How International NGOs Can Transfer Knowledge – and Power – to Staff in the “Global South”

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Lately, INGOs have been reevaluating the distribution of power between headquarters and offices in the “global south”.  Often, power imbalances are accompanied by imbalances in skills, knowledge and overall capacity.

Most NGOs address country-level skill gaps by sending experts from headquarters to provide direct technical assistance or conduct ad-hoc workshops, which rarely succeed at building local capacity in a sustainable way.

While some critics call this “skills protectionism” – implying headquarters avoids transferring knowledge in order to centralize power – we find that most NGOs want to empower country-level teams, but struggle with capacity building and skills transfer.

There are many reasons for this:
  • INGOs often have trouble competing with multinational corporations for qualified local talent, leaving internal talent development (training and knowledge transfer) as the only viable strategy.  This also contributes to problems with retention, as NGO staff who upgrade their skills often leave for jobs in the private sector.

  • Financing talent development initiatives can be difficult, as learning is viewed as an “overhead” expense, subject to donor-imposed restrictions on overhead spending.  Meanwhile, having to finance training from project budgets prevents NGOs from building capacity before it is needed, or sustaining it after a project ends.

  • Learning and development capacity is unevenly distributed, and many NGOs respond by sending headquarters staff to conduct in-country workshops once or twice per year, rather than building local training capacity.

So what can NGOs realistically do to build local capacity?
  • Focus on developing efficient processes around core functions, then train staff to play a specific role in a process, rather than expecting them to become all-around experts.  This makes training easier and protects the organization against turnover by emphasizing processes and teamwork over individual expertise.

  • Integrate local and global training operations, for instance by having staff take  standardized, global assessments online after completing a local training course.  This allows headquarters to monitor what’s happening (or not happening) on a local level, and intervene selectively to address gaps.

  • Ask major donors to provide funding for talent development.  Donors who fund multiple projects should appreciate how better training can improve return on investment.  However, you will need to present them with a well-designed, credible talent development and learning strategy.

If your organization is dealing with these issues, or any other learning-related challenges, please contact Sonata Learning.


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