Shift the power: network organizations as a power for change

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Recent publications and a virtual debate under the hashtag #shiftthepower reflect on efforts to build inclusive international networks and report on the day to day praxis of reinventing organizations. Partos, the Dutch branch organization of NGOs, published an interesting document titled ‘Internationally Networked NGOs – seizing opportunities and managing risks’ and ViceVersa Magazine released a special theme issue under the title ‘Shift the power.’

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Partos publication offers overview of best practices and lessons learnt

In the Partos publication, crucial questions are discussed in three chapters. Firstly, why do NGOs engage in International networks describing contextual drivers, strategic drivers, and institutional and managerial drivers? Secondly, how do you manage risks in international networks? A chapter is included with paragraphs on reputational damage, the centrifugal force of power imbalances, lack of added value of network results, the agency problem, and the danger of disclosure. Thirdly, how to engage in international NGO networks? This chapter includes information on how to create network roles that are fit for purpose, how to move from power imbalances towards a culture that fosters mutuality, and finally how to design a network that promotes transformative relationships. 

The last chapter offers five interviews with NGO leaders of Oxfam Novib, RBW Media, Child and Youth Finance International, Solidaridad Network, and ActionAid. The interview about Solidaridad Network is given by Mandla Nkomo, managing director of the Solidaridad office in Southern Africa and by me. Remarkably enough, in this series of interviews Mandla Nkomo was the only representative invited from the South.

Vice Versa ‘Shift the power’ offers a broad range of powerful voices from the South. Stories from Kenya, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Burkina Faso, and Uganda offer reflections from several perspectives such as: Are we ready for change? What does ‘shift the power” really mean? It is time for a cultural change. What is the role of politics? And finally an interesting article on the role of language (jargon) and tenders.

Overseeing these two publications, Solidaridad is at the heart of the advocated innovations. Sharing our first experiences is an invitation to follow in our footsteps. Changing times require new approaches. 

Overall, there is growing recognition that the voices of Southern partners integrated into the power matrix of a network organization is essential because they are the most knowledgeable about interventions needed to address poverty, inequality, and injustice. 

A loose network is a lost network

Solidaridad went through a radical transformation of it’s structures; a fair share and say. In 2011, the traditional Western NGO structure of Solidaridad was adjusted in three crucial aspects. The Dutch Supervisory Board was replaced by an International Supervisory Board and five Continental Supervisory Boards for Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America, and Europe. Governance was democratized and based on local responsibility and expertise and was brought close to where the interventions took place. Dutch management was replaced by an international management team of regional directors, the so called Executive Board of Directors under the leadership of an Executive Director. And most importantly, the project management cycle moved to the South. The regional centres became responsible for the planning of their budgets, programmes, implementation, reporting, and evaluation.

A loose network is a lost network. So from the start, coherency, effectiveness, and integrity of policies had to be guaranteed through interconnectivity. Quality systems on financial accountability, programme management, human resources management, and communication had to be based on harmonized principles and standards. Moreover, framing global policies and programmes was defined as a joint responsibility. Participation in policy making, joint decision making, and accountability to deliver became the three keywords for the process of developing network-wide cooperation and programming. Making sure that there is a balance between participatory process and executive power in the network is crucial.

Solidaridad’s organizational turnaround gave a lot of energy. Capacity building was no longer an external ambition to be fulfilled by partners but started internally by making the new structures work and enabling staff to take their new roles and engage with local realities from a higher understanding. 

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Solidaridad’s organizational chart with an overview of legally established offices. 

Globalization from below 

In our contemporary time, the dominant phenomenon is globalization from above. Businesses, banks, and science are increasingly globalised. Financial and commodity markets are growingly interlinked. Knowledge and technology are propelled forward by international cooperation. While the effects of globalization are debated and undermined by populist policies, international cooperation is still understood as a precondition for solving critical global challenges like climate change and poverty reduction. However, NGOs are lagging behind. Trade unions are not well organized at the global level as a countervailing power, while organized labour has been the most powerful force for progressive social change. Often NGOs continue to create donor relations that are unbalanced.

We have seen big talk of Paul Polman announcing Unilever as the world’s biggest NGO, to Bill Gates starting one of the world’s biggest NGOs, but keeping the decision making as their own privilege because it is his own money. How do we bring back the glory of independent, impactful, and trustful NGOs that inspire the brilliant brains in different parts of the world to opt for it as a lifetime commitment? It is time for globalization from below: building strong civil society organizations that are rooted in their own society while organizing themselves as internationally networked CSOs. Globalization from below as a countervailing balancing power for globalization from above.

Donor preferences work for convenience

NGOs represent a cosmopolitical spirit. However, funding still remains nationalistic. Western donors still prefer to work with their own national organizations. Often, the tender culture and procedures seem to work against local organizations or even against NGOs from other donor countries. The Dutch prefer to work with the Dutch, the Germans with Germans, etc. For sure the field staff has to be local, but reliable management is judged from another perspective. There is no level playing field where the best proposal or praxis wins. It seems the ‘big’ money for multi-annual contracts and structural organizational support is reserved for own national NGOs and only the ‘small’ money of the embassies is open for competition among local organizations.

I clearly remember the answer of the Solidaridad director of one of our offices in Africa — someone local of course — on my question why he was not too successful getting funding from embassies. “We don’t get a fair chance,” he said to me. “Embassy staff and NGO expats are living in the same neighbourhood, their children are going to the same school and on Sundays, they meet each other at the pool.” “There is no corruption,” he assured me. “I fully understand that they feel more comfortable with each other and they give each other something, sometimes even unconsciously. And, of course, black staff has to jump through more hoops to earn funders’ trust,” he said with a big smile. 

However, we see a mixed picture. I have a positive memory of a delighted phone call of an ambassador telling me that he was happily surprised by the fact that Solidaridad was represented by a local director and with the high quality of this local Solidaridad director. A multi-annual contract was just posted, he told me. Indeed the new network structure of Solidaridad has created accelerated growth in budget and staff over the last ten years. 

Solidaridad is an example of an NGO network that has succeeded in substantially increasing its funding base in the South as a result of their internationalization process. Quality pays off. 

But there is still a long way to go before funding proposals, written by a consultant who is not local or is not prepared by NGO staff and management from the region, are pre-disqualified based on the threshold criterion of local leadership and ownership. Too often, donor proposals are presenting a paper reality not reflecting the local realities and the quality of staff responsible for implementing the programmes. A recipe for failure. 

NGOs in the Asian century 

In a few decades time, the world has changed at an unprecedented pace in history. Just starting the twenty-first century, we are already living in the Asian century, ending the dominance — lasting over centuries — of Western societies, consecutively from Europe and North America. The new political, economic, and military realities of today have also changed the landscape of NGOs. Western voices are confronted with voices from the South setting their own strategies and defending their own culture and interests.  

There is much talk about a ‘shrinking civic space’ for NGOs. But the reality is more complex. The space for civil society is actually being reshaped, not simply curtailed. In some Asian countries — like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia — we see a rapid growth of local NGOs with space to manoeuvre. In other countries — like China and Vietnam — the political structures are quite dominant and the margins to operate small. However, a general characteristic is that traditional Western NGO interventions are less appreciated. The raised finger knowing everything better from a debated norm is not effective anymore and will be answered with a self-confident attitude. From now on, dialogue will be conducted on an equal basis and the power of donor money does not impress any more. Integrating local NGOs, and more local staff, into international networked CSOs will create a new dynamic linking local expertise to an international learning community and strategy. Cooperation between five continents is replacing one sided North-South cooperation and shared interest will define a common agenda.

In some Asian countries, foreign NGOs have lost their license to operate, like the Clean Cloth Campaign, ICCO, Cordaid, and Greenpeace. A stronger local constituency could have mitigated these risks. The local perception of their approaches was that they were perpetually demanding change, entering in the local politics without offering practical and inclusive solutions that unite the society. 

Quality of programmes improved

What did the process of shared ownership bring to the table? At the end only impact counts. 

Solidaridad found out that while co-creation of innovative agendas and multi-annual strategic plans with all regional staff can be time-consuming and intense, achieving consensus at this early stage helps to minimize the risk of conflicts and potential delays during the implementation of network programmes. Another positive principle is that structure follows strategy. The structure of regional offices puts a clear emphasis on capacity building of all regional teams. A capacity not just to implement programmes, but first and foremost for designing the programmes and setting own strategies within the framework of a network ambition. This includes capacities for engaging all network stakeholders on equal terms. Recognizing and giving space to cultural differences, not only between countries but also between (public, private and NGO) sectors. Solidaridad’s regional offices have anchored themselves better on home grounds. 

On many levels, Solidaridad (and its donors and partners) have determined improved quality of programmes designed and implemented by local staff. Perhaps the most important improvement is the area of policy influencing as the capacity to engage with local policy makers. It feels much more natural for governments and businesses to dialogue with local stakeholders than with foreign entities. 

Solidaridad will amplify the voices from producers and their stakeholders, including their sovereign governments who increasingly reclaim sustainability as their authentic national dialogue. Instead of the voices from the traditional western world, voices from producing countries influence the social and political structures around them. Giving the microphone to them, and ensuring the right audience is around, allows for gradually reforming sustainability from an establishments’ toy, to a lived experience from those who are seeking freedom of speech – Jeroen Douglas, Executive Director Solidaridad.

All in all, better knowledge of the local context leads to a higher understanding and better results. 

Can a network collapse? 

For sure, there are already lessons learned and points of attention identified. One of the critical issues is that within a network all members are equally represented. However, this does not mean that all members with equal votes are equally powerful or influential. In reality, power correlates with size and financial muscle. Acknowledging power imbalances — in spite of all good intentions — is important in order to control and reduce them. 

Northern regional offices within a network organization are also fundraisers and are often the contract owners with back donors. This role comes with responsibilities for the timely delivery of reports adequately meeting the criteria of the donor. But this does not relate necessarily with a stronger voice setting policies and commanding programmes. One-way accountability within the network will destroy the whole concept. Becoming gradually redundant in the role of Western contract holder, allowing Southern regional offices to be the direct contracted partner, will create more balanced relations within the network. More generally, own fundraising of the Southern regional offices will create more equal contributions to the overall budget of the network and help to realize equality. Diversified financial resources and enhancement of the self-reliance of all members are important points of attention. 

Leadership and governance in a network organization

The second element is related to leadership and joint decision making. Good leadership is critical to the success of the network investing in developing and safeguarding common values and mutual understanding. An organization without moral compass is lost. Recognizing and giving space to cultural differences and stimulating skills in co-creating solutions from divergent viewpoints are key qualities of leadership. Joint decision making does not mean that there is no final say at the highest level. Undecided critical issues can destroy an organization. Final say of an executive director comes with accountability to governance bodies and personal authority based on transparency and serving the best interest of the organization. The functioning of the Board of Directors as the management team of the organization is crucial. Regional directors do not only represent their regions in the Board, but first and foremost they carry responsibility for the organization as a whole as the leadership team of the Executive Director.  

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Solidaridad’s Executive Board of Directors

And finally, quality of governance is a crucial aspect, not to be underestimated. Developing the right culture of governance is a learning school. Basically, balancing proximity and distance is crucial. A precarious balance is needed: taking over the mandate of the director is a fruitless conflicting attitude. Not offering a second reflection on policies and adequate supervision on finance and values potentially creates a vacuum on integrity. The axe to the root of the network organization is when regional directors are using the representation of their region in the International Supervisory Board to contradict the final decisions in the Board of Directors. After discussion and conclusions by the Executive Director, the Board of Directors speaks with one voice.

A lot more to share on risk and challenges. More importantly, I can confirm that building an internationally networked CSO is an exciting life-changing experience creating new hopeful perspectives. Join this movement!

As we reflect on over half a century of development aid, we must usher in a new model that can deliver greater change and impact in the lives of the farmers, miners, and workers of the South. This model must unleash the creative potential of local teams, and build a cadre of effective leadership that can be equal partners with southern compatriots and northern colleagues — to build a new reality. A reality that delivers lasting local impact, effective local solutions, and builds solidarity with the north. – Mandla Nkomo, Solidaridad Managing Director for Southern Africa

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Solidaridad’s International Supervisory Board 

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