Responses to ‘Are INGOs ready to give up power?’

On Wednesday, we republished this timely thought piece by Deborah Doane, which interrogates the power held by large NGOs and calls for a shift of power.

The article clearly hit a nerve. Questions around #ShiftingThePower bring up enormous systemic (and existential) considerations that pose direct challenges not only to the structures we operate in, but also to our own behaviors. A group of us got the chance to collaboratively explore these over the course of two days at the Pathways to Power Symposium last month, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. You can read some of the participants’ reflections here.

To continue that open dialogue, below I’ve compiled a selection of responses gathered from Twitter, from readers’ comments and from online conversations with colleagues within the sector over the past few days. All responses here are published with permission, but I’ve left names off as some were private exchanges.

The most common responses were a resounding “YES” and “this is long overdue”. Many were unsurprised and felt that many of the same thoughts and ideas resonated with ones they’ve held – sometimes for a very long time. 

This isn’t surprising. Like all organisations, INGOs exist under the assumption that they are valuable/useful. They will therefore develop whatever rationale necessary to legitimate their existence. “We raise the voice of the South”, “We channel resources”, etc.

So much of this resonates, and was one of the reasons I decided it was time to exit the sector last year after 20+ years. There’s nothing here that we’ve not known for a long time. I tried to pull together some ideas around a manifesto to help shift some of this, which you’re welcome to look at on

Why are we unable to let go of a model that values technocrats over movement builders?

Some responses started to take the conversation even further, by raising problems around the stark North-South divide that underlies (and sometimes limits) arguments about shifting power:

But we should not assume that “Southern NGOs” are all “Southern”. Privilege and the accumulation of power is also present in the South. As long as money flows from Northern based agencies to the South there will be “gatekeepers” (Northern or Southern) – self-serving to a degree.

Yes, and the same is replicated within each country where technocratic NGOs monopolize power and resources by being related to INGOs or international organizations. (translated from Spanish)

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? Again, we totally need to rebalance power, but let’s not underestimate the complexity of reality.

Our north is your south
‘Our north is your south’,  Joaquín Torres García 1943

For me as a ‘southerner” it is fascinating to observe how 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 portfolio of partners to allow emerging civil societies in South to apply; the channelling of large funds through the UN, commercial tenders for mixed stakeholders, blurring the lines between businesses and non-profit aims not to mention political control and shrinking the civil society space. So I am very sympathetic to the discussion but I strongly think it is not addressing the real root causes of weakened southern organisations unless very tangible, concrete things are proposed.

It’s a painful conversation about identifying which roles are critical in the North (#friendraising and some #lobby and #campaign capacity etc) and which of the many roles can be delivered from the South…It means handing over decision-making power to partners in the South, going beyond simply shifting Northern colleagues to the South, but also reaching out to the diaspora and ensuring diversity in the North, making organizations much more a reflection of our diverse societies.

Within this thread, others highlighted the challenges Shifting the Power poses for the localisation debate:

Tricky challenges of aid localisation. Important to critically examine so-called collaborative practices, mutual learning efforts, participatory models – to what extent do they disrupt and/or maintain power relationships? ⁦

Several concerns were raised around the risk of replicating the same structures all over again while attempting to shift the power.

If the ‘shifting of the power’ is going to mean more large international ‘professional southern organisations’ (that look like the current crop of INGOs) then I think we will have failed. If we create new ‘professional southern intermediaries’ that behave in the same way that the international NGO community currently behaves (except insulated from criticism by their identity) then we have failed. If all we are talking about is bigger budgets for ‘professional southern NGOs’ then we have failed.

Power mostly goes where the money is. 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!

So, absolutely yes – we need to shift the power. But how?

Overall, the sense is that the majority of us agree this debate brings up very urgent and important considerations for moving into the new decade. Most are not new at all – power asymmetries have been long normalised as ‘business as usual’, and even deemed necessary. But many are craving more concrete ideas, pathways and practices to start thinking about the how of shifting the power

Development choir cartoon
An illustration from Trocaire’s Leading Edge 2020 report.

For me there should be clear targets (named donors ), clear specific asks for what they need to change on their intent, selection eligibility, contracting terms. National/ regional/southern NGOs are not crowded out only by INGOs but by diverse other stakeholders e.g Intergovernmental organizations and businesses. The movement is great but there is more needed to move to concrete proposals .

 I’d like to get more specific as I can’t work with abstractions of ‘shift the power’ or ‘take power’. Before people jump to conclusions, I’m not against it. I just think it’s high time to get concrete. What is the how and phasing of this? Am I hearing, for example, to reduce northern office staffing, in particular, to purely fundraising and in-their-own-backyard advocacy? […] I’m missing the how in this discussion.

To think about this how, two people who have been in the sector for many years offer some further food for thought around how we are thinking about and working with power. Is power a zero-sum game: reducing for someone means increasing for someone else, and vice-versa?

The more I think about this article and our various responses, the more I see how limited it is on the crux of the matter – ‘power’. Power is discussed as an absolute – you have it or don’t. You give it up or take it – so it shifts. [We work] with a much more nuanced understanding of power…Power over, power with, power to, power within, invisible, visible, hidden powers. What is the power about – money, staff, time, decision-making? How can a deep power analysis help us unpack this ‘shift/take’ discussion?

(1) This means really figuring out what ‘inclusive meaningful participation from local context’ looks like. Having worked in participatory planning, M&E, research in the 1990s and 2000s, I know that isn’t easy and the word ‘local’ hid a lot of oppression and marginalisation. We might need to learn some of those lessons again or hopefully build on them. I found few examples that gave it the time and attention to be really inclusive and meaningful.
(2) Localised narratives are essential, and in my experience, can also be constrained by not seeing or being located in the wider political forces.
(3) In the 1990s, many INGOs worked with ‘exit strategies’ but they were often dreadfully done, particularly by dropping long term endeavours like hot bricks too soon. I wonder if we can think of co-evolution rather than ‘exit’. The very long term collaborations over 2 decades for example, were often the most fruitful.
(4) How local is local? These are all questions that need open discussion for it to become concrete and able to be implemented.
(5) How do we create the funding ‘architecture’ so that smaller CSOs can access funding directly? I just got back from an event on development finance institutions and anything that isn’t in the millions isn’t interesting for most of them. So much needs changing.

Some others have started proposing ways ahead in their responses:

INGOs need to revise their indicators for measuring success, surely success should be measured by how fast an INGO is able to “hand over” the intervention to be “locally-led” and become redundant rather than continue to exist for decades in a country relying on its own narrative instead of the context it is trying to assist.

INGOs might also need to think about how the transformation will look like to tackle the dire inequality in their home countries, i.e. how the resources raised in their home markets can be used to tackle the problems at home – while the home systems are failing.

It refers to having direct inclusive meaningful participation from local context and local actors about identifying their own human rights that need to be addressed, rather than northern/external/donors actors deciding what their need is…It also means that that there should be more localised narratives based on localised needs, rather than how it fits into an INGO mandate. It means the presence of the INGO should not be open ended, that an exit strategy be in place by a defined timeline, after which the intervention will be locally owned. The term ‘Redundancy’ does not have to be taken with negative connotations, but positively by measuring success of the work of an INGO … shift the power means that the local people of any given context in need of aid are directly involved in the decision-making and are not just ‘informed’ by externals/northerners about what their problems are … maybe it also means that smaller civil society based organisations at grassroots can apply for funding directly and take back the power for their own self determination so to speak, rather than be fed by external ‘experts’ on localised contexts about what problems affect them …

Shouldn’t NGOs goal ultimately be to… leave? 

We want to hear your thoughts, inspiration, ideas and frustrations. And if you want to write a full blog on this topic of what Shifting the Power can mean for the future of development and aid, please let us know through the contact form!

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9 Responses to “Responses to ‘Are INGOs ready to give up power?’”
  1. Again, not my area, but agree, the empowerment of the southern NGOs large and small to say what they need and don’t need from INGOS, donors, others is perhaps the most important factor. There still seems to be much focus on thinking what’s good for other people rather than finding and funding the ways to humbly and respectfully listen and respond to what others say they need in the ways they need it and then helping them apply learning from elsewhere to deliver.

    However that said, there also feels like a baby and bathwater thing going on. INGOs surely have massive knowledge about working in different countries, in different situations, what works, what doesn’t in what ways in what context, which is ESSENTIAL to not reinventing the wheel time and time again country by country situation by situation. This is an immensely valuable resource that must not be lost and should be accessible to all.

    Also, from my outsiders point of view organisations building bridges and pathways between northern money and southern expertise are hugely important. As you say in the end bit, ‘translators’ of what Northern money thinks it wants to give to and what those most in need really do need are really important. It feels like INGOS are much needed, but perhaps with a shift to a more co-creative, facilitative mode which is one about empowerment of others – which is the same as ‘shifting power’ but without the crap macho overtones.

    Good luck y’all. From my little land of ‘responsible’ emerging technologies, make sure you make the most of what’s happening there too in making that shift without replicating what happens here a lot, with organisations falling for all the bullshit and snake oil being sold about the power of AI etc etc. Empowering and enabling those on the ground again to fund and use tech, whether it’s AI, biotech, robotics whatever, to make people’s lives better, not just being the passive recipient of a tech designed by western values being foisted on them when not fit for purpose. One for another blog perhaps Duncan!

  2. I increasingly think along the following two lines: a) there will need to be many less global North founded NGOs, of a much smaller size, playing a very different and much more limited role (brokering relationship within multi-sector collaborations, protecting certain principles and values and providing some sources of knowledge). Thus, they will require very different skillsets and provide radically fewer jobs. And b) their work will primarily be domestic in global North countries – not just fundraising, advocacy and public education, but to influence the behavior of domestic actors that affect other people around the globe (because of interdependencies – think of climate change, systemic sources of transborder inequality, etc.). So the remaining ones will work primarily on domestic poverty/inequality/discrimination issues etc. (of which there are plenty to work on!).

  3. Patti

    Crikey…these two blogs were so dispiriting to read that I had to go clean house for an hour. All my downstairs floors have now been swept / mopped / vaccumed / whatever, for which I thank you.

    It may be that power could be transferred in a simple, rapid framework if only we in the north were not so hung up on our self-importance and self-preservation. I can only say, that is not how it felt in the room where I served as a trustee for many years. We have been trying to move power to the south for some fifteen years now. Perhaps to some extent we have been successful; certainly, it has not been perfect; quite possibly, with hindsight we could have done things differently; and we are still working on it. We have debated many things in our board meetings, e.g.:
    – how to balance our desire to try more risky fundraising models with the desire to not disrupt an existing steady flow of unrestricted, long-term core funding to our national branches and to their local community partners (which they quite like, needless to say);
    – how to balance our legal responsibilities as UK trustees, and our accountability to our donors (both individual and institutional), with our desire to let our southern partners manage their own affairs and do things their own way
    – how much to invest in our own UK-based fundraising and how much to invest in untested southern markets
    – how much we should cut our own UK staffing so that we can fund more work outside of the UK
    – whether we should count in our own fundraising the grants that we have helped our southern partners win directly from DFID — because our UK “competitors” do, it makes us look inefficient if we don’t
    – giving up some campaigns that we were quite (emotionally and financially) invested in, because we decided to only take up campaigns as requested by our southern partners
    – and I could go on.
    It certainly may be that we have worried needlessly, and that our partners in the south would have been happy to take on the risk of a (probably very substantial) drop in funding if we had simply bowed out as quickly, but I certainly haven’t heard any of them say that. It may be that we can all be dismissed as “technocrats” bent on preserving our own status. I can only say, that is not what it felt like in my boardroom. We are imperfect, but we are doing our best in a very demanding environment. And I hope the discussion at the Pathways to Power conference was able to move past such unhelpful stereotypes.

  4. If Southern CSOs are to do more leading, their contexts, understandings, and ambitions must move more to the centre of programmes and collaborations. But what could that mean in practice?
    Over the past two years, we researched this question, taking the perspective that CSOs in the global South navigate the possibilities of their roles as agents. We explored how CSOs construct these roles from their own perspectives and on the basis of their own capacities, while engaging with various opportunities and constraints.
    Considering Southern CSOs as agents can help to develop perspectives on how their roles take shape. This, in turn, can help to reveal how donors, Northern CSOs, and other Southern CSOs can contribute to these roles. Our ideas in now way marginalize Northern CSOs, it goes for complementarity, capitalizing on Northern and Southern CSOs’ capacities and power.

    In short, our recommendations are (1) to turn programming upside down, starting from the global South rather than the global North and (2) to think of Northern CSOs as part of relatively Southern-centred networks rather than as the leading organizations in linear North–South relations.

    From these starting points, we propose that donors and Northern CSOs develop support for and collaboration with Southern CSOs working on a given issue while addressing a set of interrelated questions. These questions offer a framework for reshaping the terms of engagement between Northern and Southern actors by making Northern CSOs or donors part of a network rather than the central node or the top end of an ‘aid chain’. The questions conceive of support and collaboration as contributions to change processes rather than as stand-alone interventions. Our policy brief elaborating this and providing five ways to make this happen has come out this week and can be found here:

  5. Thank you for republishing the original article on NGO readiness to give up power and this subsequent responses piece.
    In considering how the Global North can best relinquish power over the international development agenda and activities, it all comes down to money. The US, a classic Western nation example, has put forth versions of localisation policies for years, currently employing USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative and PEPFAR’s 70/30 funding goal. While the marketing of these policies makes them seem rosy, the impacts seem to be pretty adverse to the stated intent. Grant recipients and contractors based in the States respond to these measures by scrambling to register as local organisations in their operating countries; a legal modification that doesn’t actually change too much when you look at those ‘local’ offices’ relationships with the US headquarters (think all the Save the Children and World Vision affiliates around the world). That, and Western NGOs make sure their proposed budgets include a few local partners and call it a day.
    I think that a few things need to happen for localisation to actually have its intended effect. First, the fiscal flow needs to flip 180°. Instead of international actors sub-contracting or sub-granting to local ‘partners,’ local institutions should receive the primary funding and include INGOs as subs as-needed. It doesn’t matter how much funding goes to local partners if it flows through an INGO first, because that pernicious power dynamic will persist until the local institutions have the authority to manage the funds. I think larger organisations should have to justify their specific value-add for each project (financial management is a good example — it’s an expertise that can carry over to a local organisation’s next project with no further need for the INGO). In proposal development, ‘shadow-writing’ proposals (where the local institution submits the proposal but the larger INGO develops the bulk of it) often garners criticism. I disagree. Shadow-writing can be an excellent method for a local institution to learn successful proposal development skills while acting in a position of power.
    Second, funding from the original donors should have far fewer restrictions. If it were not for the injurious impacts of some programmes, it would be laughable how often the people who write RFPs and RFAs at USAID have paltry knowledge of the geographic region, technical area, etc. of the project. With less-defined calls for proposals, local institutions can submit schemes that actually align with their expertise, and put more effort into these proposals. This would also help with the rampant staff turnover at the local level that results from project-tied positions.
    We know that localising aid is likely less risky than our status quo (if you’re data-driven, ODI has produced some to support this). Plus, it would result in substantial programming savings from the massive budgets set aside for INGOs to funnel heir funds to local institutions. Let’s hope donors get on board with the ethical intent behind localisation policies and actually push for a just world.

  6. Just short comment now, and I hope I am wrong. The big drivers of donor country funding in recent years were the results agenda and the integrity (limited to sex and bribes) agenda. This means more centralised control instead of less. More Goodhard indicator driven, wich means normally: less locally driven. This donor agend must be changed asap.