Today is February 4th, Independence Day in Sri Lanka, and I have the privilege of being in Colombo this week, spending time with CARE colleagues I’ve known for a good long while. The team I’ll be with over the coming days have been running a new organisation, named Chrysalis, since 2016, which has replaced CARE Sri Lanka, after they officially closed up shop.
Chrysalis is a Sri Lankan organization with the mission of transforming the lives of women and youth in the country. As such they are continuing to find solutions to some of the country’s social development issues, as CARE once did, however with a transformed operating model and role, inside of the global network of CARE.
CARE International in Sri Lanka was one of the oldest CARE organisations, established shortly after the country’s first significant move towards independence in 1948, when Sri Lanka became a dominion of the British Empire. Over a century beforehand the British had pushed out previous colonizing powers – Portugal and Holland – and, by 1810, had taken control of the entire island, naming it Ceylon.
This post is not about reviewing the history of Sri Lanka, in spite of the rich learning there is to be had from doing so (particularly writing as a British white male) nor is about examining how independence here has affected Sri Lanka citizens, instead, I wanted to dwell on systems change, and why I’m crossing my fingers right now at the thought of how organisations, including my own, might have this one last chance to redeem ourselves in the world of social development.
I talk of redemption here for good reason.
Whilst I’m proud to have spent 12 years in the NGO sector, this is pride mostly inspired by what I think we can still do in the problem solving arena, rather than what has already been achieved. Readers of this blog will know that I am proud to have told many success stories about CARE’s work around the world, and I don’t want to discount these, however my conclusion remains agnostic right now about whether the world is better off or not, from 75 years of international NGO organisations engaging in social development, as I see many missed opportunities, and much waste along the way.
Learning from the past
It seems to me that some of this waste could have been avoided if the largest NGOs had taken a more “business-like” approach to their work. Granted, the NGO sector had to play catch up to begin with, to be taken seriously by the more established public and private sectors. However, it’s only in the last few years that it feels like we might be finally making the right moves to position our sector to be more effective in the three-way dynamic of state-business-civil society.
So what do I mean by waste and being more business like?
If we boil down some of the institutionalized systems, relationships and characteristics of how large NGOs function, then I think we’ve wasted time assuming two things: 1.) that growing our organisations will mean we grow the impact of our work and 2.) that, as large NGOs, we are best placed to define and describe the intricate pieces that comprise social development.
To the first point, we’ve been comfortably operating in a cycle of receiving large government grants to spend on anything from a one to a five year programme that will address a predetermined aspect of “poverty”. These grants have ensured our own existence in the world and reinforced the flawed idea (point #2) that large NGOs, with headquarters in Geneva, or London or New York, are best placed to define and describe and tackle poverty in other countries around the world.
This cycle has worked well for “western” governments also, many of whom have used large NGOs as a means of directing their own international aid agendas, often flawed (unfortunately, but inevitably) by being politically or commercially oriented in the first place.
CARE’s transformation to Chrysalis
If we focus in on the CARE Sri Lanka-changing-into-Chrysalis example, what is positive about transforming CARE’s entire operating structure and future model in Sri Lanka, and becoming Chrysalis is that it stands as a positive example of systems change. The negative aspect to this example in my view is that we have made this change late in the day.
Arguably, as the country coped through a 26 year civil war, between 1983 and 2009, there may simply not have been the right conditions from which to pivot away from NGO status into what we have today. However, one of the main reasons for transforming our presence in Sri Lanka was because we wanted to keep up with changing donor realities for the country (the shorthand for which being that Sri Lanka no longer receives as much aid funding from governments overseas). And so the transformation was largely triggered by necessity. That said and realised, the process we then put in place to transform was key and demonstrated that it is of course possible for large organisations to do things differently.
At the time of realising the funding implications for CARE in Sri Lanka, and as we know from how different forms of crisis often comes impactful change, CARE spent a year asking partner organisations, and the communities we serve, if they thought CARE still had a role to play in the country’s future – and the answer was ‘yes’. From these initial assumption testing moments of research, and our subsequent investment into designing something very different, Chrysalis was born. A phoenix from the flames, a new entity with a new set of systems in place.
But could CARE have invested differently in our resources in Sri Lanka 30 years ago to identify better systems for our presence? I believe we could have. I’ve acknowledged the implications of the civil war here during this period but, even then, I think a case can be made for spotting the need for change earlier. And certainly this equation holds true and is timely if you turn your attention to other countries in the world today.
Adopting new practices and processes
Just as a large company invests in research, design, marketing, and the testing of its products, in order for it to then scale them in a particular market, I think it’s high time NGOs did the same.
In fact, by viewing those we seek to serve not as our beneficiaries (a phrase used for many decades) but as customers or client, we might have sped up our transformation process. This perspective may have helped move us away from seeing poverty as a label to describe someone, and away from assuming for so long that the describing and defining of poverty (and of poor people and things like ‘norm change’) was the assumed domain of large NGOs – the same organisations who, typically and historically, are entities made up of rich people from countries and ethnic backgrounds that are different. I feel large NGOs have on too many occasions perpetuated the very dynamics they’ve been trying to resolve.
In creating Chrysalis, we have taken a more private sector approach to our operating model and the products we want to implement. We have tested these two assumptions – namely, that we couldn’t rely on international (government) donors to fund our work; and that Sri Lankan civil society wanted to continue to engage us in providing a set of services – and from there we arrived at a plan for moving forward with a new set of activities and a new operating model to do so.
In the world of science, you might talk about running experiments to validate the assumptions behind a new idea. A marketer may, instead, describe this sequence of things I’ve just described as standard market research. Taken out of an ‘industry’ genre, CARE’s transformation in Sri Lanka could, more generically, be viewed as an example of an organization using its connections and its connectivity in a country to help firstly recognize that a change was required for CARE, and secondly to provide inputs to inform that change.
The real kicker behind telling the story of Chrysalis, the part that inspires me, is not necessarily linked to the type of things we did to transform, but that fact that a process existed for us to pivot CARE into Chrysalis.
Future opportunities for the Third Sector
This is significant going forward for two reasons: 1.) because the international development sector has always been slow to adopt and adapt new ways of doing things and the design and establishment of Chrysalis, in relative terms, was quick (around 3 years) and 2.) because given the complexity of social injustice (particularly in terms of gender, which is at the core of CARE’s mission) and the size of CARE’s own reach across 90 countries, there is a colossal opportunity for us now to learn from the Chrysalis experience and apply this learning in other countries and where change could be achieved much earlier in the respective process of that context.
Just as our planet is made of many systems – that are too regularly ignored and undermined by that fact that human nature is fueled by survival and ego – so, too, do organisations and people require functioning systems in order to evolve.
Problem solving, idea testing, research and design, experimentation – these are just some of the types of business functions that Chrysalis is committed to putting in place by designing clear systems. And, indeed, in other countries where CARE has been for a long time, systems change is required and, in many cases (Egypt, India, Peru, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ecuador, the Caucasus, to name a few) is now happening, too.
CARE is not alone in the pursuit of new systems by any means. Interesting collaborations between different NGOs on systems change is underway, as is the discussion about how our sector engages with the public and private sector on this topic.
These discussions and debates will roll on, but as the Sri Lankan air force rockets overhead this morning – a military fly-by to celebrate the country’s past transformation – I hope that our sector can take these lessons from the past, and combine them with meaningful investment in new processes and systems for the future.