Helping CBOs navigate hierarchies in the development sector

Matt Hopewell, Programme Lead in Uganda, discusses the role Xavier Project is playing in bridging the gap between CBOs and Inter-Governmental Organisations.

“How can Xavier Project navigate the power dynamics between donors and recipients to ensure the grassroots can gain power to realise their desires in a sector where the word development itself is so subjective?”

Xavier Project sits in a middle-ground, a bridge between higher-level donors and policy-makers and grassroots refugee-run community-based organisations (CBOs) whom we partner with. Xavier Project’s vision is to enable refugees to participate and influence decisions which impact upon their own lives and communities. This is so that refugees and local host community members can experience a greater sense of freedom and dignity, rather than being directed by governments and large international organisations. However, how can Xavier Project navigate the power dynamics between donors and recipients to ensure the grassroots can gain power to realise their desires in a sector where the word development itself is so subjective?

When reading into ‘development’, we learn to deconstruct its meanings, questioning for whom do certain concepts and definitions benefit, who loses, who choses, and ultimately, why. I hope that in 2020 most people engaged in development would first recognise and confront the legacies of the (neo)colonialist histories of development which dominate development discourse, focused on market expansion, capital accumulation or governmental control. Second, one should attempt to shift the concept of development beyond quantitative metrics of ‘success’ with greater attention to care and well being, and the relationship of these ideas to differences in interests, knowledge, aspirations and agency. Nevertheless, in practice, critical thinking is a liberty often afforded once deadlines have been dealt with. Yet the implications of being unmindful on the relation between the purpose of development work and the political and economic context are immense given how they define and shape the realities of actual people. Therefore, while working for Xavier Project, it’s worthwhile stepping back to consider what is our role as an NGO in this complex matrix of actors striving for the contested idea of development.  

“Xavier Project is committed to ensuring refugee communities have the necessary tools to set their own definitions and agendas of development.”

I see some connection between Xavier Project’s vision and Amartya Sen’s theory of ‘development as freedom’. Sen explains how development should not be about economic ends. Instead, development is the ability of an individual (also expanded to community units by others) to take a thing or commodity, perhaps a new skill, and use it to gain the capability to function in any desired way. It is the ability to choose how this functioning is enabled by one’s own capability, which in turn is determined by the access and decision to use available commodities. Through this lens, development is subjective- it’s choice. However, the freedom to have choice is an unequal struggle, especially for the marginalised communities of refugees who Xavier Project work with in Kenya and Uganda. Xavier Project is committed to ensuring refugee communities have the necessary tools to set their own definitions and agendas of development. I realise it’s a big claim to start comparing the work of Xavier Project to Sen considering the gravity of his work, yet it is certainly thinking along similar lines, even if implicitly. 

However, choice is not only determined by material possessions, environmental conditions, healthcare, education and employment opportunities. It is also intertwined with the relations of actors within the development sector. More specifically I mean the relations between the donor and recipient. Donor-recipient relations are often unequal and loaded, as the recipient depends on the donor’s financial assistance. The donor then has power over the recipient to decide the terms on which to award their assistance. In turn, recipients compete to access the donor’s attention and support. The major concern here is that by having power, donors are able to control what is defined as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ development based on their own interpretations. This limits the choice of people in need of support to achieve their desired functioning. The result is development actors struggling to transform a complex reality into a package which best adheres to the interests of donors to be viewed as ‘good’ partners. This means drawing up blueprints and measurements of value-for-money and impact, while often forgetting to remain accountable to the people at the grassroots who are unable to espouse the same trendy buzzwords fast enough. Xavier Project has the duty to acknowledge these power dynamics and binaries in order to support its grassroots partners in resisting domination and (re)claiming their voice.

 

“Improving the lives of the youth of tomorrow through education”

“We know localisation can be more resource-efficient, effective, sustainable and just.”

It is not necessarily surprising that donors might have such rigid expectations and avoid risk when funding projects. After all, many are accountable to tax-paying citizens who deserve to know where their money is being spent. Therefore, one might expect a community-based organisation to demonstrate how money was spent. However, this doesn’t mean their power should not be continuously challenged, and the needs of the grassroots given the overarching voice in how best they should progress. The reasons behind local participatory development are not new. We know localisation can be more resource-efficient, effective, sustainable and just. Although the ‘how’ remains a challenge, not least because of the donor-recipient hierarchies, and all the expected managerial and technical-reporting practices. 

The question lies then in examining how the grassroots can speak-out and attain the capability for their desired development goals. This is where Xavier Project, and other ‘bridging’ or facilitatory bodies can come into their own. The role of Xavier Project is to firstly demonstrate to larger organisations that grassroot organisations are indeed highly capable of having interventions more adapted to the local communities’ interests and values”Community-based organisations may just need greater recognition, capacity strengthening, legislative tools, and mechanisms to share their own valuable experience. However, showing CBOs how to write a quarterly report is helpful in accessing funding, but not transformative. Donor power is still being expressed. Therefore, the real mission is to develop a collective voice of community-level actors and develop personal relations to support and defend each other. For example, sharing opportunities for funding and advocacy and best practices as well as ultimately forging alliances to encourage donors, governments and the private sector to listen to their understanding of development. Through this, partnership might actually become a caring two-way relationship. Further, CBOs should be reminded they have power too. Donors need grassroot actors in order to function, and the grassroots have the power to demonstrate their first-hand experience and determination for positive change on their own terms.

“The facilitator must respect the decisions of the CBOs to define their own pathways and be mindful of how CBOs gaining greater influence in their communities impacts local power dynamics.”

Matt facilitating Xavier Project’s Capacity Strengthening and Sharing course to our community partners, Bondeko.

While Xavier Project supports community-based organisations in this struggle for inclusion and influence, as a facilitator it must also recognise its own impact on the political economy of development. There is a danger the facilitator develops the power to decide who is best to work with based on their own agenda and interpretation of their donor expectations. This reminds facilitators, including us at Xavier Project, of the need to clearly articulate to community-groups from the start the role of the facilitator. This means setting clear boundaries that our role is less a donor, but rather someone willing to help a community-group realise their vision. Meanwhile, the facilitator must respect the decisions of the CBOs to define their own pathways and be mindful of how CBOs gaining greater influence in their communities impacts local power dynamics.

The response from communities across the world to the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the true meaning of the word responsibility- making personal sacrifices for the benefit of the collective. Through this, the value and power of the grassroots in shaping and doing development is revealed. We are reminded whilst various distant people talk about development, there are people defining it for themselves every day. Therefore, whilst we remain off the treadmill of ‘normal life’, there is no better time to reflect upon where we fit within the development hierarchies. We must utilise our own capability to engage in the politics of development to enfranchised community-level actors to speak out and set their own terms for positive change.

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