How can programmes to change farming markets be led by national NGOs?

Ashley Aarons Agriculture, Innovation, Power Shifts

Ashley Aarons sets out how international organisations can enable national NGOs to take the lead on efforts to change the lives of smaller farmers, including changing contracts, training and supporting coalitions.

Members of the Ranakse Preah Khan Aphiwat agriculture cooperative in Cambodia, supported by national NGO Development and Partnership in Action (DPA) as part of the GRAISEA programme. The farmers now use organic rice production techniques to increase rice yield. (Picture: DPA)

Economic justice programmes have tended in the past to be implemented by large international NGOs, but this is changing, with an increased focus on national NGOs (those based in the countries of operations) taking the lead on programming.

Getting such localisation right is key to programme success. However, much of the literature on doing this is theoretical, with limited practical examples. So in this blog, we want to share insights from the Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in Southeast Asia (GRAISEA), which aims to improve the livelihoods of smaller farmers through inclusive value chains and responsible business practices.

GRAISEA is coordinated by Oxfam, with implementation led by 13 national NGOs across Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam[1]. This blog shares lessons from an internal review on both its successes and limitations in being national NGO-led.

Getting the programme structure right

GRAISEA has moved away from typical sub-contracting where national NGOs are simply hired to do certain tasks, while the programme remains under clear control from the hiring international NGO.

In GRAISEA, national NGOs have multi-year budgets and strategic goals that they fully own. The national NGO element accounts for the majority of budget and strategy, and is contractually agreed. Neither Oxfam nor the national NGO can change these without agreement on both sides.

Annual strategies, workplans and budgets are agreed in each GRAISEA country of operation between Oxfam and national partners, with national NGOs leading on developing their specific plans. In other words, GRAISEA has moved from a devolved model of national NGO leadership to a federal model.

‘GRAISEA has moved away from typical sub-contracting where national NGOs are simply hired to do certain tasks… [instead] national NGOs have multi-year budgets and strategic goals that they fully own’

It’s clear though this federal model still isn’t enough. National NGOs are not really involved in overall programme governance, lacking representation in governance and coordination units. This clearly limits their power but also harms programme effectiveness.

For instance, as national NGOs are less involved in overall strategy development, how budgets are split between countries and the development of tools such as for measurement, they find these less legitimate, and are less likely to accept feedback around them. It’s also harder to move money to high performing parts of the programme. What is needed is a joint-responsibility model where all parts of the programme, including national NGOs, give up part of their control to become part of democratic programme governance.

Supporting the capacity of national NGOs

GRAISEA provides ongoing technical capacity support to national NGOs. This should go without saying as national NGOs are part of GRAISEA, but not all programmes do this. So, when there is training, national NGOs are always invited, as they are to knowledge sharing and planning events.

In addition, Oxfam has brought in expertise from outside the programme to coach national NGOs in climate change resilience and women’s economic empowerment (WEE). This is supported by an inclusive culture that treats national NGOs as collaborators rather than service providers. (Again this should go without saying, but programmes often don’t do this.)

However, support to national NGOs needs to be broader than technical capacity, and also boost partner institutional capacity and sustainability. Technical training itself has focused on areas such as WEE and influencing businesses – and not on the “systems change” approach itself. National NGOs have also at times been pigeonholed into specific roles – in particular as community organisations supporting farmer cooperatives, rather than the broader value chain influencing that some have wanted.

The value of broader support to civil society

GRAISEA supports broader civil society beyond its partner national NGOs. Country teams have different approaches to such support, ranging from wide-ranging support as its own goal, to building networks to support specific policy changes, to targeted support to specific NGOs.

Overall, building coalitions around key policy asks seems to have worked best, as it has allowed different expertise to be brought together; illustrates the breadth of support for a particular change; and increases sustainability as coalitions continue once GRAISEA ends. It also increases the general capacity of civil society, for instance training to coalition members in one country on how to speak to legislators is being used by member NGOs across all of their policy work.

Approaches to supporting civil society have developed organically and separately in different countries, and there could be value in making support for broader civil society more of a cross-cutting goal of the programme. This could include systematic sharing of the strategies that work with civil society, and including these in our theory of change.

What are the remaining challenges to being led by national NGOs?

The areas above will feature prominently in the design of a potential next phase of GRAISEA, including a thorough update to its governance. But there are also challenges to overcome, not least persuading parts of Oxfam to give up power – while I still find myself, as programme team leader, at times thinking of Oxfam when I say GRAISEA.

Another challenge is that being national NGO-led affects program efficiency – for instance, bringing higher staff costs as key functions such as finance and communications are repeated more across organisations. There are also extra burdens on some staff who have to spend more time managing partners than on strategic planning; and there is less overall flexibility, as individual units are less willing to drop interventions and share resources with others. Tackling and working out together how to address these challenges will be an essential task for the future as the role of national NGOs in leading programmes expands.


Ashley Aarons

Ashley Aarons is Team Lead of GRAISEA for Oxfam. He is a market system development and private sector engagement specialist with a particular focus on agricultural markets. He has extensive experience in managing global and multi-country programs and building donor relations.

GRAISEA (Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South East Asia) is a regional programme funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok

Find out more: Read more insights from the GRAISEA programme in Ashley’s recent blog looking at how to empower farmers to negotiate better prices and trade terms: “It’s time to tackle the power imbalance between farmers and agribusiness buyers”

[1] Regional influencing also involves national NGOs but is not a focus here