Why as an international NGO, we worked ourselves out of a job

21 Mar, 2023

(The following article was originally posted at devex.com. Read the original here)

Seven years ago we disbanded our international NGO. Others can and must do the same if the development sector is to actually put into practice the ideas behind decolonization and localization.

EveryChild was a midsized INGO formed by a merger in 2001. In 2009, when it had around 240 staff, headquarters in London, and a mix of country offices and partners in 12 countries, the board asked for options for the long-term future of the organization.

The options were: Another merger, investing in income growth, or establishing a grassroots-led alliance. Well before localization or decolonization was on every INGO’s agenda, EveryChild took the visionary step of deciding to incubate the development of a locally led alliance of civil society organizations, that was to become Family For Every Child.

After a seven-year transition, the board took an even more radical decision and agreed to close EveryChild down, transferring all the assets to Family for Every Child. They realized that the initial proposal, which had been to continue as a member of the alliance, was distorting the very power dynamics they were trying to change.

I was a member of EveryChild staff during the transition and I am now head of the Family for Every Child secretariat, a global team that supports the alliance in achieving its goals. This is what we have learned over more than a decade about developing a locally led approach to international collaboration:

1. Local CSOs must lead from the start

What EveryChild set out to do in 2009 couldn’t be EveryChild’s preconception of what local CSOs needed — they had to create it. We started with a steering group of local CSOs to develop it from their perspective. We didn’t rely on EveryChild’s partners but engaged organizations with no prior relationship to ensure there was no latent power dynamic.

2. Get the board on side

EveryChild was fortunate to have a visionary chair who understood from the earliest conversations that there was an opportunity to do something radical. It was more an “act of faith” than a formulated organizational redesign. She got the board on side with our long-term vision and the eventual disbandment of EveryChild.

3. Don’t localize your own entities

Initially, EveryChild localized its country offices but feedback from local CSOs was that this practice just creates more competition for them. Doing this also means that the country offices don’t have legitimacy as they haven’t come from the community. Instead, we looked for locally grown organizations, founded by those with lived experience wherever possible.

4. Nothing is off-limits

At first, we thought EveryChild would become a funding member of the Family For Every Child alliance. However, as it developed, we realized there was no place for an INGO. To truly change the power dynamics, we needed to disband, not just evolve.

5. New language is a vital

We had to create an alternative narrative to describe the new way of being rather than replicate the old worldview. For example, we talked about a multipolar world rather than the global north and south. We wanted international collaboration rather than international development. Instead of talking about capacity building, we talked about using local expertise.

6. There isn’t a quick fix

This was a long-term vision rather than a response to a crisis. It takes time to build ownership. The local leaders needed to build trust among themselves and with the process, conceptual alignment, and a clear direction for themselves. They needed to explore different scenarios and have time for reflection.

7. Take your donors on a journey

The great majority of EveryChild’s individual supporters bought into the thinking behind the change. Other types of funding were harder. Traditional donors struggled to understand how the model would work and deliver impact. Leveraging the fact that most grant donors want to ensure their funds have the biggest impact possible with low overhead costs was useful for us to build excitement about our new approach. We reinforced that our focus as Family for Every Child was on delivering one part of the value chain rather than trying to deliver the whole thing and that makes us more effective. In the 2010s, there was no mention of decolonizing the sector, no real commitment to localization, and cynicism about the capacity of local CSOs. In contrast, now many funders are driving the change.

8. Be prepared to live with uncertainty

This was co-creation rather than delivering a plan. There were a lot of unknowns and living with ambiguity. Ideas needed to be tested and different perspectives heard and incorporated. It was like a hot air balloon ride — with few mechanisms at your disposal, you have to go with the winds and traverse whatever terrain comes up. For people who prefer to travel by road with a map, this is uncomfortable and difficult.

9. No place for egos

Our approach meant letting go of the EveryChild brand and our level of income, and for staff, it meant no longer being “the experts.” Some people understood what we were doing in theory but still struggled in the day-to-day. This is a sophisticated sector with familiar structures, systems, and approaches. Saying these may not be relevant met resistance from some staff. Staff became facilitators of a process rather than managers or directors.

Beyond buzzwords

Decolonization and localization are concepts of the hour. In order for these buzzwords to be meaningful, INGOs can take themselves out of the equation. Rather than inventing initiatives to tinker, tailor, or transform themselves, INGOs can relinquish power, resources, and space and enable communities and local organizations to realize their own power, on their own terms, to their own agenda.

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