What’s the best prescription for achieving the SDG’s? For international NGOs and funders to cede power and control over decision-making to the constituents they aim to serve. That’s the conclusion of a prototype trial on participatory grant-making (PGM) undertaken through the RINGO Project and led by Transform Trade, an INGO that supports farmers and workers to achieve trade justice, alongside Norsaac, a human rights organisation working with women and young people in Ghana.

For the past couple of years, the RINGO project has been centering its work on decolonising the aid business and shifting power from international NGOs and donors alike. Through a series of prototypes, the project has sought to move the conversation towards understanding the practicalities of the ‘how’ in this whole endeavour. One of the initiatives to emerge was a deeper look into how PGM can strengthen local civil society and the communities with whom it works. This is one of the overarching aims of the SDGs and also one of the central aims of the OECD’s development assistance community’s aims of strengthening local civil society.

In a trial carried out in collaboration with local communities, participants experienced not only a higher income, but reported improved confidence and more independence. As a consequence, the women’s collective took on more leadership from Transform Trade and, in the words of one smallholder farmer began ‘creating more independence for their own destiny.’ This speaks to the very heart of Goal 5 of the SDG’s: to achieve gender equality and independence for all women and girls.

Norsaac worked on PGM in Ghana at the national, sub-national and local level. At the subnational level, participants saw it as an opportunity to co-create solutions; at the local level, they saw it as a process to take power completely into their own hands. ‘What we learned was that in each process, PGM significantly changed the power relationship that saw communities as recipients of aid/support to become chief participants and decision-makers,’ said Mohammed Awal Alhassan.

There is a lot of talk about participatory grant-making, but in practice, it remains on the fringes, as funders are reluctant to let go of power.  A recent webinar hosted by the RINGO Project highlighted that whilst PGM has been around as a concept for about 15 years, its principles have yet to be widely adopted.

Some of the reasons for this are because of the challenges associated with the practice. The model goes against most mainstream practice, where civil society applies for funding; funders decide if they want to fund it, and then hold them to account for short-medium term measurable outcomes. For one, PGM requires a different approach to investment: the pilot took longer and more upfront investment than any of the participants anticipated, as it took time to invest in building trust amongst partners.

Measurement of outcomes is also less clear. ‘PGM creates challenges for funders who are used to seeing reports for outputs and outcomes on their reporting cycles and the two just don’t align. People are funding us because they want to see outcomes around trade and development, because that’s our core mission, but not recognising the length of time the process takes and the value in that process,’ said Charlotte Timson, CEO of Transform Trade.

How we measure change….will change,’ confirms Alhassan of Norsaac.  It may seem obvious, but process becomes the centre of this work, not the same old short-term ‘measurable’ outcomes.

Ultimately, investing in process pays off. As a result of these trials, those engaged in the work were confident that by letting go of the reigns of control, PGM can reduce dependency on donors and INGOs in future, whilst strengthening the hand and power of local civil societies to face the multiple challenges coming their way.

Diana Samarasan from the initiative ‘Advancing Participation in Philanthropy’ goes even further: ‘It’s not enough to just have decision-making in one aspect of work or one location: funders should have more engagement from constituents in the actual governance of the organisation.’ To help deepen participation, they’ve created a self-assessment tool that is being piloted across 20 foundations in the USA, Europe, Mexico, South Africa and India.

The impact on the international NGO model was also acutely felt through this work. Both Timson and Alhassan agreed that whilst resources should be decided and managed by the local communities, it’s not to say that those in the global north should walk away from the table. ‘This work changed us, and we want to deepen our participation approaches across everything we do. But partners still wanted us to play a role. We need to focus on where we can add value, in advocacy, facilitation, and not necessarily working at the community level,’ concluded Timson.

Current practice in civil society remains both top-down and patronising: assuming that those in Europe or the US know best, making decisions, drip-feeding project-based, short-term funding, and cementing the state of long-term dependence. As funders and civil society profess the desire to do more to localise, shift power and decolonise, however, letting go of power is the much-needed step in the chain that will make a significant difference to advancing SDG 5 – and so many others.

Principles of PGM

  • Trust based
  • Indigenous values: centre the values that embody the context of the communities and cultural setting
  • Transparency and accountability: Openness throughout will ensure mutual accountability and build trust.
  • Solidarity, inclusion and non-discrimination requires development stakeholders to commit to leaving no one behind.
  • Do no harm and safeguard the communities we serve.
  • Co-creation (participation)
  • Collaboration and Networking among grantees and other stakeholders, fosters a sense of shared purpose and collective action.
  • Learn and Reflect iteratively and continually.
  • Telling stories with dignity calls for northern and southern organizations to respect indigenous stories and their sources, and not modify them to suit their interests.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability recognizes that community needs and circumstances may change over time.

Norsaac and Transform Trade have produced a practical resource for those interested in adopting a more participatory way of working: South meets north in power shift: A participatory grant-making model 

This blog was originally published in Alliance Magazine.

Photo by Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash