Senegal, Pablo Tosco

NGOs and systemic change: Was the butterfly effect true?

The sector's contribution to systemic change continues to be debated, questioning everything from its meaning and relevance to the colonial logics that confirm the need for transformation.

By Asier Hernando Malax-Echevarria.

The only good thing about having opened gates of hell, as Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, points out, is the certitude of being there. You are seared by heat and despair, as we are seeing in the current global context. There is no more debate about the diagnosis, the key is to agree and define the strategy, to move from «what» to «how».  

Simon Ticehurst of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance also explains them in this video. Time is running out. At the current rate we will not achieve the 2030 Agenda even in 2050, and in key indicators such as food security or greenhouse gas reduction we are going backwards. This year we exceeded six of the nine planetary boundaries developed by the renowned Stockholm Resilience Center. We are also at a time of democratic setbacks and increasing inequality.

Against such a backdrop, there is already widespread consensus on the need for systemic change, that is, large-scale, deep and sustainable change through the alteration of policies, processes, relationships, structures, values, norms and attitudes.

So what’s up to us, then, as NGOs?

Let’s face it, the cooperation sector tends to be idealistic and dreamy. We know better how to identify the problem, what capacity or ideas we have to solve it. We have been talking for years about the need for structural changes, of the economic model, of development paradigms, but the strategies to achieve this have been diffuse and atomized.

The debate about contribution to systemic changes of international cooperation and NGOs is the debate about their relevance, their meaning. It also coincides with a questioning of the sector about its colonial logics, which also implies the need for transformations for a better distribution of power over social organizations and communities.

Just as we must demand that companies, governments and financial institutions act quickly and responsibly to be part of the solution to this obligatory systemic change, because we’re investing a lot of time in that, we must demand the same of the cooperation sector. We cannot be putting band-aids on projects that are disconnected with a context of such magnitude. We must ensure that we really contribute to systemic change and that we coordinate efforts to do so at scale.

Some of the solutions are not new. David C. Korten, in his famous text about the three generations of NGOs, which he later expanded to four, pointed the way to how the sector should evolve more than 30 years ago. It told us of the need to contribute to institutional changes on a national scale, together with social movements and as part of long-term processes. Others, in the latest report on the 2030 Agenda published by the United Nations.

The butterfly effect explains that the flapping of a butterfly can provoke a hurricane in another part of the world, or not, as we have often seen with development projects. We’ll be talking about all of this over the next few weeks in The Sherwood Way, with interviews with different experts, and articles and papers to help the industry rise to the occasion. So that we don’t burn in hell.

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