Should small charities have a role in international development?

Last week I was honoured to be invited to be part of the panel for the annual Small Charities International Development Debate, as part of the Small Charity Week’s celebrations. The motion for the debate was “Small charities have no role in international development: the Global South should take ownership of their own development needs.” I was against the motion, and was set the task of arguing that small charities do have a role in international development.

Kids Club Kampala's UK Director Olivia, with Trustee Lydia, at the debate.

Kids Club Kampala's UK Director Olivia, with Trustee Lydia, at the debate.

The event was held at the beautiful Church House in Westminster, a slight change from the House of Lords where the event was orginally planned to take place – a certain Queen’s Speech happening that day meant that we had to move venues! The debate was opened by Lord David Blunkett MP (and his dog!) who talked about the vital role of civil society in the Global South and how all charities must make sure that they work as enablers and do not undermine the local civil society in the country they are working in. He made a great point about how it is essential for small charities to keep in mind that their purpose is to support, facilitate, and then withdraw.

Deborah Doane, writer on international development and sustainability for the Guardian, was chairing the debate and Dan Brockington from Sheffield Institute for International Development kicked off the debate arguing the controversial proposition that small charities have no place in International Development. He stressed how large charities with economies of scale, better expertise and resources were in a better position to be able to help the Global South. He also argued that small charities are often started by someone trying to appease their guilt and that their motivations aren’t always in the right place.

Lynne Morris from Toybox countered his arguments by arguing how the ability of small charities to be agile, adaptable and flexible in responding to needs and changing programmes if necessary is vital to helping the Global South. My favourite soundbite from Lynne was, ‘small charities are the foot of international development’ – as in, they may be small but they are vital and powerful. Christine Hancock from C3 Collaborating for Health was on the for side, and she warned that too often small charities put the needs of our charity above the needs of those in the developing world. She also highlighted that non-communicable diseases and girls education are the current main barriers to development, and argued that these need to be tackled globally which can only be done by large charities.

I went next and tried to counter-argue some of Christine’s points. I argued that the Global South will only be able to take ownership of their own development if they are involved in the process, if they are listened to and supported in an adaptable, long-term, relationship-based way. And this is exactly what small charities are doing, and why their role in international development is so important. Small charities understand the needs on the ground better because they ask more and listen more to the needs of local communities than big charities do. I talked about the vital importance of organisations being both community led and community driven – something which is central to the work and ethos of Kids Club Kampala – the importance of giving people the space to come up with creative solutions to their problems themselves, and then resourcing and empowering them to be able to do so. In my experience, small charities are excellent at building relationships, establishing trust through a long-term presence, and being able to tweak projects where necessary.

Finally, Josephine Carlsson from Feed the Minds spoke about the importance of small charities as they work in their niche, and then Deborah took questions from the floor. It was a lively debate, and questions ranged from should small charities have employees, to should small charities be taking volunteers overseas, to how can small charities work together better – all interesting topics for future debates I think! One attendee highlighted an great point about how small charities are able to offer tailor-made solutions for communities, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and an interesting point was raised about the importance of collaboration and small charities working together to have a collective voice and to share data and information.  

At the end of the debate, a vote was taken and I am very pleased to announce that overwhelmingly the room voted against the motion, that small charities do have a role in international development. Saying that, in a room full of small charities, I would have been very surprised if the motion had been passed!

I would love to know your thoughts on this topic and to continue the discussion! Please do contact me with any questions or comments.