What We Are Reading: February 2023

Nzilani Simu

Written by Hilary Clauson, Senior Policy Advisor

Feminist movements hold solutions to our world’s biggest challenges and yet often, support to these movements and organizations depends on the shifting agendas and priorities of donors and funders. Our model is based on the belief that both resources and power need to shift to local leaders to create sustainable and long-term change–on their own terms. Feminist futures depend on it. 

Disrupting traditional models of funding necessarily means having the conversation around localization, and this month’s What We’re Reading articles contribute to the hot localization debate. They interrogate the role of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) vis-à-vis local partners, who leads, and how to shift power to local organizations. The first two provide perspectives of feminist activists, while the final publication offers advice from one INGO to others. 

Case Study: Creating Equitable South-North Partnerships: Nurturing the Vā and Voyaging the Audacious Ocean Together. Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki with International Women’s Development Agency, (October 2020)

Let’s start in the Oceanic Pacific with this case study on creating equitable South-North partnerships, informed by the experiences of 35 Global South women leaders in engaging with Global North organizations. It lays out the character of current South-North relationships and a proposal for more supportive, equitable, and decolonized engagement with feminist movements in the region. 

Current relationships are defined by a power imbalance in favour of Global North actors, especially in control over decisions and resource distribution. Their agendas dominate, even though they have a poor understanding of the local context, with insufficient support for Global South women’s rights priorities. These relationships are perceived as donor-beneficiary. Global South organizations lack sustainable, long-term support. The way in which Global North organizations work with Pacific women’s rights organizations– in silos and primarily with well-established organizations– has resulted in a fragmented, hierarchical women’s movement. 

The reimagined relationship is a “massive paradigm shift from internalized gender norms and patriarchal colonialism to one that places power and reimagining in [local feminists’] hands.” It is presented as four overlapping circles that together would achieve equitable, empowered partnerships. 

  • Nurturing the Vā (space) that relates: Integrative partnerships based on equality, diversity and inclusivity; shared values and standards.
  • Enable Global South power, agency and autonomy: Validate WROs’ knowledge; sustainability. 
  • Decolonize development practice and shared power: Co-creation, co-design, co-responsibility, and co-accountability. 
  • Contextual sensitivity: Global North organizations re-educate, learn, and understand local context and embrace Indigenous and decolonized ways of accessing, sharing, documenting, and building knowledge. 

By employing the Pacific Indigenous talanoa research methodology, this case study shows the reader the power of disrupting a Western-centric model, both in how the research itself is undertaken and presented, and the possibilities it opens up in terms of reimagined South-North partnerships.

Consultation Paper: What do Feminist and Women’s Rights Organizations Want from Partnerships with INGOs? Perspectives from feminist and women’s rights organizations in Africa. Oxfam and CARE, co-written by feminist organizations and women’s rights organizations, (October 2022) 

This paper highlights the perspectives and recommendations of a number of African feminist and women’s rights organizations (WROs) based on their experiences collaborating with INGOs. It identifies a number of “cracks” in the relationship between WROs and INGOs, caused by: the historically exploitative nature of INGO-WRO collaboration; INGOs’ ignorance of feminist principles and the structure and nature of feminist/WROs; and the failure of INGOs to adapt their funding mechanisms to meet WROs’ needs. 

The paper argues that mending these cracks requires “a commitment by INGOs/donor agencies to tackle power imbalances and patriarchal structures by shifting power to WROs.” It offers a number of recommendations to INGOs to achieve meaningful WRO-INGO collaboration, including:   

  • Listen, adapt and connect: Take the time to research and understand the nature of local organizations in Africa; Be proactive in identifying WRO partners; and hire feminists in country teams. 
  • Enhance genuine collaborations, feminist ways of working and leadership of feminist and WROs: Play a connector role, rather than a lead organization role; Engage WROs beyond project participation, and credit and compensate this work appropriately. 
  • Give up your space, take a back seat, and amplify the voices and messages of feminist and WROs: Use INGO power and privilege to open up spaces for feminist/WROs’ direct participation. 
  • Adapt existing models: Provide long-term, flexible, core funding; Involve WROs in designing, managing, and evaluating funding mechanisms. 
  • Be more accessible: Enable WROs to reach INGOs more easily. 

Though only one piece of the localization puzzle, this paper offers helpful guidance to INGOs on the INGO-WRO relationship. For more on feminist localization, see Oxfam’s 2018 “A Feminist Approach to Localization,” which highlights the indispensable role of feminist/WROs in leading humanitarian response.

This tight and didactic piece from Peace Direct calls for an INGO shift from “implementer” to “intermediary,” in line with a localization agenda that aims to shift power towards locally led, decolonized development. It is informed by and complements Peace Direct’s 2021 report “Time to Decolonize Aid,” profiled in our July 2021 What We’re Reading.  

 In addition to being a funding conduit, the piece suggests the following intermediary roles for INGOs: 

  • Interpreter: Translating often inaccessible and jargon-filled donor and policymaker statements and policies. 
  • Knowledge broker and producer: Bringing research generated by activists, communities, and organizations all over the world to local actors.
  • Trainer, coach and co-learner: Undertaking a joint learning agenda and providing training and coaching only where necessary (e.g. donor reporting, advocacy and campaigning, strategic planning). 
  • Convenor: Providing spaces (in-country or outside) for local groups to reflect, plan, and learn together. 
  • Connector and ecosystem builder: Through convening, facilitating, and funding exchanges, bridging horizontal gaps (local organizations working together) and vertical gaps (local organizations working with national and international actors).
  • Advocate and amplifier: Advocating to policymakers on behalf of local actors and creating spaces for local actors to advocate directly. 
  • Watchdog: Monitoring trends in the policies and practices of repressive and undemocratic states. 
  • Critical friend: Being in solidarity with the aims and mission of local partners and offering advice and guidance when asked. 

Underpinning these roles is the role of sidekick, a “state of mind or philosophy which aims to reverse the status quo.” The article argues that for too long, INGOs have set and implemented a development agenda that sidelined and disempowered the local organizations that are best-placed to meet their communities’ needs. While it doesn’t take up an explicitly gender or feminist analysis, it offers a refreshing roadmap for upturning the INGO-local organization relationship. 

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