Interview with Amitabh Behar, Interim Executive Director of Oxfam International
04 Dec 2023
Ahead of the #ShiftThePower Global Summit in Bogotá, the GFCF spoke to some friends and allies to capture their views of where the #ShiftThePower movement has got to, how the landscape has changed in recent years, and what the movement should focus on now. See all interviews here.
GFCF: Where are we at with the #ShiftThePower movement – and what do we need to do now?
Amitabh Behar (AB): The #ShiftThePower narrative is well established and has tremendous currency. Now we need to focus on how we actually do it. Without presenting very practical ways of shifting the power, sceptics can use questions about practicality to subvert the agenda, they can say: “we like this idea, but it is not practical.” So we must focus on the practical – and it needs to go beyond the tokenistic.
In terms of practical actions, the most fundamental one is to shift where the money and resources are used, because ultimately so much is about money. At the moment, the money is generated in the Global North and most of it is still spent in the Global North. We need to just hand over the money – at least 70% of what is raised, to strong local NGOs – with no strings attached.
INGOs and donor projects are already hiring more local people and shifting functions to the Global South, but as well as this we need to ensure that a lot of the so-called value-add functions are no longer done in the Global North, where they are very expensive. Functions such as communications, knowledge capture and lesson learning can be done by local people. Some may say that the output would not be as sophisticated – though I firmly believe that would quickly come.
But there are more fundamental questions in terms of evaluating what is valuable or what is sophisticated. Currently these are mediated from a Northern lens. A Southern perspective of framing issues, articulating solutions, would be rooted in a different framework, in line with the local realities, and with the challenges of poor and ordinary people. So shifting the power is also about recognizing that the privileging of knowledge systems and frameworks created in the North are neither necessarily applicable or useful in diverse contexts.
GFCF: How can northern INGOs speed up the process of shifting the power?
AB: You have a global political economic economy where the money flows into the Northern sphere, which is where all the big companies and economies are. The history of 300 to 500 years of colonialism cannot be wished away. Northern INGOs must continue to fundraise in the North, because that’s where the money is, but we mustn’t get caught in the trap of saying we need to raise funds in India or wherever.
The critical question is about distribution. It’s hard to redistribute, but we must be true to our values and ensure that most of the money – 50%, 70%, 90% – is used in the Global South. We have hold ourselves accountable to what we promise and be true to our rhetoric. How well that works in practice is going to be a question of internal leadership. In organizations that have accepted the #ShiftThePower narrative, such as Oxfam, we have set milestones so we can demonstrate progress.
More broadly, looking at the Grand Bargain, every year we see the numbers falling short of the goals we agreed. So how do we speed up this process? One demand we can all make is for donors to stop funding organizations that are not meeting their localization targets.
GFCF: What can local NGOs and community organizations do?
AB: On the “demand side”, local NGOs need to make it their business to ask really tough questions, to constantly demand that INGOs and donors live up to their values. Yes, some local NGOs are scared to make demands because they fear they’ll lose the small amount of funding they get. This is precisely the issue we face – it shows the complete asymmetry of power that exists. I would say we need to have the courage to make demands.
My worry is that if an entity in the South is not able to ask even a liberal partner to adhere to its own values is very unlikely to be able to challenge the patriarchy or the caste system in the local context, or to hold their own government to account. I’m sorry if it sounds harsh but if you really can’t ask that question of your funder, you will never be able to ask tough questions of your own society. If we are avoiding the hard questions, then it’s not really shifting the power, it’s just transferring the power from one elite to another.
We certainly don’t want to accept the current colonial power distribution. But nor do we want to work to #ShiftThePower and have the local elites start holding all the power. This work is about creating a more just power distribution, a feminist and decolonized and anti-racist way of distributing power. It’s about creating a just society. That’s really the objective.
GFCF: Have we turned a corner with the #ShiftThePower movement, or are things getting harder for civil society?
AB: We are at an inflection point for civil society itself, because when all is said and done, civil society is a manifestation of the democratic liberal order, but as the liberal consensus breaks down and we see the rise of authoritarianism, the operating space for civil society is shrinking. In many countries INGOs are not allowed to work, or they are allowed only to do service delivery and not ask questions to hold power to account, or to play the watchdog role.
The larger political trend is not necessarily aiding the #ShiftThePower discourse. So how can we decentralize power when there is a closing of civic space? I think there is going to be a fundamental reboot of civil society. I think many of the INGOs are in denial about the changing landscape – they are behind the curve.
Despite the collapsing liberal order, I am cautiously optimistic. I believe in the power of people. I believe in Martin Luther King’s phrase about the arc of history – it is long, but it eventually bends towards justice. I have no options but to be optimist and to continue working towards the vision that I so passionately believe in. What is my life if I don’t work towards creating a just society? I know there are many, many thousands who feel the same way. The energy is there.
It’s our job to recognize the people’s energy and work with them. We have to get away from this myth of us surviving on the money of the bilaterals or the philanthropies. This is why community philanthropy is so important – even those small resources, of someone willing to give food to ten people for the next three days, is a form of activism. That’s how community philanthropy eventually works. It’s a fundamental shift to agree that everything is not about international money and the way it flows, it is about recognizing our own local resources.
Amitabh Behar is Executive Director (interim) of Oxfam International, and an authority on tackling economic and gender inequality and building citizen participation. Prior to this role, he was the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India. Prior to this, Mr Behar was the Executive Director of National Foundation for India and served as the Convener of National Social Watch Coalition and the Co-Chair of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a network of over 11,000 civil society organizations. Mr. Behar serves on the boards of several other organizations, including the GFCF, and was previously Vice Chair of the Board of CIVICUS.