Written by Vic Hancock Fell, Founder and Director of Fair Development.
I Co-Founded a small international development charity when I was fresh out of university, age 21. I had visited Kenya as a volunteer a few times as a teenager and I returned home filled with rage and sorrow at the injustice of what I had seen. I didn’t feel it or know it at the time, but looking back 14 years later, I was peak White Saviour.
A gradual realisation
“"I just don’t understand why INGOs need hundreds of people sitting in the North with huge teams to support Southern NGOs on the ground. Most of the resources get tied to these headquarters and little goes to the South. Real decision-making about what needs to be done and how is still decided by HQ-based Northern experts."” Amitabh Behar, the CEO of Oxfam India
I think it was around 2017 when I first discovered the #ShiftThePower movement online, but of course, knowledge of the troublesome power dynamics in international development work has been around for decades. The official Shift The Power hashtag was established by the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) in 2016 to engage anyone interested in a serious conversation about both the need and the ways to move away from top-heavy and top-down systems in international development.
I had been aware of the many troublesome features of Western international development work for a few years by this point: poverty porn, White Saviourism, safeguarding scandals (see Oxfam Scandal circa 2018), power and resource imbalance etc and I was starting to feel uncomfortable in my position as a white western person working in the international development space.
Noticing these uncomfortable feelings develop, I began to advocate within the small INGOs I was working with and in the wider INGO community, against the harmful practices I had previously taken part in myself.
When I look back at old photos from volunteering trips to Sub Saharan Africa I am mortified for my early-20s self…It felt good to be able to change things in a small way, to move away from using poverty porn style images in favour of positive stories and imagery that centred the success, not the desperation of the person whose story was being told. In later years I would revisit the concept of telling personal stories entirely…this is something I’m still pondering.
I started a new job in a small INGO, Raising Futures, in April 2018 and it was there where #ShiftThePower became more of a reality in my work. I reflected more on my own power and privilege and that of the UK charity I worked for by learning from places like No White Saviours, Charity So White and the Disrupt Development and Rethinking Development podcasts.
By the end of 2018, meaningful discussions were underway around significantly shifting power, money and ownership of work to our partner NGO in Kenya.
Over the last four years, together we have:
- Transferred programme-related financial reserves from the UK to the Kenyan NGO bank account.
- Gradually shifted operational decision-making to our Kenyan colleagues at all levels of the organisation from management to implementation staff.
- Conducted separate Theory of Change and strategic planning sessions, resulting in our Kenyan partner NGO having their own strategic plan for the first time in 20 years.
- Built a culture of openness, radical transparency and trust which has not only resulted in improved programming but boosted morale for the whole team.
- Supported our Kenyan colleagues to localise funding and advocated our funders to cut the UK charity out as the intermediary organisation.
- Written our commitment to #ShiftThePower into our strategic plan for 2022-2026.
- In July I will step down as Co-Director in the UK to take me further on my own Shift The Power journey.
I’m not saying we’ve done this perfectly, we are still learning every day. Being vulnerable and honest about this journey, as we are still on it, is really important to us. We don’t want to do this behind closed doors and we want to advocate for other people and organisations working in the international development sector to join us.
Now feels like the right time for me personally to take a step back from international development work and minimise my own power in this space in doing so. I’m really passionate about encouraging others to start this journey whether that is in their own professional lives or within their organisation.
Want to learn more about our #ShiftThePower journey so far at Raising Futures? My colleague Mary Mwangi and I spoke about this at Fundraising Everywhere’s Small Charity Virtual Conference 2022.
"In their current form, we simply don't need INGOs, unless they are going to #shiftthepower: how do international civic organisations empower and support the local? is the main question that needs to be asked." Irungu Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Kenya