The Importance of Small INGOs to International Development

By Ollie Chow


In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) spent £9.8 billion of its £13.3 billion budget on ‘Official Development Assistance’, i.e. international development. There are around 185,000 charities in the UK, of which 81% – nearly 150,000 charities – have a yearly income of less than £100,000 (UK Charity Commission Report, 2016). Many of these charities are small international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) that are dedicated to overseas development. Whilst big INGOs (BINGOs) like Amnesty International are amongst the most visible in our society, it is small INGOs that make up the majority of the UK international development sector. So, what impact are these small INGOs having on international development?

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Understanding local needs

To provide specialised, effective assistance to overseas communities, there is a need to gain a true understanding of the issues at hand, and the root causes of these problems. Specific knowledge of both a given problem and the needs of local communities can lead to small INGOs having a greater impact than BINGOs and, crucially, on a much smaller budget.

BINGOs tend to spread their time, efforts and resources over several areas of development spanning numerous countries. Save the Children work on child poverty, education, hunger, health and children’s rights in 68 countries. By comparison, small INGOs tend to have a niche or area of expertise. They focus on one problem at a time and often target one geographical area. Indeed, over half of the UK’s small INGOs work in only one country, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. Having a single geographical or developmental focus means that small INGOs avoid spreading their influence thinly over too many countries or development areas. This allows them to devote their efforts to understanding the specific problems in a community and providing sustainable, effective resolutions to them.

Self-governance and control

The size of smaller charities enables them to oversee every aspect of their work and give their projects their full attention. There are fewer people involved, meaning that they are empowered to govern themselves and make the best decisions for the beneficiaries. As a result, they are able to ensure their work is being carried out to the highest standards.

With so much ongoing work to monitor, BINGOs run the risk of being unable to sufficiently oversee all of their projects and staff. The consequences of insufficient self-governance can be extremely serious. This has been highlighted by the recent allegations made about specific staff members that worked for Oxfam in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there. The lack of improper supervision of staff in Haiti led to the exploitation of extremely vulnerable people by the aid workers that were supposed to protect them.

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Creativity, innovation and flexibility

Small INGOs are not bound by strict bureaucracies, giving them a greater degree of creative freedom. This generates more innovative methods of problem-solving, such as purchasing second-hand resources to save money. The 2016 UK Charity Commission Report found that small INGOs also show greater innovation in their fundraising methods. Examples include offering people alternative ways to contribute, which helps to develop relationships with donors that often leads to further investment and long-term support.

The flexibility of small INGOs means that they are able to orchestrate quick, decisive responses to urgent issues. An example of this is Made With Hope’s ‘Forever Food’ sustainable farming project. A community of 60 adults and children were found to have limited access to dietary protein. Made With Hope, in partnership with CHETI, listened to their needs and created a small farming project in just two weeks, signalling a remarkably rapid response to an immediate problem.

Building relationships in-country

A defining characteristic of small INGOs is how they develop close, personal relationships with partner organisations that are committed to making a difference in their communities. Through this, small INGOs manage to target the communities that can often be missed by national governments. An example of this is The Kasiisi Project, which has helped improve the Ugandan education system for over 20 years. They have increased rates of primary education and helped students further their study or get jobs. However, such a large task takes time and a measured approach in order to make a big difference.

For Made With Hope, the partnership with CHETI is invaluable. CHETI is a non-profit organisation in Tanzania that is extremely involved with their local community. They listen to the people’s needs and concerns before collaborating with them to achieve the optimal solution to their problems. The constant communication between Made With Hope and CHETI is instrumental to their relationship. Projects can be created and monitored on a daily basis to keep both parties informed of the progress being made. CHETI receive ongoing support from Made With Hope, who can put their faith in an organisation that is dedicated to developing their community in the right way.

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Building relationships at home

The 2016 UK Charity Commission Report found that the public has a better perception of smaller charities than large ones, with trust in small charities at 57% (compared to 34% for large charities). The public is also dissatisfied with how charities don't seem to update them on how their donation has made a positive impact. Smaller charities are more likely to get it right – they can develop a personal relationship with donors and keep them informed of where their money has gone so they can see the direct impact of their donation.

The ability of small INGOs to tell powerful, personal stories of positive change is vital in building a relationship with the public. An example of this is the story of Samuel Amwai in Kenya. He went through a programme called Education For All Children, which provides children with a primary and secondary education and helps them plan their futures as well. Samuel went on to study at university, but he returned home to make an important contribution to his community. He used his experiences and education to mentor other young people, helping them take advantage of the opportunities available to them other than a life on the streets.

What challenges lie ahead for small INGOs?

A 2013 study of small INGOs found that donors, trustees and the charities themselves felt that the following were their biggest concerns for the future:

  • Over-saturation, or the presence of too many small INGOs. This creates more competition for a limited supply of government funds, donors, trustees and in-country NGOs.

  • Financial sustainability. Every charity needs money to fund projects and deliver aid. Small INGOs struggle more with funding than BINGOs. The 2016 Charity Commission Report found that only 30% of people donate to a charity they have not heard of previously.

  • Political influence. BINGOs, governmental organizations and international governing bodies tend to overlook small INGOs. The sector could miss out on utilising the unique characteristics of small INGOs that have been highlighted in this article.

  • Greater collaboration between INGOs has been cited as a way of overcoming these challenges. There is no doubt that a strong, collaborative framework is the basis of sustainable, long-term development. This is evident in the partnership between Made With Hope and CHETI. CHETI are best-placed to identify the current issues and Made With Hope empower them to make the best decisions for the community they live in. Building trustworthy relationships like this could be the formula that delivers continued results in the international development sector.

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Oliver Chow