The calls for the international development sector to change are getting louder and more urgent. We all know the development and aid ecosystem is built upon neo-colonial foundations. But it’s also true the shift the power process is challenging and can be framed negatively for INGOs.
Two years ago, Transform Trade (formerly Traidcraft Exchange) committed to becoming locally led. Letting go of a development system that jars with deeper values of justice, equity and mutual accountability, has enabled Transform Trade to reignite its passion for social justice and the outrage that led many of us to join the sector in the first place. The process has not only birthed a new name, but a new strategy and fresh energy. Our journey has affected every part of the organisation and everyone in the organisation. And the insights gained are worth sharing.
Prepare your organisation
Taking time with the board, staff and partners to unpack what being locally led means for your organisation is critical. It is a process. We developed core principles to guide us, set out what they mean in practical terms, and openly acknowledged the questions and fears that staff had.
Taking a people-centred approach is vital. Challenging ways of working, seeing expertise differently and recognising the need to shift your organisation’s role can be personally difficult for staff. It requires a mindset shift, for many of us to unlearn years and years of being and doing. These are not easy discussions. They take time, care and, most of all, resilience. Amid the uncertainty and change, we need to create an environment in which staff can be authentic, speak openly and feel safe.
Rethink your strategy, impact and role
Integrating the commitment to being locally led into your organisation’s vision and strategy is essential. If the aspiration isn’t embedded into your strategic objectives, you will face a conflict of interest between maintaining your current operational model and realising the transformation that becoming locally led calls for. One area where this conflict of interest often manifests is funding. We’ve reduced how many resources we will invest in raising restricted project funds, and ringfenced funds to develop locally led approaches. It’s felt uncomfortable at times, but we believe it’s a risk worth taking.
The process of revisiting Transform Trade’s core purpose has taken us back to our roots and our founders’ vision. Traidcraft was set up in 1979 to create a trading model based on equal partnerships, mutual respect and dignity; an alternative to the extractive, postcolonial nature of global trade systems. Confronting the need to decolonise has strengthened our vision for trade justice and been one of the drivers behind our rebrand. Applying the principles of shifting power has reinforced the urgent need to use our agency and power to deliver change in the UK and the global North, tackling the root causes of economic and social injustice.
This process has been hugely beneficial for motivating and recruiting staff. Existing staff members have been re-energised by the honest conversations we’ve had. And new staff have been attracted to work with us because our approach chimes with their values.
Letting go to let come
Becoming locally led isn’t a journey you can walk alone. For us, it’s been about creating spaces with partners and critical friends in which we can define together a new way of working that enables communities to lead. We are becoming more reactive and demand-led, responding to communities’ own agendas and priorities.
We are reconfiguring how we work so that diverse groups of staff, those closest to our partners and the communities we work with who have the deepest understanding of local contexts, are setting the organisation’s priorities and strategies. We’re intentionally disrupting top-down ways of working. It’s making us reflect on whose knowledge and expertise we are valuing. And as we learn, we are deepening our understanding of what shifting power and inclusion is all about.
Recognising that community and partner needs can’t be mapped out neatly in advance has implications for funding timelines, reporting and resource planning, and it requires us to resist the relentless pressure to ‘projectise’. We all have a responsibility to challenge donors who will not fund flexibly so we can carve out space for a different way of working.
As part of RINGO we have been trialling participatory grant-making as one approach to becoming locally led. While we are still in pilot phase, there are early indicators that centring the principles of shifting power leads to more sustainable impact. We’ll be sharing more at the RINGO learning festival.
Let your values guide you
It can be difficult to step back from the complexity and scale of the challenges the sector is currently facing to know how to move forward. Our change process has been driven by our values and our belief that people and their communities come first.
As a small organisation, we can only take on so much. We have a long way to go. But the journey itself is enriching, enabling and liberating – and reminds us once again that we are fighting for justice.
Join our Practice for Locally Led Development working group
This group is to support INGOs to enable locally led development. Many organisations are experimenting with different approaches. We need to learn together as a sector. This group provides a learning space to explore live questions as organisations go through the process of becoming locally led.