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The 2 definitions of Shift the Power

We love to share our research findings through these blogs. This is the 1st out of 3. 

Our main insights

In the aid sector we love jargon, and then assume we mean the same. Like when we talk about Shift the Power. From our research findings (see text box) two major definitions appeared:

  • Shift of Power is the process to an equal distribution of decision-making power on a strategic level between northern-based and southern-based civil society organisations.


  • Sharing decision-making with the target group or community, including on designing activities and on how the budget should be used.

This was incredibly insightful to get to understand the approaches of different organisations and the thinking behind it.

As from our data, we could clearly see that these two definitions, come with a totally different approach. Examples given run from working on the awareness of power differences between northern and southern partners (i.e. a start for organisational change within the organisation), to having participants to decide over budgets (i.e. bottom-up participatory approaches), and everything in between.

What’s more, the second definition came with so many advantages – according to 6 out of 14 interviewees. Engaging participants in decision-making over projects and its budget, results in:

  • Increased quality of interventions (That’s probably no news – as this is what I have been taught 20 years ago at university. And no-one would argue that solutions are likely to be a total misfit for the end-users when they are not even consulted.)
  • Increased legitimacy and transparency between NGOs and the project participants, which is a strong method against mistrust between an NGO and their constituencies.
  • And that transparency comes with protection of NGOs from external power-holders who may want to use the project of budget for their own (political) benefit. As, transparency ensures that community members are heard and informed. 

What did we learn from it?  

Looking at our strategies, it is not our role to engage project participants, since we are dealing with locally-led NGOs as our direct partners – so we do everything from what we know and within our capacity to work towards equal relationships (see next blog on sharing insights from our research about Trust-Based Partnerships).

When it comes to engaging project participants in decision-making (on design, implementation and evaluation) is has been one of our criteria to start a partnership with locally-led NGOs. So yes, they all do.

But I was wondering: Are our partners up for letting participants decide about their project budgets? So, this was something to check: How did our partnering NGOs look to our research results? We discussed it last Friday in our joint Partnership Meeting – discussing how we want to partnership to look like in 2023. And this is what they said:

  • Everyone simply agreed that engaging project participants is key, as otherwise they won’t even participate and invest in a project. There would be simply no project.
  • Vulnerable Aid Organisation does engage project participants in decisions on the budget. With the important note that they do ONLY when they are certain about the exact amount, to prevent mistrust if the budget ends up being less than expected, because for example when being less successful in fundraising.
  • And another NGO mentioned the example that USAID visited them to be able to decide to support a small project proposal. The NGO director was sent away at one point, and they wanted to know from the project participants if they knew all about the project. They did, and so the project got USAID’s support.

And although we will start sharing much more within our network of partnering locally-led NGOs, to enable learning from each other (highly valued by our partners), the question came to me: Are we not spending our time having theoretical discussions on how Development Aid should work best, while the experts on the ground already know very well what gives the best results?

To be continued

Inemarie Dekker, Chair & coordinator iMPACT direct

This is blog 1 out of 3 – sharing our research results.

See our entire renewed Theory of Change here

iMPACT direct

CHANGE the story of GIVING


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