more influence than in most other Western-style ‘democracies’. Because they feel a strong sense of ‘ownership’ for their collective wellbeing, they handle their citizenship rights and duties generally with great responsibility. A nice example of people at all levels not choosing for their immediate self-interest (ego-system), but based on the wider consideration: how do we keep this habitat (eco-system) healthy and thriving?

Machines and organisms experience change very differently: Pyramids like to keep their shape. Change is very painful. The existing shape needs to be ‘unfrozen’, then a change process pushed through usually in the face of ‘resistance’, and the new shape then refrozen again. According to McKinsey research, less than a quarter of organisational redesign efforts succeed. By contrast, living organisms know that change is inevitable. There will be less intrinsic resistance to change.

Swift changes in the environment of course can be catastrophic for an organism. Just as machines go out-of-date or ‘kaput’. But consider the potential of all members of the organisation, rather than just a few managers at the top, scanning the internal environment for ways to improve and the external environment for developments that may affect it, for opportunities for new work, new sources of income, new ways to provide value to people.

How do you work with this as an OD adviser? You go back to the source: An organisation is a group of people that come together for a purpose. Collectively they are more than the sum of the individual parts in terms of energy, competency, creativity etc. So what social contract can they establish with each other, that creates an enabling atmosphere for all to bring the best of themselves (not just the ‘work persona’) in the service of that purpose? What does that mean then in terms of how work is shared, how decisions are made, how salaries and benefits are determined and distributed, how responsibility and accountability for the quality of work is handled. And what relationship it seeks with external stakeholders?

Many of us engaged in international cooperation want to encourage healthy social and political contracts between citizens and the state authorities. We advocate for inclusion, dignity, all voices to be heard. The World Bank and others promote the learning about approaches for greater ‘citizen engagement’. Several of us have gone on leadership courses where we learned about the superior potential of ‘transformational’ over ‘transactional leadership’.

Did Gandhi not advice: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world!’ Surely we are able to consider ‘social contract’ forms for our collective work, other than largely transactional hierarchies?

VII. A Middle Way: The 5C Framework.

If we recognise that purpose and people are central to organisational life and evolution, but don’t want to do away too quickly with structure and procedures, the 5Cs framework can serve us well. It emerged out of a comparative study by the ECPDM of very divers organisations in different countries (Baser & Morgan 2008).

The research showed that sustainable organisations are fairly strong in 5 core capabilities. The capability to ‘deliver on objectives’ (or to create value for others) we understand easily. The capability ‘to commit and to act’ is not just a matter of material and financial resources. This also refers to the overall level of motivation, energy, confidence, will to move forward also in the face of constraints and setbacks. The ‘capability to relate and attract’ considers the multitude of relations with external stakeholders and those we seek to influence. But also to the ability to attract and retain financial support and good colleagues. The capability to ‘adapt and renew’ covers re-positioning and responding to changes in the external environment, but also pro-active innovation and renewal from within. The organisational ability to learn fits here too. Finally, the capability to ‘maintain internal coherence’ draws the attention to other challenges: does the organisation practice what it preaches, does geographical or functional dispersal lead to fragmentation or not, how can participation still lead to effective decision-making, what is a healthy balance between needed stability and equally needed change?

The 5Cs framework does not presume a certain form, pyramidal or other. As a flexible approach it creates space for conversations that can focus on the weaknesses and failures as well as on the strengths and successes. It can be done with different circles of participation. It is possible to zoom in on one ‘capability’ as a priority area. Without losing sight of the broader system.

VIII. So what now?

Do you need to make a choice between these, or any of the other frameworks and approaches available? No, most OD advisers draw on several. More importantly, choose what best fits the situation and the entry point that is given: Often there will be openness to something like the BOND Health Check, or the 5Cs framework for broad, canvas-wide conversations. Deeper inquiry into the internal dynamics of power, relationship, responsibility and accountability can feel threatening. That requires trust in the OD adviser. And a strong organisational focus on ‘purpose’ rather than ‘power’ and ‘position’. Use your relationship and asking skills to slowly move into these sensitive but vital aspects that really determine organisational strength. 

1. Jeffrey Swartz as CEO of Timberland, quoted by Adam Bryant as ""it wasn't your résumé we hired, it was you." The Corner Office 2011: 216






Capacity development’ (CD) has been a long-standing feature of international aid-based cooperation. The two most prominent modalities of CD-support have and continue to be ‘training’ and the provision of technical-thematic experts as advisers.

The demand of local and national agencies in aid-recipient environments for greater ‘localisation’, may trigger a new wave of CD. But have we learned from experience?

Reports that capture the views of the new Syrian non-state agencies that have emerged since the uprising, about the trainings they received from international agencies, suggest we haven’t. Their critical comments relate to attention points identified more than a decade ago, e.g. by Anderson & Olson (Confronting War 2003) or Sprenger (The Training Process: Achieving social impact by training individuals? 2005).

I.              Why Does So Much Training Have Little Impact?

Why does much training, of people-in-practice, not lead to the desired changes in the participant’s behaviour, and has little to no impact on collective capacity? The most common reasons relate to the participation, content and learning approach.

a.       Participation.

§  Poor selection: The participants are not necessarily people that can influence their teams or wider organisation, or they are not motivated to do so: the main interest is their personal development, perhaps to foster their individual career;

§  Lack of critical mass: The re-entry problem is well known: when I return to an environment that continues with ‘business as usual’, I cannot apply the new insights or skills I have learned in a training course and I quickly give up trying. Even a participant in a position of influence will struggle to introduce some changes until there is more of a critical mass of colleagues who have been through the same learning process;

§  No ongoing support: Even with space to try out the new learning, there is no ongoing support when our learners hit an important question or run into a problem;

§  Staff turn-over: Trained staff leave the organisation to go elsewhere. Or we create our own loss of return-on-investment by moving them to another position where they cannot or must not use their acquired learning. How often have we seen that with colleagues trained as ‘trainers’?

b.      Content and learning approach.

§  The content is experienced as too theoretical and too general: it doesn’t resonate with the particular context and challenges that participants are struggling with;

§  Training courses are fragmented aggregations of topics, delivered by different people whose inputs are not harmonised substantively nor pedagogically;

§  The delivery does not respect principles of adult learning: too many lectures, panel discussions and other formats that are not interactive and do not address the priorities and concerns of the participants;

§  Participants are not able to practice their learning during the learning event: they may have gained some awareness, perhaps some theoretical knowledge, but not ‘skill’;

§  The learning doesn’t engage the whole person: Trainers and participants stay at the rational-intellectual level. But there is no deep learning without deeper engagement. Yet, there is a difference between a carpenter who is technically good, and one who is also passionate about working with wood and takes pride in her work. You can see the difference between an aid worker who is technically good at food distributions, and one who also remains aware of the real purpose: protecting the nutritional health and dignity of fellow human beings who find themselves in extreme circumstances. Just as a trainer with a hierarchical mind set cannot truly train on participatory methods, because s/he has herself difficulty relinquishing control.

II.   Making Training More Impactful.

a.       Content.

The content needs to speak to the priority concerns and the contexts of the target audience. That can only happen if it becomes more demand than supply driven.

This is easier when training-in than training-out-of-context. When running security management training courses years ago, it was much easier to train e.g. threat assessment, threshold of acceptable risk, acceptance strategy or incident analysis on location, in Tajikistan or Indonesia for example, than in the UK with participants from many different contexts. On location we could directly apply the frameworks with the participants. In the UK course we had to explain that there was no generic answer sheet, because all generic advice still needed to be filtered through ‘situational judgment’. The point is relevant in general: Finance training for aid agencies operating in south-central Somalia or Yemen will have to take into account what is feasible in those contexts: Three independent quotes and receipts for every expenditure might not be realistic. Just as ‘feedback’ or ‘complaints handling’ mechanisms for populations dealing with aid agencies, need to find a practical expression that will work in a given context.

One important caveat here: we do not always know what we don’t know and may not appreciate the importance of something until we gain more insight in it. If one day the violence in Syria stops, we know from experiences elsewhere that there will be, as example, major disputes over land, housing and commercial property. Even if that scenario is nearer, there may not be demand (or even supply) for learning about how to handle this, until it has already become a widespread problem. Just as we may not express a demand for training in e.g. participatory budgeting or participatory polling, because we simply don’t know that it exists and how it can be relevant and beneficial for us.

b.      Learning approaches.

Application and practice are central. Providing frameworks, explaining underlying principles, illustrative examples from other settings are all relevant. But the purpose of effective learning is to go beyond awareness and ‘theoretical’ knowledge, to skill: the ability to do.

That means case studies, exercises, role play etc. enhanced by constructive feedback. There is no learning like guided, experiential learning– and repeat exercise to improve.

You can’t learn facilitation skills or get better at public speaking, without practicing (and observing yourself in action on video), You can get better at negotiating with armed actors wanting to block your relief convoy, if you have been able to try it out repeatedly in role plays with different scenarios and interlocutors. You cannot learn to become more comfortable using different leadership styles based on their situational appropriateness, without rehearsing in a safe space, or working through real-life events with a coach or other trusted sounding board.

Language can play a role: When training Libyans in facilitation skills, I was assisted by my Lebanese colleague who would translate or lead directly in Arabic. We deliberately provided regular time for things to proceed in Arabic, as even excellent translation cannot capture the finer nuances and deeper differences in outlook between Libyans having lived 40 years under the Qaddafi regime and a European.

Deeper learning requires the training to cover less, and leave more time for practice. Self-evident as this may seem, most training courses do not adhere to this. Simply because practice, repeat practice, conversations and learning in different languages with some translated summary, take time. And many of us, those seeking training, the trainers or those sponsoring the training, don’t want to invest too much time in ‘training’ or ‘being trained’.

c.     Role shift.

When our focus shifts from the ‘delivery of supplied training’ to the ‘learning of the participants’, the ‘trainer’ becomes more of a ‘learning facilitator’. 

Effective learning facilitators in our international cooperation context have to be much more than ‘trainers’: We need to be able to grasp the context the learners operate in, and what trajectory has brought them, their programme, organisation or network, to where they are now. We need to be able to provide relevant illustrative examples from other contexts, but be ready to explore with the participants what might be the most appropriate approach in their particular situation. This definitely must happen for a training/learning event ‘in context’. But major steps in that shift are also possible for an ‘out-of-context’ learning event.

What does a learning facilitator do differently from a classical trainer?

  • More and different preparation: Learning facilitators want to know beforehand who the participants are and where they come from. This is about more than biographical paragraphs.  As much as possible, they want to have an idea of why they seek a particular training, what their most important questions are. When they can design the course, they may ask participants to send in advance a brief ‘case study’ of a relevant situation that they are currently struggling with, or an important unresolved one from the past. Participant cases can then be integrated in the learning programme, also through peer-learning. When participants come from the same organisation or a few operating in the same environment, the learning facilitators want to learn about the organisation(s) and that context in advance.
  • An integrated learning programme: ‘Buffet style’ courses cover a lot of different topics and are ‘delivered’ by a diverse set of trainers or resource persons, without real effort to create a thematic and pedagogical integration.  As a participant I too have enjoyed sampling a variety of different dishes from different cooks. But it never added up to a memorable ‘dining experience’ that took me to the next level. When my purpose as course director is to give my participants a real learning experience that is relevant to the actual challenges they face in their professional life and personal development, I need to create a programme flow with thematic integration and pedagogical variation, enough time for ‘practice’, and some flexibility to respond to emerging demand. If I use different resource persons, I will extensively engage with them in advance, to ensure the best ‘fit’ of their content and educational approach to the particular participant profile and within the larger programme;
  • Flexible lesson/course planning: We don’t want over-prepared sessions that force participants to follow the lesson ‘plan’. We also don’t want an approach that is highly responsive to participant questions but vulnerable to criticism of being too ‘unstructured’. My best solution so far is to prepare, trying to anticipate what might be key questions for participants based on what I know about them, but also considering relevant attention points or learning they may not have thought about (yet). Early in a session, I will ask participants what their big questions are regarding the topic.  Then we can together asses what my preparations enable me to engage with, and what not. If participants want to spend more time on a particular issue or exercise, then the necessary trade-off is explicitly discussed with the group. They need to share the responsibility for how we make the most of this learning opportunity.
  • Connect: Even for a session of 90 minutes, I will try and learn people’s names, and connect briefly, before, during and after, to at least some of them. My being more fully present invites them to do the same, so we are ready for a joint learning journey.

What other characteristics have proven relevant and valuable for me as learning facilitator? My own practical and broad comparative experience:  It helps to identify with the challenges my co-learners face, and to quickly pick up important aspects of a context. Also experience as a facilitator, working with groups, including their emotional dynamics. A growing skill in asking catalytic questions that help the others think deeper and more creatively about solutions they haven’t yet seen. And an acceptance that the collective intelligence and wisdom can likely to be more than what I have in my suitcase of answers and solutions.

III.        Beyond Individual Training: Team learning and organisational capacity.

More relevant content and more experiential approaches will improve the individual learning. But the ‘theories of change’ that assume this will then quite automatically translate into better professional practice and broader team or organisational competency, have been constantly proven wrong. There is no robust evidence that ‘training of trainers’ offers the solution here.

Where the aim is to strengthen broader capacity and not just that of individuals, the approach has to change radically. Significant shifts are required not only from ‘trainers’ but also from three other key stakeholders:

§  Organisations looking to strengthen their capacities have a broad organisational commitment to it, and a strategy. Training moments can be part of that. But the overall organisational learning and development also takes place in many other ways: by recruiting people with strong learning abilities; identifying some organisational learning priorities; managers or team leaders inquiring as often about learning as about finance and workplans etc. Where a focused learning event is needed, a critical mass of key people is identified, and a training/learning facilitation provider that can tailor its offer to the particular context and client.  Many real world challenges also require organisations to collaborate if they want to have some scale and impact. Different organisations operating in the same environment can therefore aggregate their demand, share the costs, and subsequently benefit from easier collaboration because of their shared learning.

§  Training institutions can continue to have a core repertoire of fairly standardised training courses. But overall they get much better at tailoring their role and input to the needs of particular clients, and much of their training takes place on or near location. Some form of blended learning can become a powerful combination: Information and knowledge can be shared through e-learning. This is then followed by face-to-face facilitated learning with an emphasis on practice and fit-for-context. Structurally, we probably need less providers of isolated training courses, and more institutions that are able to offer or facilitate a longer-term ‘learning and development’ accompaniment, in a more mentoring style.

§  Those sponsoring training significantly reduce funding of one-off training courses, and invest more in longer term capacity-development strategies, with accompaniment and organisational mentorship.

Now we are ready to shift from ‘outputs’ in terms of numbers of courses and participants, and start working towards ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact’.


LOCALISATION: "As local as possible, as international as necessary". alternative approaches to capacity-development.

1. Substituting rather than Supporting Local Capacities.

One of the alleged reasons why international relief agencies in most crises continue to ‘take over’ from local governmental and non-governmental actors, is the alleged ‘lack of capacity’ by the latter. That observation can be partially correct: Local agencies that can drive, coordinate and delivery assistance are themselves often affected by major natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, or the wars in Yemen and Syria. Overwhelmed local capacities justify international support. The problem occurs when the latter actually further undermines local capacities by hiring away all the best local people to boost their own, and by taking over the decision making. And when this situation persists not just for months but often for years. ‘Support’ for local capacities has become ‘substitution’. Is there really no other way? Here some ideas, underpinned by practical experiences, for different ways of operating.

2. Unpacking ‘Capacities’.

Generalised conversations about ‘capacities’ lead nowhere. Let us consider what are some of the major and frequent ‘capacity challenges’ that relief providers in time of crisis face:

Meeting donor requirements: The administrative requirements of bilateral and multilateral donors are notoriously complex, and in recent years have only become more demanding. Irrespective of how good you actually are ‘on the ground’, if you can’t write the proposals, budgets and track records according to the required formats and standards, you will not even be considered for funding. Writing skills are almost more decisive than your actual capacity to ‘do things’. Later you need to be able to meet the often diverse reporting requirements and be able to handle sophisticated evaluations.

Technical-thematic expertise: If you want to register people in need or run nutritional, immunisation or water and sanitation programmes, you need the technical expertise. If you want to protect women from gender based violence, or the rights of children not to suffer the consequences of armed conflict, you need some thematic expertise but also much socio-political skill.

Scaling up – and scaling down: Often large populations are affected, and larger relief operations are needed. Scaling up rapidly – increasing budgets and staff but also the management oversight over bigger operations- poses significant organizational challenges. Sometime in future, the situation will have stabilised and needs are less acute, or funding levels decline, and you will be faced with the reverse organizational challenge of perhaps equally rapidly scaling down.

Understanding and navigating the specific environment: All environments have complex social, cultural, political and economic dynamics that are affected by the crisis and by the crisis response. We need to learn how the local populations see ‘the world’, assess the intended and unintended impacts of the presence and provision of assistance in that situation, and avoid attempts to benefit from it in ways that we do not find acceptable. We also need to build or maintain a broad network of collaborative relations as most challenges are too big and complex to be handled by one agency alone.

Operating with conflict-sensitivity: Providing assistance in troubled environments comes with the responsibility at least not to put oil on the fire of existing tensions and conflicts, nor to create new ones. This cannot happen without the in-depth understanding of the ‘context’ mentioned and a close monitoring of intended and unintended impacts of your presence and actions.

Many international relief agencies have strong competencies in the first two capacity challenges: meeting donor requirements and technical-thematic expertise. Some have the organizational experience with rapidly scaling up and down, though many others will also struggle. More often than not, they are not strong at understanding and navigating the specific context with conflict-sensitivity. Does such 'competencies picture' justify the substitution of local capacities? We don't think so.

3. Alternatives to Substitution.

Suppose the international relief industry operated very differently, and would always make ‘supporting local capacities’ a strategic objective next to saving lives and protecting basic rights. Here are three possible components of what such scenario might look like:

a. Seconding very qualified staff: Rather than hiring away the best local people, international agencies second highly qualified staff to local organisations to boost their capacities where they are most challenged. They essentially have an advisory support role, on technical, thematic and managerial issues, but can lead on donor required paperwork if it includes also training and mentoring local staff. This is not as easy as it sounds: To bring real value, such seconded international staff needs to be very experienced, but also have necessary ‘soft skills’: strong interpersonal and cross-cultural skills, the ability to make the shift from ‘do-er’ to ‘adviser’, being a mentor more than a trainer, knowing how to deal constructively with perceived resistance etc. This is not different from the ‘technical assistance’ that is often provided to national governments. It also requires the local organisation to be willing to learn and develop, and make the most of this opportunity. And to accept the inevitable salary differentials, as long as the seconded person provides real value-for-money and does so with the required sensitivity.

b. Systematic and extended training: Sometimes there simply will not be an existing local capacity or one with the potential to grow. Many years ago I joined the Afghanistan Vaccination and Immunisation Centre. It was set up by French doctors who, contrary to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in the few medical agencies then working in rural Afghanistan, believed that Afghans were capable of running something as technically complex as an immunization programme. From day one, they started a training center. Afghan doctors were further trained as trainers for this particular health operation. Afghans, recruited in Afghanistan and not the refugee camps, were trained as vaccinators and cold chain technicians. The best of those became supervisors, the best of those again became epidemiological surveyors etc. Others were trained on administration and finance etc. It was often too dangerous in various provinces for expatriates to monitor. But after prolonged working together, there was real trust in the Afghan supervisors and surveyors. In truth: I have never seen any other programme since, that so systematically invested in the development of local capacity from day one.

c. A two-way learning office: Early on in every major crisis, an ‘independent’ learning office is established with carefully selected national and international staff. It’s role is to make available and understandable relevant information (standards, learning, methodologies…) from international experience, but also to capture the important learning of what it means to operate in that particular environment. Which is critically important to the international actors, who always struggle to find the ‘best fit’ for a given situation.

4. Potential Benefits of Strategic Capacity-Support.

Some of the potential big benefits of such approach in which the international agencies do not overwhelmingly ‘go operational’ themselves would be:

a. No ‘second tsunami’: This is how local actors in some of the areas affected by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami described the overwhelming ‘wave’ of international relief agencies pouring in and taking over;

b. 'Remote' is not the problem: At the moment ‘remote management’ is seen as the last and least preferred option that is entered into when the environment is too dangerous for ‘foreigners’ to go into. Such perspective reveals how prevailing ‘direct presence’ is as the default mode of operation. At the very heart of this issue is the question of ‘trust’. Are it only ‘internationals’ that can operate to the ‘required standards’, is only the direct monitoring and supervision by a ‘foreigner’ sufficiently trustworthy? Are we so unable or unwilling to identify trustworthy people among local populations? Do we really believe that all ‘foreigners’ are highly skilled, objective and trust worthy? Would the ‘foreigner’ in this crisis suddenly become less ‘trust worthy’ if s/he were acting in a crisis in her or his home environment? And does the person who is ‘local’ in her or his environment suddenly become more ‘trustworthy’ when s/he goes to work with an aid agency as an ‘expatriate’ elsewhere? What if we changed our mind set and saw the opportunities in 'remote support'?

These three suggestions may seem fanciful ideas. They are indeed not ‘mainstream’ though they have been tried and tested on a smaller scale by more creative agencies in many places. How they would work out on a larger scale, we will not know until we try. But are we willing to change our habitual ways of doing and relinquish our center-stage positions?