Strengthening Southern Voices in Global NGOs
By Adrio Bacchetta
Over the past decade, an increasing number of large INGOs have embarked on strategies to ‘southernise’ their organisations, increasing diversity both in terms of formal composition and of how power is distributed. The paths chosen have not been easy ones. In this blog, I reflect on what has been driving these initiatives, some of the approaches being taken and some lessons emerging.
In terms of drivers, organisations seem to have been seeking one or more of the following…
- To consistently apply their social mission values internally as well as externally. (For example, rights based organisations that seek to empower people in their community, also empower those people inside their organisation. Others may be driven by religious or other cultural values)
- To increase the legitimacy and impact of in-country programming through increased local ownership and connectedness. Going from ‘supporting’ to ‘being’ part of local civil society.
- To increase global legitimacy and impact by having international campaigning or advocacy positions rooted in strong, locally owned programs, fronted by people from the affected the countries.
- To respond to shifts in funding patterns; both institutional and emerging private funding opportunities.
In translating these ambitions into action, approaches I have come across vary from being pragmatic to being deeply value based.
The pragmatists tend towards a gradual expansion of their geographic coverage, using similar criteria to those they have used in the past, focussing mainly on emerging economies. This means that new affiliates primarily appear in BRICSAM or G20 countries. While such approaches add diversity, they still leave people from poorest, or most crisis ridden countries absent from the table. Real change tends to be slow in coming and real power often stays connected to those with money.
Value based approaches are much more equitable in so much as they seek to empower all stakeholders; however, the practical challenges ramp up accordingly. Ensuring robust governance structures on the ground, in resource poor settings and achieving consistent quality standards is no easy task. Coming up with an equitable international management system is also a significant piece of work. Those seeking to make the leap of both addressing power and ensuring resources are aligned with their global strategies have gone as far as to start separating money from the power of individual member institutions. Again, this is important, arguably essential, but no walk in the park in terms of design and implementation.
Unsurprisingly, governance presents a challenge for all approaches. In the past money and programs could be managed with top down structures (albeit using nicer language than this!). This changes when independent structures are created in program countries and accountability relies even more on horizontal rather than vertical mechanisms (The Baobab website has more on this, see www.baobab.org.uk/knowledge-hub/). The challenge increases further when well-intended plans for organisational change are implemented quickly, based on differing expectations having not taken sufficient account of the culture shift necessary for success. In my view getting the behaviour right is far more important than a comprehensive slick bureaucracy.
There are also management challenges. It is one thing to have equality, or balance in governance structures, but achieving interdependent management systems between affiliates, improving synergy and avoiding duplication, brings its own set of challenges. In turn, this coherence agenda must be balanced with ensuring space for contextual adaptation and innovation. Space for very different perspectives and references when making decisions; having both funding and programming members at the table means that resources such as money, knowledge, local understanding and global understanding must be considered of equal value when making choices. Shifting from the traditional money-talks mind-set takes quite some effort. (For more on operational interdependence see www.baobab.org.uk/knowledge-hub/building-operational-interdependence/).
So, what are the lessons emerging as more organisations tread this path? With a view to providing food for thought and stimulating debate, here are some of the things I have taken away so far…
- A focus on culture and new ways of working is as, if not more, important than processes and rules. Especially in terms of developing governance bodies and in terms of making the dual local-global identity something that actually lives.
- Live the values. Diversification is more than just inviting people to the table. It is about inviting and giving power to different ways of thinking that may significantly change the way an organisation makes its choices.
- Shifting power and increasing diversification needs to go hand in hand with clear resource sharing agreements. If power is hard-wired to money, those without money will never become equitable partners.
- International governance and management must reflect the diversity of members, but must balance inclusivity with being lean and agile.
- A culture or delegation and trust, supported by a robust mutual accountability system are essential. These must be designed to
- Investing in interdependence is key. Finding ways for north-south, east-west members to rely upon and support each other is heart of a global organisation; not bilateral relations with a global centre alone.
- Last and not least is that it takes time to achieve the technical, political and cultural shifts necessary for success. Being too cautious risks that real change never comes, but being too rash may prove expensive in terms of time, money and reduced mission impact.
These are initial thoughts on the issues and trends emerging. I hope this will help stimulate debate within the INGO community. If you’d like to comment or contribute other perspectives, you can do so below. (Subject to moderation, all comments will be in the public domain).
Thanks for reading!
For more information about Adrio and contact details, click here