Nurses taking a break in Uganda
Nurse-midwives enrolled in Amref Health Africa's eLearning programme in Uganda take a break from their studies. Sam Vox / Amref Health Africa

3 ways NGOs and donors are shifting power through governance

What are the key barriers within the international development system that we need to address to promote locally-led development?

Over the last five months, Bond has been working with a small group of committed organisations to explore the actions we need to take as a sector. One critical barrier we’ve identified as part of this process is how governance structures perpetuate inequality.

Time for INGOs to interrogate their governance

The recently updated Charity Governance Code now calls for boards to understand and address power dynamics within their organisations. Oxfam’s former head of ethics, Alex Cole-Hamilton, urges NGOs to put robust power analysis at the heart of governance, aims and behaviour in her recent blog.

Governance structures establish lines and directions for decision making, accountability and define efficacy. These structures have been shaped by institutionalised racism and colonial mindsets, which prioritises accountability to trustees, funders and government over accountability to the communities INGOs serve.

The legal and regulatory requirements placed on INGOs have entrenched this focus. Typically, these structures and requirements can exacerbate power imbalances, evidenced in unequal pay structures, restrictive organisational culture (including fear of change), narrow definitions of “success” and whose voice counts. The communities that organisations serve are excluded from these processes and are often unable to hold an INGO to account.

INGOs in turn feel most accountable to their funders, whose priorities are not driven directly by the communities they seek to serve. Restrictive, short term funding doesn’t give INGOs the flexibility they need to truly put the voices of communities at the centre of programmes.

But some NGOs and funders are changing how they work to address these issues. Here are three ways organisations are disrupting power dynamics through their governance structures.

1. Embedding communities into governance structures

The Blagrave Trust is a small funder working to shift accountability to the young people they serve. Director, Jo Wells, describes how they listen directly to young people “who are challenging the very notion of charity as paternalistic and deficit based”.

Blagrave has young people with lived experience of the issues the organisation funds on the board. With four trustees under 25 and a young chair (34) and finance trustee (32), the more representative and inclusive board is driven directly by young people’s views and experiences. As Jo says, “formality doesn’t always lend itself to an open and honest conversation”.

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Five of them are first time trustees. Rather than being “experts”, ‘they are coming to solve problems and learn together alongside the staff team”. In the wider UK development sector, Blagrave is also encouraging changes to governance structures through its support for the Young Trustees Movement and the Listening Fund. The fund supports youth organisations to listen and respond to young people’s needs, empowering those young people to influence and challenge at a systemic level.

2. Dismantling unequal international pay structures

Project FAIR researcher, Ishbel McWha-Hermann, highlights why we need to think critically about HR and organisational policies to address power and privilege in INGOs. In her blog, she explains the much-needed principles and standards of Fair INGO Reward.

WaterAid has implemented a fair reward system. The INGO shifted to a single-pay system over ten years ago, meaning that all staff, regardless of their nationality, are paid in local currency and receive local benefits. In each country, salary scales are constructed using local salary benchmarking data. For some senior roles, the data is complemented in part by international data to remain competitive in the international market.

Sarah Redshaw, head of international people management at WaterAid, explains that a dual pay approach (where reward packages are constructed differently for international staff and local staff) was inconsistent with the organisation’s values and mission. Sarah says, “the approach is recognised by staff as a valuable part of our culture where everyone – from different backgrounds, beliefs, customs, traditions and ways of life – can reach their full potential”.

3. Locally-led leadership culture

Changes to governance structures and culture need to start from the top. Amref Health Africa was founded in Nairobi and has grown to establish offices in Europe and North America. These offices are mainly fundraising and advocacy offices.

“Amref is very much African-led and Africa-focused, with 60% of funding raised in Africa for Africa and with a leadership team primarily from the countries Amref has programmes in”, says Camilla Knox-Peebles, chief executive of Amref Health Africa UK.

Amref’s European and North American offices provide access to funds from their countries and advocate within their sphere of influence. While Amref HQ in Nairobi provides all programme management and technical support in Africa. “Our set-up is embedded in a culture of respect for each other and what we each bring to the common goal of lasting health change in Africa,” says Camilla.

BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, has embedded a diversity of experience in its organisational culture. Simone Sultana, chair of BRAC UK’s board of trustees, explains that “founded and head quartered in Bangladesh, BRAC’s genesis is already closer to the ground. BRAC’s leadership in Bangladesh grew organically to include practitioners who have had direct and intimate contact with programme participants and this has had a critical bearing on BRAC’s ability to be responsive to the needs on the ground.”

The INGO has a deliberate policy to root programme design in evidence-based feedback from its users. This policy which is implemented through rigorous research, and applying formal and informal feedback systems, which includes staff who come from the communities the INGO works in.

As BRAC grew into a global player, the challenge to remain locally relevant has undoubtedly increased. But given its success is based on an organisational culture that values bottom-up knowledge gathering, it continues to strive to innovate its systems to reflect this.

3 questions INGOs need to consider

  1. How might we create governance structures that create a locally-led approach?
  2. How might we create cultures and structures that share and shift power?
  3. How might we ensure the boards are accountable to communities they serve?