Marlies Pilon

26 januari 2022


The World Café last thursday on shifting the power at work was a full, frank and much needed (online) discussion about the Dream Paper of Partos. It was about listening with two ears and using one mouth, walking the talk, language and ultimately, sacrifice. All this in high hopes of reaching more equality in the real world of international development cooperation.

“Power is a very ‘sticky’ topic.” This is according to Ama van Dantzig, the Ghanaian/Dutch moderator of the 6th online World Café organized by Wilde Ganzen and the journalistic platform Vice Versa. “This is because when we talk about power, we are still not quite sure what it means, who has it, who does not have it, how old it is, who is abusing it and how we can transform it.”

To get a clearer look, members of the Partos Shift the Power Community of Practice have been reflecting on the shifting of power over the past couple of months. This has resulted in an extensive ‘Dream Paper’ made by an international team of 145 practitioners. It zooms in on Power of Voices, the strategic partnership between the Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs and civil society organizations. The paper outlines an alternative model with shared power and a desired division of roles between different types of organizations.

Dream Paper
The aim of the 6th edition of the World Café was to discuss the Dream Paper, the bottlenecks and creative solutions with representatives from Dutch organizations and partners from the Global South; Mama Cash, Uganda National NGO Forum, The Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) and Partos. How do they look at the envisaged changes and would this work in their daily practice? What are the difficult questions we need to ask ourselves? Finally, what are the good and bad examples we can learn from?

As director of Partos, Bart Romijn is proud to be part of the realization of the Shift the Power Dream Paper. Ama van Dantzig kicked off the discussion asking Romijn what really stands out for him.

Look at yourself and The Bigger Picture
“First of all, look at yourself and your own organization and how you deliberately or unconsciously consolidate unequal power dynamics. So, start by looking at yourself,” Romijn said. “Secondly, look at the bigger picture. Don’t consider relationships and partnerships as a transactional thing. Instead, build and invest in trust long before and after a program. Trust comes from building authentic and human relations.”

Illustration from the Dream Paper (Hust Wilson)

The third lesson he mentioned was about language. “We have to critically examine and deconstruct our own terminology as language shapes our reality.”

What field are you talking about?
A symbolic and hilarious example of how the development language is still drenched in a colonial worldview was given by Moses Isooba, one of the four guests. He was calling in from Kampala on a big screen (see here for the interview Vice Versa Global had with Isooba ahead of the World Café).

The Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum and co-author of the Dream Paper pointed out the irony. “When our Northern brethren are coming to Uganda, they say they are ‘coming to the field.’ This leaves us wondering, which field are you going to? Perhaps your backyard in Amsterdam is your ‘field’? What do you want to do in a field in Uganda, perhaps you want to dig? Why are we even calling it a ‘field’? This is a place that is inhabited by people. When I come to The Hague I am not going ‘to the field’. I have never seen a southern practitioner going to the field in Brussels!? One wonders, why are there no fields there? Language can be very condescending. There is no field. There are just human beings there who are struggling to address issues that need to be addressed.”

Two Ears, One Mouth
Isooba also compared the local offices of many INGOs as ‘colonial outposts’. Resembling the paradox he made about ‘the field’, he found nothing ‘international’ about an INGO. “If I had an organization in Uganda and for some reason I worked around Amsterdam, would I call myself an INGO?”

He questioned why INGOs often fall under the same umbrella as civil society, while he sees them as inherently different. “If we want to really include the voice of the people, we need to stop talking and start to really listen. You always listen with two ears and talk with one mouth. So, listen more than you talk. We should not enter a village as development tourists with bottled mineral water. If we don’t blend in, the community will look at us suspiciously and we will not get to hear their dreams.”

“Sometimes it itches, yes. These are the painful consequences of shifting power. But if the ultimate impact is achieved, then the fact that we had to shrink or sacrifice along the way was worth it,” Zohra Moosa, Director Mama Cash.

The Theatre For Activity
For Isooba it was a relief to be able to co-create the Dream Paper with northern and southern partners, instead of receiving articles and papers from the north that are downloaded in the south. Yet what is missing in the paper, he said, is the voice of the people. “The theatre for activity for development is the people. They know the solution to their problem. So we have been dreaming, yes, but we are dreaming without the people.”

We are not living in a void

The host Ama van Dantzig was curious for more reflections on the paper. Next up was Maite Smet, coordinator of the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) tuning in from Chile. She called it ‘good intentions and good thinking’ yet what is really missing, according to her, is what this looks like in practice. “There are many initiatives that are already challenging traditional models of development coordination. Just like GAGGA other models also like ‘leading from the South.’”

She said that even before Shift the Power Movement became a trending hashtag, organizations were already thinking about this topic. Just like Isooba had said before, Smet wondered about those voices and movements and why they were missing from the Dream Paper. In other words, we should not operate in a vacuum!

Nice Words, Painful Reality
Director of Mama Cash, Zohra Moosa, gave her compliments to the paper, stating that it was, “Kind of like a line in the sand. It offers a common start for all of us. It’s real, it’s tangible and we can radically transform the system.”

Zohra Moosa

She said that the pandemic had showed us, among other things, how extremely adaptable we could be. We should not limit our ambition on the topic of Shift the Power because we can go much further. Nonetheless, it is the language in the paper that bothered her. “The fact that in the section on resource mobilization, the Dream Paper talks about how northern NGOs can help southern NGOs, and southern NGOs can help southern CBOs. This still reflects whom is supposed to be helping whom, and I think it mirrors the fact that many people who wrote the paper are still very much in the system.”

Moosa said it can be very challenging to be critical about ‘the thing you are invested in, that you are benefitting from and that is your day-to-day operation’

“You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is your Royal Palace. Dreaming is not illegal. So we dream,” Moses Isooba, director of the Uganda National NGO forum.

She also noted that although shifting or transforming power sounds nice when you talk about it, the reality is painful. “You might need to give up certain things, lose power, your job and control.”

Yet, because the starting point for entering this sector is the need to realize a more joyful and just world, it’s time to make it a reality. She said change goes too slowly and challenged the audience to be bolder, braver and more radical. Take the 5 year long Power of Voices subsidy from the Dutch government that the Dream Paper writes about. Moosa noticed that the previous 5 year round had 25 partnerships and only 1 was leading from the South (GAGGA). The follow-up which we are in now has 20 partnerships and only 2 partners are leading from the South. “For the next round, let’s make a more radical shift and do a minimum of 50% partnerships that are leading from the South!”

“Corporate interests stand in the way of radical change,” Bart Romijn, director at Partos.

So, why are we not moving quicker? What is holding us back? According to Romijn it is difficult to speed things up because corporate interests are part of the system. They stand in the way of the sort of radical changes that Maite Smet and Zohra Moosa are so passionately proposing. “There is definitely tension there, I am not going to lie. Corporate interest would say; let’s go for the big pot of money for our own organization. On the other hand, political interest would say; support other women organizations in the Global South to access that money. Mama Cash chose the latter. It meant we missed out on our income base, but we helped others secure that money. It helps that we deeply believe a better world is possible and we are prepared to make sacrifices. Sometimes it itches, yes. These are the painful consequences of shifting power. But if the ultimate impact is achieved, then the fact that we had to shrink or sacrifice along the way was worth it,” Moosa said.

Shift the Power 2.0?
Going back to speeding up the process, Isooba thinks it is wise to take things one step at a time. “In the Dream Paper we looked at what are the measures of success that could lead to systemic change. If you want to do this too quickly, like in one year, you will be shocking the system which will create a crisis of sorts. People need time for a mindset change and this idea of a power transformation.”

He feared that if power moves from the North to the South too quickly, it will lead to a ‘Shift The Power 2.0’ where power is shifted back again to the North (by the North).

What can we do individually to shift/share power? The panelists shared their views on this.

Bart Romijn thinks that it’s fruitful to have a good look at the current accountability mechanisms in our own organizations as these often hamper trust-building and equal partnerships. “Accountability is often driven by risk-avoidance and the need to control. Although the Power of Voices subsidy scheme is very progressive, the transactional financial accountability process works with a lead agency that has sub-contractors. There are more than 20 protocols for these sub-contractors to fill in. You need to do capacity building in the form of being able to meet these bureaucratic requirements instead of channeling all the energy into system change. So take a look at the accountability processes, as these are a major constraint for equal partnerships. We need to transform these mechanisms so they provide adaptivity, flexibility, trust and an equal say,” he explained.

“We decided to flip it,” Zohra Moosa- Mama Cash

Maite Smet acknowledged that it took a lot of time and resources to be able to become one of two alliances under the Power of Voices subsidy that is led from the South. “It took a year to gather the local perspectives that were a part of the program. GAGGA is a consortium led by Fondo Centro Americano de Mujeres that rallies the collective power of gender, climate and environmental justice movements around the world.”

She stressed how important it is to create space for co-collective creation and to bring in new voices that have traditionally been excluded from the conversation. “Think about women, indigenous people, Afro-descendant communities, people with disabilities and LGBTQI communities. After all, what is the use of talking about power when these groups are not included in the conversation?” she wondered.

Let’s Be Bolder

She added that it’s worthwhile to ponder; is this about sharing power and creating more balance in partnerships, or is it about giving power, resources and space to communities that have been historically marginalized? “Realize that these conversations are not just happening in the North, but within movements and organizations across the globe. We need a shift in thinking about these dynamics, and looking at the multiple crises the world is facing right now. I would invite us to be bolder.”

“What is the use of talking about power when women, indigenous people, Afro-descendant communities, people with disabilities and LGBTQI communities are not included?” Maite Smet, Coordinator GAGGA

Zohra Moosa agreed. “Moses Isooba said earlier that changing too fast can be a shock to the system. Now is that destructive, or disruptive? I think something can be disruptive and a shock to the system, and be good for it.”

Flip it
Moosa explained that her organization Mama Cash took a hard look in the mirror. Previously, decision making power about the grants for feminists around the world was secured in the hands of staff at the headquarters in Amsterdam. “We decided to flip it. As of last year our grant-making is completely participatory. This means that people receiving the grant funding for groups and activists are the ones making the decisions on them. The community members and activists are now fully in-charge.”

Moosa said it took Mama Cash two years to figure out how to build and design a whole new system to align it with the new participatory way. “It was hard. It was very difficult to give up power and there was nothing perfect about it,” she said. “But in the end, we came up with a model that has been running for one year now which has received extremely positive feedback from our members. This was simply us deciding we are going to give up power. I don’t make decisions on grants anymore. That decision itself was the most difficult to make. After that, it has been a wonderful and rewarding experience for everyone involved.”

As the website of Mama Cash states: ‘…We believe in the wisdom of the groups we support. We respect their knowledge and understanding of their own situation. We give them space to use their money as they see fit…

“We need to remind ourselves that donors have warm bodies too,” Moses Isooba.

Talking about shifting the power also means changing who we are listening to and who’s knowledge to trust. In that regard, there are so many Southern articles and discussions about Shift the Power! Why create new papers and conferences on this topic instead of starting to show up at their presentations. There is all this rooted knowledge from the communities we are talking about. It is high time we use our two ears and listen to what they have to say and fly out of the ‘ivory tower of knowledge’ in the North. This will bring a huge change in terms of shifting the power dynamics.

Lastly, on the question of why most donors seem so stubbornly inflexible and if it’s possible for donors to fit into the agenda of communities rather than vice versa, Moses Isooba said; “We need to remind ourselves that donors have warm bodies too. They now hide behind the veil of ‘the donor’, a way to isolate themselves from learning. Let’s all start being human beings, and using our two ears more than our one mouth.”

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


Box (Observations by Marlies Pilon)
There is something in the way international development is organized that makes northern practitioners increasingly uneasy, and southern players downward frustrated. International solidarity movements like #metoo, #aidtoo, #blacklivesmatter, #shiftthepower and #decolonizedevelopment share an undercurrent of frustration and resistance against the unequal power relations between the global North and the global South.

 These movements give us insight, urgency and a vocabulary to better look at and discuss the big elephant in the room of international development coordination; power. Many people and organizations don’t have access to power, governance, resources, services and justice. This is the cause of exclusion, poverty and conflict. Hence the need to tackle this issue at the roots and move from vertical to horizontal power relations. 

More than 500 people watched the 6th edition of the World Café live online. Most viewers came from: 1. Netherlands – 2. Kenya – 3 Ghana – 4 Uganda – 5 United States – 6 United Kingdom – 7 Nigeria – 8 South-Africa – 9 Rwanda – 10 Zimbabwe


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