Interview with Degan Ali, Executive Director of Adeso
03 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 does it need to do now?
Degan Ali (DA): We live in a post-colonial world which hasn’t been fully decolonized, so when we talk about shifting the power, we can’t stay completely separate from the geo-politics. So let’s agree on stronger language that recognizes the politics and the power that we’re talking about, that we’re working within. Ignoring the politics is part of the problem of perpetuating it. We should be leaning into it. This is why I talk about decolonization – the phrase ‘shift the power’ isn’t strong enough.
Being overtly political is not the kind of thing the #ShiftThePower movement thinks is part of their responsibility. It’s not the kind of thing that the localization movement thinks is part of their responsibility or something the new emergent development system that people talk about could handle. At the moment, there are these two parallel worlds that are not even relating to each other. For me, when we think about an emergent system, I am talking about one that is really based on real ideas of equality, sovereignty, independence and fairness.
I think one of the ways to move in this direction is to make civil society fully resourced and intentionally political and organized around these issues. So let’s give these organizations more unrestricted funding and let’s help them think through these systems issues around the politics of aid and development. If we want to support civil society, we must support movement building, support them to be political actors and agitators and activists, not project implementers. And we have to give them the flexible money to do that – and if it takes them ten years to make any progress so be it.
My goal is to see an end to the system that makes the Global South even need development aid or philanthropy. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of governments to lift people out of poverty – and in the Global South governments are handicapped by so many things, an unjust global trade system, financial system, economic system, political system. These systems were created post WW2 by former colonizers and imperialist governments, and they are inherently unjust. They were not meant to ensure that everybody participates in the world equally.
GFCF: What are you doing with Adeso to move in that direction?
DA: Our aim with Adeso is to build our self-generated revenue model so that we eventually become financially independent. You have no power if you don’t have money, that’s the bottom line. Without money, I can’t influence my own government because they only listen to whoever has the money – the donors, the UN and the INGOs. If they listen to Somalis, they are from the private sector and have funds. To have influence, we have to get our own resources and then we get to sit at the table.
Adeso has an active revenue generating model which is our path to financial independence. We have a water company in Somalia, Durdur Water Enterprise, that provides water at a low cost to populations that don’t have access to water. It has social impact and will generate a small amount of revenue. In addition, we have two companies that we are going to merge – Kuja Link and CORE – that provide services to civil society organizations; Kuja Link facilitates connections with funders, and CORE offers a range of back-office services.
Our other revenue generating element is real estate. We’re using money we raised to construct apartments in Nairobi that will make a modest profit, which we will reinvest. In time, we’ll have maybe two construction projects happening simultaneously, later maybe up to five projects. Our goal is to have revenue coming in from real estate, not just in Kenya, possibly in other countries in the future.
Adeso is currently 100% grant funded with Global North philanthropic money. We don’t take funding from bilaterals or INGOs. In ten years’ time, I would like to see a situation where we’re 90% self-funded. And then if we do take some grant funding it is really more to develop partnerships and further leverage what we are already doing.
My aim is to get to a place where Adeso is not always raising money. Under the current system, an institution is always raising money. More and more, this ‘professional begging’ approach really seems broken to me. My hope is to build up our own endowment and keep it growing overtime. Then we would have the resources to fund those activists who can be political and change the system.
GFCF: If civil society becomes more political will that fuel further repression of civic space?
DA: Civil society repression and shrinking civic space is a knee-jerk reaction on the part of governments who are trying to exercise their sovereignty. They can’t differentiate local civil society from international civil society – and international interests – because they see it all packaged and functioning together.
When money comes into a country, serious questions need to be answered. Am I loyal to my donor or am I loyal to the country and the government? Am I going to work with the government to try to align with what they’re doing so that the outcome is better? Or am I going to criticize and lecture them? Lecturing is not realistic if the organization’s work is bought and paid for by an international donor. So governments are responding to that. They see that we are conflicted in our loyalty and they react in a way that says: you and your donors are trying to impose things on us that we don’t like.
What we as local civil society need to do is demonstrate some level of loyalty. Not 100%. It doesn’t mean we can’t criticize, and certainly it does mean we need to play a crucial role in holding our governments and private sector accountable. But as it stands now, our loyalties are clearly divided. Imagine all of the domestic civil society in the United States were funded by Russian and Chinese donors? Do you really think the U.S. government wouldn’t be reacting to repress and suppress these groups?
So we need to help civil society organizations and governments to work in collaboration instead of being antagonistic. And the problem we have at the moment is, that all the priorities and projects and funding are Western-driven and respond to Western priorities.
GFCF: You were one of the prime movers in the Pledge for Change 2030 – how does this fit with shifting the power?
DA: The Pledge for Change is a way to support the ecosystem of local development organizations by talking with INGOs about how they operate. Signatories of the pledge agree to three things – equitable partnerships, authentic storytelling without harmful stereotypes, and using their position to influence wider change.
The Pledge is also a way to start having hard conversations with INGOs about their future and what that looks like. It’s about asking them if they should even exist? I personally think some of them should go out of business or merge. They should not seek to grow financially and should stop growing in terms of geographies they cover. Instead, they should work to become more relevant. But this is very far-away thinking, and I don’t expect that to happen by 2030. However, within the realm of these three commitments I do think we can see some real change that puts local NGOs who get majority of their funding from these INGOs having a much improved relationship based on respect and dignity. If we can get these INGOs to stop treating local NGOs as subcontracts and but rather as equal partners that will be a major improvement from the current reality. For example, there are major INGO signatories to the Pledge now that are having discussions about sharing overheads with their partners. This means a huge financial loss for the INGOs but policies are being put in place to share overheads.
Over time, I think INGOs will become less relevant anyway, because Global South countries will become more developed and will not need them. You can already see every time a country becomes economically more developed, the INGOs exit. If we make that happen in more and more countries, then we make them less relevant.
The engines of development are through government policies, infrastructure and industrialization, and through private sector investment. That’s the basic formula and it’s not a UNDP programme, it’s not an Adeso poverty alleviation programme or an agricultural programme. It’s government policies and programmes, plus private sector investment, that is going to lift people out of poverty. Civil society has a role in this, but no matter how much money you dump in civil society hands, it’s not going to end poverty on its own.
Degan Ali is Executive Director of Adeso, an African civil society network. Degan is an internationally-renowned humanitarian leader and organizational development consultant. She has been at the forefront of shifting power for decades. She is a Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellow for Social Innovation, a contributor to the Overseas Development Institute/Humanitarian Policy Group and the Global Food Security Journal. Her work has been featured on The New York Times, Al Jazeera and The Guardian.