Acting Globally, Thinking Globally: Working at the global scale

Posted on 25 April 2012

This is the last of a five-part series of blog posts by Keith Johnston on the role of international board members in the governance of international NGOs.

By Keith Johnston

Identifying and making decisions of global scope and significance is challenging for two related reasons. Compared with a national board, the issues become more abstract and more complex at a global level. Both these challenges take us beyond our comfort zone and we have to work at making these shifts.

I will start by trying to write about abstraction in a non abstract way!

Getting clear about what the International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO) wants to become, getting a view of the whole global system, simplifying it well, and connecting it to reality on the ground, is a harder job than doing this for a national board (and it is not easy there!). The international board needs to ensure that over-arching systems are in place to achieve the alliance’s strategy and these systems will be more complicated, and the discussion of them will end up being more about systems of systems, at a global level. Secondly, the global board needs to be clear how it wants different parts of the alliance to work together or to instead have the freedom to function independently but also manage quality and risk.

Systems-of-systems issues include how different international systems interconnect (such as advocacy and delivery and the development of people within the agency) and the intersections between national systems and those operating across the alliance– for example, how international campaigning or programming priorities affect those within a particular country or region. For a national board the focus is more on single systems or the interaction between simpler systems.

Describing a system is describing an abstract model of what actually happens; describing and making decisions on systems of systems involves abstractions of abstractions. It often makes our heads spin to try to think this way and to relate this to the realities on the ground for our organization.

Greater complexity adds a further challenge. Most of the issues that INGO boards need to focus on are ones where the relationships between causes and effects are not clear. It may be possible to use data, experts, or research to make some links between causes and effects clearer or these may only become visible after the event. Either way, international boards are negotiating zones of high uncertainty and the very human tendency is to pretend we can know or control more of the situation than is actually the case.

The irony is that as we strive for greater reach and effectiveness, and try to wrap our arms around more of the challenge, we get to hold onto less – more aspects of our work elude our grasp or need to be let go of for the governance role to be done well – and what we do manage to hold onto seems more slippery – we can be less confident about maintaining our grip!

International board members find themselves trying to hold onto enough to be effective and informed while also reaching further afield to be able to see the larger systems at play. All of this happens with high levels of uncertainty. This reinforces the need for international boards to build in ways to reflect, re-assess, and learn as they navigate across these uncertain terrains.

A working paper I have prepared on this and related themes – “Acting Globally – Thinking Globally” – is available here.

Keith Johnston has served as Chair of Oxfam International since 2007 and is a partner at Cultivating Leadership.

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