International NGOs and Poverty Reduction Strategies: The Contribution of an Asset-based Approach

Caroline Moser and Pamela Sparr


This scoping study has two principle objectives. It provides a summary of current poverty reduction strategies of US and UK-based international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) with a special emphasis on the underlying frameworks that form the basis of their development interventions.

Secondly, the study identifyes the applicability of an asset accumulation framework to prevailing programmatic and advocacy strategies for poverty reduction employed by INGOs. After an initial desk review of background materials, a sample group of 21 INGOs was finalized based on seven selection criteria. These relate both to the substantive focus of each organization as well as to institutional factors, and were developed in order to achieve the greatest diversity possible in the sample. The criteria were: mission focus; stated or known analytical approaches to poverty — termed poverty frameworks in this paper; relationship to the field; length of time in operation; size of revenues; primary funding sources; and organizational structure. A questionnaire was developed for use in the final research phase in which 34 staff from 7 UK-based and 14 U.S.-based INGOs were interviewed.

The study assesses five possible determinants of INGO poverty approaches. The first determinant is history — both organizational and the broader historical forces at work in the world. Interviews suggest that history is perhaps a stronger factor in shaping an organization’s poverty strategy than mission, which appears to have only a partial connection with strategy. Current development theory seems to have a tenuous and weak impact on the strategic framework. This intellectual determinant expresses itself more effectively indirectly through funders’ interests, which had a definite impact on poverty reduction strategy. Not surprisingly, the research found that funding sources were influential, particularly the US government and foundations. Organizational structure, the last determinant investigated, seems to have an unclear and complicated relationship to INGO poverty frameworks and strategies.

Structured conversations with staff raised unexpected issues relating to the changing context in which the INGOs conduct their poverty reduction work. At least five key trends are evident which have bearing upon the usefulness of an asset framework. They are:

  • increasing emphasis on aid effectiveness stressed by both government agencies and foundations;
  • emergence of new sources of funding and a new breed of development actors;
  • shifting North-South INGO power relationships;
  • growing convergence of conservation and development concerns; and,
  • increased awareness of the impact of climate change on development and conservation.

Respondents’ understandings of the theoretical dimensions of an asset framework tended to be unspecific and partial, with notable exceptions. Some of the INGOs surveyed were just beginning to explore the potential of an asset approach. Respondents felt that asset accumulation could be significantly useful in a range of settings. In fact, most INGOs already were engaged in a variety of asset-related projects or programs across all five mission foci, sectors and contexts tested. This finding underscores the practical relevance of an asset framework.


Climate change is forcing INGOs to seriously reconsider their disaster and emergency response and be more proactive with asset protection strategies. It is also one of the trends causing lines to blur between INGO approaches to disaster/emergency relief and long-term development. The growing concern about the ecological unsustainability of mainstream economic development policies, how they exacerbate “natural” disasters, and how they contribute to the loss of biodiversity, is compelling INGOs to recognize the strategic importance of natural capital in any poverty analysis or reduction strategy. Such trends means a fuller elaboration of the assets framework and a discussion of its practical applicability is both timely and welcome.