Shifting the power in global development: Should we stay or should we go now?

A community health worker providing women in her community counseling and post natal care at her home. Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

As I enter my final six months at the Hewlett Foundation, it’s a good time to consider what I have learned as a grantmaker. As I have just celebrated a milestone birthday (New Year’s Day 2021) and mark 30+ years in the global development profession, I also find myself (a white American woman) reflecting on my career and its meaning. I have often asked myself (and still do): Why have I chosen this work, what’s the appropriate role for me, and how do I exercise it responsibly and ethically? Am I doing more harm than good? At the risk of dating myself and my musical tastes, this could all be summed up by the lyrics of the Clash’s 80s hit “Should I stay or should I go now?”

This blog is the first in a series that will examine questions about power and offer ideas for more equitable partnerships and reimagining global development—both at a personal level and across the field. I—along with some of my program colleagues—will be writing more about this, including through interviews and conversations with people and organizations that are funded by the Hewlett Foundation and in a variety of ways contributing to shaping new ideas and practices.

An ongoing journey

Of course, I am not the only one asking these questions—this backgrounder by the Reimagining International NGOs (RINGO) project is essential reading. For more than 30 years many have been questioning whether development assistance, or “aid,” benefits the giver or the recipient more, and the perverse incentives, inequities, and racism that are embedded in how it is structured and delivered. It’s no secret that public funding from government aid agencies (like USAID and other bilaterals) was conceived and put into place as colonized countries gained their independence and the United States and Europe were engaged in a Cold War for regional domination and influence. Although how support to communities and governments in the Global South has been periodically tweaked through reform efforts, not a whole lot has changed in terms of the underlying assumptions and values that underpin it. Likewise, the expansion of private money flowing from philanthropy and civil society in the Global North over the past few decades, while aspiring to be innovative and “people-centered” is often centered on the givers’ values and norms. Angela Bruce-Raeburn, a leading advocate for the decolonizing development aid movement, in her recent Vital Strategies interview describes this:

“While we are encouraged to talk openly about diversity, equity and inclusion, if we dig deeper, we realize that diversity and inclusion do not speak to the entrenched racialized power imbalances that define those who receive aid and those who deliver it. By continuing to work within those structures that are donor-led rather than people-led, we are not going to be effective and frankly, what we are doing is not humanitarian work.” (Bruce-Raeburn, 2021)

Fast forward to today, when a number of movements and hashtags, namely #decolonizedevelopment, #AidToo and #shiftthepower, have breathed new oxygen into this conversation. These notwithstanding, earlier efforts started to reshape how we collectively think about overseas development assistance (ODA). The OECD Paris Accord and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) combined embodied new commitments for country governments and their people shaping and leading the agenda, increasing domestic finance, renewing global resources devoted to financing the SDGs, shared accountability, and notably for the first time, a recognition that for the SDGs to be achieved, they must be universal.

Still, bilateral aid agencies (including USAID and DFID) struggle to make the case for maintaining the status quo, let alone increasing, their ODA budgets. At the same time, people are calling on their governments to do more. A recent Afrobarometer opinion survey found that the majority of Africans in 18 countries think that financing for development should for the most part be sourced domestically. In some places, this coincides with shrinking civic space, new restrictions imposed by host governments on the operations of international NGOs and a growing “crisis of legitimacy” questioning whose interests INGOs represent. Yet, there is an ever-expanding landscape of dynamic civil society organizations and social movements in the Global South. Some have professional staff, experience providing technical assistance and undertaking advocacy campaigns to improve services and people’s quality of life, and an impressive track-record partnering with INGOs, bilateral funders, and private foundations; others have their origins as community activists and grassroots civic groups connected with local religious and cultural institutions, trade unions, mutual aid groups/societies, people’s movements and social media networking.

With so many questioning the legitimacy and role of INGOs and so much under-utilized or untapped local capacity, what’s next? I, and others, think that it is an opportune time to pursue systems-level change.

A path forward?

The reality is that finding a path forward has already begun. Jonathan Glennie’s “The Future of Aid” proposes that we say goodbye to the “patronizing language of foreign aid” and create a sustained system of “global public investment” wherein all countries can contribute to, benefit from and govern together to advance universal SDGs (if you cannot tackle the book, this YouTube presentation offers an accessible overview of his key points). Another example of new thinking, the RINGO project plans to convene a dedicated group of forward-thinking practitioners and funders to diagnose the changes in values, governance and systems that are required for more equitable partnerships, to apply design-theory to prototype new models. These are exciting ideas that deserve support.

Funders can and must be more imaginative, starting by developing a truer understanding of contemporary civil society in the Global South, its potential, and how best to support it. This includes learning from some of the successes and moving beyond the failures of the “localization agenda” of the past two decades. A good place to start will be to listen to and work in equitable partnership with civil society in the Global South. The West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) found in a 2020 survey of civil society organizations (CSOs) [609 respondents: 86% from Africa, 6% from South America, 4% from Asia and Middle East, and 4% from North Africa] that:

  • Indigenous CSOs often work as either contractors hired to accomplish specific tasks or receive highly-restricted program and project funding on short funding cycles—the provision of core support and more flexible funding is still a rarity.
  • This funding is too often focused only on project implementation; investments in CSO and local institutional capacity remain meager.
  • Much of this funding is still channeled through INGOs who set the “terms of engagement” for the partnership that can create inequities in how resources are allocated, how decisions are made and imbalances in responsibility versus accountability.
  • Frameworks for evaluation, reporting, and accountability are not well-informed by CSO knowledge about their local context.
  • Spaces for CSOs to genuinely influence priorities and planning remain limited and episodic.

These findings suggest five fundamental shifts for people, organizations, and institutions committed to a more equitable future:

  • Those of us from the Global North wishing to continue to engage must revisit our assumptions, values, accountability patterns, business models and self-imposed constraints that are “hold-overs” from another era.
  • We can work together with thought leaders in the Global South to reimagine and shift the power in development finance institutions and philanthropy. It is time to increase what ends up in the hands of civil society organizations, local institutions and other capable groups in the Global South, and this must happen more rapidly; while doing so, funders must also pay the true costs and offer unrestricted/more flexible and multi-year funding.
  • We can support new models that global civil society, governments and others are already creating to work toward common purpose within and across borders. Southern-led partnerships, networks, federations and movements, like the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage (UHC), Ghana Federation of Disability Organizations, FEMNET, the Health Workers Protest Project and Afrika Youth Movement that exchange research and learning, organize policy advocacy and public awareness campaigns, connect activists and organize social action to fulfill people’s aspirations deserve more attention and support.
  • We can commit to cultivate solidarity and more equitable partnerships: Collaborations that value the expertise/talent that all partners bring to the table, share resources fairly, are governed by equitable decision making, and are open to mutual learning and grounded in respect should be prioritized over those that do not.
  • Finally, we must find ways to continue to reinforce and sustain the enabling environment for civil society and civic engagement in both the Global North and the Global South.

I invite you to follow this series and join in the conversation. New installments will be posted throughout the next few months.

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