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#ShiftThePower: A movement not an industry

In a recent GFCF publication “Systems to #ShiftThePower” Barry Knight bluntly states: “There are three characteristic behaviours in philanthropy and the development industry that impair progress in achieving the world we want. These are: egos, silos and logos. All three concepts are based on imperialist self‑promotion of individuals and organisations on the supply‑side of the funding relationship, and do nothing for the people who are meant to benefit.”

There is a growing number of individuals across the Southern and Northern hemisphere ranging from activists groups, civil society organisations, academia, philanthropic organisations to funders and think tanks that despite their different perspectives, they have one thing in common: they have a deep interest in community-led development. They believe that community-led development can be the solution to countering current socio-economic and political trends that further inequality are believed to be the single most important root cause for citizens to feel powerless and detached from political decision-making. Regardless whether they represented activist groups, philanthropic organisations, community foundations or civil society organisations, their belief in community-led development and their yearning for alternative models of development that can help create a more equitable and just societal model acted as the glue that bound the participants together. These individuals are part of the #ShiftThePower movement, which has been gaining traction over the past years, driven by a general mood that something needs to change. They all believe that the power imbalance engrained in the international development system as part of the current world order is the root cause for widespread dissatisfaction. They question that decision-making in development is too often left to those who meet at high-level meetings in stylish, expensive venues, allowing those in power to rub shoulders with others of their kind and display their power and wealth, while paying lip service to the development ambitions they are meant to represent.

The recent ‘Pathways to Power’ Symposium, held in London between 18th and 19th November 2019 and organised by the GFCF, attests to this emerging paradigm shift. There was a sense of familiarity amongst participants which is usually not felt in similar gatherings. The majority of participants had already been connected via social media, and been involved in virtual ‘weaving’ conversations about common topics of interest prior to their first encounter at the symposium. At the symposium, which the Zambian Governance Foundation (ZGF) attended, participants met to discuss topics of common interests, such as diversity, equity and inclusion; ways to shift the power and potential solutions to systems change; the notion of community philanthropy; ways of creating positive narratives and using evidence for change; funding practices to shift power; reimagining international NGOs, and strategies to counter shrinking civic space. However, one topic stood out from all the others and made this event special, namely self-care and solidarity, a topic so often dismissed as being relevant. Particularly, solidarity – the single most important ingredient for every movement – has become functionally extinct in development speak. Solidarity was the undercurrent upon which the ‘Pathways to Power’ symposium built. It was a space where egos, logos and silos did not matter as much as they usually do in similar gatherings and a space for individuals to air their concerns over a number of issues which are normally not being discussed at gatherings of that sort.

There was no room for displaying organisational vanity, individual self-importance, competitive organisational behaviour or cutting edge knowledge. It was a power point free space, and glossy marketing brochures were absent. It was liberating and at the same time self-assuring that the development arena must no longer be the place where people feel exhausted, deflated and disillusioned with how the development industry is structured, how it is managed and how the system has become the centre of excellence for preserving power imbalances that are in contradiction to anything that a more just and equitable society stands for. The symposium has given hope to those that have lost any connection to the cause the organisation they work with was set up for in the first place. The challenge ahead of us is to translate this paradigm shift into reality within our own organisations and communities. One way is to reinvigorate a sense of solidarity as something that binds us all together.

By: Barbara Nöst, Chief Executive Officer of the Zambian Governance Foundation 

This blog also appears on the Alliance magazine website. It was part of a special feature on the Pathways to Power Symposium. The article was originally published by Zambian Governance Foundation on 29 November 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

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