By Rizal Malik

Forgive me if I am a bit skeptical. As an Indonesian NGO activist, I have heard a lot of fine words over the years from international NGOs about localisation or indigenisation. But the reality has fallen well short of INGO intentions.

30 years ago, I was part of the team in CARE International looking at localising to become CARE Indonesia. It never happened. The main funding office (CARE Canada – one of the most forward thinking of the CAREs) were understandably reluctant to lose the overhead they received from channelling Cida funding. After all, this they needed to cover their staff costs in Canada.

As Oxfam Country Director from 1998, I was excited to observe and learn from the planned localisation of Oxfam India. The process proved problematic – not least because it coincided with Oxfam International’s efforts to create a common global identity. To achieve a global brand for market share required more centralization and coordination, not more autonomy for country offices. Ultimately income trumped impact on the ground.

International NGOs appear to have been mesmerised by growth in income. After all income is the main measure of the success or failure of any CEO, despite what NGOs say. I know. I have been part of it. When Oxfam Country Director I capped our income at $1 million in order to focus on a few long-term partnerships which were having sustainable impact. I resisted efforts to expand our income with easy funds for emergencies – after all, I believed (and still do) that relief and development must be integrated to be effective. But when the Tsunami hit, Oxfam income in Indonesia exploded to $25 million in 2004 with all the mismanagement that such unfettered growth always involves. Sadly, the Indonesian media was soon full of stories of corruption from INGO staff. And we now all know what happened in Haiti.

Even those INGOs that do localise, shy away from going all the way. I was Country Director for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) until earlier this year. WWF was registered as an Indonesian NGO in 1996 with an Indonesian board, but critically retaining the international brand. The financial logic was compelling. But what this meant in reality was that this undermined our ability to work on the ground. For example, Indonesian land rights activists refused to work with us as they still perceived us as ‘international’ and did not want to be tainted by any association.

Having a global multinational NGO is a bit like being a massive cruise ship. But today a small speedboat may be what’s needed. It is all too obvious this year that we now operate in a chaotic, disrupted environment where agility and adaptability are critical. It took CARE almost 30 years to finally localise in 2019. It has already taken Oxfam five years to start the process of registering as an Indonesian Foundation. The environment will no longer tolerate change at such a slow pace. Strangely, COVID-19 presents INGOs with a golden opportunity, encouraging them to change in a direction they have been talking about for years. They will have to move fast. They will have to sacrifice the income and power they hold dear. But so many of the great people in INGOs that I have worked with know it is the right thing to do. We welcome that.

If you would like to discuss how INTRAC can support you when it comes to exiting responsibly, please contact us.

This blog is the sixth in our series on the topic of responsible exit, taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic:

No. 1: Living our values in the distress of exit (July 2020)
No. 2: Exit can be a good thing for local civil society (September 2020)
No. 3: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in exit planning (October 2020)
No. 4: If you can’t exit well, at least exit less badly (October 2020)
No. 5: In Ethiopia, exit presents real challenges for civil society (November 2020)
No. 6: A cautious welcome to the localisation agenda (December 2020)
No. 7: Ending well (December 2020)
No. 8: What working with EveryChild taught me about responsible exit (December 2020)