From sea change to tidal wave

Can One World Together sweep away the inequalities in the aid chain that undermine grassroots-oriented civil society organisations and action?

Here Nicola Banks and co-Founder and CEO, Chibwe Masabo Henry, talk about how recent momentum in the sector has led them to build on the University of Manchester’s long-standing research on development NGOs and civil society organisations to launch One World Together, a new platform for building solidarity and better financing for grassroots organisation and action.

The sea change of locally-led development

A sea change is afoot in the development sector when it comes to funding for and through non-governmental and civil society organisations. Some donors and many civil society organisations from the Global North and South are all talking about one thing: the need to shift power and resources from the Global North to the Global South so that organisations closest to the communities that they represent can access a greater volume of funding on more equitable terms. A stronger global civil society, made up of agile and sustainable organisations that can respond to their communities’ needs as they develop, is dependent upon this.

What’s the problem?

Problems associated with the ‘NGO industrial complex’ are well established. Academics in this area have long criticised these issues and these conversations are now mainstream in policy and practice too. Central here is that while often referred to as ‘partnerships’, relationships between NGOs across the Global North and South are anything but equal. Northern NGOs often call the shots in deciding upon funding priorities and their funds typically support short-term projects that are accompanied with rigid restrictions on how they are spent. Inaccessible, complicated and lengthy applications processes, accompanied by heavy compliance and risk management requirements and donor-driven impact reporting all impose heavy costs on NGOs in the Global South. Together, these issues limit the ability of organisations to be responsive to needs on the ground and to the priorities of the communities that they are supposed to represent.

These funding systems are also counterproductive to the goals they promote, as so vividly highlighted by Humentum’s recent influential report on the NGO Starvation Cycle. By restricting how funds are spent and making insufficient contributions to overhead costs, international funders have undermined civil society organisations around the world by trapping them in a widespread ‘starvation cycle’. Too much time and energy must then be spent chasing new funds that ensure salaries can be paid and operations can continue, rather than being invested fully in doing the critical work that is most beneficial to the communities they support.

What’s been the main solution?

Against these debates, concepts of ‘localisation’, ‘locally-led development’, ‘decolonising aid’ and #ShiftthePower are rising to the top of global policy agendas, particularly among NGOs. While there are important differences across these, these terminologies refer to a demand for or actions taken to shift power away from Northern development hegemonies in funding and knowledge and to centre Southern actors within these. The energy that is being dedicated to these issues and the plethora of individual and collective initiatives underway to address these challenges is unmistakeable.

Both of us met, for example, in the Reimagining the International NGO (RINGO)’s Social Lab that brought diverse development stakeholders together to reimagine ‘the system’ and design prototypes that reduce inequalities between NGOs in the Global North and South. We came to this with similar interests and a desire to transform inequalities between NGOs in the Global North and South, but with very different backgrounds and experience. As an academic at GDI who had been researching NGOs for a decade, Niki was keen to explore whether and how her position outside of the global NGO system and infrastructure could offer a unique vantage point in terms of solutions. Meanwhile Chibwe’s extensive experience working for and building local, national and international charities and grant-makers highlighted to her the complexities of implementing a Shifting Power agenda within the industry’s current machinery and the limitations to current efforts underway across different geographies and organisational forms.

Alongside RINGO there are a number of working groups that are helping organisations to learn from one another in this sphere. In the UK, BOND has a range of working groups and reports on locally-led development and in the Netherlands, their equivalent network, Partos, has a Shift the Power Lab that brings its members together around similar initiatives. Globally, increasing numbers of Northern NGOs are signing up to Adeso’s Pledge for Change and Nicola’s ongoing collaborative research reveals the multitude and diversity of ways in which NGOs around the world are taking action to shift power and make their policies and programmes, governance structures and processes, the terms of their partnerships and funding arrangements,  and their use of language, amongst others, more equal.

What’s the problem with these solutions?

But there’s a big ‘but’ here.

Despite the positive direction of these discussions and actions, they all take place within the existing systems, mechanics, and infrastructure of the NGO industrial complex that we have seen is deeply flawed. Unsurprisingly, then, we see similar patterns of dominance and inequality within this new landscape. Despite the #Shiftthepower movement emerging from a coalition of Southern NGOs led by the Global Fund for Community Foundations in 2016, as Northern organisations have come to the forefront of these debates we see an important contradiction emerge. Despite their underpinning motivations to provide greater power and resources to Southern organisations, discussions of what to do and how to do this have become dominated by Northern NGOs.

When exploring systems innovations, Leicester’s Three-Horizons framework highlights how important it is to distinguish between different types of innovation. Some are ‘sustaining’ innovations that may look progressive but actually sustain the shelf-life of existing systems. Some are ‘disruptive’ and genuinely shake those systems up. But at the highest level are ‘transformative’ innovations that ‘put the rules, rights, norms, values and culture of existing dominant systems into question, working towards an intentional vision of a future different from the past, innovating the system, rather than innovating within the system’ (emphasis added).

If the best intentions of existing systems are too slow or are failing to facilitate a more equitable system that is fit for purpose in building thriving, agile and sustainable civil society organisations around the world, then what would a transformative systems innovation look like and where could it come from? In a recent Forecasting report by philanthropic network Ariadne, we were taken aback – though not terribly surprised – to see the following suggestion from a philanthropy consultant to resolve the sector’s ills:

“I wish that someone would do a MacKenzie Scott in the UK. I hope some maverick rich person will come along and give communities the ability to do what they see fit. Some incredible organisations would get tonnes of money and the freedom to build what they need to build”

While in complete agreement of the need for a system that gets funds on the best terms to the organisations closest to communities, are we really so ‘stuck’ that our only perceived solution is for a rich individual to come and ‘save the world, one community at a time?”. It appears so within the current status quo of the UK’s charitable and philanthropic sectors.

But we believe we can do better than that. Having been blown away by the UK public’s support for development NGOs in her work mapping the development NGO sector, Niki set upon a new challenge with Chibwe – designing an alternative system to provide an affordable, impactful and community-centred new home for this support. We’re delighted to introduce something much more radical and revolutionary, in which the power to transform these unequal, unjust and unfit for purpose systems is not in the hands of rich individuals but in us. Each and every one of us.

Welcome to the One World Together tidal wave that we believe has the power to sweep away the unequal, unjust and colonial systems and practices that underpin relationships between NGOs across the Global North and South.

What’s our solution? Welcome to One World Together

There is one voice and actor that is almost entirely excluded from current discussions of how we can build towards a more equitable global future. And that’s us, the giving public. Here in the UK, for example, these conversations overlook the fact it is the British public who are by far the biggest supporter of development NGOs, contributing an average of £2 billion a year to development NGOs.

These funds are largely the best form of finance, often free of the restrictions that ascribe tight conditionalities on how that money can be spent. It is difficult to assess how much of these funds are passed on from Northern NGOs to their counterparts around the world on an unrestricted basis. But these organisations are central actors in this deeply unequal system, used to certain ways of working. Their finances tend to be a melting pot of restricted and unrestricted income that can make this difficult, and they experience many internal and external influences that restrict even the best intentions for change. Perhaps the fact that nearly all of these funds reach the largest charities exacerbates these challenges.

But we don’t believe that this is good enough. There is no reason why giving publics around the world cannot provide the driving force to catalyse real change for funding grassroots organisations and action. We’re launching One World Together to lean into this people power.

One World Together is born out of a recognition that the future is in our hands. The vested interests of existing systems are unwilling or unable to completely dismantle the industrial complex that they have become a part of. So we start again afresh – first in the UK where we are both based, but with the intention of extending internationally around the world into a truly global movement and family.

One World Together’s philosophy is simple – that by providing long-term, predictable and unrestricted funding (the ‘holy grail’ of funding) to organisations working closely with the communities that they serve or represent, we can support more just and transformative global development outcomes. By focusing on strengthening organisations rather than delivering services, we put an end to the starvation cycle that has undermined global civil society for so many decades. Such finance enables organisations to be strategic and political, to be responsive to crisis, to invest in their people and communities – and ultimately, to be in control of their own futures.

We have designed a new and financially sustainable model for One World Together. For too long, ‘charity’ has represented a transactional form of giving that favours the wealthy and the largest donations. One World Together represents the opposite – it prioritises solidarity to the broader cause of social justice as the ‘glue’ that holds us together.

Our strength is not underpinned by high donations but rooted in a broad-base of supporters that stick with us for the long-term. We’ll invite our supporters – our ‘Global Citizens’ – to support our Solidarity Fund with monthly donations from as little as £1.00 a month. We will pool and channel these donations in their entirety to our amazing partner organisations. As we grow, we can scale up our support to our partner organisations and build outwards to new ones.

Global Citizens can also contribute a small annual membership fee that will cover our lean operational costs and enable us to stay free of the fundraising treadmill that pulls so many organisations away from their core focus and philosophy. Any surplus from these funds will be reinvested into other forms of support for our partner organisations.

We believe that the power to change things is in all our hands. We just haven’t had the vehicle through which we can reach more just, transformative change yet. One World Together is here to bring that change.

Alongside moving towards launching in June this year, we’re busy working on an innovative community space through which we can learn together, share together and grow together. Building this solidarity is as important to us as building our funds for our partner organisations. Inspired by its University of Manchester roots and Niki and Chibwe’s experiences in teaching inspiring students committed to tackling systemic injustices, One World Together is particularly committed to engaging a new generation of global development supporters and we are building a Rising Generations advisory board to support our strategy and decision-making.

And a final, but very important, note. This introduction has been about One World Together, where it comes from, and what it represents. But it is nothing without all of us and at the centre of this is our four brilliant founding partner organisations that are the heroes in the One World Together family that we look forward to introducing soon. We’re simply here to support their great contributions to their communities, and we can’t do this without you. Thank you for your interest in and support of One World Together. Please help us spread the word of who we are and what we’re all about.