Fatema Z. Sumar

"INGOs are struggling to define their role and relevance in reshaping global architecture to meet the increasingly interconnected needs of the 21st century"

Leveraging her expertise in international development, foreign policy, diplomacy, and advocacy, Fatema Z. Sumar leads efforts to transform global systems in reaching vulnerable populations. She is the author of the book, The Development Diplomat: Working Across Borders, Boardrooms, and Bureaucracies to End Poverty. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University.  She previously served in senior roles at Oxfam America, US Millennium Challenge Corporation, US Department of State, and the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She has traveled to more than 70 countries and led efforts on infrastructure, energy connectivity, climate change, gender justice, community development, and local humanitarian leadership. She serves on Advisory Boards for Princeton, Cornell, and Indiana universities and on the Advisory Council for Muslim Americans in Public Service. 

What do you think are the current challenges in the cooperation sector?

INGOs are struggling to define their role and relevance in reshaping global architecture to meet the increasingly interconnected needs of the 21st century.  From COVID-19 to conflicts to climate change, we are living in a moment where global citizens are forcing a rethink of the world order institutionalized from the ashes of WWII.  Youth movements, indigenous voices, women’s activists, social justice networks, and many others are looking to hold their governments accountable for the policy choices they make and challenging traditional norms of power and privilege.  Against this backdrop, INGOs should be playing a leading role connecting movements and people around the world and amplifying marginalized voices.  They should be lifting up solutions that have been proven to work from programs piloted in local communities and evidence generated from research.  They should be holding governments, the private sector, donors, and each other accountable and injecting new models for global norms.  

Instead, INGOs can be inward-looking, consumed with internal crises, staff discontent, and donor incoherence.  Bloated structural and staff models, over reliance on donor preferences and donor dollars, risk-averse senior leadership, and outdated governance mechanisms can lead to an internal culture of “navel-gazing” and competing visions for mission. Ironically, in the desire to build consensus and be collaborative, INGO culture can create more confusion for their staff and partners.  They can fall into the trap of being “too big to fail.” INGOs can risk becoming irrelevant precisely at the time when the world is looking to civil society to help lead the way. 

How do you consider they should be faced?

Let’s consider internal operations first. At a time when borders and boundaries are less relevant than ever, INGOs can think differently about how they operate and their overall size and physical infrastructure.  Technology allows for cheaper structural solutions that in turn would reduce reliance on donor dollars. Size and scale no longer need to define how much impact an organization can have. Leaders – starting with Boards and Senior Leadership Teams – should not just reflect the populations they are partnering with; they should also be held accountable by their staff and partners for measurable results and the culture they create. The funding model of INGOs – and the conflicts of interest they can create in holding governments, the private sector, and philanthropists accountable – could be completely reimagined.  

Externally, INGOs can reframe the global narrative on how we fundamentally think about the world we are creating.  Much of the institutional discourse in the post-WWII era focused on a floor to reduce pockets of poverty instead of a ceiling to build opportunity for all; the poor as black and brown victims instead of global citizens as universal agents of change; and dollars raised for charity instead of investments in communities.  Now is the moment for civil society leaders to take risks, lean in, and challenge prevailing norms.

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