How does change happen?

Civic Action,Development Policy15 Dec 2011Joanna Maycock

Appropriately enough there were vicious winter storms raging outside in The Hague as we gathered for our discussion on Mike Edward’s fascinating and challenging paper on the future of INGOs. Mike suggests that INGOs need to rethink heir role as they reach their middle age or even retirement age. Given a choice between retiring, replacement or rejuvenation, Mike is proposing that INGOs certainly need some rejuvenation. I tend to agree with Paul Currion’s suggestion that “there is a fourth possibility: radical transformation in response to the rapidly changing external environment”.

There is definitely something in the air! This discussion was the fourth time in as many weeks that I have been invited to contribute to existential introspection among the European Development NGO sector. I hope that this is brought on by a realization of the need to act more effectively and collectively to impact on the growing numbers of people living in extreme poverty and intolerable levels of inequality. The social, political and economic turmoil in the world seems to present an opportunity to make fundamental positive changes to the way we organize our societies to tackle poverty and social injustice. And yet the pessimist view would be that so far those in power across the political and corporate elites have successfully scrambled to use the crises to further embed the same response: more liberalisation, more cuts to public services, more power to the financial and corporate sectors. And thus forcing more and more people around the world into poverty. From a more optimistic perspective, there are increasing signs of people organizing to demand greater justice and accountability from the powerful elites. This gives us hope for more positive change ahead.

Given that INGOs are relatively tiny players on the global stage in terms of resources and power, I fully agree with Mike Edwards that we need to get better at working together and at acting as bridges between people and catalysts for change. This leads to the fundamental question on whether we are collectively clear on our purpose? Indeed, is there such a thing as “we” when talking about INGOs? For ActionAid, it is clear that our role is about being catalysts for progressive social change. We build and strengthen solidarity by connecting and organizing people committed to a common cause. A key part of ActionAid’s approach to social change is to work with women to promote women’s rights across our programmes and within our organization. When I meet the women we work with in communities around the world, I am constantly inspired by the positive changes they are bringing to their own lives and their families, fighting for social transformation and rights in their wider societies.

This seeming confusion amongst INGOs about their role means there is a need to have much deeper conversations between INGOs about the kind of systemic changes they want to see. We need to engage with one another at the level of values and purpose. INGOs can then consider their respective roles within that, so that collectively we can become much more effective at challenging the dominant stories, building alternative stories and making these connect better from individual, to community, to national and to international level. Furthermore, there seems to be scope to better analyze how INGOs can understand better How Change Happens? One thing we all seemed to agree on during the debate is that social change often happens in a random way and comes when least expected. So what then is the role of INGOs in spotting, nurturing and pushing along change when it happens (as in Arab Spring and Occupy movements) without capturing or taking credit for these emerging movements? For me, this links closely to ActionAid’s commitment to support and give voice to alternatives, as set out in our new 6 year Strategy People’s Action to End Poverty.

If the role of INGOs is to support transformative change, we need to look at why it is that INGOs are so bad at changing themselves? We had a very interesting discussion on why INGOs have such great tools for power analysis, building campaign strategies and challenging what is wrong with the outside world, and yet we fail to turn these analytic tools on ourselves. What we framed during the debate as “organizational inertia” is caused by a number of factors: internal power dynamics; income and financial realities; a lack of clarity of purpose; and a disconnect between our values and analysis on the outside world and our internal structures. Therefore organizations have failed to shift power internally or ensure that they are answerable to communities they work for.

I was pleased that participants pointed to ActionAid as an example of an organization that applies its values and analysis internally as well as externally. In particular, this has been seen through the total transformation of how we organize power, decision making and resource distribution within the organization. Our head office is in Johannesburg. We’re the only large international development organisation with our head office based in Africa, with offices and Member organisations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. We believe the people whose lives our work affects should decide how we’re run, and that is why we have worked to transform our country offices into national member organisations governed and managed locally and affiliated to our global federation.