The role of funders in fostering fair and equitable partnerships in global development

Women from the Self Help Group Alita Kole, taking care of their crops that they own together as a group. This gardening activity is part of an income generating activity supported by Reproductive Health Uganda and enables them to have financial independence and provide for their family needs. Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

This is the second in a series of blog posts on fostering equitable partnerships and shifting power in international development. See the first piece by Pat Scheid here.

“You’ve just assumed a position of immense power and privilege; you will be hailed by grant seekers as the smartest person with the best ideas in the world … use your power for good.”

This is one of the first pieces of information and advice I received from a colleague when I joined the Hewlett Foundation in January 2016 as a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program. I was a little intrigued—though not completely surprised by it given my prior experience as a grant seeker. But this was my first stint in philanthropy, and I must admit that I did not appreciate the significance of this statement until a little later. I saw my role more as a facilitator of and contributor to the good ideas and work of the organizations we work with; why is she talking about power?

It would not take long before the power dynamics at play in international development became apparent. My first aha moment came when I previewed my grants portfolio. I inherited a portfolio of largely Global North nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that focused on building international and regional norms and standards around government budgets, international aid, tax, natural resource management, and public procurement. Since the foundation’s Global Development and Population Program has a regional focus on East and West Africa, nearly all the northern NGOs we support have some form of partnership with national/local nonprofits (CSOs) in the region. Just looking at who controlled grant funds, the power asymmetries in these partnerships was palpable. Before I could settle fully into my new role, the debate about power asymmetries in the nonprofit sector started to heat up. A Summit on Community Philanthropy, organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations in December 2016 concluded with a renewed commitment to the #ShiftThePower campaign, which seeks in part to highlight prevailing power disparities and foster equitable and fair partnerships between Global North INGOs and their southern partners. This debate has generated helpful insights and ideas (see here and here), including specific proposals outlined in this manifesto for change.

This is when my colleague’s advice to use my power for good started to make sense; as a grant maker, I was in a position to influence the partnerships between northern INGOs and their CSO partners. Much of the #ShiftThePower debate has focused on actions that northern INGOs need to take to shift power to their southern counterparts. While this is true, I think funders have a bigger role. Northern INGOs do not have absolute control over grant funds and decisions about how those funds are allocated and spent—funders do. So even if northern INGOs are willing to shift power, as exemplified here by WeRobotics, funder requirements and restrictions often hinder what or how much they are able to do.

In the spirit of using my power for good, I decided to experiment with two approaches: the first focused on providing direct funding to local CSOs and the second involved sharing feedback and suggesting alternative approaches to Northern INGOs. I share the two approaches here, including brief reflections on the benefits I have observed in hopes that they may inspire other funders to contribute to the #ShiftThePower agenda.

Direct funding to partner CSOs

Budget control is one—if not the main driver of—power asymmetries in international development and the entry point for my first experiment. Autonomy over program budget comes with several benefits as I discuss below. I made grants directly to two CSOs in Africa: the Africa Freedom of Information Center (AFIC) based in Uganda and ONG-3D in Senegal to work on procurement reforms in collaboration with two of my northern INGO grantees, the Open Contracting Partnership and Development Gateway. These northern INGO grantees, like the others in my portfolio, have extensive experience working at the global level to influence governance norms and in different countries and contexts to promote implementation of those norms and related interventions. This is a valuable resource that should not be lost. However, as many proponents of the #ShiftThePower campaign have argued, national CSOs evince superior contextual knowledge, are much closer to the issues and decisionmakers in their respective countries, and know how to approach research and advocacy in culturally appropriate and impactful ways. They are also in a better position to bring practical experiences to bear on global norm setting processes.

The decision to make separate grants was premised on the belief that it will help to harness the respective strengths of the partners. And it did. AFIC and ONG-3D took the lead in setting the agenda, including defining what needed to be done, how, and by whom. In so doing, they were able to identify specific areas where the northern partners add the most value to the work, which then formed the basis for collaboration. For instance, when ONG-3D outlined their procurement reform agenda, they wanted to better understand the existing national procurement systems and processes but did not yet have the technical expertise in-house to undertake this analysis. This is when Development Gateway came in; they worked closely with ONG-3D and the key government stakeholders to access and analyze the government procurement systems and processes and made specific recommendations to strengthen and bring them in line with international best practice. ONG-3D has since continued to pursue procurement reforms in Senegal, with increased focus on sub-national implementation. They are currently a formal member of the regulatory council of the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority and sit on its dispute resolution committee.

In addition to setting the agenda, sustained engagement also emerged as a helpful benefit of separate funding. INGOs frequently exit certain geographies for a variety reasons, which is what happened in one of my experimental cases. When Development Gateway and AFIC started to work on procurement reforms in Uganda, an opportunity arose in Makueni County in Kenya where Development Gateway’s technical expertise was urgently needed.  I discussed this opportunity with Development Gateway and we agreed that they apply the remaining grant funds to the work in Makueni. I was comfortable with this decision for two reasons: first, there was a very high chance that the intervention in Makueni County would be successful. In fact, recent assessment of the impact of the reforms in Makueni County by the Open Contracting Partnership shows that the county saved nearly half a million US dollars in road construction alone. Second, the AFIC team had acquired the expertise to continue the work in Uganda and since they had a separate stream of funding, there was no disruption to the program. For instance, through AFIC’s work, the Government of Uganda has embraced open contracting and became the first African country to publish procurement data in Open Contracting Data Formats. AFIC has since analyzed published data, providing government with recommendations on how to ensure value for money in public contracting. The long-term nature of governance and service delivery outcomes means that sustained engagement is essential if we expect to make progress.

Feedback and ideas on alternative approaches

About six months into my new role, when I started to engage grantees more closely—reviewing reports, having check-in calls, etc.—I observed that some northern INGO grantees will report and claim credit for program results with little or no mention of the contribution of their national/local partners. After repeated experience of these incidents, I made it a point to ask some of them the following three questions:

  • who are your local partners?
  • what is the nature of your partnership? and,
  • how have they contributed to program implementation and/or outcomes?

These conversations did prompt some of them to pay attention to, as well as document the contribution of, their local partners to program implementation and impact. I have been impressed by how much some of the northern INGO grantees have elevated the work of their local partners in grant reports and highlighted specific contributions they have made to program execution and impact in various publications, thereby raising their visibility.

Lessons for funders

Facilitating fair partnerships takes time and effort; nonetheless it is well worth it. Here are three key takeaways from this experience:

  • The ability of southern partners of Global North INGOs to continue a given stream of work independently should be one measure of success of grant funding and funders will do well by emphasizing such institutional building and sustainability and discouraging any attempts to treat southern CSOs as project contractors.
  • Funder engagement and nudging is a powerful tool that can only help to facilitate a shift towards fair and equitable partnerships between northern INGOs and their southern CSO partners, especially for northern INGOs who have no locally staffed country offices. However, funder efforts should focus on facilitating existing partnerships and not seek to create new ones. Funder-imposed partnerships could do more harm than good.
  • Finally, by creating space to actively engage and learn about local partners of northern INGO grantees, funders can identify and work with local organization doing great work on the ground.

To be sure, the advocacy to shift power, which has broad appeal in the international development community, is not about seeking the extinction of northern-based and led INGOs; it is about: “appreciating that different actors have dfferent capacities and roles to play, and finding the best point of convergence that allows us all to leverage each other’s efforts,” as Caeser Ngule, Program Director at Kenya Community Development Foundation explains during the 2019 Pathway to  Power Symposium.

We are always eager to hear from you. Please share your reflections and reactions with us by emailing or on Twitter with @joeasunka. How have you seen funders foster fair partnerships? And what can we do better?

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