International NGO heads call for #globaldev restructure

From left to right: Civicus Secretary-General Danny Sriskandarajah, Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo and Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. Heads of international NGOs, including ActionAid International CEO Adriano Campolina and Association for Women’s Rights in Development Executive Director Lydia Alpízar Durán, call on development implementers to address the “structural causes of inequality.” Photo by: World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Heavyweight global development leaders will call for a “tectonic shift” in the sector’s approach to development at the global civil society activists’ World Social Forum meeting in Tunisia this week.

The heads of ActionAid International, Oxfam International, Greenpeace International, CIVICUS and Association for Women’s Rights in Development have together committed to adapting future work toward strengthening the power of the poorest people to challenge the wealthiest 1 percent in the world.

In a statement of intent published today, March 23, the group argues development implementers need to go “beyond tinkering” and address the “structural causes of inequality.” They warn governments across the world have fallen under the influence of corporations that have convinced them to allow actions that damage citizens, such as land grabs, tax avoidance, climate destruction and clamping down on nongovernmental organizations, civil society and unions because they threaten corporate power.

Devex spoke to the signatories ahead of the forum to find out what the changes will mean in practice, how they are already taking action, and what future relationships between donors, implementers and beneficiaries will look like if their vision is successful.

Involve the beneficiaries

ActionAid Chief Executive Adriano Campolina said his organization would no longer implement programming without a broader campaigning angle to tackle the structural causes of poverty. Campaigning, he stressed, would be done alongside the people his organization supports rather than on their behalf.

He gave the example of organizing farmers in Uganda to achieve better access to land.

“We will be challenged to make a stronger link between how the national policy is defined, and make sure that national policy is not defined by the richest farmers only or by multinational agribusinesses, as opposed to the interests of local farmers,” he explained. “The local wins are not enough anymore.”

Campolina said this approach would require a new generation of staff in his organization.

“They will be a combination of community organizers, people who can build alliances, people who can do a proper power analysis in a community or country, and people who can be strategists for policy change,” he noted. “There will also be a much stronger need for campaigning skills, but not the classic mode of campaigning — this will be campaigning with the poor, which is a mix between campaigning and community organizing.”

Engage the 1 percent

Although Campolina sees the bulk of ActionAid’s future work being with the poorest people, he does not rule out engaging with the 1 percent entirely. He says the charity will campaign against companies that behave in a way that threatens lives, but hopes to influence their core structural behavior.

“We will not seek to engage only on the corporate social responsibility side, but rather engage with big companies that are ready to discuss the core of their business,” he said. “Instead of just increasing their CSR, we want to know about the quality of the jobs they generate, are they paying people fairly, can we be sure they’re paying all their taxes?”

The NGO also plans to target governments and work with them to agree legal minimum standards for corporations’ impact on society. Ben Phillips — its director of policy, research, advocacy and campaigns — meanwhile expects donor agencies’ reactions to the new approach will be varied.

“The Scandinavian donor agencies, some U.S. foundations and some leading African philanthropists understand this,” he said. “It is a challenge for some donors that like to work in a way that is cozier with power.”

The approach ActionAid will take, according to Phillips, is to start with the program and seek support for their work, rather than bid for pots of money with delineated objectives. He added that this approach will be more cost-effective and will have an impact on millions of people in the long term.

“We’ve seen with education coalitions around the world that have been instrumental in helping civil society organizations secure free education,” he said, mentioning Kenya and Tanzania as examples. “That same amount of money spent on school books, bricks and mortar or scholarships would have only helped a few hundred people.”

More partnerships and alliances

For Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, the main difference in the way his organization will operate is by working more in partnerships and alliances.

“We want people to get more actively engaged in mobilization because we need to heighten the number of voices calling out for a more sane approach,” he said.

Naidoo pointed out that the call he is making with other NGOs is not new: In August 2014, a group of smaller development organizations voiced similar concerns in a declaration known as the Rustlers Valley letter. But he said that for the first time it is “the big, international NGOs that are saying it explicitly in the way we are.” He intends to draw other large NGOs, such as Amnesty International, into the fold and work more collaboratively with them in the future.

“If we address in a more intersectional way the challenges of climate, economic, social and gender justice — if we did it in a more integrated way — then in fact there is a better chance we can lift all of those agendas forward,” Naidoo suggested. “Part of our commitment and desire is to work much more closely with people’s and social movements.”

It is for this reason that CIVICUS, a member-based alliance of civil society organizations, is among the signatories to the statement.

CEO Danny Sriskandaraja believes this exemplifies the new approach, which will aim to “bridge the gap between formal, organized civil society and the rest — the informal, the voluntary and the spontaneous social movements.” He said he has spent the past two years asking large development NGOs to deliver a joint campaign on civic space.

“The usual answer to my question was — we’re sorry but right now water is more important, or we don’t have the time or resources,” Sriskandaraja said. The difference now, he continued, is that three of the best-known international NGOs, which between them account for at least $1 billion in money and resources, have made a joint commitment.

He did admit that operating in this way will be more challenging for bigger organizations that are funded by high-net worth individuals. But Sriskandaraja said the sector has to be more radical because time is running out.

“So many of us are doing such wonderful work, but we’re just tinkering; we’re chipping away at little tiny manifestations of the problem,” he suggested. “More of us have to raise our eyes beyond delivering contracts or services or filling out donor reports, and instead start thinking about what more we can do to achieve that systemic change.”

The World Social Forum takes place March 24 to 28 in Tunis.

What do you think relationships among donors, implementers and beneficiaries would look like if the poorest people are empowered to challenge the world’s wealthiest 1 percent? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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  • Gabriella jozwiak profile

    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.