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

Principal Investigators: Andrew Thompson and Mike Aaronson

Our research programme

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.

From 2019-2023 we therefore carried out a programme of research involving an expert group of NGO practitioners, academic researchers, and policymakers to consider the past, present, and future of INGOs, discussing in depth the most pressing issues – both external and internal – that INGOs now face. On 6 July 2023 we launched our report Who do you think you are? The past, present, and future of international NGOs at a high-level conference in Nuffield attended by an invited audience. The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister for International Development and Africa, joined the group for dinner and delivered a keynote speech.

Photo of expert panel of Valerie Amos, Michael Aaronson and Andrew Thompson
Panel at the INGOS report launch 6 July 2023

The report was highlighted on the Oxford University website and attracted a significant amount of interest. Preliminary analysis of the report's impact is available here.

Leadership Survey Report

Previously we had published our Leadership Survey Report. In 2021, the project team interviewed the CEOs of leading international NGOs on the challenges facing the sector now and in the coming years. This report details the findings from their 50 hour-long interviews with leaders in the development sector.

The next phase of the project will be to attempt to establish an ongoing forum for intellectual exchange and discussion of key issues relating to improvements in the global system for relief and development. The methodology and approach would build directly on the INGOs and the Long Humanitarian Century project, as well as serving to sustain the community that that project has helped to build.

Project framework

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.

Aims and approach

Our overarching aim has been to identify the features of the successful INGO of 2030 and beyond. This has been achieved by means of a series of workshops over a three-year period, informed by a number of commissioned research papers. In addition to academic research outputs and the Leadership Survey Report mentioned above, 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 have used the three prisms of 'Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leadership' to explore a number of existing questions relating to INGOs that 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 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 our preliminary discussions but also the global impact of the pandemic and its implications for INGOs. We used these to identify a number of possible future scenarios and tested them as set out in the attached document at an online workshop in July 2020. In turn, this fed into a major survey of sector leaders carried out in 2021; the findings of this research were published in July 2022 as the Leadership Survey Report.

Work on specific areas has continued in smaller groups, and online workshops have been held in July and November 2020, in May, July, November and December 2021, and in February 2022. We finally managed to meet again in person at Nuffield in April 2022, and again in October 2022 (pictured above). At these, we have:

  • asked "why the people affected haven’t affected us that much”, and gone on to consider the persistent question of ‘localisation’
  • revisited the founding values of INGOs and looked at how they have evolved as institutions throughout ‘the long humanitarian century’
  • deconstructed the political economy within which INGOs have to operate, and looked in greater depth at “the humanitarian marketplace”
  • explored the relationship between relief and development and the role of INGOs in the wider aid sector
  • explored two of the major disruptors of the 21st century: the digital and data science revolution and the climate crisis
  • considered in depth the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on INGOs and their task
  • examined the changing geopolitical context in which INGOs operate, focusing on India, China, and Russia
  • heard from representatives of new social movements about their perceptions of INGOs in the 21st century
  • analysed public perceptions in the UK of relief and development, global solidarity, and the role of INGOs

The following Working Papers were discussed at the various workshops:

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:​


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Funded by: AHRC Care for the Future

Duration: September 2019 and ongoing