Organisational change in the humanitarian sector

Clarke, P. and Ramalingam, B.
Publication language
Date published
01 Jan 2008
Research, reports and studies
Leadership and Decisionmaking, Organisational, Organisational Learning and Change

Most of us, at some time or another, will try to change how work is done in our
organisations. We may work in organisational functions that exist to create change
and improvements in performance: evaluation; policy development; training and
learning; or strategic planning. We may be a manager or non-managerial staff
member who sees how things could be done better and attempts to ‘put them right’.
Whatever the starting point, we will often end up in a similar place: frustrated and
dissatisfied, with changes incomplete, and facing apathy, confusion and unintended

This chapter addresses the topic of change in humanitarian organisations. Drawing
on the findings of a programme of research conducted between October 2007 and
January 2008 (Box 2.1), it questions the efficacy of some of our traditional
approaches to change and performance improvement, and suggests alternative
principles and approaches developed outside the humanitarian sector. It considers
whether these approaches can be introduced into humanitarian agencies, and
presents examples of successful organisational change programmes from NGOs, the
UN, donor agencies and the Red Cross movement.

What follows is not intended as an instruction booklet or ‘how to’ guide for
organisational change. There is great variety among the actors who make up the
humanitarian sector, and we would look in vain for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for
organisational change (Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, 1998). Instead, this chapter
presents some approaches to thinking about organisations and how they change,
and shows how these approaches have been implemented.