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[The International Committee of the Red Cross] displays liberal goals but pursues them through conservative means. That is, the welfare of individuals is the highest value in its mandate, but it proceeds slowly, cautiously, with minimal objectives, and mostly on the basis of the consent of public authorities. Further, it claims to be non-political but is inherently part of humanitarian politics. It professes impartiality and neutrality, but it calculates how to advance humanitarian policies that are in competition with other policies based on national and factional advantage. (2005: 2)

–David Forsythe, The Humanitarians, p. 2

Astute observations by Forsythe on the contradictions of a fantastic organization.

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I wrote reports that people didn’t read. I went to meetings that didn’t amount to anything. I argued about organizational politics that didn’t matter.

When I look back, I wonder how it was possible to be so busy yet doing so little. How did any of that really help our ‘beneficiaries’?

I’m pretty sure it didn’t. I don’t miss it. 

–a friend, reflecting on his former life working at a big international humanitarian NGO in London

I didn’t agree with my friend when we had this conversation. However his words have echoed in my head since then–admittedly louder during bad, ineffective and inefficient moments.

This sentiment is not the whole truth of (big/international) NGOs. It is a partial-truth though.

There are no quick fixes to eliminate organizational inefficiencies or to maximize impacts for victims of rights abuses and aid recipients.

But even if this is a slow fight, this reflection reminds me what’s at stake if we don’t improve.

There is growing recognition of the importance and potential of proximity between NGOs and their audiences, between audiences and beneficiaries, and between NGO professionals and the places and people they seek to help. Survivors and beneficiaries are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and direct mailings, and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper.

“Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector,” POLIS, June 2012, pg 19