Is the international development sector ready for change?
Decolonisation. Locally led development. Shifting power. The international development sector is currently overwhelmed with dialogue on many different takes on the same subject.
Sometimes you have to just take a leap and go beyond the talk to try out new ways of working.
Reimagining by doing
The RINGO Project is a global systems change initiative seeking to transform civil society so that it is prepared to respond to challenges today and in the future. Currently hosted by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), RINGO focuses on the concrete “how” (rather than the aspirational “why”) to overcome the systemic barriers that prevent local actors from taking centre stage in development practice.
Over the past two years, RINGO has convened a Social Lab of 95 changemakers and worked through an intensive inquiry process to identify the key areas we would like to reimagine: accountability, impact and measurement; leadership and governance; solidarity and partnership; and resource flows.
Participants in the Social Lab developed several prototypes to test how transformative ideas can work in practice. Prototyping happens through a series of experiential learning cycles: experimentation (building and getting feedback); reflection (taking on feedback and testing); conceptualisation (integrating feedback); and experimentation again. With each feedback cycle, the prototype becomes more innovative, transformative, context-specific and user-centred.
RINGO’s final portfolio of prototypes include:
- A new approach to risk sharing and compliance management where donors, INGO intermediaries and local NGOs meet to co-construct partnerships of genuine solidarity where risk is shared and continuously navigated and negotiated by all stakeholders.
- An AI tool to deepen language inclusivity, involving a search and replace style function to abolish neo-colonial, pejorative, sexist, racist, or bigoted words and terms.
- A bottom-up creative and inclusive accountability and learning mechanism that incorporates a fluid cycle of regular partner and local feedback; southern-led assessment and INGO self-reporting; and peer learning with an advisory group made of local and national civil society actors.
- A framework for effective participatory grant-making that transforms historical power dynamics by placing the community at the centre of all decision-making, including funding.
- A campaign to end the long-standing practice of tied aid that sees donors prioritise their own domestic INGOs over local civil society.
- A decolonising advisory community of local service providers to share resources and provide support to international organisations who are committed to decolonising their thinking and practice.
- An alternative, inclusive and virtual solidarity platform that challenges INGOs to listen, learn and respond in service to strategic local and national issues through a reverse call for proposals.
Influencing the influencers
In RINGO phase 2, we are distilling the learnings that are emerging from our prototypes to help embed these into policy and practice. We’re focussing our efforts on working with those in genuine positions of influence, including funders (both philanthropic and bilateral donors) and INGO Boards. These constituencies were identified as having a profound impact on the shape and form of civil society, the norms and behaviours of those involved, decision-making processes and structures, and the way in which different types of entities relate to each other.
We are convening ‘action pods’ to bring together funders and INGO Board members who are committed to shifting power and practice and to reimagining ways of working within global civil society. We will support these actors to move from ideas to action, both individually in their own organisations and collectively where we need to shift barriers at the systemic level.
Process not projects
Systems change is a process, not a project – a dynamic cycle of learning, reflecting and adapting. There is no single blueprint for organisational transformation: we need to be contextual, intersectional and holistic. The process is critical because it ensures that all voices are included and that we don’t pre-suppose what the end game might look like. Log frames have no place in systems change work.
RINGO’s learnings so far suggest that the INGOs of the future will likely be smaller and more agile, and that there are some key principles that those ready for change need to put in place:
- Be intentional: align your practice with your values. So often in the sector, we know what’s right but compromise even if it conflicts with our real values.
- Leadership: everyone can make changes from their place in the system – we are all leaders: RINGO’s work ultimately involves everyone from senior leadership to finance officers.
- Action: try, learn and try again! Take risks and keep space for failure.