Achieving the Millennium Development Goals will demand partnerships well beyond the political level, says Tom Arnold. People at all levels – not least locally – need to change their attitudes. NGOs, for their part, need to lose their natural suspicion of the business sector’s motives and demonstrate their own professionalism and capacity to deliver

In September 2000, world leaders made a commitment to halve world poverty and human misery in its various forms by 2015. They adopted a set of targets, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as yardsticks to measure success or failure.

The MDGs represent an agenda, broadly accepted by governments and civil society in both developing and developed counties. They spell out the separate responsibilities for the different agents involved in development.

Standards of governance within developing countries must improve. Developed countries and their donor agencies must double aid flows if the targets are to be met. Fairer trading arrangements must be agreed to help developing countries integrate into the world economy.

This set of reciprocal responsibilities represents a Millennium Compact. At the heart of this compact is the notion of partnership. But if the goals are to be met, that partnership cannot rest at the political level.

Delivery of the political commitments – which will itself be a major challenge – only provides the framework within which hundreds of millions of people will contribute their efforts to achieving the goals.

The role of civil society within developing and developed countries is crucial if the goals are to be achieved. Over the past decade there has been a welcome growth in civil society movements within the “south”. They are demanding higher standards of political accountability. They are building social and human capital within their communities and, in turn, supplementing the frequently inadequate public services provided by their governments.

The changing environment within developing countries has also brought major changes to the work of northern NGOs. They are less involved in the direct provision of services.

Their focus has shifted to building local capacity, at governmental or local community level. There has been a greater emphasis on advocacy, where NGOs use their knowledge of working with the poorest to argue for national or international policy change to deal with the structural aspects of poverty.

If southern civil society is to further strengthen over the coming years, will northern NGOs become redundant to the development agenda? I don’t believe so – in any foreseeable future. But equally, they must clearly demonstrate that they are making a real contribution to that agenda.

This must be based on their capacity to promote sustainable development, to bring innovation and stimulate social entrepreneurship, to link skills and institutions which would otherwise not happen.

The acid test is whether they can unlock the potential within individuals and communities for long-term development. And can the lessons learnt, the success stories, be generalized and scaled up after an NGO has departed with its people and its financial resources?

Our history and experience within Concern Worldwide offers interesting examples of what is possible and how the role of the international NGO has changed.

Concern was founded in 1968 as a response of the Irish public to the famine in Biafra in Nigeria. From its early beginnings, the organization developed a capacity to respond effectively to emergencies. It retains this today.

Concern’s early development work provided health and education services in countries such as Bangladesh where they did not exist. Much of that work was done by young Irish volunteers.

The development of local Bangladeshi institutions and the increasing number of well-trained personnel over the succeeding decades has totally changed the role of Concern and other international NGOs working in the country.

The management and staff of the organization are local people, except for a small number of expatriates with specialized skills. The role of service provider has changed to the role of adviser, either to the government or to the many competent local organizations that now exist.

A good example of the changed role in Bangladesh – and the value that can still be brought by an international NGO – is Concern’s Child Survival Programme, which is funded by USAID.

Over the past five years, this programme has demonstrated that an effective and sustainable model for municipal health can be established through partnership with local government and civil society.

The indicators of success have been improved health status, strengthened municipal health capacity and empowered neighbourhoods. Immunization rates among children aged 12 to 23 months have increased from 25% in 1999 to 80% in 2003. All 24 neighbourhoods within the project area have health committees with annual action plans to promote community health.

There are other examples of health projects that produce impressive results. The significance of this one is the catalytic and linkage role played by Concern. It brought its experience of working in Bangladesh for more than 30 years, its links with the nutrition departments in the local university, its experience of working in almost 30 countries and its relationship with donors to secure funding for the project.

A second example comes from the response to the chronic food crisis facing sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past three years, Concern has sponsored an applied research project aimed at finding a better technique for healing children who suffer from severe malnutrition.

What makes our research different is that it was carried out at village level during a food crisis in Malawi and Ethiopia. It involved not just the nutritional aspects of the situation.

Parallel anthropological research conducted in association with a local university in Malawi provided key insights into the work practices and the household economy of the community we were dealing with.

We believe that this research has found a way of dramatically shortening the time that a child needs to spend being fed in the scarce local medical centres, by using a special food which can be readily fed by mothers within their own community. The project has been organized around the needs of the mother, her family and the community. It uses local infrastructure and personnel which ensures sustainability. The research results have been presented at an international workshop and will soon be published.

Could government or commercial organizations have conducted this research so effectively? We do not think so. We recognized the practical importance of focusing research on the problem experienced by mothers of severely malnourished children. The other players in the project were a private health consultancy company, which needed access to our programmes to carry out field tests, and a food company that produced the special food.

Together, we approached the health authorities in Malawi, south Sudan and Ethiopia. They gave their full cooperation to the addition of a research dimension to the practical, and continuing, work of providing emergency food aid to their populations. We hope that governments and other agencies will be persuaded of the relevance of this work and incorporate its findings into new standards and protocols for dealing with malnutrition.

There are many other examples that demonstrate how imaginative contributions by NGOs are yielding a development dividend. But just as the world of business must continually adapt to changing circumstances, the challenges for NGOs are no less daunting if they are to continue to make a difference in the future.

New models of partnership need to be developed. The natural partners for many northern NGOs are their southern counterparts. To develop such partnerships demands sensitivity, patience and a touch of humility Partnership with governments, at central or local level, requires a different set of skills. In many African countries, HIV/Aids is taking a terrible toll on the number of people working in the public sector.

Very little research has been done on its effects on the sustainability of public services. What this means for national and international NGOs has also received inadequate attention.

Another partnership model, which will almost certainly become more significant, is in networking, as in the two examples of Concern’s work already mentioned. There are possibilities involving government, businesses and NGOs which are only beginning to be explored.

If these possibilities are to be realized, there will have to be some attitudinal changes by the different parties. Certain NGOs will have to lose their natural suspicion of business and its motives – and will have to demonstrate their own professionalism and capacity to deliver.

Business will have to prove that its commitment to corporate social responsibility is real – and that partnership with NGOs can provide benefits for the poor as well as for the company.

And businesses, NGOs and governments each will have to become that elusive entity – the learning organization. Systems for capturing lessons learned need to be built into organizational capacity.

When it comes to development we have to understand that listening to the poor, their aspirations and their priorities is a critical part of learning.

When we can show – through our programmes – that we have heard them, and have engaged their capacities to solve their own problems, that will be the best form of partnership. And it will also be the best guarantee that our efforts will produce long-term development.

Tom Arnold
Since 2001, Tom Arnold has been chief executive of Concern Worldwide – an international NGO based in Dublin, Ireland, that works in emergency relief, long-term development and advocacy in some 30 developing countries. An agricultural economist by training, he served as chief economist and assistant secretary general with the Irish Department of Agriculture and worked for 10 years with the European Commission. From 1993 to 1998, he was chairman of the OECD Committee of Agriculture. He is a member of the UN Task Force on Hunger, part of the Millennium Project aimed at achieving the Millennium Development Goals.