Interview with Gunjan Veda, Director of Collaborative Research, Policy and Practice at the Movement for Community-led Development

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 does it need to do now?

Gunjan Veda (GV): We are at this inflexion point where there is a widespread intent to #ShiftThePower and recognition of the need to do it. This wasn’t the case until about two years ago. When I joined the Movement for Community-led Development (MCLD) in 2019 and spoke to people about community-led development, their reaction was sceptical. They’d ask me: “What is the evidence that it is cost effective or sustainable?”

But in the last two years, not a single person has asked me that question. Instead, many INGOs, governments, funders, foundations, bilaterals – are coming to us and saying: “We know we need to be more community-led, we need to localize, we need to #ShiftThePower – but how do we do it?”

Everyone knows change is imminent, but what kind of change will it be? There’s uncertainty about what the new system will look like, will it work, what will my role be in it? This is scary for people. Many powerful players want to dictate how this change happens. Others are resisting change because they benefit from the way things are currently. So, it’s not simply about giving up power.

Among the Global Majority, we know we can’t continue with the top-down colonial systems we have had. The challenge is going to be whether we get our act together to use this moment to go beyond just making incremental change, which seems to be the comfortable option for many parts of the system.

But the truth is you can’t incrementally fix the system to become more community-led because this is a system that was designed to keep out communities, to keep out local organizations, to keep out Global Majority worldviews. It was a system of domination and control, and it cannot suddenly become a system of equitable partnerships.


GFCF: What does the movement have to do to ensure that the change is one of transformation?

(GV): The future of our world depends on our ability as Global Majority organizations to come together and use this critical moment to push for transforming the system rather than simply tweaking it. We’ve been fragmented because funders and international actors have created a situation where we are all scrambling for resources and competing amongst ourselves.

It is also hard for us to come together because most community organizations are focused day-to-day on survival. This makes it hard for us to express solidarity with organizations and causes beyond our own focus. Or to push back on the way the funder operates. We are afraid to upset our funders or the prime organizations. It is very difficult to go back to your community and tell them “we are probably not going to get food or supplies in the short-term because the funders are annoyed with us – but we will transform this system in a few months, potentially years. We’ll just have to stay hungry or without health facilities or livelihood support till then.”

In the long run, the only way we can ensure the dignified survival of our communities is if we let go of that fear. That’s very difficult to do. We have fought so hard to get that little bit of influence and power, and to find a seat at the table, that we worry about losing it – because of the responsibility we bear to our constituents.

I think the only way we can transform this system is if we come together to pool not just expertise, and whatever scarce resources we have, but knowledge, information, intelligence and strategies. We need a global movement – a movement of movements and networks – that would be the game changer. I firmly believe that the Shift The Power Summit is trying to create that movement.

I have a problem with the term donor—I always use funder because the only things the aid agencies etc. give is funds. Calling them donors does not recognize the time, resources and knowledge donated by the communities themselves.


GFCF: Do you see signs that people are coming together in the way you suggest?

(GV): I think we already see different parts of the system trying to come together and coordinate. Philanthropies are coming together on this issue, as are bilaterals, INGOs, and local governments. Civil society in the Majority World meanwhile has been more siloed, focussing on our own networks.

For the last couple of years at MCLD, we have been having conversations with different networks to work together for broader influence and impact. So, to influence USAID policies, we partner with Peace Direct. Recently, we partnered with CIVICUS and Peace Direct to facilitate a sign-on initiative from Majority World organizations to all funders on how to convene on locally-led development. Similarly, we are partnering with convening networks from around the world on different issues. To transform this system, we have to let go of our egos and logos. If we’re unwilling to share power and influence ourselves, how do we expect the funders and the INGOs to do that?

We also have to shift our perspective. For so long we’ve talked about power as if it’s something that we don’t have – something that has to be shifted to us. The aid system has made us believe that power, expertise, knowledge, skill are all things we don’t have. You see so many of us in the Global Majority doing degree after degree, because we believe we don’t have the expertise to shape the global arena and because we need to be fluent in English to even get entry into that arena.

This is where the decolonizing lens comes into play because the reality is we’ve always had power, but we’ve been very afraid to exercise our power because of the tremendous responsibility we carry towards our communities. In community-led development we see that communities have the power, they have the potential, they have the agency. In fact, you can’t bring about any change without community members. It doesn’t matter how top down a programme is, the reality is it needs community knowledge.

There’s been a change recently among community-led organizations and their allies. This is not because INGOs, funders and the foundations are willing to share power with us. Instead we now recognize our own power and we are ready to exercise it. Now we can say to the funders and international actors: we have recognized our power and will not stop exercising it. You no longer have a choice. This system will be transformed. And I think that’s a very different message.


Gunjan Veda is Director, Collaborative Research, Policy and Practice at the Movement for Community-led Development. A public policy and international development strategist and a gender policy specialist, she began her career as a journalist, and subsequently worked with the Planning Commission, Government of India, on policies around Health, Nutrition, Marginalized communities, Gender and Child Rights. In 2009, Gunjan launched, an online library and bookstore. She later helped to set up a non-profit that identifies and supports healthcare entrepreneurs across India. Gunjan is the author of two books: Beautiful Country: Stories from Another India, (with Syeda Hameed, Harper Collins, 2012) and the Museum of Broken Tea Cups (Sage-Yoda Press, 2020).

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Lansana Kondeh

Thanks for this brilliant interview, I think you have hammered the whole issue of MCLD.