INGOs and the long humanitarian century – Leadership survey report: What international NGO leaders think about the challenges they face and the future of the aid and development sector – Global


International NGOs and the long humanitarian century: heritage, legitimacy and openness to 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 past century, particularly over the past three decades. The role played by INGOs in delivering emergency relief and longer-term development assistance is well documented.

But there is a widespread feeling within the leadership of the INGO community that now is the time to reflect critically on the nature of INGOs themselves and their relationships with their donors and recipients as well as with governments. in their countries of operation. We talk a lot about INGOs in crisis: a crisis of legitimacy, core identity and relevance.


In 2021, the project team interviewed the CEOs of leading international NGOs on the challenges facing the sector today and in the years to come. This report details the findings of their 50 hour-long interviews with leaders in the development sector.


The approach of this project is captured within the framework of “Legacy, Legitimacy and Leadership”. There is an empirical starting point: who exactly are these organizations, how have they evolved over the years and where are they today? 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 better understand these other models). And finally, there is a forward-looking, more prescriptive element, which concerns the future leadership needed for INGOs to continue to be relevant and effective.

Essentially, it is about understanding the fundamental purpose of INGOs, the values ​​that drive them, the extent to which their culture reflects those values, and the degree of trust they manage to command both from those on whom they depend and of those in whose name they exist, given the changing world in which they must now operate.


Our main objective is to identify the characteristics of the successful INGO of 2030. This objective will be achieved through a series of workshops over an 18-24 month period, informed by a number of commissioned research papers. In addition to academic research findings, we will produce a commissioned Nuffield report, aimed more at a policy and practitioner audience, which will be forward-looking and outward-looking and attempt to define the leadership challenge facing facing the INGOs of the future.

We will use the three lenses of “Legacy, Legitimacy and Leadership” to explore a number of existing questions relating to INGOs that will help us to see 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, especially the impact of donor politics on their relationship with their public donors.

Our three prisms will allow us to give meaning to these questions:

  • Legacy: Who are these organizations, where did they come from in terms of inspiration and purpose, how has that changed over the years and where are they now? Understanding their past is essential to making sense of their present and anticipating their future. To what extent have they fulfilled their mission and are they now facing an existential crisis?

  • Legitimacy: how valid are the principles by which INGOs justify their existence? To what extent are they really responsive to the needs of their beneficiaries, and to what extent are they open to shaping in their form and activity? Are the values ​​that inspire them really universal or are they rather the product of a certain liberal democratic hegemony, predominantly Western? How effective are they? How do they compare to other newer forms of social organization that perhaps better reflect the digital age?

  • Leadership: what does it take for these INGOs to transform themselves into successful – ie relevant and effective – organizations of the future? what is the leadership challenge? Can they keep doing everything they’ve done in the past, or do they need to find new models of operating and better ways of working with others?


Our first workshop took place in September 2019 and reviewed the attached concept note. Following this, we developed the attached Research Program Plan which was discussed at another workshop in March 2020, just before the lockdown.

Subsequently, we expanded 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 outlined in the attached document during an online workshop in July 2020. This in turn fed into a large survey of industry leaders conducted in 2021; the results of this research are expected to be published in the spring of 2022.

Work on specific areas continued in small groups and online workshops were held in July and November 2020, May, July, November and December 2021 and February 2022. During these we:

  • asked “why haven’t affected people affected us so much”, and went on to examine the lingering question of “location”.

  • revisited the founding values ​​of INGOs and examined how they evolved as institutions throughout the “long humanitarian century”.

  • deconstructs the political economy within which INGOs must operate, and deepens the ‘humanitarian market’.

  • 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:

  • examined in depth the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on INGOs and their task.

We are delighted to be able to resume the face-to-face meeting with a workshop on April 28-29 in Nuffield, where we will review progress to date and also receive presentations from prominent speakers on changes in the geopolitical space in which INGOs operate. We aim to produce a final report on the project towards the end of 2022.

Other articles will appear on this site as they become available. In the meantime, you might like to watch this September 2020 webinar on “Aid Agencies: Past, Present and Future” featuring Professors Thompson and Aaronson as well as visiting scholar Yves Daccord, outgoing Director General of the ICRC:

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