Many INGOs are questioning what it means to be locally led – and how and where to start.
Jessica Summers and Sara Torrelles from Saferworld, an INGO working to prevent violent conflict and build safer lives, share six things the organisation has learnt from putting its partnership commitments into practice.
1. There is an urgent need for equal partnerships
While our commitment to equitable partnerships is not new, there is renewed energy to critically reflect on where we should be more ambitious. We welcomed conversations, debates and movements around locally led responses, ‘shifting the power’, anti-racism, and the dismantling of colonial mindsets and patriarchal norms. These debates led to reflections among colleagues about how to act in solidarity based on shared principles, how to provide genuine support as equals and engage in a two-way exchange of knowledge and skills, and how to co-create mutual and respectful accountability between donors and partners.
2. You must start somewhere – so why not start with your commitments as an organisation?
As a learning organisation, we continuously assess whether we are ’walking the talk’. We don’t believe in delivering programmes ourselves in the countries where we work. Instead, we work alongside our partners to support people to play an active role in preventing and transforming conflict and building peace. So our first step was to develop a set of commitments that partners can hold us accountable to. We have committed to:
- Partner with and accompany a wider range of groups, coalitions and organisations, particularly those led by women and young people
- Act in solidarity and provide support – whether that’s financial, technical, facilitation or fundraising support
- Advocate with partners, not on their behalf
- Multiply and spread our partners’ ideas and solutions through our communications
- Develop transparent mutual accountability processes and mechanisms
Our commitments are reflected in our organisational strategy, which we report to donors every year. This holds us accountable, not only to our partners but to those who fund our work.
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3. Ask your partners how you’re doing
We asked 46 civil society partners across Asia, Africa and the Middle East what they wanted to see in our 2021–2031 strategy. We asked them about:
- The direction they think we should take over the next ten years as an international peacebuilding organisation
- Whether we (still) have value to add in the contexts where we work together
- The values and principles that should underpin how we work together – including what it means to partners to work in solidarity
- Their thoughts and recommendations on how we should work together as allies and peers for change
Some partners told us this was the first time an INGO had asked them to participate in an organisation’s strategic planning process. This shows how much work is still needed to decolonialise and reconfigure aid systems and partnerships and devolve power to organisations in low- and middle-income countries.
4. Learn from others doing it better, and listen to what people and movements in the countries where you work are asking for
As we developed our new strategy, we spoke to people who challenged us to think differently. We wanted to make sure we were guided by people who have lived experience of conflict. We also learnt from colleagues and peers already piloting different ways of working, such as the NEAR network, the RINGO project, Accountable Now and the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
5. Turn strategy commitments into action
It’s true that partnership goes beyond funding, particularly in places affected by conflict. But civil society organisations and movements also need resources – and resources in the right places. Like INGOs, our partners need contributions to their overheads so they can run and invest in their organisations. Without such contributions, partners can find it challenging to remain financially stable and retain administrative staff who support essential areas of work (including compliance and reporting which can secure further funding). This investment should go hand in hand with advocating to donors for better cost recovery practices and policies. Sharing overheads doesn’t replace the need to adequately support partner staffing and running costs and to include lines for institutional development. It’s crucial to ensure there are enough resources to support partners financially. And any decision on what this looks like must be taken jointly with each partner.
6. Meaningful change isn’t easy – it’s political and won’t come from box-ticking
Organisational change takes time and isn’t a linear process. Some of the steps we took included:
- Using our advocacy and fundraising efforts to support partners to secure funding they can use flexibly
- Valuing accompaniment (walking side by side rather than leading), consensus-building and shared leadership skills in our recruitment processes
- Adjusting our operational footprint to ensure we play an effective supporting role and provide more resources for our partners
- Adjusting our fundraising strategy to make sure our targets mirror our commitments (including sharing resources equitably) and rethinking what success looks like (it doesn’t always have to be ‘the bigger, the better’).