#ShiftThePower: From hash-tag to reality

14 Nov 2019

New community-controlled financial institutions can tip the balance of power in favour of local people.


Monteverde Community Fund youth rally, Costa Rica © Isabely Cas

This piece first appeared on Open Democracy

In 1995, convinced that she was becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution to global inequality, Rita Thapa quit her job with a large development agency to establish Tewa – the Nepal Women’s Fund. Her experiences of working within the formal development system had led Thapa to conclude that “we cannot do good work from flawed structures”, and that decades of aid dependency had eroded Nepalis’ belief in their ability to contribute to and participate in their own development.

That same year, a group of Kenyans began to meet regularly in Nairobi to consider why, despite a marked increase in international development funding, communities weren’t changing in any fundamental way. “What would be the ideal way to get community actors at the centre of their own development?” they asked themselves. “What do community philanthropy, micro-finance and other practices have to offer to a new paradigm of resource-generation for development?”

Almost 25 years later, Tewa has given out grants to over 500 women’s groups across 70 districts of Nepal, trained over 800 local volunteers, and built up a donor base of almost 8,000 local donors: notably, until recently, grants to local groups were made using only local money. The Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), meanwhile, has made grants to over 2,000 community-based organizations in all of Kenya’s 47 counties, and over the past eight years has mobilized over US $1 million in local money.

Tewa and KCDF are among the trailblazers of the growing community philanthropy movement that has emerged over the past two decades, which now counts many others among its ranks, including the Dalia Association in Palestine, the Monteverde Community Fund in Costa Rica, the Dalit Community Foundation in India and the Reconstruction Women’s Fund in Serbia. By emphasizing the role of community resources (in all shapes and forms) as a way to foster buy-in, ownership and collective action, these organizations all seek to tip the balance of power in favour of local people.

Whether they call themselves community philanthropies, women’s funds, human rights funds, peace funds or something else altogether, they represent a new and more democratic movement in philanthropy and foreign aid. They play an important and unique role in society by recognizing and pooling local assets, harnessing the power of small grants, building constituencies within and across communities – especially those at the margins – and negotiating the territory between horizontal and vertical forms of power.

The emergence of such initiatives has challenged the paradigm of development aid as something that’s delivered from the top-down. Instead, people who are often classed as ‘beneficiaries’ are now trying to take control of their communities and reshape the aid architecture so that they are equal partners. As philanthropy adviser Jon Edwards recently put it:

“Local people are coming together in order to take back control of their own communities, of their own destinies: fighting not just against the often vengeful ineptitude of local and national politics and business but also against agencies previously assumed to be allies in the struggles against poverty, marginalization and vulnerability – the international development sector itself.”

This demand for a better deal for local people lies at the heart of the #ShiftThePower campaign, which emerged from the first Global Summit on Community Philanthropy held in Johannesburg in December 2016. Its aim is not only to recognize and celebrate a growing movement, but also to invite a much broader range of actors working in different parts of the development system to join forces and work together towards a new paradigm of people-led development that puts mobilization and control of money – particularly community money – at its heart.

A notable feature of the Summit was the effect that it had on people emotionally, putting them in touch with their core values and why their work really matters. “I’ve never been to a conference with this kind of energy,” said one participant, “the international development conferences I normally attend are cold, professional – and competitive.” These feelings have helped people to review and change their professional behaviour.

Since 2016, #ShiftThePower has garnered considerable support as a rallying cry, both among community philanthropy practitioners and civil society activists more broadly who are experimenting with different kinds of horizontal and movement-based funding and decision-making models such as participatory grant-making, crowd-funding, and giving circles. In practical terms it offers a quick and effective way for organizations and individuals to show solidarity and strengthen their voice across silos, geographies and sectors; and it’s helped to surface latent day-to-day frustrations among those on the receiving end of aid as systemic, power-related concerns rather than issues of administrative or technical detail.

Not all parts of the development sector have been quick to respond, however. International NGOs (INGOs) and bilateral donors are still stuck in a development model developed 70 years ago, characterized by resources moving from the Global North to meet needs in the Global South. This dominant paradigm continues to treat people in the South as “recipients” rather than “co-creators”, so that power remains vested in Northern institutions wedded to the idea of “doing things to”, as opposed to “doing things with” local people.

Recent scandals in the INGO sector, which have resulted in a decline in public trust and growing calls for large institutions to shift their considerable power towards civil society in the Global South, have prompted a moment of crisis and introspection. To date however, community philanthropy features nowhere in the INGO “playbook” of alternative strategies worth exploring.

It is hard to shift deeply-embedded ways of doing things among established agencies. As Michael Edwards points out, INGOs like Oxfam “have become a comfortable part of the furniture of foreign aid that was first designed in the 1950s”, and persist notwithstanding the dramatic changes in context that have taken place since then. The status quo carries many benefits for the “supply-side” of international aid, most notably in the form of jobs and careers. Vested interests will continue to resist change.

We are, in effect, dealing with another example of Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which suggests that the status quo persists over time because powerful interests in the “leadership classes” refuse to give up their privileges. A quotation attributed to the writer Upton Sinclair puts this in a nutshell: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” – or as Darren McGarvey said more recently and directly, “How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?”

However, change is on the horizon. On the supply-side, criticisms are mounting. As a recent blog by Mary-Ann Clements describes, the aid industry is dysfunctional and needs reform. Grassroots initiatives are starved of resources by the very institutions that were established to work towards a better world. Recent figures on localization estimate that direct allocations of funds to local and national NGOs in the Global South stands at 0.4% of the total. Many people working in INGOs, aid agencies and foundations experience a drift between the values they are committed to and the climate in which they work. At best, much of their time is consumed with the bureaucracy of aid; at worst, the environment they work in is toxic.

On the demand side, it’s increasingly clear that people in the Global South won’t accept the status-quo anymore, and are devising their own solutions and strategies to develop alternatives. They want the suppliers of resources to adjust their collective lenses in order to see and respond to their demands. Increasingly, the axes of these conversations are less focused around “developed” and “developing” countries and more around top-down/bottom-up or old/new relations of power. At a time of global turbulence wrought by climate crisis, populism and growing levels of inequality, new ways of “deciding and doing” that set out to organize, mobilize and engage people and reignite a sense of shared purpose and possibility are emerging globally.

The GFCF is working to bring together a cadre of people and organizations under the umbrella of #ShiftThePower who wish to do things differently and are organizing for change in concrete terms. The appeal of this approach is gaining ground, and funders are beginning to notice. The Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, which brought together public and private funders and concluded its five-year partnership earlier this year, is one example.

On 18 and 19 November 2019, the story will take a new turn. Around 100 people will gather in London as part of the Pathways to Power Symposium, a deliberately diverse group who represent the scope and variety of the global international aid and philanthropy system. They will consider how to move #ShiftThePower “from hashtag to implementation”, figuring out how some of the blockages – particularly between top-down and bottom-up approaches – can be removed. The event will be practical – a collaborative effort to roll up our sleeves and create together the kind of locally-rooted financing systems that can support sustainable communities. We hope to publish some of the outcomes of the Symposium on Transformation later in the year. Watch this space.

By: Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director & Barry Knight, GFCF Adviser 

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