The nature of power is changing and fracturing.
In our recent report, we identified four transitions reshaping the international development system, where we highlight the trends and niche innovations that will influence the international development system in the next 10 years. We also look at what questions these shifts present for us as a sector.
One of those transitions is the redistribution of power. Here are some of the main trends that are manifesting and some key questions for NGOs to consider for their future role.
The rise of new activism and social media
As different actors jostle for power, and “traditional” power holders struggle to maintain the status quo, we see power going in several different directions: towards technology and corporates; towards local communities; and continuing to be concentrated in the hands of the elites. How this power dynamic plays out will be critical in the next decade.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution has empowered citizens. Social movements and marginalised groups have a louder voice, which they use to advocate for human rights, economic and social justice, and to hold traditional power structures to account. The most recent Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates how young people are connecting globally to protest deep-rooted systemic racism and inequality, creating a powerful cross-border, multilingual, grassroots force.
Widening inequalities, political instability and closing of civic space
Inequalities are widening considerably, with 1% of the world’s richest having more than twice the wealth of 6.9 billion. This inequality exacerbates political instability, while putting civic space and structures under strain.
Covid-19 has further intensified the deep inequalities and instability of the current system. Governments are imposing emergency measures which limit civic space and human rights. In this context, the role of civil society organisations’ (CSOs) to defend the importance and value of civic space will be even more critical.
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It’s more important than ever to ask ourselves, and those we support, how we can ensure that we have a strong campaigning voice that holds governments and businesses to account. We need to ask our partners how we can understand and enable their power more effectively. As youth activist Mirna Medina says: “in Nicaragua, young people in particular are hungry for a change, but spaces to raise their voices are limited. If you have the power, be enablers and create those spaces for us”.
Shifting the power south and decolonising our mindsets
In light of Covid-19, calls to shift decision making power from NGOs to the communities they support have intensified. The pandemic has further illustrated the centrality of local actors to achieving better development outcomes.
Questions about who holds power, where power goes, how to maintain learning between countries and what counts as “expert knowledge” need to be addressed. INGOs need to listen to the answers to these questions, as many solutions to are already out there. Shifting the flow of knowledge between north and south is central to change unequal development systems. We need to privilege voices and knowledge of actors from the global south and make space for them – what could be a central role for UK INGOs.
The Young Feminist Fund’s report, No Straight Lines, shows how INGOs can be active allies in supporting young, trans and feminist organisations. An open letter, written by a collective of actors from the global south, presents concrete solutions for INGOs wishing to engage in the localisation agenda. The letters urges NGOs to “reduce your footprint and brand and use your fundraising machinery to help grassroots organisations create the structures to fundraise for themselves and sustain their work”.
Now is a time to learn from the communities and groups INGOs support. We need to significantly decolonise the collective and individual mindset of many in the UK sector to really act on the solutions being presented. Getting this right could unlock potential and redefine how power is distributed.
This time of disruption and diffuse power dynamics also presents openings for us to act, transform or sink. Change happens when major trends intensify and frustrate the current ways of doing things. As Tasneem Essop from Climate Action Network urges, “we must take advantage of this transformative moment”.
Delve further into the redistribution of power in our report on four transitions reshaping the UK’s international development system.
Or join our free workshop for leaders on the future of our sector, including the key questions we should be asking ourselves for better development outcomes.