We are witnessing a widespread recognition of the importance to shift power to local communities, localise resources and agendas, decolonise aid, make philanthropy more participatory and trust based.
But does this mean that we are really becoming better allies of grassroots groups? Maybe not.
Despite good intentions, pledges, catchy hashtags and progressive initiatives aimed at supporting grassroots activists and communities, their views and needs are still neglected – grassroot activists receive minimal funding and resources, lack acknowledgment for their fundamental role in social change, and struggle to make their visions, voices and agendas resonate loudly in international development circles.
So, what is going wrong?
We’ve asked this question to grassroots activists from around the world. Here are three stories that give us some clues.
One activist from Mexico told us the story of a progressive donor that enthusiastically called them “partner” instead of grantee or beneficiary, but in practice they were far from being treated as a partner. The donor subjected them to unreasonable requirements, before and after providing the grant, that did not demonstrate a relationship based on trust, equality, shared goals, and mutual understanding.
An activist from Madagascar shared how a European donor offered them a grant but wanted to impose different solutions than the ones identified by the local community and implement them through their international “experts”, completely disregarding the local expertise, visions and agendas.
Grassroots groups also have bad experiences with INGOs operating in their countries. One activist from South Sudan voiced the anger of grassroots communities whose ideas have been hijacked by INGOs. These organisations asked them to share ideas on how best to support local communities, and made them believe they could receive the funding to implement them. However, the INGOs kept the funding and poorly implemented the ideas themselves.
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In the last four years, the CIVICUS Secretariat has tried to deepen its understanding on the resourcing realities and needs of grassroots groups, especially in the Global South. Very few grassroots actors shared positive examples of meaningful support and solidarity from donors and enablers.
In late 2020, we joined forces with a group of remarkable grassroots activists, the Grassroots Changemakers, to analyse the resourcing realities of various groups and movements to identify changes that would help mobilise better resources and support.
One aspect kept reappearing in all our conversations: relationships. Most grassroots activists and communities said the relationships between them, donors and enablers must be overhauled.
This transformation would mean eradicating the transactional, extractive, exclusionary and often colonial ways some donors and enablers engage with grassroots communities. These behavioral traits are common even among progressive actors, and are at the root of why grassroots activists get only coins from development funding while having to face hurtful experiences where their skills, expertise, power, autonomy, dignity and even their human needs are questioned and/or ignored.
But I am not like that!
In 2021, CIVICUS and the Grassroots Changemakers launched a campaign called the Grassroots Solidarity Revolution to raise awareness about the need to transform relationships as a crucial first step to improve the resourcing conditions for grassroots activists. As part of this revolution, grassroots activists are calling donors and enablers to build meaningful and caring relationships, equal partnerships, mutual understanding, trust and spaces for direct dialogue and the co-creation of joint solutions to social issues.
The response we are getting from international donors and enablers is quite fascinating. A common first reaction we get is: “We are already a grassroots ally [inferring that our call to action does not really apply to them] … but we can help you spread the word.” Take note that many of these institutions were, in fact, proposed by grassroots activists as campaign targets because their experiences with them were not always positive.
Another common reaction is: “We are trying to improve, but we can’t change much because we must follow our donor rules.”Some donors and enablers have shown interest in the topic but have offered little commitment to take action. Some completely ignored us. On the positive side, some are very engaged and/or were already doing considerable efforts towards this transformation.
Those reactions gave us food for thought. Could this mean that our role as grassroots allies and our progressive efforts to support them are falling short because some of us may feel we are already social aware so there is no need to push further, or they are too powerless to keep trying? Are we disconnected from grassroots activists and unable to see that our well-meaning efforts are not aligned or delivering for their needs and visions? Is it that we cannot question our own behaviors or listen to those who call us out on them?
This blog is not intended to point fingers at anyone. At CIVICUS, we too are taking a hard look inwards. Thanks to the opportunities we’ve had to engage closely with grassroots activists, we learned that some of our practices need improvement to walk our talk and build the type of relationships that our grassroots members expect and deserve. We are working on that, while also having to advocate internally for changes that are urgent but not easily embraced by our current structures and organisational culture.
Becoming a good partner and ally to grassroots activists and groups requires a profound transformation that will not happen overnight. Changing our relationships is not a little task. But to start, let’s all pause for a second and challenge our individual and organisational mindsets, relationships, practices and programs. Are they resourcing, supporting, nurturing and honouring grassroots communities in ways that help them thrive according to their very own visions, agency and autonomy? After doing some introspection, let’s go seek honest feedback from grassroots communities themselves.
Yessenia Soto, a community engagement officer from CIVICUS, spoke in Bond’ssecond Responsible Fundraising session, where she highlighted the challenges experienced by grassroots activists when accessing funding and encouraged participants to think about the changes they could make at an individual level in how they work with civil society based in lower- and middle-income countries.