There are different ways this could go: from a small number of NGOs agreeing to co-locate and progressively share more of their central services; to a call for tender challenging businesses to provide the most cost-effective shared service model; to an existing enterprise providing an operating platform for expert social development agencies. An example of the latter might be the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, which seeks out social innovators and acts as both incubator and accelerator.
There would of course be issues to iron out. NGOs involved in emergencies may have to scale up and down very fast – how would this model accommodate that? Would NGOs be able to retain their record of financial competence if they transferred to this new structure? How do we retain the national talent that has formed international NGO programmes to date? But these are the kind of issues that are best dealt with by starting to see what works, and testing, testing, testing.
I find the innovation and collaboration dimension of this idea the most inspiring, and the opportunity to develop new national standards within an exciting international network.
Take the case of cash transfers as a disruptive innovation that is unfolding at the moment: the idea that instead of deciding what goods or services someone needs, we agree that they understand their own needs and with a small cash boost, will buy what they need while stimulating their local economy. The ever-growing body of evidence about the effectiveness of cash transfers is combining with ever growing access to financial technology to disrupt every traditional development and humanitarian sector it touches.
Technology will disrupt cash transfers themselves - the Charities Aid Foundation wrote a very good report on what blockchain could mean for giving cash philanthropically which could apply to cash social protection programmes as well. But there are more human risks too. In some fragile places a cash transfer programme is vulnerable to fraud or even physical attacks. Some people worry that their government will feel undermined if they see that a large number of people in their area need cash transfers to survive.
A hub of the type that Toby is proposing seems better placed to develop standards in cash transfers than any one agency, or loose coalition of agencies alone. Developing standards in beneficiary safeguarding, encryption, deterring cyber-crime and physical crime, promoting transparency and accountability, are complex undertakings requiring multi-disciplinary thinking. Specialist agencies working with children, or pregnant women, or vulnerable older people, would still provide specific expertise on targeting. Donor funded programmes try to share knowledge and improve standards, but they can only ever be one part of a growing and diversifying story which is and will continue to draw in new businesses and civil society.
That is only one area where standards could develop. Security standards are important in a sector where we work with vulnerable people, and where nearly 500 aid workers were attacked in the course of their work in 2013. Physically decentralised hubs on a shared network might be a good and safe place for this idea to go. Finance, procurement and value for money standards could be interesting in an office with a range of different partners and links to different international markets and best practises.
I am quite starry-eyed about this idea, but I know it will not be simple to deliver. For a moth, the process of turning into a butterfly is traumatic. But change is at the core of NGO’s purposes, and we simply must be willing to change ourselves. This could be an outstanding opportunity to reach greater scale, higher quality, more national ownership and more accountability, as a community of people who are passionate about co-creating development.