The Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID, University of Sheffield) and Global Development Institute (GDI, University of Manchester) are conducting a research project mapping the UK development sector. The project will attempt to map and provide insight into the operations of and relationships within the UK-based international development NGO (INGO) sector. As part of SIID in the Spotlight, Dan Brockington, SIID Director and Laura Dempsey, Research Assistant, explain more:
Maps can be dangerous things. They are often merely partial representations, but claim, or are taken, to be accurate guides. Used unwisely without an understanding of their biases and blind-spots they will deceive. There is a long and unhappy history of maps being used to erase and remove people. The blank spaces on maps of Africa were taken to be invitations to explore and colonise. Maps become official records, and omission from them, or misrepresentation by them, marginalizes. Even participatory mapping techniques can produce depictions still imbued with power relations, distortions and inaccuracies.
So when we set out to map development NGO networks of organisations based in the UK mainland we did so with some trepidation. Above all it is vital to read our list of caveats, omissions and blind-spots. But our hope is that, if we forefront these caveats we might end up with something that could be useful – if only because it encourages later work which tackles some of the blind-spots.
We wanted to do it because the UK INGO sector is likely the most remarkable in the world; many of the most influential development NGOs are based or have originated here. Relative to the size of the UK, the sector is the largest and most complex globally, and one that has experienced continual growth in recent decades. Yet our understanding of the sector as a whole is surprisingly limited.
We (a team from SIID and the GDI) are aiming to provide more insight into this vast and interconnected field, through a research project aiming to ‘map’ the mass of UK based NGOs. By cross-referencing the membership directories of various international development networks with financial reports already publicly available via the Charity Commission and the Scottish Charity Regulator, the team is aiming to provide an overview of the financial structure, networks and foci of the UK development NGO sector. Answering questions such as those outlined here.
How though do you begin to draw up a list of development NGOs? Who should be included and who omitted? How do you draw the map? It has proved surprisingly difficult to compile a list. Over the past nine months the team have screened over 1500 NGOs from the membership lists of BOND, NIDOS, SWIDN, SYIDN, the FSI and Small Charities Coalition; from grantees of DfID and Comic Relief; from organisations declaring their interests in official development assistance and famine relief on the Charity Commission website; from a previous research project into conservation NGOs and the ‘snowballing’ of contacts and networks. This has allowed for compilation of a database that holds information on close to 1000 UK-based development NGOs.
The database has enabled identification of key financial trends within the development NGO sector over the last five years. The sector is substantial, (with expenditure equivalent to, approximately, 50% of current UK government’s overseas development aid) and as a whole appears to have been able to maintain healthy growth rates over recent years, despite a small dip in 2012. Further details as to the first stage of the research project can be found here.
Some of these findings are already widely acknowledged across the sector but still prompt further questions into the structure of the sector. What caused the downturn in expenditure in 2012 for the larger organisations and how were they able to recover? What drives trends in expenditure and where is the money coming from? What larger network and partnerships are fostered by these organisations and where are their activities concentrated?
As the team moves into the second stage of the project they are hoping to address these questions, beginning by inviting organisations to comment and/or amend the information collected about them. This consultation period will provide a platform for engagement with the research creating an opportunity for an interaction between NGOs and academia, a relationship particularly pertinent at this time and addressed recently on this blog.
Ultimately all the data we collect will be made publicly available – but only when we have given organisations a chance to check and comment on it first. In the first instance we have invited to discover if they have been included in the research. We are now also inviting organisations to check the financial records we hold which can be done here.
As always, SIID and GDI are excited to engage with the sector, with hopes these findings can help to build a more effective and connected network of UK development NGOs.