The question in this moment is, are we truly willing to reimagine international development and aid? In my last piece for TRVST I wrote in general terms about the types of cultural change I think need to happen in the international development sector in the wake of the on-going #AidToo moment which began with the story about Oxfam in Haiti and continues with current demands for the Save the Children UK Chair to resign because of the way he has handled former complaints by staff.
In this piece, I map out some of the nuts and bolts of the different things that I think need to be addressed and considered in order to shift organisational cultures in the sector.
Clearly, there is work for the sector and individual organisations to do to ensure that policy and procedures around abuse and safeguarding are both in place and honoured.
In her recent Comment piece in the Times, Helen Evans, the former Oxfam Head of Safeguarding outlined a sound plan for sector level action which included the mandatory reporting of safeguarding issues, financial penalties and spot checks to enforce this, and the instigation of qualified investigators on an approved register. These types of sound verifiable policy and practice need to be a blueprint within aid and development organisations too.
But we also need internal cultures, which are predicated on believing, rather than silencing allegations of abuse. And policies alone won’t create that. We also need to get in the habit of ensuring that our stated values about women’s rights and equity are reflected at ever level in our practice. This means that our leaders need to take brave steps to communicate with and listen to both staff and the communities they serve in new ways.
How do we actually engage the poor and marginalised people we want to help? We have been theoretically aware of the importance of the participation and the voice of the people we work with. Indeed many organisations have gone some way towards making them a part of how they run programmes but how effective are they at influencing the way we govern and structure our organisations? The reality is that in many organisations in our sector power still resides in the Global North in the hands of boards that fail to represent the communities we serve. We need to ask much more searching questions about this.
We need to address what power looks like in our organisations. Mapping out who has power and listening to both staff and the people we serve about what power they need and want in relation not just to their lives but also to our programmes. Ultimately so much of what we do purports to be about addressing power structures. We need to make our own internal analysis of them within our organisations something that we make space and time to do on a regular basis. We must stay conscious of the ways in which we are allowing our own power and privilege to influence our work and work to remedy them.
“We need to address what power looks like in our organisations. Mapping out who has power and listening to both staff and the people we serve about what power they need and want in relation not just to their lives but also to our programmes.”
Again and again, I hear stories of organisations rejecting the findings of evaluations that ask questions about power, privilege and agency. This kind of rejection of the ‘things we don’t want to hear’ has to stop. Evaluations, if there is any point in them at all, must be a tool to improve our practice. And that means we need to engage with their findings and work to improve practices where necessary.
For our organisations to be fit for purpose, the way they look will need to radically change. Global Brands, wherever they are headquartered tend to consolidate power in the centre. If we want to live our missions which speak to the desperate need to re-distribute power in the world we need to actively re-distribute it ourselves. We can no longer keep claiming the impact delivered by partners on the ground. Partnership should be part of how we uplift the many interesting and valid initiatives developed in the countries where we work, rather than a means to disguise what local actors do and claim credit for their interventions for ourselves.
In short, we need to re-imagine how we think of international development. We are in a moment now in which we have a choice. We can carry on regardless, defending ourselves from attack or we can instead seize the initiative and start re-thinking how we look and operate and begin to tell a much more honest story about how change happens and the ways in which we work.
Mary - Ann Clements is founder of Jijaze: Working with organisations and individuals who believe that our own care and healing is a critical part of creating lasting change. She blogs regularly here: https://medium.com/@maryannmhina
Mary -Ann is setting up a “a circle for women working in international aid or development who are seeking or needing a confidential space to speak their truth and process feelings” in the wake of #AidToo. Click here for more details.