Re-powering the system
22nd July 2021 by Wolfgang Jamann
Power Shift, Localisation and Decolonising Aid, have become strong trends, and also buzzwords in the current debate around a more legitimate and impactful aid system.
The push for more resources and decision-making power has most prominently launched at the World Humanitarian Forum in 2016, and was linked to pledges to increase the appalling low percentages of aid funding to local actors, both by donors and international civil societies organisations (ICSOs). Breakthroughs of this ‘Grand Bargain’ are yet to be seen, despite continued commitment to strengthening local Civil Society, recently confirmed by a strong OECD policy document.
Civil Society itself is struggling with implementation. The ambition has worked itself into a number of narratives on how the ‘system’ should change, how power needs to be shifted, how International ICSOs need to be re-imagined.
Not all of these narratives are positive. Nationalistic Governments in India or parts of Africa have hijacked the ‘localisation’ ambition to keep foreign CSOs at bay and discredit them as foreign agents. Even in the US and the UK localisation has become a different meaning – using foreign aid to help disaster victims at home. The recent drastic cuts by British FCDO show the trend.
Looking at the traditional ‘Power Holders’ in the aid system, donors, bilateral agencies and ICSOs, many, if not all, will agree that ‘localisation’ is a good thing, though. It strengthens the consideration of local contexts, vulnerabilities and capacities, true partnerships, inclusive decision-making etc. Many are talking about, and implementing, changing funding patterns, with promising developments linked to the increasingly localised COVID-19 responses.
International civil society organisations have, generally, a rather positive narrative on localisation that includes many past achievements they seem to have made over the last 30 years. Many have grown into confederations, with strong local chapters, and a huge armada of local staff, increasingly in leadership positions. Many will defend their business models as inclusive, decentralised, and addressing the local contexts.
The challenge comes with scrutinising whether these models are good enough. Are power imbalances being addressed, and radically changing? The Centre works with a number of ambitious ICSOs who have started putting local actors (people we work with, partners, primary actors) into the centre of decision-making processes. These are ‘Governance’ discussions in the wider sense, i.e. putting processes and structures to the test – are they designed, capable and fit for greater inclusion?
It’s an exciting journey which has no easy answers – different ways of inclusivity are being chased, and different power dimensions are being addressed – in Big ‘G’ Governance (structures, decision-making protocols, voting rights) and small ‘g’ governance issues, like relationship building, information flow, accountability and transparency, ‘expertise talks vs. money talks’, physical points of decision-making.
Who and what helps and blocks? Facilitators and blockers of power shifts are often not the same people / entities. You need almost tactical approaches (actors mapping, power analysis, finding sponsors etc.). A very good idea is to link the governance as much as possible to the intent and mandate of the organisation.
A quick insight from an initiative many have heard about, could be helpful with focus. The West Africa Civil Society Institute WACSI has just published a survey of about 500 local CSOs about their perception on how partnerships play out. The results were almost surprisingly positive, with lots of appreciation of LCSO / ICSO partnerships, many of which do consider local contexts. But a few critical issues arose: Decision-making is uneven and not mutually beneficial, ICSOs are expected to be facilitators not implementers, more consideration of local capacities, not necessarily funders.
A recent ‘Hard Talk’ event between ICSOs, partners, donors and critical friends touched upon those dimensions and showed the potential for change, but the need for more intense dialogue between groups that have different expectations of each other. One of the biggest challenges comes from inherent ‘colonial’ structures of the aid system, which can only be addressed in an intersectional way, not overlooking discriminatory practices, and engaging in an open exchange and the willingness to learn from each other. A window seems to have opened to turn an outdated aid system onto its feet, and let power go to the people and their institutions, which have been ‘recipients’ of philanthropy, goodwill but bad practices for too long.