HQs, NGOs and the person on the spot

INSIDE NGOs
October 23, 1998

The literature on non-governmental organisations has tended to concentrate on the external aspects, while this book concentrates exclusively on problems that emerge from within NGOs themselves, ie the internal dynamics of NGOs, the financial, personnel and operational issues with which NGOs struggle. Internal issues can be as problematic for NGOs as the external issues they seek to address - after all, the mission of the NGO sector is to address issues outside NGOs, not inside.

Admitting internal problems is not simply tough; more frequently and importantly it threatens NGOs' relationships with their donors, to whom they need to be accountable. The book attempts to illustrate the vulnerability of NGOs when they commit themselves to dealing with these problems, and so the book is important to all NGO management staff. It highlights, for instance, issues in recruitment and staff training. The book could usefully be read by many individuals who plan to work with an international NGO in a developing country.

The book focuses on international NGOs, with a special concentration on the relationship between headquarters and field offices, which is one of the prominent areas of tension in the NGO sector of developed countries. The book is based on field research carried out by the author in 1993-4, collecting data from staff members working in headquarters of four international NGOs and their 16 field-offices. The author also adds his own experience of working in the field office of an NGO in Ethiopia.

The headquarters-field office relationship within NGOs embodies and reflects the problems of North-South relations. NGOs work globally, and they need to embrace the complexity that social, political and ethnic differences involve.

The book is aimed at NGO practitioners who care deeply about their daily work in development, and who want to improve their day-to-day practices, and it presents concrete strategies and solutions to resolve areas of conflict, eg between local staff and expatriates, over gaps between systems and reality, and over direction of programmes and manipulation. In this respect, the book is quite timely as there is immense pressure to maintain and develop organisational capacities to ensure quality output over the long term, and to be accountable to project activities in the field in southern developing countries.

My only concern is that the book may be too prescriptive in nature, given the diversity of the NGO sector and its fluid nature which has constantly to adapt to accommodate changing needs in the environment in which it operates.

Can all these administrative practices be adopted? One of the well-known characteristics of these NGOs - and one of which they are rightly proud - is their creative and flexible ability to innovate according to their circumstances.

Vandana Desai is lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

INSIDE NGOs: Learning to Manage Conflicts between Headquarters and Field Offices

Author - Naoki Suzuki
ISBN - 1 85339 413 0
Publisher - Intermediate Technology Publications
Price - £12.95
Pages - 245

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