In this article, we report progress on our consultations across the ‘development’ ecosystem in the nine months since the publication of the Jigsaw report that called for root and branch reform of international development.
The process of consultation and dialogue has generated much enthusiasm. It has tapped a deep hunger for change as the world slips ever closer to a dystopia of violent conflict, climate catastrophe, economic collapse, humanitarian emergency, and authoritarian regimes. The announcement of the #ShiftThePower summit in Bogotá gives focus to the efforts and offers a moment when civil society can develop a view on the system it wants to see that will produce flourishing lives for all.
The consultations have also revealed the size of the task before us. ‘If philanthropy and development aid didn’t change during Covid-19, when everything had to go local, when will it ever change?’ This comment, along with many similar ones made during our consultations, reveals the level of frustration about the system’s ability to resist change.
Despite much rhetoric about ‘decolonisation’ and ‘systems change’, old-fashioned mindsets and embedded funding practices that are typically developed in offices far removed from the communities they seek to serve, continue to dominate our sector. What is clear is that we need to move beyond criticism, and collectively move towards identifying what a good system would look like and how we would obtain it. Civil society needs to join up so that it is in a better position to demand and drive the changes it so badly needs.
Our process is designed to bring people together. Helping to break siloes, enhancing our capacity to organise and enabling many different people to contribute, so the plan for a development system that delivers flourishing lives for all is co-created, and widely owned and shared. In developing this work, we have started by building on the four entry points suggested by the Jigsaw report for systems change.
The first is to ‘ensure equal voice for local communities in all decision making’. This is also at the heart of the #ShiftThePower manifesto. Discussions so far suggest that, while this is a noble goal, it is easy to say and harder to do. Moreover, there are many examples of how organisations in the development sector use the rhetoric but ignore the practice. It has been suggested that it is necessary to develop a set of criteria for people to follow to ensure that quality is assured rather than assumed. As one consultation participant put it:
‘Lots of spaces use the words shift the power, decolonisation, localisation but they are not all saying the same thing. You might find that a well-meaning organisation feels they have empowering processes, but they haven’t. So, we need practical ways to make it work to the point of complete reform, around how aid is undertaken. We need clarity/guidelines on what needs to be reformed…’
The second entry point is to support collaboration and partnerships and to reduce competition for funding. Sector collaboration and partnerships are necessary for aid and funding to effectively service front-line activists and communities. This is much talked about, but little acted on and many funders and international organisations continue to work in silos leading to short-term projects that are unsustainable and ineffective. Geoff Mulgan challenged a PEX meeting in January 2021 on this point, suggesting that the field had been talking about improving collaboration for 20 years, but with little progress. Working in collaboration requires the sector to embrace humility and act on the principle of ‘no ego, no logo, no silo and no halo’ in developing plans. This involves deep culture shifts and inner work so that we believe our work only matters in developing the kind of world we want, and our career, organisation and status is of secondary importance. Many participants in our consultations mentioned the value of letting go of power.
The principle of ‘stronger-together’ flows into all areas of social change work, so there is also a need to support ground-level organising and coalitions to enhance advocacy and push for systemic changes from the bottom up. The Asia Foundation has recently worked hard to improve collaboration in the region, though only one of the relevant funders has so far acted on the findings of its report. Again, this priority is in accord with the #ShiftThePower manifesto, which sees a future that is ‘negotiated, participatory and widely owned, and which is based on movement generosity, rather than the success or failure of one organisation over others’.
For this reason, it is imperative that the process we are currently engaged in models movement generosity. Conversations have highlighted the need to ‘steward loss’ as a means of reducing resistance to change in the system and positioning it as an energy or ‘compost’ which nurtures the new. Several people have expressed an interest in developing this work going forward. Others have offered to help map ‘islands of activities [so we can] help bridge and build on what’s working.’ This is a key priority in the coming months.
The third is to ‘encourage more unrestricted and longer-term funding’. This is an old problem that has remained unaddressed for decades. We have to take account of Kim Klein’s adage ‘whoever funds you owns you.’ A key task is to develop an appropriate funding model that balances the needs of different groups in the funding relationship while also recognising that not all groups want ‘outside’ funds. We need a model that ‘doesn’t impose, is flexible, listens to the needs of movements and allows them to allocate assets according to emerged needs and has de-bureaucratised’ but which is also ‘robust and resourced to evaluate learning and performance to show this way of working supports and sustains change’. Such a model would involve compromises since trust needs to be balanced with accountability. Building the outlines of such a model should be a key feature of the process going forward.
The fourth item identified by Jigsaw is: ‘Large INGOs should change their role’, with programme decision makers located in the majority world while the Global North focuses on fundraising and advocacy. This changing role as been explored by Peace Direct in their report and the reimagining of the INGO is being developed by RINGO. To avoid duplication and in the spirit of collaboration, we will use and build on this work in the context of the changes needed to develop a new system.
Throughout our consultations the need to ‘take the ego out of the system, and the northern educated, English-speaking sameness out of the equation… [and to] be humble enough to recognise it has not worked’ has been emphasised. An immediate priority is to work with our networks to expand conversations and hear from the communities we talk about, by providing safe spaces for people to speak their truths about the kind of resourcing and solidarity they need. This will help challenge the hierarchy about who the agents of change are and will shape clarity and coherence on what shift the power is, and what it isn’t. This is critical if we are to create a working vision of what an alternative system looks like. To drive reform, we need a common narrative of what we do want, rather than what we don’t.
Delivering reform requires change across the spectrum – from practice and process through to mindset and mental models. There is a need to recognise the complexity and interconnectedness of the systems we live in – white supremacy, neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism, and tax injustice – to name a few. Consultations have emphasised the need to commit to changing the entire paradigm. This is a vast and daunting task. It requires a holism which is difficult to pin down and quantify so we need to be cautious of too much talk over meaningful action.
To avoid this trap, we need to generate clarity through data which can be embraced by both the supply and demand side of funding and international development. We will do this first by engaging in the process to understand the needs and vision of those change agents who are rooted in and/or closest to the communities’ ‘development’ seeks to serve. Secondly, we will reach out to funders and INGOs to understand their efforts to ignite and implement reform, giving us examples of change and good practice. This will also help identify gaps and challenges and help inform future priorities and collective action. Critically, this process will begin to illuminate the pathways to reform and how we obtain a system which nurtures flourishing lives for all.
This work is based on the understanding that we can only ever change ourselves. It seeks to use the data collated to support the conditions of learning and reflection needed to alter our biases and deal with our cognitive dissonance. Without authentic self-reflection and accountability, we will be unable to do the deep dismantling and inner work required to drive and sustain transformative change.
This will never be a neat and linear process and there’s no magic formulae. As Donella Meadows notes, the inherent complexity of forces means we only ‘dance’ with systems – but with a world in crisis there has never been a more urgent need to create a new beat – centring compassion, dignity, joy and trust.
If you’re interested in finding out more and getting involved, please click here.
Rebeca Hanshaw is an independent consultant and philanthropy advisor and a co-convenor for the Shift the Power UK Funder Collective. Barry Knight is secretary to Centris trustees.
These four entry points suggested by the Jigsaw report for systems change were practiced during a Swedish financial supported smallholder farm soil water conservation transformation of belowground roots that substantially enhanced aboveground production projects in Zimbabwe and Kenya. These long-term 50+ years transformations of optimizing soil water, fertilizer and oxygen of root zones by a USA developed soil water retention technology (SWRT), global-proven soil water conservation have totally enhanced smallholder women farmers' perspectives of how they personally own a new long-term crop resilient to climate change technology continues to produce phenomenal increases in grain and vegetable crops, "saving the lives and health of their children", while contributing to food value chains among cooperative farmer and business ownership markets. These amazing crop productions are continuing to community women's organizations and planned expansions across the landscapes of neighboring communities.