Are INGOs ready to give up power?

Deborah Doane opens up a provocative and necessary discussion around the power held by INGOs, and how we can shift it. Deborah Doane is a Partner at Rights CoLab, and a writer and consultant working with civil society and philanthropy. She is steering a project on reimagining the INGO. This piece was originally published on OpenDemocracy’s Transformation series.

“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.

Illustration of the Pathways to Power Symposium by More Than Minutes

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.”

“Colonialism is alive and well in international development.”

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.

Illustration of the conversations at Pathways to Power Symposium by More Than Minutes

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.

“Southern organisations need to find ways to take the power, rather than wait for it to be ‘shifted.’”

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.

Read more reflections here on the Pathways to Power Symposium, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations and the #ShiftThePower network.

Featured image: tattoos from the Pathways to Power Symposium, Vicki Couchman

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18 Responses to “Are INGOs ready to give up power?”
  1. This is not my area, but have read this article with interest a couple of times now, as it resonates across lots of my areas. Power goes where the money is mostly. Surely to ‘take the power’ Southern NGOs need to gear up to be the ones to find new and old modes of funding, or be the ones in the western conferences doing the meet & greet. Just do what INGOs do themselves, but from their location not the North? It would be very well received I think. Haha, but then they will end up with offices full of people processing and administering funds, doing admin, HR, PR etc etc and so it goes on! But at least they will be based in and support the places they are about regenerating! Good luck everyone!

  2. Anila

    For me as a ‘southerner” it is fasvinating to observe how come that now the discussion is narrowed to shifting power from “northern” meaning INGOs to Southern – when there are other bigger elephants in the room that are disabling National organisations to survive let alone thrive – donors policies and their continuous resistance to support organisations costs, their lack of innovation and risk taking in expanding their porfolio of partners to allow emerging civil societies in South to applu; the channelling of large funds through UN, comercial tenders for mix stakeholders, blurring the lines between bussinesses and non profit aims not to mention political controll and shrinking the civil society space. So i am very sympathetical to the discussion but i strongly think it is not addressing the real root couses of weakened southern organisations unless very tangible, concrete things are proposed

  3. matt

    Great piece Deborah and excellent headline. Please give FPTP a slap. This is absolutely not the “first place you saw this post”. I joined an impassioned discussion on Monday in Vietnam at which your piece (and headline) was mentioned many times. Best wishes (by the way the answer is a resounding no).

    • Maria Faciolince

      Hi Matt, please refer to the top paragraph which introduces the themes, the author and attributes the publication to Open Democracy (with a link to the original), which is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Glad you had an impassioned discussion about this in Vietnam – hope you can bring these discussions to the North too.

  4. ken smith

    I agree with Hilary , surely it’s all about the money. Has anybody any suggestions about why raising money locally has never really taken off even in countries with emerging middle classes for example , India , Philipinnes , Kenya , all quoted in the article ?

    • There is a growing effort being placed on raising money locally. The Global Fund for Community Foundations alongside the #shiftthepower movement is front and centre of this effort. It takes a lot of time and investment and the philanthropy movement is slowly investing in ways to strengthen different methods of local fundraising. Interestingly, though, some of the ‘localisation’ efforts by INGOs — eg. Amnesty — have arguably crowded out fundraising by local organisations, too. This is a constant refrain that I hear. But agree, much more needs to be done in this area.

  5. kimon

    Good article. Thank you. And good question, ken smith. I guess, no one really knows, at least there is not an easy response to it. Apart from this, I assume many of us who are pro shiftthepower agree it is key to talk and write about all the issues related to the movement….aiming at shifting the current power dynamics. However, let’s not oversimplify this complex discourse by ‘romantizing an image of the global south’ as one homogenous, harmonious and monolithic entity. A rich body of anthropological and other ‘evidence’ shows that human beings (all over the globe) strive for domination and power, often causing inequality, exclusion, etc. From this point of view, a key question is: even if we succeed in shifting ‘North-South’ power relations, what will be the societal implications for the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless segments of local societies (apart from Hilary’s points further above)? Again, we totally need to rebalance power, but let’s not underestimate the complexity of reality.

  6. I am glad that this conversation is coming back, alongside conversations on decolonising development. We had these in the 80s at what was then Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) now Practical Action – and even thought to ‘equalise’ the ITDG Country offices with the UK office being just that, the UK office. Of course the then trustees pushed back on that one and brought back the UK-as-head-office idea!!! Emma Crewe and I also wrote a piece way back in 2006 about racism in the international development….
    But, having led a country office of an international NGO, two local national organisations, the secretariat of a global southern led network and currently, a southern-led international network based in the global south, and while agreeing with much of what Deborah says, I think we also need to nuance the concept of what is an international organisation. So while the shift in the power must also be to local, national organisations, there must also be an understanding that organisations of the global south can also be ‘international’. Shanthi Dairiam, the founder of the organisation where I now work, the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP), politically positioned IWRAW AP as an international NGO based in and led from the global south, but it is hard to shift the perception that we are neither a national nor regional organisation. As a feminist organisation based on the principle of the “nothing about us without us” we try at all times to forefront the voices of our partners and the lived experience of the women we work with. And because we are an international organisation based in the global south, we are so underresourced that the patronising power of money is not something that is an issue!!!!
    So what I am trying to say is that if we are to dismantle colonialism and racism in international development and truly shift power, we need also to reconceptualise what we mean by an INGO and recognise that it need not be congruent with white privilege. It is about valuing lived experience as much as university training in international development studies! But it is also about valuing the knowledge and skills of professionals in the global south to the same extent as those in the global north, and treating international organisations led by the global south in the same way as those that are based in the north or originated in the heyday of western colonialism!.
    As for money, as a person from the global south, I think it is right that development assistance continues to flow from the global north to the global south – this is the only reparation we have for all the exploitation past and ongoing… we just need to take it on OUR terms…