Are INGOs ready to give up power?

“Shifting power is not a theoretical exercise, it’s my life. It’s about my dignity.” Degan Ali, Executive Director, Adeso.

For those in comfortable NGO positions in the North, imagine leading a Southern NGO serving your local community and beyond. You might help many thousands of people every year. You’ve won awards and accolades for your work; stood on platforms in conferences in London, New York and Geneva; and been asked to join numerous boards and profiled in leading newspapers around the world.

Except that the reality is never as good as the Instagram image. You also have no core funding for your organisation; you’re spending your time begging so-called ‘partners’ for funding scraps from their stockpiles; and quite often, your voice on the platforms of power is little more than a diversity tick box. International NGOs or the UN act as your mediator and ally at best, and your gatekeeper and saboteur at worst. You are marginalised into the category of ‘local’ organisation by people with white faces and authoritative titles, like the ‘African expert’ who spends two years living in the capital of a single country.

I’ve heard many such testimonies over the years, which reached a crescendo in 2017 when #MeToo for the Aid sector – also known as #Aidtoo – bubbled over into the public domain. Suddenly it was common to talk openly about sexual exploitation, healing, colonialism and racism in international development.

Airing these concerns makes for challenging listening, especially when good intentions which aim at address these concerns – like ‘localisation’ – come in for serious scrutiny. In preparation for the recent Pathways to Power Symposium in London organised by the Global Fund for Community Foundations I held a number of my own conversations with people where these issues were laid out frankly. The Symposium aimed to explore how to move #ShiftThePower ‘from hashtag to implementation’ by figuring out how blockages to change could be removed.

For example, Amitabh Behar, the CEO of Oxfam India told me: “I just don’t understand why INGOs need hundreds of people sitting in the North with huge teams to support Southern NGOs on the ground. Most of the resources get tied to these headquarters and little goes to the South. Real decision-making about what needs to be done and how is still decided by HQ-based Northern experts.”

I don’t understand it either. A colleague in the Philippines once related to me how he was required to include the costs of a gender expert from London in his funding proposals despite having perfectly qualified staff in his own team, often with PhDs.

Barbara Nöst, Director of the Zambian Governance Foundation for Civil Society spoke about INGOs who register locally in order to be considered for funding that’s meant for indigenous organisations, but then continue to benefit from their INGO status and privileges, which means that real local organisations get side-lined entirely. Colonialism is alive and well in international development.

For all the lofty words about ‘shifting the power,’ many INGO staff and board members still seem unable to let go of a model that values technocrats over movement builders, and which places a higher value on their own Northern white role. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by a Northern NGO or funder to put forward a bid to do monitoring and evaluation of a Southern organisation’s programme, something I’ve always turned down because the whole premise makes me uncomfortable.

This is where Degan Ali’s statement about ‘dignity’ is so vital. In practice, genuine lived experience seems less important than my articulate, English-speaking, Northern-educated voice. Shifting power – which would rightly include devolving decision making and handing more resources to Southern organisations with no strings attached – still feels too risky, especially given the attitudes of Daily Mail readers in a political climate that is hostile to aid generally. In this scenario, INGOs have reacted in a perversely schizophrenic fashion by exerting more control, not less.

In my conversation with her, Stephanie Draper (CEO of BOND) acknowledged why this might be so: “There’s still a massive flow of funding coming from North to South. That holds uncomfortable power dynamics. So that’s a challenge and has been exacerbated by some of the rules and regulations that have been put in place in terms of a risk-averse funding environment. INGOs in the UK right now just feel totally embattled so it is more difficult to take risks. We need to find ways to de-risk the shift in power.”

But Amitabh Behar argues that risks are exactly what we need to be taking right now: “I’m constantly being reminded of the idea that if you don’t take wounds in a fairly open war, then you’ll not be able to shift power,” he told me, “I’m not really worried about one small segment not supporting us. I would say, that’s where the problem is.”

At the London Symposium, Irungu Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Kenya, said that in their current form, we simply don’t need INGOs, unless they are going to #shiftthepower: “how do international civic organisations empower and support the local?” is the main question that needs to be asked, he urged.

If the project of INGOs is to be of any value in the here and now, then surely it must lie in supporting a flourishing civil society in the global South to tackle their own issues, rather than relying on charity, aid or ‘experts’ from the North in a perpetual game of ‘solving’ poverty.

As civic space comes under attack, and as universal human rights values are being gradually eroded, INGOs need to bring solidarity to the task of defending and uniting this space, rather than technocratic, project-based endeavours. But that will involve some serious risks for INGOs and the wider international aid system, moving away (finally!) from log frames and projects. It may also include a loss of income, staff and power. And that’s an uncomfortable truth that most Boards don’t want to hear.

The #ShiftthePower movement has come up with an initial manifesto to articulate exactly what we need from INGOs to take this process forward. It’s not just about funding; it’s also about genuine solidarity around the issues facing us globally – from climate change to inequality. A recent Foresight exercise overseen by Bond looked at the future of the British INGO sector and considered that ten years down the line, we’ll likely see far less programmatic delivery and much more advocacy and solidarity work emerging from Northern INGOs. That means smaller teams in the North focused on connecting, mobilising and enabling, rather than the delivery models that grew exponentially in the 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve stayed away from working directly in INGOs for some years now, and what I’ve come to realise more recently is that Southern organisations need to find ways to take the power, rather than wait for it to be ‘shifted.’ No matter what the intent, there are just too many vested interests in the current system among donors, philanthropy and INGOs themselves to give up power easily.

I don’t know how exactly how this shift will happen, but I do know that there’s an inspiring and emergent movement wanting to disrupt the system by supplanting the top-down organisational models of the past with something far more transformational. The #Shiftthepower movement is confronting some very difficult challenges, and it will undoubtedly be beset with failures along the way. But it’s a necessary road to travel to restore dignity to those with whom we work.

Have we finally turned a corner, now that everything is out in the open? Are INGOs ready to let go of their power? Not yet, but at least the right questions are being asked, and the right people are finding ways to take back control.

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