International NGOs and the Long Humanitarian Century: Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leading into the Future

Principal Investigators: Andrew Thompson and Mike Aaronson

The rise of powerful international NGOs (INGOs) is widely recognized as a key development in the international humanitarian landscape over the last century, especially in the last thirty years. The part played by INGOs in the delivery of emergency relief and longer-term development assistance is well documented. But there is a widespread feeling within the leadership of the INGO community that this is a time for critical reflection about the nature of INGOs themselves and their relations with their donors and beneficiaries as well as with governments in their countries of operation. There is much talk of INGOs being in crisis: a crisis of legitimacy, of core identity, and of relevance.

The approach of this project is captured in the framework of 'Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leadership'. There is an empirical starting point: who exactly are these organisations, how have they changed over the years, and where are they now? Then there is a normative component that assesses their claims to legitimacy against other models (there will be an empirical dimension here too, to help us understand those other models better). And finally, there is a forward-looking piece, more prescriptive, which is about the future leadership that is required if INGOs are to continue to be relevant and effective.

In essence, this is about understanding INGOs’ fundamental purpose, the values that inspire them, how well their culture reflects those values and the degree of trust that they manage to secure both from those on whose support they depend and from those in whose name they exist, given the changing world in which they now have to operate.

Programme approach

Our overarching aim is to identify the features of the successful INGO of 2030. This will be achieved by means of a series of workshops over an 18 to 24 month period, informed by a number of commissioned research papers. In addition to academic research outputs, we will produce a commissioned Nuffield Report, aimed more at a policy and practitioner audience, which will be forward and outward-looking and will attempt to frame the leadership challenge facing INGOs of the future.

We shall use the three prisms of 'Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leadership' to explore a number of existing questions relating to INGOs that will help us see this future more clearly:

  • their values, principles, and motivations;
  • their relationship with their beneficiaries;
  • how they have been and continue to be affected by geopolitics;
  • their business models, the political economy in which they operate, in particular how donor politics impacts on their relations with their state funders.

Our three prisms will allow us to make sense of these questions:

  • Legacy: who are these organisations, where have they come from in terms of inspiration and purpose, how has this changed over the years, and where are they now? Understanding their past is essential if we are to make sense of their present and anticipate their future. How well have they served their purpose and do they now face an existential crisis?
  • Legitimacy: how valid are the principles by which INGOs justify their existence? How much are they truly sensitive to the needs of their beneficiaries, and how much do they allow their form and their activity to be shaped by them? Are the values that inspire them truly universal or are they rather the product of a particular, predominantly western, liberal democratic hegemony? How effective are they; how do they compare with other, more recent forms of social organisation that perhaps better reflect the digital age?
  • Leadership: what is required if these INGOs are going to transform themselves into successful – i.e. relevant and effective – organisations of the future; what is the leadership challenge? Can they continue to do all the things they have done in the past, or do they need to find new operating models and better ways of working with others?

Progress to Date

Our first workshop took place in September 2019 and considered the attached Concept Note. Following this, we developed the attached Research Programme Outline which was discussed at a further workshop in March 2020, just before lockdown.

Subsequently, we have developed our thinking to incorporate not only the substance of the March discussions but also the global impact of the pandemic and its implications for INGOs. We have identified a number of possible future scenarios and plan to start testing them by means of a major survey as set out in the attached document, which was discussed at an online workshop in July.

Work on specific areas is continuing in smaller groups, and online workshops were held in July and November 2020 with a further one planned for early 2021. Our first commissioned papers are in preparation, and at the end of 2020 we are piloting our Leadership Survey with selected leaders of the INGO community.

Further papers will appear on this site as they become available. In the meantime, you might like to look at this September 2020 webinar on “Aid Agencies: Past, Present, and Future” featuring Professors Thompson and Aaronson along with Visiting Fellow Yves Daccord, outgoing Director General of the ICRC:


Funded by: AHRC Care for the Future

Duration: September 2019 and ongoing