Interview with Biraj Patnaik, Executive Director of the National Foundation for India

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 with the #ShiftThePower movement and where does it need to go now?

Biraj Patnaik (BP): Much has changed since the #ShiftThePower movement began. The push for localization has accelerated in bilateral funding, and today organizations like USAID who traditionally held onto a lot of centralized funding are increasingly saying we will not work with organizations back home, we will attempt to localize as much as possible. A shift is happening, but the movement needs to track progress more systematically than we are currently doing.

Nearly all of the large global organizations like Oxfam International, Save the Children, ActionAid and Amnesty International have committed in spirit and action to the process of decentralization and moved their headquarters abroad. But the main internal dynamic in these organizations – and I speak from my own personal experience – is that decisions get taken by whoever is wielding the money. It’s as basic as that, even today.

There’s a lot of tokenism in terms of shifting power to the Global South and not enough action in moving the money. The first thing that the shift the power movement could do is to track what part of the money has moved to the Global South. Just following the money would lead to improved outcomes on this front.

The other crucial issue is  on decision-making. Who takes the decisions and how much of influence do actors in the global south have on decision making processes. We need to create formal structures to promote more decentralized decision-making. Currently, when it comes to the final call on the most important decisions, they are taken in the Global North not the Global South, and decisions still factor in the concerns and priorities of the Global North, and not those of the South.

We therefore need to develop tools which will track how decision making within organizations is changing and to capture concrete examples of good and bad practice. This is not to just fuel advocacy efforts to push for progress but also to acknowledge those who have made changes.


GFCF: What led you to become involved in the #ShiftThePower movement?

BP: My primary reason for joining the #ShiftThePower movement is because of my belief that there is another important piece of work for the movement to focus on – which is to build solidarity in civil society across the Global South and globally. How do we create a solidarity mechanism that really works for the Global South in times of shrinking civic space? What kind of institutional support structures should we have? What other kind of support structures should we have? These are questions we need to be asking.

We need to genuinely look at civic space globally, see it as one space and not divided by country. In the case of India, where there has been a massive shrinking of civic space this past decade, there is support from groups in the Global North working with their government to issues of the values partnership of their governments bilaterally with India. But there is no tradition of countries in the Global South doing this.

In countries across the Global South, governments often see civil society at best as troublemakers or at worst as foreign agents. We need to create a global movement to ensure that civic space is respected and discussed bilaterally by governments cutting across the North-South divide. I think it very important to start systematically rallying civic space around the world.

The shrinking civic space is not just restricted to countries of the Global South anymore. Europe and North America are also cracking down on civil society organizations. In many cases, geo-politics trumps rights and countries get a free pass. Civil society groups, who traditionally have been very influential with their government are now finding themselves unable to have any impact on rights issues in the Global South.


GFCF: What are the specific issues that could be addressed by greater global civic solidarity?

BP: In many places, we are seeing that laws passed for one purpose are now being used for a different purpose and are being weaponized against civil society organizations. Anti-terror laws, which were passed after 9/11, are being used to lock up activists – and anti-money laundering laws have been used to shut down INGOs.

We need global solidarity to take on the weaponization of laws – and their national derivatives against civil society. We are now reaching a tipping point now in many countries where there is a sense that if we don’t act now, there won’t be much to save as far as civil society is concerned. And that sense of alarm has deepened a lot over the years.

In South Asia, donors are moving away from entire areas of work because of their perceptions of the risk involved, including on key areas of deepening democracy, rights of minorities.

Global civic solidarity could help address another area where the power needs to shift – which is to do with how funding priorities are being set. One example is the issue of the energy transition and decarbonization, where instead of considering the whole range of issues around environmental justice, priorities get narrowed in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the biggest needs of communities in the Global South. And donors and even independent foundations all collectively line up with the way the Global North sees a particular agenda, which I find quite disturbing. It’s another facet of the power inequalities in inter-state relations.

I am optimistic that we will see some meaningful change because by naming and shaming, tracking the money, putting out reports, showing changes and examples of successful transitions of power from North to South we are building something very valuable for the future. We need this kind of grassroots infrastructure, as well as a governance structure to make this a reality. Global civic solidarity is at the heart of this and I am hopeful that we’ll see change.


Biraj Patnaik is Executive Director of the National Foundation for India (NFI). Prior to joining NFI, Biraj was the Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Indian Supreme Court in the “right to food” case for close to a decade. He has been part of the right to food campaign in India since its inception. He co-founded the “Mitanin” community health worker program that trained and deployed 70,000 health workers in Chhattisgarh. Biraj has post-graduate degree in management from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), and was a Chevening Gurukul Senior Scholar at the London School of Economics and Social Sciences.

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