The Resource-Seeking Internationalization Process of a Nongovernmental Organization.

AutorPorto, Paula
CargoResearch Article


Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become an important part of the global landscape (Dichter, 1999). The number of international NGOs has grown substantially over the past century, especially since the 1970s. According to the NGO Branch of the United Nations (United Nations, 2017), there are more than 30,000 international NGOs worldwide that are affiliated with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, with international activities that focus on economic and social development, conflict resolution, peacemaking, and humanitarian assistance. As a result, scholars from a variety of disciplines, including economics, international relations, development studies, political science, and sociology, among others, have used different lenses to examine the NGO phenomenon.

NGOs are, however, difficult to define and to classify (Dichter, 1999; Martens, 2002; Parker, 2003). Authors debate whether or not they are part of the third sector, with some arguing that they are similar to business organizations (Kistruck, Qureshi, & Beamish, 2013), except that they are not-for-profit entities (Bebbington, Hickey, & Mitlin, 2008; Uphoff, 1996), and thus should be considered as part of the private nonprofit sector (Salomon & Anheier, 1997). In fact, NGOs serve beneficiaries, while business organizations serve customers. In addition, NGOs are accountable to various stakeholders, such as donors and contributors, beneficiaries, employees, public officials, and government agencies, while business organizations are accountable to shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers, government, and society in general. Other scholars have debated whether organizations that get most of their funding from governments should even be called nongovernmental (Smillie, 1998). After a detailed review of the meanings associated with the term, Martens (2002) defines NGOs as "formal (professionalized) independent societal organizations whose primary aim is to promote common goals at the national or the international level" (Martens, 2002, p. 282).

Part of the reason for this debate comes from the wide variety of institutional types and the "multidimensional nature of NGOs," thus making the classifying of NGOs "a perplexing dilemma" (Vakil, 1997, p. 2057). Vakil offers several different dimensions to be considered when classifying an NGO. McGaughey (2018), in turn, looks specifically at NGOs involved with human rights and proposes six different types. In light of the large number of taxonomies emanating from different disciplines and theoretical perspectives, a simple but useful classification is offered by Kellow and Murphy-Gregory (2018), who distinguish between operational NGOs, which are "involved in the delivery of programs," and advocacy NGOs, "involved in advocacy or campaigning" (Kellow & Murphy-Gregory, 2018, p. 7). Nevertheless, despite the differences, there is a consensus that these organizations do have characteristics in common and are thus definable.

Many NGOs have spread their activities to several countries and become global. A number of factors seem to be behind the rise of international NGOs (INGOs)--also called global or transnational NGOs--such as increased global connectedness, technological advances, and social changes (Anheier & Themudo, 2005), and they seem to be significantly motivated by fundraising pressures (Aldashev & Verdier, 2009; Kistruck et al., 2013). Smillie (1998) praised their "capacities and efficiencies" (Smillie, 1998, p. 185) to provide faster responses to international problems than national governments are capable of, and he also lauded their ability to secure political support.

Despite the importance of INGOs in almost every aspect of aid and development and as actors of global governance, and despite the interest in these organizations by scholars from diverse fields and theoretical perspectives, scant attention has been given to the subject in the area of international business (IB), especially when it comes to studying these organizations as actors per se, or, as Lambell et al. (2008) put it, "in their own right" (Lambell, Namia, Nyland, & Michelotti, 2008, p. 85). In fact, the IB literature is largely silent when it comes to examining the internationalization of other types of organizations besides multinational enterprises (MNEs). Buckley, Doh, and Benischke (2002) pioneered the call for IB scholars to look specifically at the international activities of NGOs as "candidates for important research agendas" (Buckley, Doh, & Benischke, 2002, p. 369). Buckley's quest was supported by Teegeen, Doh, and Vachani (2004), who also called for broadening the scope of IB research "to include non-state, non-firm actors" (Teegeen, Doh, & Vachani,2004, p. 464). Specifically, these authors suggested that the internationalization process of NGOs needed to be addressed by the IB field: "NGOs might internationalize in stages...and follow a life cycle...International NGOs' modes of entry into foreign markets may be predicted by experience and cultural similarity, as we have seen for their MNE counterparts" (Teegen et al., 2004, p. 676).

Lambell et al. (2008) evaluated the progress of IB research on NGOs and realized that the issues raised by Teegen et al. (2004) had not yet been sufficiently addressed, excepting the study of strategic alliances between MNEs and NGOs. Kourula and Laasonen's (2010) review of the literatures on business and society, management, and IB confirmed this state of affairs. More recent studies that examine the international aspects of NGO activity have also focused on the relationship between MNEs and NGOs (e.g., Bhanji & Oxley, 2013; Nebus & Rufin, 2010; Rana & Elo, 2017). Accordingly, a recent literature review (Sinkovics, Sinkovics, & Archie-Acheampong, 2019) on social responsibility issues in IB identifies the study of NGOs among the under-represented topics, which still focuses mainly on MNE-NGO interactions. In a fresh evaluation of the presence of NGOs in the IB literature, Buckley et al. (2017) acknowledge that despite IB scholars' increased interest in MNE-NGO interactions, they have remained "almost exclusively focused on understanding the MNE's resources, strategies, tactics, and responses, and rarely consider those same characteristics for its organizational counterpart [the NGO]" (Buckley et al., 2017, p. 1050). Thus, some of the issues raised by Teegen et al. (2004) remain uncovered by IB research, particularly the internationalization process of NGOs, that is, how NGOs develop and structure their international activities.

Therefore, the subject matter of the present study is the process involved in the internationalization of an NGO, seeking to contribute to filling a gap in the IB literature. The study sought to answer the following question: "To what extent does the internationalization process of NGOs follows a path similar to the internationalization process of business organizations?" Considering the similarities between INGOs and business-like organizations, it seems a logical research endeavor to investigate whether or not these organizations follow paths similar to business firms in their internationalization processes. Accordingly, we adopt two IB theoretical perspectives--the Uppsala model and the born global (BG) perspective--to analyze the phenomenon of NGO internationalization. Scholars (e.g. Knight & Liesch, 2016; Welch & Paavilainen-Mantymaki, 2014) have recommended the use of a process approach to study the internationalization of business organizations, since a dynamic approach is fundamental for understanding the phenomenon. Due to its longitudinal nature, the process approach allows for a detailed evaluation of the sequence of events in the internationalization process (Hewerdine & Welch, 2013). We argue that the process approach is also valuable to examining the internationalization of NGOs. Both theoretical perspectives selected for the study look at the process of internationalization, while other dominant theoretical perspectives in the IB field do not (e.g., internalization theory and the eclectic paradigm of international production). The Uppsala model describes a gradual internationalization path, based on the study of traditional MNEs, while the BG perspective focuses mainly on the first steps of internationalization at the very inception of a firm. However, even if the two perspectives adopt quite different understanding of the initiation of internationalization, they can be reconciled in the later steps of the process.

The method elected was the case study. Due to its longitudinal nature, the method allows for a detailed evaluation of the sequence of events in the internationalization process (Hewerdine & Welch, 2013). We chose the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (or Doctors Without Borders) for our single case analysis. Following Kellow and Murphy-Gregory's (2018) classification, MSF is an operational NGO that operates globally to deliver emergency health services, mobilizing volunteers, donors, and material resources to accomplish its mission. The MSF case fulfills all the conditions for a single case choice: it is a special case that is revealing and suitable for the desired theoretical-empirical development (Ghauri, 2004; Pauwels & Matthyssens, 2004). Moreover, one major reason for the choice is that there is a wealth of data available on this NGO--particularly on the process by which the organization expanded its international reach to several countries--including interviews with several of its leaders in different moments of time. In addition, MSF is international since inception, thus recommending the use of both theoretical perspectives selected for the study.

It should be noted that we initially also intended to examine MSF's international expansion to serve humanitarian purposes and its entry into countries experiencing emergencies. However, as we moved ahead in the study, it became clear that there were two...

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