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

‘If we’re really committed to this, it’s a big transformation. It’s working entirely differently.’

Sara Cuevas/TNH

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The international aid community has a poor track record of keeping reform promises, especially when it comes to localisation and shifting power to the Global South. So when five international NGOs sign up to a new set of commitments, there’s a degree of scepticism. But this time, they say, it’s different. 

The Pledge for Change, formally launched today, outlines specific adjustments these organisations have committed to making by 2030.

They centre around three core areas: equitable partnerships – for example, directly implementing only when there isn’t enough national or local capacity to meet needs; authentic storytelling – moving away from storytelling associated with the “white gaze”, and putting an end to language that portrays aid recipients as helpless victims; and chipping away at power imbalances by influencing wider change in the larger aid ecosystem. 

“To be quite honest, the sector [has been] treading water on localisation, making more noises than actual change,” Patrick Watt, CEO of Christian Aid, one of the five organisations, told The New Humanitarian. “This feels like a step forward.”

Members agree that the pledge and its current elements are only a starting point: as Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, another of the signatories, frames it, “a staging post in a much longer journey.”

“To be quite honest, the sector has been treading water on localisation, making more noises than actual change.”

But after so many years of discussion on these issues and several failed system-wide change initiatives, why should this new set of commitments work out any differently? It’s not as if the aid system hasn’t tried before. Can an inherently imbalanced system actually change?

Angela Bruce-Raeburn, former policy adviser for Oxfam America, now founding principal of DiverseDEV, an organisation dedicated to challenging power imbalances in the development sector, applauded the effort but cautioned about too much “exuberance every time [the sector] comes up with a new pledge.” 

She has seen a number spring up recently – including several US-based organisations pledging to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) through the Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Development, known as CREED

“All of these pledges and conversations around decolonisation are welcome,” she told The New Humanitarian. “But none of it will matter if the core giver-receiver relationship [at the heart of development aid] is not addressed for what it is.”

A long journey to get change moving

Back in early 2020, before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was reignited with the killing of George Floyd – before diversity, equity, and inclusion became trendy among aid circles – Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, a Kenya-based NGO, had an idea. 

Knowing how much some of her international NGO colleagues were wrestling with how to make their organisations more equitable and decolonised, she wanted to create a safe space for them to talk through these changes. They weren’t simple fixes, so she thought a closed forum where colleagues could privately commiserate about challenges and failings – and get advice from allies – would be useful.

But she also had another motive: “Wouldn’t it be nice if this space could also result in some more radical commitments than the Charter for Change and the Grand Bargain?” she told The New Humanitarian, referring to two sets of previous agreements that have attempted to shift power towards actors in the Global South. 

Two years and countless hours of discussion and negotiation later, five organisations – CARE International, Christian Aid, Plan International, Save the Children International, and Oxfam International – have signed up to making those commitments real. 

Radical? Well, not exactly. As Watt puts it, “you start with transformational change and end with incremental change.” 

Read more → Renewing the Grand Bargain, Part 1: Old goals, a new path

Ali admits there was a long list of other issues she had wanted to tackle – like child sponsorship – but which ultimately didn’t make their way into the pledge. “We picked these issues that were the lowest hanging fruit,” she said.

But for Ashika Gunasena – as CEO of Chrysalis, a social enterprise in Sri Lanka that’s an affiliate member of CARE International, she was part of the pledge review process – it’s still a leap forward.  

“[The pledge] concretises the concerns we have been raising and reflects the experiences we have [had] dealing with international NGOs,” she told The New Humanitarian.

Resource-sharing is one area that excites her. “[It’s a recognition] that we too have the capacity to spend the money wisely and with accountability,” she said. “This idea that local organisations don’t have that capacity is wrong... [and the idea] that [international NGOs in the Global North] have the ability to manage the money better is a fallacy.” 

Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, secretary general of CARE International, another signatory to the pledge concurred. “If we are able to walk the talk around what we’ve developed in partnership – resource flow measures and covering costs of partners – if we’re really committed to this, it’s a big transformation,” she told The New Humanitarian. “It’s working entirely differently.” 

What’s new in this approach? 

Ali was closely involved in the early drafting of the Grand Bargain – the reform agreement born out of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016 that contained the target of allocating 25% of humanitarian funding to local and national responders by 2020. She was also an architect of the Charter for Change, an earlier initiative that promised “20% by 2020”. Less than 5% was actually achieved by 2020 across the board.

She says she got a first-hand view of how these big, multi-agency processes can lose potency: “I saw how things get watered down – saw how when you have a negotiated process with 100 groups, it goes down to lowest common denominator. It stays at the safest to get everyone to buy into it.” 

For the pledge, having a smaller group of similarly sized organisations with committed leaders helped keep the aims more focused. It also included multi-mandate organisations that are both humanitarian and development actors, as both architectures need reorientation.

Oxfam’s Sriskandarajah sees value in the process. “The journey has been as important as the output,” he said. “It’s not just about agreeing on the words, but [working through] the elements of changing our business model.”

Instead of showing up to a conference with a list of superficial actions, signatories spent time working through tough questions,  Sriskandarajah said: “What would it take for us to be seen as true champions of the decolonisation agenda? What would it take for us to lead by example?”

Another important difference is that it wasn’t top-down – the initiative originated in the Global South, with Ali spearheading the journey. For the Grand Bargain, for example, localisation commitments were initially negotiated without Southern representation. “[In] none of these [earlier] processes we felt like we were an equal member at the table,” Ali recalled. 

But while local partners from the Global South were brought in at various stages to comment on drafts of the pledge, Ali resisted bringing in more at the outset, not wanting to waste people’s time and risk continuing what she sees as extraction. “We have been telling you what to do for 10 years,” she said. “People are exhausted and tired; you [international NGOs] know the right thing to do, you need to act on it.”

Stumbling blocks 

It hasn’t always been an easy process, and there were tensions along the way. “Every hot button issue had to do with money and income,” Ali said. For example, there was nervousness about shifting storytelling if it might jeopardise fundraising.

“[International NGOs] have trained the general public to respond to images which don’t show the Global South from a position of strength,” explained Sprechmann Sineiro. “We have trained them to respond to the images of dire needs, hunger, and skinny children.”

Sriskandarajah described a concern among some fundraisers that they had to keep playing it safe because they would lose money if they experimented with new supporters who might respond to more enlightened forms of storytelling.

“Can we find new and better ways of inspiring our supporters that don’t fall prey to stereotypical words and images, but that excite our supporters and engage them?” he said. “We can do better.” 

There was even debate about what constitutes a local or national civil society organisation. If a group is a Southern-based affiliate of an international federation – like Chrysalis is with CARE International – but it has an independent board, and identity, are they still truly local? 

The concern is that organisations with ties to international groups – regardless of how independent they might be on the ground – still have a leg up when it comes to fundraising and reputation. They could cannibalise funding opportunities for civil society organisations that don’t have the same global links. 

For Gunasena, it’s clear: “We are local. Yes we are affiliated [with CARE International], but besides that, we take the same risks as other local organisations – in the eyes of government and other civil society we have strived to have a local identity, and [that identity] needs to be defined by us, not by anyone else.” 

Walking the talk 

When it comes to measuring success, the devil, as ever, will be in the details.

Signatories have been tasked with working out metrics for each commitment. Getting these right, they say, will take some time and further internal reflection, but the pledgers believe it’s this accountability that will make all the difference.

“Some of us may get there faster, others slower, because of their donor set-up,” said Sprechmann Sineiro. “This is complex, and we must support each other to walk the talk. But we may not be able to do it all at the same time.”

The next steps will be to share baseline reports on where each organisation is starting off on each commitment, and then annually reporting on progress. The pledge acknowledges that “change will be incremental at first, but we’re committed to transforming our sector by 2030.”   

Today’s announcement is also an invitation to other groups – peer organisations and donors – to sign on. The hope is that these initial five international organisations are leading by example and will inspire others to follow suit. 

“Very few changes in the world have just happened overnight,” Sprechmann Sineiro said. “And if we think this will be achieved overnight, we will not be successful and will be incredibly frustrated. So we need to see steady progress.”

While the pledge is seen as a step towards progress, people like Bruce-Raeburn are urging the sector to be even bolder: “At the end of the day, we want to transform how we think about aid. Even the word aid means help; once you are helping me, it means there is a power dynamic in our relationship that won't go away. We can slap words and pledges on it, but that’s the truth.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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