Going beyond Western models of value to shift the power
16 January 2020
Shifting the power makes me think of an old measuring scale that requires shifting a marker until the weight balances to get one’s right weight.
In the development sector, supported by the international aid architecture, the power scale is tipped in favour of organisations that have the right connections with aid bilaterals and multilaterals, and foundations that can absorb millions of dollars.
The system favours those who write dazzling proposals with the right terminology, present excellent narrative and financial reports from their sophisticated monitoring and evaluation systems, in accordance with the log-frame and theory of change presented to donors. Those who have high visibility and have an impressive website, who demonstrate an imposing presence within their context and their scope of operations. Those that function as a business.
Money is power
This is the celebrated anatomy of the successful NGO or INGO. They survive and thrive within the development sector. They get the money.
There is a saying in twi, one of the languages in Ghana: sika ye mogya, meaning “money is blood”. This saying depicts the power of money as a life source. For many organisations in the development sector, it is.
But it also means that it is a “dog eat dog” environment for organisations in the global south as well as the global north. It is the survival of the fittest where you have to play up to the hand that feeds you and dim the light of your competitors. As Barry Knight puts it, it’s all about egos, logos and silos.
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To be able to make it, one has to learn the game and be good at it. One must fit into the square box of the international donor by cutting off or squeezing in your rounded edges, even if your mission is circular. NGOs in the global south are predominantly dependent on foreign donor funding and many would not exist without it.
They are mainly accountable to the hand that feeds them for the delivery of their mission. They are forced to dance to the tune that foreign donors play. They are bereft of power in many ways.
Taking a hard look
But…should that be the motivation for an organisation’s existence or the determinant of that existence? Should it not be for the constituency whose problems the organisation exists to help solve? How much of a say does that community have in the solution to their problems and the organisation’s relevance in solving them? What ownership do they have in the ways devised to solve those problems? How do they identify with the organisation? Wherein lies their agency and their participation in solving their problems? Do they see the organisation’s agenda as one that is of mutual benefit? Who plays the tune and who dances to it?
We need to answer these questions if we truly want to shift power within the development space. The answers will determine the form organisations take and their support base. It will determine their relevance and legitimacy. It will determine their resource base, what resources and whose. It will determine their sustainability and effectiveness. It will determine what is true and sustainable development.
Success beyond Western models
The Western organisational model may no longer be the benchmark for successful organisations. We need to look at models from the global south of indigenous community groups that have been effective and learn how they have done it.
We will have to reconsider what we value and place a lesser premium on money. Instead we should value other critical resources, like local/indigenous knowledge, time, human and material resources. The organisation with funding will no longer be the player with all the power.
Funding is still important, after all sika ye mogya, but the donor could be different because communities that own their development invest in it. The piper would take a very different shape and form, where communities lead their own development.
The direction of accountability will change. This would mean that the matrix for measuring success would not be a Western log-frame model or an imported European model, but one that suits the context. It would surely mean shared power.
What we’re doing about it
Groups, individuals and development actors from different continents that are deeply concerned about the statusquo have been working to shift the power within their spaces and contexts. In March 2019, a Shift the Power manifesto was released, based on this philosophy.
Under the auspices of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) several kindred spirits within this movement met for two days in November 2019 in London, and proposed to move beyond the rhetoric and bring about that needed shift. Key principles agreed included the following:
- ensure that it remains a “shift the power movement and not a shift the power industry”
- remain inclusive and foster growth
- focus on the relational instead of the transactional
- build solidarity across continents, interests and organisations by overcoming the ego, logo and silo mentality
- hold each other accountable.
It demanded boldness. It called for introspection and a look within self, organization and mission-getting out of one’s comfort zone to probe vested interests. Specific actions to be undertaken were to re-examine capacity-building within the development space, value local assets and the power of communities, mobilize local resources, re-configure measuring indices for success, re-imagine the INGO, address racism and neo-colonialism head on, hold donors accountable, and continue to create and encourage such rare spaces for honest reflection and action planning for the needed change.
Back to the measuring scale, if we want to remain true to the mission of sustainable development, we all have a responsibility to push that marker in whatever ways we can to balance the power.
We'll be exploring how to move beyond the rhetoric to shift the power at the Bond Conference on 23-24 March 2020. Book now.