Responses to ‘Are INGOs ready to give up power?’

December 20, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

On Wednesday, we republished this timely thought piece by Deborah Doane, which interrogates the power held by large NGOs and calls for a shift of power.

The article clearly hit a nerve. Questions around #ShiftingThePower bring up enormous systemic (and existential) considerations that pose direct challenges not only to the structures we operate in, but also to our own behaviors. A group of us got the chance to collaboratively explore these over the course of two days at the Pathways to Power Symposium last month, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. You can read some of the participants’ reflections here.

To continue that open dialogue, below I’ve compiled a selection of responses gathered from Twitter, from readers’ comments and from online conversations with colleagues within the sector over the past few days. All responses here are published with permission, but I’ve left names off as some were private exchanges.

The most common responses were a resounding “YES” and “this is long overdue”. Many were unsurprised and felt that many of the same thoughts and ideas resonated with ones they’ve held – sometimes for a very long time. 

This isn’t surprising. Like all organisations, INGOs exist under the assumption that they are valuable/useful. They will therefore develop whatever rationale necessary to legitimate their existence. “We raise the voice of the South”, “We channel resources”, etc.

So much of this resonates, and was one of the reasons I decided it was time to exit the sector last year after 20+ years. There’s nothing here that we’ve not known for a long time. I tried to pull together some ideas around a manifesto to help shift some of this, which you’re welcome to look at on

Why are we unable to let go of a model that values technocrats over movement builders?

Some responses started to take the conversation even further, by raising problems around the stark North-South divide that underlies (and sometimes limits) arguments about shifting power:

But we should not assume that “Southern NGOs” are all “Southern”. Privilege and the accumulation of power is also present in the South. As long as money flows from Northern based agencies to the South there will be “gatekeepers” (Northern or Southern) – self-serving to a degree.

Yes, and the same is replicated within each country where technocratic NGOs monopolize power and resources by being related to INGOs or international organizations. (translated from Spanish)

However, let’s not oversimplify this complex discourse by ‘romantizing an image of the global south’ as one homogenous, harmonious and monolithic entity. A rich body of anthropological and other ‘evidence’ shows that human beings (all over the globe) strive for domination and power, often causing inequality, exclusion, etc. From this point of view, a key question is: even if we succeed in shifting ‘North-South’ power relations, what will be the societal implications for the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless segments of local societies? Again, we totally need to rebalance power, but let’s not underestimate the complexity of reality.

‘Our north is your south’,  Joaquín Torres García 1943

For me as a ‘southerner” it is fascinating to observe how the discussion is narrowed to shifting power from “northern” meaning INGOs to Southern – when there are other bigger elephants in the room that are disabling National organisations to survive let alone thrive – donors policies and their continuous resistance to support organisations’ costs, their lack of innovation and risk taking in expanding their portfolio of partners to allow emerging civil societies in South to apply; the channelling of large funds through the UN, commercial tenders for mixed stakeholders, blurring the lines between businesses and non-profit aims not to mention political control and shrinking the civil society space. So I am very sympathetic to the discussion but I strongly think it is not addressing the real root causes of weakened southern organisations unless very tangible, concrete things are proposed.

It’s a painful conversation about identifying which roles are critical in the North (#friendraising and some #lobby and #campaign capacity etc) and which of the many roles can be delivered from the South…It means handing over decision-making power to partners in the South, going beyond simply shifting Northern colleagues to the South, but also reaching out to the diaspora and ensuring diversity in the North, making organizations much more a reflection of our diverse societies.

Within this thread, others highlighted the challenges Shifting the Power poses for the localisation debate:

Tricky challenges of aid localisation. Important to critically examine so-called collaborative practices, mutual learning efforts, participatory models – to what extent do they disrupt and/or maintain power relationships? ⁦

Several concerns were raised around the risk of replicating the same structures all over again while attempting to shift the power.

If the ‘shifting of the power’ is going to mean more large international ‘professional southern organisations’ (that look like the current crop of INGOs) then I think we will have failed. If we create new ‘professional southern intermediaries’ that behave in the same way that the international NGO community currently behaves (except insulated from criticism by their identity) then we have failed. If all we are talking about is bigger budgets for ‘professional southern NGOs’ then we have failed.

Power mostly goes where the money is. Surely to ‘take the power’ Southern NGOs need to gear up to be the ones to find new and old modes of funding, or be the ones in the western conferences doing the meet & greet. Just do what INGOs do themselves, but from their location not the North? It would be very well received I think. Haha, but then they will end up with offices full of people processing and administering funds, doing admin, HR, PR etc etc and so it goes on!

So, absolutely yes – we need to shift the power. But how?

Overall, the sense is that the majority of us agree this debate brings up very urgent and important considerations for moving into the new decade. Most are not new at all – power asymmetries have been long normalised as ‘business as usual’, and even deemed necessary. But many are craving more concrete ideas, pathways and practices to start thinking about the how of shifting the power

Development cartoon
An illustration from Trocaire’s Leading Edge 2020 report.

For me there should be clear targets (named donors ), clear specific asks for what they need to change on their intent, selection eligibility, contracting terms. National/ regional/southern NGOs are not crowded out only by INGOs but by diverse other stakeholders e.g Intergovernmental organizations and businesses. The movement is great but there is more needed to move to concrete proposals .

 I’d like to get more specific as I can’t work with abstractions of ‘shift the power’ or ‘take power’. Before people jump to conclusions, I’m not against it. I just think it’s high time to get concrete. What is the how and phasing of this? Am I hearing, for example, to reduce northern office staffing, in particular, to purely fundraising and in-their-own-backyard advocacy? […] I’m missing the how in this discussion.

To think about this how, two people who have been in the sector for many years offer some further food for thought around how we are thinking about and working with power. Is power a zero-sum game: reducing for someone means increasing for someone else, and vice-versa?

The more I think about this article and our various responses, the more I see how limited it is on the crux of the matter – ‘power’. Power is discussed as an absolute – you have it or don’t. You give it up or take it – so it shifts. [We work] with a much more nuanced understanding of power…Power over, power with, power to, power within, invisible, visible, hidden powers. What is the power about – money, staff, time, decision-making? How can a deep power analysis help us unpack this ‘shift/take’ discussion?

(1) This means really figuring out what ‘inclusive meaningful participation from local context’ looks like. Having worked in participatory planning, M&E, research in the 1990s and 2000s, I know that isn’t easy and the word ‘local’ hid a lot of oppression and marginalisation. We might need to learn some of those lessons again or hopefully build on them. I found few examples that gave it the time and attention to be really inclusive and meaningful.
(2) Localised narratives are essential, and in my experience, can also be constrained by not seeing or being located in the wider political forces.
(3) In the 1990s, many INGOs worked with ‘exit strategies’ but they were often dreadfully done, particularly by dropping long term endeavours like hot bricks too soon. I wonder if we can think of co-evolution rather than ‘exit’. The very long term collaborations over 2 decades for example, were often the most fruitful.
(4) How local is local? These are all questions that need open discussion for it to become concrete and able to be implemented.
(5) How do we create the funding ‘architecture’ so that smaller CSOs can access funding directly? I just got back from an event on development finance institutions and anything that isn’t in the millions isn’t interesting for most of them. So much needs changing.

Some others have started proposing ways ahead in their responses:

INGOs need to revise their indicators for measuring success, surely success should be measured by how fast an INGO is able to “hand over” the intervention to be “locally-led” and become redundant rather than continue to exist for decades in a country relying on its own narrative instead of the context it is trying to assist.

INGOs might also need to think about how the transformation will look like to tackle the dire inequality in their home countries, i.e. how the resources raised in their home markets can be used to tackle the problems at home – while the home systems are failing.

It refers to having direct inclusive meaningful participation from local context and local actors about identifying their own human rights that need to be addressed, rather than northern/external/donors actors deciding what their need is…It also means that that there should be more localised narratives based on localised needs, rather than how it fits into an INGO mandate. It means the presence of the INGO should not be open ended, that an exit strategy be in place by a defined timeline, after which the intervention will be locally owned. The term ‘Redundancy’ does not have to be taken with negative connotations, but positively by measuring success of the work of an INGO … shift the power means that the local people of any given context in need of aid are directly involved in the decision-making and are not just ‘informed’ by externals/northerners about what their problems are … maybe it also means that smaller civil society based organisations at grassroots can apply for funding directly and take back the power for their own self determination so to speak, rather than be fed by external ‘experts’ on localised contexts about what problems affect them …

Shouldn’t NGOs goal ultimately be to… leave? 

We want to hear your thoughts, inspiration, ideas and frustrations. And if you want to write a full blog on this topic of what Shifting the Power can mean for the future of development and aid, please let us know through the contact form!