Marlies Pilon

1 juli 2021


In this fifth edition of the World Café, a conversation on shifting the power with Southern leaders and top officials from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘If we are able to risk our lives for human rights, trust us with the resources, please!’ A report by Marlies Pilon.

 Is there a more symbolic venue for a talk about shifting the power in development cooperation than the floor of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in The Hague? From inside the heart of traditional power, the Dutch director-general of International Cooperation Kitty van der Heijden and deputy Birgitta Tazelaar were seen frantically taking notes as a civil society expert from Ghana and a grassroots activist from Kenya gave their constructive yet unapologetic view on foreign development assistance.

The four participants, later joined by Kees de Jong, director at Wilde Ganzen, engaged in a fascinating and thought-provoking debate about Southern leadership and the localisation of aid with Rachael Mwikali (grassroots human rights activist and feminist, from Kenya) and Charles Kojo Vandyck (head of capacity development, West Africa Civil Society Institute, Ghana).

Uncomfortable truths 

In a fancy talk show-like setting that was pleasantly sprinkled with the engaging wit of host Ama van Dantzig, this fifth World Café edition demanded a certain amount of vulnerability and boldness from its participants. It proved to be a safe space for critical reflections and uncomfortable truths, exactly what is needed to rethink power relations in international development.

If an organisation manages to adhere to the strict technical demands of applying for a grant, they often end up being accountable to their donor, but not to the constituency. All guests concluded that, ultimately, true power lies in the heart of a community that owns and leads its own development. This is the most sustainable way towards a vibrant civil society that is accountable to its citizens.

A fundamental mindshift

Some of her colleagues asked if she was crazy, stepping into a lion’s den like this, said Kitty van der Heijden. She told them there is no reason to be afraid, since all guests are here with the same objectives. ‘We don’t always agree on how to get there, but to be infused with different thinking is enriching, so yes, I do want to be here.’

According to her, shifting the power means to move away from the idea that development is something that is done to others. ‘Development cooperation did not start a year ago – it came with a certain mindset, and probably many people still feel that way. But today, if we sit with someone with outdated ideas, we show them out. Does it still happen? Yes, it does. That is why this debate is so important. We want to be an organisation that learns, that is why we are here.’

One of the recurrent themes of the conversation was the need for a fundamental mindshift in order to better balance power relations. Charles Kojo Vandyck, projected on a big screen through a video-call from Ghana, was very clear on this. ‘To shift the power,’ he said, ‘we first need to shift the mindset, both in the North and the South. Perceptions and assumptions have influenced the way aid has been structured and delivered.’

Although he understood Van der Heijden when she talked about how the mode of operation has changed since the inception of development cooperation sixty years ago, he said some of it is still ingrained in people’s minds. ‘Like it or not, the prevailing notion still is that the other part of the world needs to save my part of the world. That is underlying how aid is structured and how resources have created a dependency culture. I have seen it turning people and organisations into passive receivers, instead of active agents of change.’

From transactional to relational

On the other hand, Vandyck said he definitely sees how Western countries are improving their game and gave compliments to the Dutch Ministry for the way it shaped the Power of Voices programme. ‘Although I can see how it is shifting the power in some ways, generally funding is still seen as the ultimate resource of value.’

Vandyck argued to also shift our lens and include social and community capital as valuable resources for success. He also said that most relationships in the development sector are still very transactional. ‘We are kind of being put in the position of sub-contractors, the focus is always on specific projects or ad-hoc activities. Let’s move to more empowering and nurturing partnerships in the true sense of the word.’

Kitty van der Heijden was very proud of Power of Voices, because this time, local NGOs are leading the partnership. ‘Traditionally, we would organise programmes through Dutch NGOs that build the capacity of local ones. Now, we have consciously created more space for women in the South to have a seat at the table, so they can raise their voice. That has not always been embedded in our thinking. We aren’t there yet, so for me this discussion really is about listening and learning.’

When asked how she intends to plan on creating a more balanced power shift in new policy frameworks, she said it is difficult to answer, because it largely depends on the political composition of the new Dutch government – a work process.

More than a bag of money

That was one of the moments Ama van Dantzig, the World Café host, interrupted. ‘Let me have a quick backstage conversation with Birgitta Tazelaar about what Kitty just said. We are streaming this in English and everyone all over the world can join and ask questions through the chat. Birgitta, can you give me a ten-second crash course on development cooperation, please? So we all understand how it works?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘The money we spend on international development comes from the Dutch taxpayer. The total amount is around three billion euros a year. We send it to multinational organisations and NGOs in both the South and the North. So what and who Dutch people vote for in the Netherlands, determines how much money is available to engage with communities in the global South.’

If you look at the funding, the power shift is already happening, she said. ‘Take Power of Voices. Previously, we funded twelve percent of alliances that include local organisations, that percentage has shifted to as much as sixty percent now, that is huge! Also, the percentage of local organisations that are in the lead doubled from six to twelve percent.’

The host was interested to know what Vandyck thought about this shift in budget. As he talked about co-investment before, does it mean more players should have access to the bag of money under Van der Heijden’s and Tazelaar’s chair? He stressed that the focus should also shift away from money as power.

‘The community should contribute something, be it expertise, time, trust, historical ties, networks – and beyond that, determine together what success looks like. It should reflect the interest of the community, so real ownership is built and that process is empowering and creates more resilient communities.’ He said it is high time that everyone understands the value of a true partnership.

‘There is all the buzz about co-creation these days, but you cannot have co-creation when the framework is already decided, the timeline is already decided and the budget to a large extent is also already decided. Then how can you have co-creation? It needs to start from the conceptual stage. The missing gap is to truly engage communities from the conceptualisation phase of the program.’

Trust us with the resources

The host then turned to Rachael Mwikali, who was virtually participating from Nairobi, to ask her about the strength of her organisation and if she is seeing a shift in power.

‘I am a grassroots human rights defender,’ she said, ‘so that is very different from your mainstream civil society organisation. We do this from passion and to fight the poverty and the violence that we grew up in, in our own communities of informal settlements.’

Mwikali said that people talk about a shrinking civil space, but she never even had a space. She deals with problems that come directly from the members of the community. ‘We may need to bring someone to the hospital, or do some public mitigation.’

During the lockdowns, Kenyans were instructed to stay inside, keep social distance and wash their hands. But in informal settlements, washing hands is a luxury most cannot enjoy, Mwikali explains. ‘We encouraged people to make videos with their smartphones about the lack of water, because the Kenyan constitution says all Kenyans have the right to clean drinking water.’

The combined videos put so much pressure on the government that drinking tabs were installed. When she distributes bread among the hungry in her community, Mwikali tells them: ‘This is not charity. According to article 23 of Kenya’s constitution, every Kenyan has a right to food.’ In other words, people are not beneficiaries, but rights-holders.

Reduce dependency, increase confidence

Mwikali starts where the local needs pop up, and she looks to those needs from a human rights perspective. ‘We also need to include an intersectional approach to make sure some rights are not forgotten. We are a network fighting for different struggles, and we take them on as a community.’

Asked about what she thinks should change, Mwikali said that donors should trust her more. ‘If we are able to risk our lives for human rights, trust us with the resources, please! If you want to tackle violence against women, we know exactly what that means, you can trust us on that. So, reduce the restrictions for funding local grassroots organisations.’

For Vandyck, what donors can do differently besides funding more local organisations and boosting local participation, is to help organisations in the global South to diversify their resources and support the sustainability of these organisations.

‘Governments like the Dutch one can help Southern organisations explore and experiment with alternative funding. They can help to shift the power by looking at community philanthropy, for instance. This strengthens the capacities of organisations to mobilise resources from their own constituencies. That way, people don’t give for humanitarian or emergency reasons but also for social justice. Through its programmes, the Dutch government can help foster a sustainable ecosystem in the global South that will reduce dependency and that will increase the confidence of the people.’

Tazelaar was very charmed by the idea of community philanthropy, because she thinks that system change never happens if you rely entirely on foreign funding. ‘Governments tend to say that these organisations are foreign agents. But with community philanthropy, civil society is really owned by the people it serves.’

This is also what Kees de Jong argued for. In a new partnership with the Ministry, Wilde Ganzen’s Change the Game Academy will invest in community philanthropy in eight countries. De Jong saw community philanthropy not as replacing other forms of international cooperation, although in the end he thought it’s one of the most sustainable ideas.

‘Communities do their own decision making,’ he said, ‘and set their own priorities, we don’t talk about reporting. The lead is really in the South.’ De Jong is enthusiastic about the new monitoring framework that is developed, where the community sets the parameters and also measures them.

More than a beneficiary

He was glad that Van der Heijden and Tazelaar agreed to this conversation to ‘demonstrate a new way’. Whether you call them powerhouses or humble servants, what is required from Northern donors now is to be vulnerable and flexible and to engage in a real partnership.

Van der Heijden replied that she enjoyed the conversation and found it difficult to give highlights. ‘That would not do justice to this debate and the importance of value that underpins it.’ She understood that people don’t want to be seen as just beneficiaries, in the same vein that she wouldn’t like to be seen as just a walking bag of money.

‘I am more than that. I am a committed passionate professional, and I have a whole organisation of committed and passionate professionals working for us here in The Hague and in our embassies worldwide. But what I get from this conversation more than anything, it really is about power relations and seeing each other as truly equal partners.’

Rachael Mwikali nodded and said that the global solidarity expressed through the conversation is necessary to move forward. ‘Let’s ensure we truly work together, we are not only the receiving part, we have knowledge, this goes back to the masterclass I will give in the near future through the Vice Versa platform.’

The conversation was also about ‘intergenerational learning for a young black feminist like me’, she said. ‘We should talk and exchange more. We are young people, we are living here on this continent, in this context, so please engage with us, use our intellectual labour, we have the experience you are looking for – let’s be of value to each other.’

Van Dantzig concluded: ‘This is a first in a dialogue between Northern and Southern partners about the way forward for development cooperation. It was a first, but will certainly not be a last! As we have learned from our guests today, a vibrant civil society’s mission is to apply friction and let things shine.’

It was not an easy conversation, she thought, but a thought-provoking one. ‘I think we have all learned a lot.’ She hoped that when Covid is over, all participants will meet again in proximity, in a circle, and continue to explore how to create more balanced power relations and recognize the powers in each other.

Vice Versa’s website showcases a variety of interviews, articles and reports on Shift the Power. Have a look
at our dossier (in Dutch)


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