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Aid profiles: The head of CARE on her decolonisation ‘journey’

‘Our members realise that everyone is changing, our donors are changing. There’s no getting out of this.’

A group of people CARE
Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro (centre), secretary general of CARE International, visiting a shelter in Lviv, Ukraine operated by CARE partner Tvoya Opora in September 2022.

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Back in February this year, I reached out to Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, the secretary general of CARE International, one of the largest and oldest aid organisations. I had wanted to understand what she – a woman from the Global South – made of the well-trodden efforts to localise and decolonise aid. How did these issues affect her personally as she rose through the ranks of the aid system? And how do those experiences influence how she leads the organisation today?

When we set up what would be our first of many conversations over the year, she was just off a three-hour call with a handful of international NGO leaders, hashing out ways to decolonise their organisations.

“My head is spinning,” she said, a warm smile extending through our Zoom connection from her home in Quito, Ecuador. “Sorry, I know you want to interview me about other things, I’m just so excited about this.”

“This” was what would become the Pledge for Change – the set of commitments announced last week by CARE International and four other international NGOs aimed at building a more equitable aid system by 2030.

Read more: Five international NGOs launch fresh bid to tackle power imbalances in aid

As it turned out, the meeting she had just wrapped up answered many of my questions and inspired even more.

Over the next few months, Sprechmann Sineiro and I checked in regularly, as I was eager to follow this “journey”, as she called it, to finalise the pledge. In the process, I came to understand her own journey through the aid sector – from eager newbie to where she sits today: a 53-year-old woman at the helm of a nearly one-billion-dollar international aid confederation, more determined than ever to right the power imbalances she has borne witness to over almost three decades in the business.

“I’m more encouraged today than I have ever been before.”

Sprechmann Sineiro believes the moment for change is long overdue, but also that it’s no longer an option: “Our members realise that [everyone is changing], our donors are changing. There’s no getting out of this.”

And for all the aid industry’s self-flagellation over its lack of progress on these kinds of reforms, she is hopeful. “I joined a sector that wasn't even talking about this, so look how far we have come,” she told me. For one, the staff and board of CARE are far more diverse and inclusive of the countries in which it works than when she started out nearly 30 years ago. “That doesn't make the task that lies ahead any easier, because we have a long way to go, but it has shifted. I’m more encouraged today than I have ever been before.”

Starting young

Sprechmann Sineiro was just 25 years old when she moved to Cambodia in 1994 from her native country, Uruguay. She had recently graduated from the Universidad de la República Oriental del Uruguay with a degree in sociology, and considered herself part of the Southern and Latin American feminista and activist movements.

She settled in a small rural village, Pursat, and learned Khmer – her fifth language – so she could speak directly with Cambodians. Although the Khmer Rouge, which had been responsible for the genocidal killing of up to 3 million people between 1975 and 1979, was no longer in power, she recalled how its influence was still felt in every moment of life, with regular attacks and nightly curfews.

Sprechmann Sineiro began knocking on doors, hoping to land a job, or even a volunteer position in the industry she had long admired for “doing good in the world”. Four months after she arrived, CARE Cambodia welcomed her in.

“As a young feminist, I started with the slogan on my forehead, ‘nothing about us without us.’ That’s what I was expecting to see, but it’s not what I found… I can really remember the huge disappointment.”

Founded in 1945, CARE got its start with the now well-known CARE packages – shipments of food and relief supplies from the US to millions of people in *Europe in need at the end of World War II. Soon after, CARE commenced relief and development programmes around the world.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Sprechmann Sineiro threw herself into her job supporting the Ministry of Health in its first-ever national survey on contraception and fertility. Having worked on public opinion polling back in Uruguay, she was well-matched to the role. At the time, data on contraceptive prevalence and prenatal care was scarce, and the information Sprechmann Sineiro helped gather informed government thinking on reproductive and sexual health services for women.

She described the work as “life-transforming”, but said the window it gave her into the aid world was far different from what she had imagined, especially in terms of accountability and inclusivity.

“As a young feminist, I started with the slogan on my forehead, ‘nothing about us without us.’ That’s what I was expecting to see, but it’s not what I found… I can really remember the huge disappointment,” she told me.

Her position was a unique hybrid. She was hired locally and paid a local salary: not sent to Cambodia like other international staff, but an expat all the same. This gave her a unique vantage point to notice things that seemed odd. Why were “experts” from the Global North flown in to manage projects her Cambodian colleagues could clearly manage, for example? To her, it just didn’t make sense.

“I noted down the colonial flavour of meetings, with specific examples of unconscious bias of colleagues that mean so well, but who didn’t notice how they spoke. All of this vocabulary they’d use was about being in a place of superiority.”

Another area she found problematic was capacity building – training up partners with skills and expertise. The whole approach, Sprechmann Sineiro explained, was one of transferring resources – knowledge, money, technology – from the Global North to the Global South: “The South was always on the receiving end. That was the flavour of every dialogue.”

She watched the excitement of her Cambodian colleagues when presented with an opportunity to be sent to headquarters in the Global North to be trained. She couldn’t help but notice how few believed in their own voices. “The idea was, there’s greater wisdom there. That’s where I will learn and develop,” Sprechmann Sineiro said, recalling their clear sentiments. “That’s how it [was] manifested every day, and it prevails in our system.”

Other deep-rooted problems, like the predominance of older white men in senior leadership positions, were so pervasive at the time that they didn’t jar as much. Back then,she was too intimidated to raise her hand at meetings – all of the senior leadership were men from the Global North who were much older than she was. Back in 1994, only 17% of the country directors at CARE were women (In 2021, 47% of CARE’s senior staff were female).

“You see [the exclusion] more visibly when something big happens,” like being passed over for a promotion, she said. “But when it happens every day, you’re a bystander to it – it gets under your skin without you even noticing it sometimes.”

Sprechmann Sineiro started taking notes. “I flipped [to the back of my notebook] and started what I called a ‘colonial page’. I noted down the colonial flavour of meetings, with specific examples of unconscious bias of colleagues that mean so well, but who didn’t notice how they spoke. All of this vocabulary they’d use was about being in a place of superiority.”

Rising the ranks

It wasn’t long before Sprechmann Sineiro started rising through the ranks in CARE, going on to be the organisation’s global adviser in 2000, based out of Nicaragua.

She wanted to use data to influence change, as she was convinced that policymakers wouldn’t budge on key issues without hard evidence. If the organisation found success in a certain project, she believed it had a responsibility to use that information – those learnings – to influence and drive larger policy. “If you've discovered something successful, you want it to go viral,” she said.

And so, with her newborn son on her arm, Sprechmann Sineiro set out on a global tour of 24 countries in 24 months – everywhere from Bangladesh to Uganda to Bolivia – to find evidence of success and use it to influence national policy. In Peru, for example, girls were more frequently dropping out of school than their male peers. A successful CARE education project found a way to buck this trend, so she used their solution and its evidence to advocate for change in national policy.

By 2012, she became global program director and was asked to relocate to Geneva.* She had no interest. “Reality looks different when you are in [the] global headquarters,” she explained.

“Why would anyone be more global than anyone else? Just because you are from the US or UK, you're more global than a Uruguayan? Everyone is local and global at the same time.”

Instead, Sprechmann Sineiro settled in Quito, Ecuador, where she still works and lives.

As her career progressed, and she got closer to the inner workings of not only CARE but the aid industry as a whole, the imbalances between Global North and Global South became even more apparent.The decisions around resource transfers, about what programmes to deliver, were always made from capitals in the North and then exported to the South.

And, of course, she was from one of the receiving countries. “Most of it was, ‘without us’ – how programmes were shaped, designed, and resourced. The value of self-determination, people's voice, people's participation – all of that was fairly absent. And that left a mark on me.”

Signing up for change

Sprechmann Sineiro has been in the aid system long enough to have witnessed numerous bouts of the aid system wrestling with its own power imbalances. She bristles at the latest term, “localisation” – the effort by internationals to transfer power and resources to local responders. It’s the unidirectionality of the idea she finds misguided.

“The problem is that [localisation] has been imposed from North to South rather than arrows going in every direction. Why would anyone be more global than anyone else? Just because you are from the US or UK, you're more global than a Uruguayan? Everyone is local and global at the same time.” She prefers the concept of locally led and globally connected.

She has been frustrated over the years by what she finds to be a desire to maintain the status quo, to focus more on very superficial, short-term quick wins, rather than deeper, more meaningful change.

And so when Degan Ali, the head of Kenya-based organisation Adeso, approached her to be part of the Pledge for Change, she didn’t hesitate.

All three core pledge areas – using local capacity first, authentic storytelling, and tackling power imbalances more broadly – matter to her, but she feels particularly connected to the storytelling strand. “Who clicks the trigger, and who decides what the right perspective is matters enormously,” Sprechmann Sineiro told me.

In 2021, CARE did an image audit in their library and found that 61% of their images were taken by men – and most of those by men from the Global North. The pledge will hold them to account to make sure they change not only who is holding the camera, but also the kinds of pictures they take. They’re already improving: one of their 2020 internal commitments recommends “investing in female, local talent”, and so far this year’s audit has found that 64% of the images analysed were taken by women – and this time mostly by women who are from the actual countries in which the pictures were taken.

When Sprechmann Sineiro and I began speaking, there was a bigger group signed on to develop the specifics of the pledge. As the months rolled on, however, some dropped off. The remaining core – Christian Aid, Plan International, Save the Children International, and Oxfam International, along with CARE International– are a tight group.

However, Sprechmann Sineiro sees this as an improvement on past reform efforts that featured multiple stakeholders of different sizes and vantage points: donors, UN organisations, and local and international NGOs. This more homogenous group can more easily relate to each other’s challenges and realities.But it’s also down to interpersonal relationships: “We already knew each other and were tightly connected. So [there was] already this trust.”

It’s this trust that she believes will help bring the accountability, the honesty in reflection, that will allow the organisations to support each other on a tough road ahead.“We will be tightly holding each other's hands and walking together, because this is not easy,” she said.

Today’s aid – a different flavour but still a long way to go

Sprechmann Sineiro still keeps a colonial journal. It’s just that the pages read differently now than when she started out 28 years ago.

“I have seen change. The CARE I joined is not the CARE that it is today,” she told me. Take CARE Cambodia, where Sprechmann Sineiro got her start: Today, two thirds of the senior leadership team are female and Cambodian.

When Sprechmann Sineiro joined CARE, it was an alliance of 10 member organisations from the Global North. Today, it’s a confederation of 21 autonomous organisations, eight of them from the Global South. And that matters. “When the directors of each of the organisations [sit together to] decide on organisational strategy and priorities and vision, it completely changes the dialogue,” she said. “We still have a long way to go, don't get me wrong, but it's not anymore a Global North-based organisation.”

Aid conferences and panels are – on the whole – more diverse now, and translation buttons ensure that people can speak in their native tongue. But, for Sprechmann Sineiro, some bad habits – like who is listened to, and who has influence – are still hard to shake.

“The dynamic [is one where] the idea that is presented that everyone latches onto is the one that is more eloquently presented in English,“ she said. She finds there’s a lower tolerance and patience for communication or expression that don't follow three-minute talking points.

“In some parts of the world, people want to tell you a story that takes longer,” she said. “You have to learn to synthesise, and you have to present it concretely and succinctly.”

As secretary general of CARE since June 2020, Sprechmann Sineiro said she has been committed to driving change so the organisation can embrace a model of global solidarity that is rooted in diversity, inclusiveness, and the sharing of power.

The pledge is part of that, but she told me her commitment at CARE goes beyond it. For example, it’s mandatory for leadership to be trained on unconscious bias, and on issues of gender equality and diversity. “You can’t work for the organisation unless you have reflected on your own unconscious bias around racism, how it manifests your own context,” she said.

“How on Earth did we ever think that this is not as important or more important than having security training?” she asked. “Unless you deeply reflect on it, you're not equipped to go, as I did, to Cambodia.”

Ukraine: A model for shifting power?

During our final conversation, Sprechmann Sineiro had just returned from a week-long trip visiting projects that CARE International is supporting in Ukraine. Moved by the people she met there – and by their stories of loss – her mood was reflective.

The situation for many local organisations in Ukraine is a familiar one – only a small fraction of funding is directly reaching them, and international actors are implementing their own programmes despite the wealth of capacity on the ground.

“We said to our partners, ‘We trust you, you tell us what is needed and we support you. Now run.’”

Ukrainian civil society groups are fed up. In an open letter to international donors and NGOs from 93 groups and over 100 individuals, they laid out their demands: trust them with unrestricted, timely, and flexible funding; stop speaking on their behalf and give them space to tell their own stories; and stop working to build their capacity, which they call “nonsense”.

Sprechmann Sineiro took the letter with her on her trip around Ukraine and held it up in meetings with their partners, soliciting them to tell her which of these CARE is getting wrong. “It led to some very revealing discussions,” she said.

As we spoke, I recognised that same smile and excitement she shared during our first conversation. “The situation was tragic, but I was more inspired by the possibility of change,” she said.

Before the Russian invasion, CARE had no presence in Ukraine. The unfolding crisis represented a rare, blank slate – a chance to do things entirely differently. The outpouring of generosity from the general public came mostly in the form of unrestricted funding, meaning it wasn’t tied to an institutional donor with heavy regulations or oversight. This meant CARE could experiment – in particular by working with partners with the kind of speed and agility they often aim for but don’t always achieve: “We said to our partners, ‘We trust you, you tell us what is needed and we support you. Now run.’”

“In my 28 years with CARE, I’ve never seen [the situation be] put upside down like this, with our partners fully leading,” she told me. “COVID-19 required us from one day to the next to be virtual, to meet on Zoom. I’m hoping that what COVID did for [working virtually], Ukraine will do for partnership [in aid].”

In this respect, Sprechmann Sineiro hopes the approaches playing out in Ukraine can be a model that will inspire true partnership elsewhere – a counter to the naysayers who resist shifting power by saying it’s too hard or that they’re letting go too much. As she put it: “There’s nothing better than experience to say, ‘this is possible’.”

(*An earlier version of this article said CARE gave packages to American soldiers. These packages were for people throughout Europe. It also said Sprechmann Sineiro was asked to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia, but that was for an earlier role. This corrected version was published on 2 November.)

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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