An open letter to International NGOs who are looking to ‘localise’ their operations.

This letter is the product of a protracted, heated, angry and passionate discussion that took place on the #ShiftThePower WhatsApp group last week. Several people on the group had been approached separately by International NGOs who wanted to learn about their experiences in local fundraising and building community philanthropy, but in ways that all felt were ‘extractive.’ These interactions point to the growing trend for INGOs to look further afield for resources to fill the funding gap that many are experiencing.

March 5th 2020

Dear INGOs:

Thank you for taking an interest in our countries. We represent a wide range of national and subnational organisations based in countries – mostly in the global south – where you often work. We have probably even been in meetings together or have been represented in the success stories you give to your supporters.

We appreciate that over the years, many of you have sought to help deliver much-needed services, and have helped to elevate some issues of concern, like debt relief, gender or climate change, to the world stage.

But times are changing. And you have (rightly) been facing a number of critiques in recent years – around your legitimacy, your ‘whiteness’ or the fact that far more aid money ultimately ends up in the pockets of northern organisations’ headquarters than it does in the Global South.

We see that you’re trying to respond to these critiques by ‘localising’, as we’ve been asked to meet with your highly paid consultants on numerous occasions. The strategy is pretty common: usually you start by creating a ‘local organisation’ with a local board. A next step that we’re seeing is that you enter the world of DRM – ‘Domestic Resource Mobilisation’ – to raise money from within our countries. This latter aspect is probably also down to the fact that your traditional incomes from the rich North/West are starting to diminish, so this has the added bonus of replenishing lost incomes.

In theory, this probably sounds great to your northern ears: local middle-income people should indeed ‘own’ their civil society, especially as a response to growing concerns around closing civic space and authoritarian governments. We couldn’t agree with you more on this principle.

But there are things we object to and some suggestions about how you can use your international muscle to help us more effectively than through this misguided localisation agenda.

What happens in practice is that these efforts only serve to reinforce the power dynamic at play, and ultimately to close the space for domestic civil society. This can be illustrated quite simply: a multi-million-dollar INGO, with an entire marketing, communications and fundraising team, whose project budget for this endeavour probably outstrips that of most of our national organisations for a year, then comes into the South to raise money ‘domestically’.

Perhaps the board has set a target of raising 30% of total income directly from the South. That’s not an additional million dollars, that’s a million or more dollars taken away from local civil society. And worse still, most of this money will be siphoned off to pay for their own inner workings, rather than be invested on the ground.

All of this serves to weaken us locally. It keeps us in a master/servant relationship continuously begging for grants from your institutions, while we remain bereft of core funding ourselves. This is not what we need or want.

Instead, here’s how you can be more helpful with your ‘DRM’ investment: if you are serious about ‘shifting power’ then reduce your footprint and brand and use your fundraising machinery to help grassroots organisations create the structures to fundraise for themselves and sustain their work.

We need the infrastructure for people to raise money domestically and from diaspora, not to be competing with big global INGOs. What is ultimately needed is to strengthen and scale up southern civil society, not to be pushed out of our own communities and markets.

Do you need to exist in every country with your brand? No. There are often local organisations, like ourselves, who work effectively on the ground, with better connections to the local community. And many of us also have the skills and capacity to represent our issues on the world stage.

We represent an eclectic mixture of organisations, but we are, increasingly, uniting under the banner or hashtag of #ShiftThePower and its “Manifesto for Change.

Our plea is that you work with us, not against us. We need to be supported, not competed with, and certainly not replaced.


  1. African Philanthropy Network
  2. Arusha Municipal Community Foundation, Tanzania
  3. Caring Volunteers Network (CAVNET), Ghana
  4. Community Self Reliance Centre, Nepal
  5. Dalit Community Foundation, India
  6. Development Expertise Center, Ethiopia
  7. Development Research and Advocacy, Ghana
  8. Emma Crewe, SOAS University of London, UK
  9. Equality for Growth, Tanzania
  10. Foundation for Civil Society in Tanzania, Tanzania
  11. Foundation for Social Transformation, India
  12. Fundaçâo Micaia, Mozambique
  13. Ghana Philanthropy Forum, Ghana
  14. Global Fund for Community Foundations, South Africa
  15. Global Peace Association, Ghana
  16. Gramin Evam Nagar Vikas Parishad (GENVP), India
  17. Greenfield Africa Foundation, Ghana
  18. International Foundation for Students and Youth Development (IFSYD), Ghana
  19. Keepers Zambia Foundation, Zambia
  20. Le Fond our les Femme Francophone, Togo
  21. LIN Center for Community Development, Vietnam
  22. Mauritius Council for Social Services, Mauritius
  23. Multikids Africa, Ghana
  24. NZP+ Mufumbwe, Zambia
  25. Olive Luena Education Trust, Tanzania
  26. Participatory Action for Community Empowerment Foundation (PEACE), Zambia
  27. People’s Action Forum (PAF), Zambia
  28. Romanian Foundation for Children, Community and Family (FRCCF), Romania
  29. Ruth Foundation, Zambia
  30. Sahakarmi Samaj, Nepal
  31. Sahara Advocates for Change, Ghana
  32. SEED Malaysia, Malaysia
  33. Selma Foundation, Ghana
  34. Tanzania Community Foundation Network, Tanzania
  35. Thubutu Africa Initiatives, Uganda
  36. UHAI EASHIRI, Kenya
  37. West Africa Civil Society Institute, Ghana
  38. Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) Mongu, Zambia
  39. Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity (ZAAB), Zambia
  40. Zambia Council for Social Development, Zambia (ZCSD)
  41. Zambia National Education Coalition (ZANEC), Zambia
  42. Zambian Governance Foundation for Civil Society (ZGF), Zambia

If you wish to add your name or organization to this list, please insert the details in a comment below. Thank you.

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