On 17 November the newly established Partos Community of Practice on Shift-the-Power organised an online kick-off meeting, which was attended by 44 participants representing 18 member organisations and several Southern partners. The Community of Practice Shift-the-Power is a follow-up to the Shift-the-Power Lab, in which Partos members developed a tool for analysing power and its possible imbalances within partnerships. This Power Awareness Tool consists of a publication and an excel presentation that can be used to facilitate a power awareness exercise with partners online, using any online platform of choice with video conference capabilities. Recently the British and US equivalents of Partos BOND and Interaction have shared the Power Awareness Tool with their membership, signifying its utility to the international development sector.
The aim of the Community of Practice is to find practical solutions for achieving more balanced power relations in international development partnerships. The kick-off meeting took place against the backdrop of the application and selection of proposals as part of the Power of Voices Partnerships (PoV). This is the Dutch framework for funding civil society organisations from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2025. Most participants in the kick-off meeting were involved in developing program proposals for this grant fund, which is administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In preparation for the kick-off meeting, 5 challenges were identified that require change, including:
- The organisation of funding streams
- Risks assessments and risk-sharing
- How NGO partnerships can support community-led development
- Introducing/using the Power Awareness Tool
- How to develop decision making structures in partnerships when the partnership is not yet complete.
This is a preliminary list of challenges identified by the participants of the Community of Practice, which includes many member organisations of Partos. In addition, national and local partners of the PoV partnerships are encouraged to join. It is to be expected that with their participation the list will be complemented with more challenges from the Southern perspective and experience of power in development.
In this kick-off meeting, most of the discussions took place in five sub-groups (SGs), each addressing one challenge. When connecting the dots of the main findings and conclusions in the subgroups, a coherent picture and roadmap for further action seem to emerge.
The PoV application and selection process puts (Dutch) INGOs in a dominant power position
In several subgroups is was observed that the PoV application and selection process puts (Dutch) INGOs in a dominant power position. There are several reasons why this is the case. Because of the information advantage, Dutch NGOs are more likely to be the initiators of a partnership. In order to meet deadlines of the tendering process, several important decisions need to be made while the process of partnership building has not come to a conclusion yet, including budget allocation. Furthermore, the threshold criteria against which proposals are vetted are very restrictive and exclude many organisations at a national and local level in the focus regions and countries. Organisations may have promising potential to contribute to change, but they lack a track record required for becoming eligible partners. It was concluded in one of the subgroups that for shifting the power, the application and selection process of future civil society strengthening programs needs to be revised. Therefore, this CoP will include action on the following:
- Gathering evidence and analysing findings to answer the question: How does the PoV application and selection process, shape power relations in partnerships?
- Developing recommendations on how the application and selection process of future programs can be improved
- Engaging in a dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about these recommendations
The need for corrective action
Despite the power imbalances caused by the current PoV application and selection process, there is room for corrective measures. Several alliances have adopted step-by-step approaches for shifting the power over time. Actions that can be undertaken to achieve more balanced power relations include:
- Partnerships develop step-by-step processes for making a transition towards more balanced power relations, in the course of the five-year PoV programs. These transition processes should include clear milestones and regular progress reviews.
- Because the Power Awareness Tool can be instrumental for the design and monitoring of such transitions, knowledge and experiences with using the tool need to be shared in this CoP.
- In this CoP participants can exchange ideas and experiences with shifting the power in the framework of the PoV and other partnerships.
Develop innovative ways to support community-led development
In the current practice, support to community groups starts with the donor deciding which type of funding will be allocated to which type of interventions, and which type of partners will implement them. Subsequently, lead partners select international, national and local partners according to threshold criteria that are biased towards minimising risks rather than maximizing the likelihood of change. The selection of community initiatives is at the end of this chain of decision making. In this system, support is directed to community projects that fit the funding regulations. This raises questions about the legitimacy of the interventions. Are projects really community-owned? Do the selected ‘local partners’ really represent communities?
There is a need to explore new approaches to project identification, with the NGOs becoming service providers in support of community-led development. Is it possible to start the identification of fundable initiatives through prior engagement in multiple dialogues with communities about the type of change that is needed, and to develop support programs tailored to the ideas that emerge from these dialogues?
While exploring this question, several issues need to be taken into consideration:
- Engaging in dialogues can be very time and energy-consuming. Many community members may not be able to afford to participate in such dialogues, especially when the outcome is initially unspecified. Dialogues need to be organized in a “light” way, and be as inclusive as possible.
- Communities and local NGOs often lack the experience and capacity to manage funds in accordance with accountability standards required by donors. Capacity building is needed in the areas of project cycle management, accountability, report writing etc.
- Not all target groups constitute a community as defined in sociology. Think of people living with a handicap, or people who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. They may have characteristics in common, but they may be dispersed and not know each other.
An action plan for following-up on the findings of the kick-off meeting will be developed. A full report of the kick-off meeting will be released soon. Contact Heinz@partos.nl If you want to receive the report or if you want to join the Community of Practice Shift-the-Power.