It is widely recognised within the civil society sector that current development structures are not inclusive enough. There are limitations which prevent the people who we work for and with to lead on the actions and decisions that affect their lives, thus replicating the same power imbalances that civil society aims to address in the world. So if you are working within the sector in any capacity and you have continued reading until now, then this blog post is for you!
To redress power imbalances, civil society organisations need to create an enabling environment so that the people who are impacted by development work are able to set their own needs, priorities and strategies and to lead on them. But to do this, every actor involved directly or indirectly in the development arena must play their part: international CSOs, local and community-based organisations, donors, and the community itself, among others. It is by engaging and partnering with a wide range of key stakeholders that organisations can begin to ‘walk the talk’, and thus practise locally led development.
But the way we partner matters! A change of mindset and behaviour that is guided by listening and being responsive to people, while keeping in mind their different capacities, is an essential first step to establish meaningful and horizontal partnerships. It is also important to remember that capacity strengthening is multidirectional. Additionally, acknowledging agency to whom it is due and recognising the different powers that should be put into play is essential in order to be inclusive, equitable and effective when working towards advancing social justice. How these principles take shape depends on the context and particular needs of local actors.
The urgent need to transform the sector towards locally led development cannot be imagined without accountability and a responsible partnership transition process (1). Reflecting on, and questioning, the current power dynamics to enable locally led work can begin by asking what is your added value in the chain of development and the partnership you are part of. Many are raising their voices to call for change within the sector. Many spaces and dialogues exist where development actors recognize the need and are willing to change their practices to be more people-driven. However, only a few of them are putting their words into action. For many others, the big question is: how?
Coordination and agreement throughout the sector is still needed. However, that does not mean you cannot start changing the sector from your own place of power while these conversations take place. Many initiatives are being piloted and steps are being taken to change the organisational culture and give agency where agency is due. In our last AGM, we had the opportunity to hear about some initiatives at first hand that are taking steps to redress power imbalances. Here is a summary of some of the information that was shared to spark some interest and also ideas on what you can start doing from within your area of work to shift the power.
The Local Accelerator Coalition is an initiative that embraces the idea that communities and local actors are best placed to respond to their own needs while also changing donor processes and systems to be more equipped to accompany and complement community-driven initiatives. By providing a multi-pronged approach to bridge the gap between donors and local actors and communities, the platform aims to build an infrastructure that shifts funding and power back to local actors.
The London-based organisation, SaferWorld, also shared their experience of changing their way of working. First, they underwent a strategic planning process that involved their staff and partners at each step. This process informed the strategy on improvements, the direction of travel, the value-added by the organisation, and the values and principles that should underpin their work. Now they work in partnerships according to what partners signal as their organisation’s added value. The resulting strategy is much bolder, whereby the organisation makes explicit commitments to their partners.
The changes have only begun for SaferWorld. More diverse and flexible financing mechanisms are being piloted that put their partners in the driving seat. In reflecting on their changes, SaferWorld stated that this strategy provides them with an important framework for their partners to hold them accountable. In supporting organisational change, individuals must keep pushing for positive change; while this may take time, individual efforts greatly accelerate the process.
We also heard what Bantay Kita is doing to raise the voices of communities in their advocacy strategies in the Philippines. Bantay Kita is a network of over 80 CSOs working on transparency and accountability in extractive industries. They do so through strong collaboration with communities/indigenous people affected by mining, building capacity for negotiation, and government liaison. Their advocacy and work are carried out through three strands: consultations held with coalition members, capacity building and amplifying the voices of local and mining-affected communities, and providing a platform for multi-stakeholder discussions. Through these actions, they are ensuring community voices are at the centre of their work and guaranteeing different spaces of influence for their voices to be heard.
These examples are different in scope yet guided by the same value: they put the people that they serve at the core. It serves us well to identify these common variables and practical steps so that we can jointly advance and inspire others to start putting people at the core of our work.
(1.) A responsible partnership transition process is one where different powers and skills are recognised and matched with the value-add that each partner is contributing to the partnerships, also ensuring that every partner uses their skills/power in the most effective way in order to support the leadership from the communities impacted by the partnership work while ensuring sustainability in actions.
Like them, we can start changing our practices today! This is a call to action to start the transformation while conversations in different spaces continue. We must continue collaborating and sharing efforts from where we work, whether in Human Resources, finance, management team, or as a donor or leader within the community, coming from any type of CSO or a movement – If you want to share your initiative, please contact Elisa López at email@example.com. Additionally, let Elisa if you’re interested in participating in our Taskforce. We are focusing on identifying, consolidating and disseminating key practical steps and tasks to shift the power and inspire others to move from words to action.