Reflections and lessons learned from the #ShiftThePower movement
12 Jan 2022
The #ShiftThePower movement has emerged over the past decade because of dissatisfaction with top-down structures that fail to deliver. We’ve been having what seems like a decades-long conversation about the need to change the development system, recognizing that something is wrong with the current way we are doing development. The #ShiftThePower movement calls for new behaviors, mindsets, and work approaches that shift power and resources closer to communities on the ground. Ultimately, the #ShiftThePower movement seeks to reform the practice of development aid and institutional philanthropy and demand better for local people by engaging them as co-investors in and owners of their own development. The aim is both to celebrate and elevate emergent practice, and to influence and change the current philanthropy and international development system.
In her interview with EAPN Secretariat, Ese Emerhi, Global Network Weaver at the GFCF, highlights the core principles guiding the movement, successes, and how philanthropy can use movements to advocate for change and accelerate impact.
Ida Maritim (IM): What was the inspiration that led to the #ShiftThePower Movement?
Ese Emerhi (EE): In December 2016, the GFCF organized the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg, South Africa. some have described that conference as the coming of age of the field of community philanthropy and where the #ShiftThePower hashtag was first used. The hashtag was initially created to promote the event, and because it was understood that in order to talk about changing the development system, you had to talk about power first before talking about solutions. The goal of the conference was to link the global community philanthropy field more strategically with other parts of the development and philanthropic landscape and to interrogate what’s working and what’s not working.
And when it comes to addressing power dynamics, it is important not to lead the discussion with money. Instead, lead with people, lead with relationships built over time, and lead with trust. When money dominates the conversation, it can undermine local communities’ independence, agency, and leadership. If money is involved, it should be in a way that empowers, not in a way that controls local communities.
IM: What do you consider as some of the successes of the movement?
EE: I think one positive thing that has come from the #ShiftThePower movement is the diversity in voices around the movement. People can easily relate to the core messages around the #ShiftThePower movement (agency, trust, accountability, change in mindsets, etc.), and they become emotionally invested in it, not just programmatically. We’ve seen many organizations and local leaders use the hashtag for their own local initiatives and programmes, empowering many others to come along. I should also point out one other thing here: the ethos of community philanthropy or people-led philanthropy is not something new; communities have been using it to come together and make decisions together for quite some time now. It’s a powerful way to have flat and democratic power structures that carries everyone along.
The international donor community is now taking the core messages around ShiftThePower more seriously, and I think this is a big first step in moving closer to the re-imagined aid world we want. They may not yet be at the stage of changing funding practices, but the openness and willingness to listen, to be part of dialogues both in the Global North and Global South, and to partner more with local organizations in the Global South, are all signs that positive change is happening.
And for me personally, it is witnessing the many collaboration efforts happening on the ground that is slowly shifting narratives. We may not have always been incentivized to share widely because the traditional aid system has built a strong competitive lens into how we work (access to knowledge, power brokers and funding has meant that mistrust became the currency for work). However, and thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, we realized that no one organization is an island and that we are all in this together if we want to survive and build back even better than before.
“One positive thing that has come from the #ShiftThePower movement is the diversity in voices around the movement. People can easily relate to the core messages around the #ShiftThePower movement (agency, trust, accountability, change in mindsets, etc.), and they become emotionally invested in it.”
IM: What lessons are there for philanthropy?
EE: There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this movement and the change-making we are doing. First, I think we need to realize and accept that this is a long-term process; you cannot projectize the #ShiftThePower movement and claim to have shifted power in one year or even three years by just doing one or two things. If donors are to be part of this re-imagining exercise, they must be willing to fund systems change and invest in organizations and the processes that matter. Because the process is ultimately about devolving power, it would require patience.
Secondly, the philanthropic field needs to see community philanthropy as the new paradigm shift that is more holistic, organic, and fueled by the energies of local people. We need to ask the hard questions, sit in our discomfort, question privilege however it shows up, and listen to understand and also to change. If we are serious about the #ShiftThePower movement, then INGOs must reduce footprint/brand and begin to use their fundraising machinery to help grassroots organizations create structures to fundraise for themselves and sustain their work.
IM: What is the role of networks in movement building?
EE: We need to focus on the networked approach to development, looking for shape and structure without imposing it on the system. It is important to develop rational systems to deepen the evidence base for community philanthropy that include new measurement frameworks for its performance.
I also think the role networks can play effectively here is to be willing to share the “microphone”; give locally-led foundations and organizations a voice and platform to share their experiences in a medium that is suitable to them. Another critical role is to effectively document and share experiences of where the ethos of community philanthropy is practiced, creating visibility, ownership, and accountability more broadly.
“This vision is one that illustrates the end of transactional partnerships that have left many organizations unable to survive sustainably year after year.”
IM: What is your vision of how funding from the Global North, including Official Development Assistance, can contribute to advance innovation and social change in the Global South? How can this vision be put into practice?
EE: My vision is a radical people-led community-led one where the construct of power is a flat one. It is a vision that sees local actors in the Global South as true co-investors in the process; one where funding supports systems that facilitate a community-ledness approach, with the belief that local communities and Global South actors have the solutions to the entrenched problems that they face. This vision is one that illustrates the end of transactional partnerships that have left many organizations unable to survive sustainably year after year – no more project cycle funding that does not support core institutional capacities and staff of these organizations. Finally, this vision is one where transparency and accountability are mutually agreed upon by all stakeholders, where measures of success are more participatory and democratic.