Ten years ago (where has time gone?!), myself and David Hulme’s work went as ‘viral’ as an academic piece of work can go when it was picked up and lambasted by Duncan Green in his well-read From Poverty to Power blog. The research (since republished in World Development) questioned the transformative potential of development NGOs given the array of challenges and restrictions they face across the aid chain. We argued that smaller, more socially-embedded organisations are best-placed to uphold the transformative aspects of development that NGOs are praised for (as opposed to service delivery outcomes) but recognised that this is not where power and resources in the aid chain are concentrated.
Fast forward ten years and these conversations are amongst the hottest topics in the sector. The #Shiftthepower movement led by the Global Fund for Community Foundations in 2016 has propelled the International NGO sector to look inwards and to ask themselves difficult and uncomfortable questions around the inequalities in power and resources that their position in the aid chain perpetuates. The language of localisation (in the humanitarian sector) and locally-led development (in the broader development sector) is now mainstream, with widespread acknowledgement and agreement across diverse stakeholders that the international aid chain must redistribute power, authority and resources so that national and local civil society organisations can own their development agendas and access the resources they need to realise them.
As these conversations have deepened, so too have demands on the sector. Calls to decolonise aid and address racism in the aid sector are becoming more urgent and widespread, recognising that it is not individual organisational behaviours but the entire structural fabric of the aid chain that needs to be reimagined and transformed.
Now back to Duncan’s blog. One of the criticisms that has always stuck with me was his frustration at his perceived ‘us versus them’ divide, of academics speaking in generalisations about diverse sectors with which we have little practical experience of. As someone deeply passionate about NGOs and with significant work experience and close working relationships with them, I felt this criticism personally. Despite not reflecting my thoughts, research approach or philosophy, I could see where such an accusation could come from.
In my work on development NGOs and the aid chain since then, I have spent significant amounts of time learning about diversity in development NGOs within the UK and connecting with and learning from NGOs and other development stakeholders in all their shapes and forms. One of my recent highlights has been to participate in the Reimagining the International NGO (RINGO) Social Lab, an incredible systems-change initiative that brings together diverse individuals from around the world to explore the systemic inequalities that are holding back global civil society from fulfilling its true potential and to design innovative prototypes that set us on the path to dismantling some of the deep-rooted structural inequalities that prevent progress in this direction. I am also thrilled to be partnering with Partos and academic colleagues in Ghana, the Netherlands and Uganda to begin mapping and researching the depth of locally-led development and #Shiftthepower initiatives.
The RINGO Social Lab started off by splitting into several different areas of inquiry that represented different areas of ‘stuckness’ within the system. I was immediately driven towards the ‘Resource Flow’ cluster. For me, without significant improvements in the terms of funding that reach the grassroots there is little escape from what has been highlighted by Humentum as a catastrophic ‘starvation cycle’ of local civil society organisations by those at the top of the aid chain. By keeping funding short-term, project based and heavily restricted, while failing to contribute to organisational overheads, the aid chain is not just failing to support or provide autonomy to local civil society, but is also actively preventing greater strength and sustainability to be built across it around the world. A move towards long-term, predictable and unrestricted funding must be key to breaking this cycle.
Does a funding base exist that is free from the heavy constraints imposed by donors, and in turn, INGOs? Ringo’s research highlights that these two stakeholders are often viewed similarly by Southern civil society organisations when it comes to working relationships and ‘partnerships’; such criticisms have driven significant initiatives and momentum among INGOs to move towards more equitable ways of working.
But working my way through the Ringo Social Lab process I also thought that given these systemic inequalities and ‘ways of working’ are so deep-rooted, perhaps the question we need to be asking is more radical than this: how can we create a new system that offers a genuinely transformative alternative for giving? My research with Dan Brockington revealed significant financial support from the UK public for development causes, contributing more than £10 billion over a recent 5-year period. Off the back of this, an idea was born to try to give the UK giving public a genuinely new way in which they can contribute to a more localised, impactful and socially-just form of giving – rooted in a philosophy of solidarity rather than charity.
At next week’s Development Studies Association annual conference I’ll be hosting a workshop with RINGO lead Deborah Doane and several of the incredible prototype teams that are busy designing and implementing initiatives to address blockages in the aid chain. They will present their work, successes and challenges to date. I’ll also be introducing my RINGO-inspired efforts to embark upon a new social movement (tentatively called One World Together) that will offer a new and affordable modality of giving that channels long-term, predictable and unrestricted funding to support grassroots activism and action across the UK and globally. We are so excited for this journey to begin and look forward to sharing more details soon!
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