If we are not careful, many of our efforts to “shift power” in international philanthropy will not actually shift anything.
Over the past several years, philanthropy for international aid and development has begun experimenting with increasing approaches to shifting power. This is to be commended. Trusting and funding locally born, raised, and reputed organizations, longer term, flexible funding, and participation are all critically important, but if we are truly going to shift power we must be honest with ourselves and each other about what it really looks like.
If we are not honest, no matter how good our intentions are, we will – at best – waste our own time and resources, not to mention the time and resources of the communities and people we say we wish to support. At worst, we will cause continued harm, ignoring the institutional and structural inequities that plague the system, inserting additional layers and paradigms into it or rewarding performative organizations or gestures that will only continue to consolidate existing power structures and their harms.
To be clear, this is not about undermining efforts to shift power. This is about being honest that unless we truly shift power in our philanthropy, we won’t shift much at all.
Localization is a term coined in the mid-1990s to describe the process of adapting computer programs to different countries and regions, or adapting a product or service to a specific locale. As its origins suggest, it was founded not on the premise of shifting power, but on modifying centrally developed and designed products for a local market. It has largely been a donor-driven trend, involving many of the world’s top donor agencies in the last decade or so. And while it suggests that funding needs to flow to local organizations, it does not question the inequitable systems in which those local organizations operate.
To truly shift power we need to ask ourselves why – as donors – we need to retain the power to trust or why our own perceptions of trust should come into the equation at all when we are not the ones with lives or systems at stake
For example, it does little to question the role or power of international organizations, instead labeling them as “important” or “powerful” actors with whom local organizations need to “cooperate” in order to do development or aid “better”. Starkly, the commitments made to funding local organizations are paltry – USAID has still only committed to directing 25% of its funds to local entities by 2030.
Diversity Equity and Inclusion
Diversity is not de-colonization. There is a significant difference between hiring diverse non-white staff and hiring from the countries and communities in which we fund. Even then, having non-white staff or board members is not enough to make a difference in modern international philanthropy. White-dominant, Global-North, Western-normative, hierarchical values and cultures are so deeply entrenched in our industry that they place undue importance on clinical, neutral, and empirical approaches, elite “expertise”, pre-determined formulas, and linear outcomes.
Systems change is often cited as a mechanism to shift power but it will not do so unless we are honest that too often such initiatives are driven by donors who decide which systems need to change, define what the outcomes should be, and choose the actors that will be funded. Donors demanding large-scale systems change within specifically defined periods of time risk further reenforcing power by imposing artificially external timeframes and outcomes, which – in order to be successful – must be executed by large, Global North or elite-controlled institutions. This leaves little room for community or local input, adaptation, or for organic change.
Trust-based philanthropy is important but to truly shift power we must first critique our current definitions of “trust-worthy” because these concepts are often built on paradigms and standards that are Global North dominant, Western-normative, and often overly capitalistic. For “trust-based” to really shift power we must then extend it beyond grantees to trusting communities to drive their own change processes in their entirety. Finally, to truly shift power we need to ask ourselves why – as donors – we need to retain the power to trust or why our own perceptions of trust should come into the equation at all when we are not the ones with lives or systems at stake.
Participatory grantmaking also holds much promise towards shifting power but if we are not careful, it can easily continue existing power imbalances. This imbalance will continue if we – as donors – still retain the power of issue identification, action design, outcome determination, grant size, who gets to participate, what questions can be asked and answered, and what we will do with those answers.
Every effort to shift power is important but to be part of building a truly equitable and just paradigm, philanthropy needs to first understand and be honest about the power that it holds and reinforces, even when it tries to shift it.
Nina Blackwell is the former Executive Director of the Firelight Foundation and supported the fund’s transition from American to African governance, leadership, vision and power