INGOs as yeast, not the flour

April 18, 2018 | Kiely Barnard-Webster and Isabella Jean

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In 2012, CDA’s book Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid called for a paradigm shift in how international assistance is conceptualized, funded, implemented and evaluated. We aspired to see a collaborative aid system that shifts from a focus on growth to one that seeks a planned draw down and mutually agreed exit or end of assistance strategy.  Across the aid sector, commitments to locally led development and localization continue to grow, along with examples of transfer of power and control, even though the power imbalances between international organizations and their national counterparts remain familiar.

“One of the strongest perspectives apparent in the discussion was that capacity building is not a waste of time, but can be important and constructive.

Capacity development of local organizations is without a doubt one of the most interesting and promising ways of action for international aid, and the one I am investing in as a practitioner. Tomas Serna.

Capacity building should be locally driven. Peter Obi”

– Stopping As Success, Online Consultation

We want to recognize progress where it has been made, understand positive deviance within a system that remains largely externally driven, and to document experiences of international and local practitioners to inform good practice in the future. For the next two years, CDA, and our learning partners Peace Direct and Search for Common Ground will examine approximately 20 case studies of INGO exits largely focused on development and peacebuilding country programs.

We made an intentional choice in naming our consortium, “Stopping AS Success: Planning for Success from Start to Exit.” We are not looking at “stopping AT success” – or the pursuit of development goals with an indefinite timeline. How do we define and measure success? Whose voices and metrics count? What if continued presence distorts local efforts? Is there a way to exit responsibly in support of locally led development? We hope this collaborative learning effort will bring greater awareness of the multiple dynamics at play when international organizations exit.

Bottom-up or Top-down development?

“Nora Lester Murad suggested the sharing of experiences and knowledge to lead to the adoption and adaptation of approaches without aid actors driving the decisions: If communities are involved in global work, as they should be, they will share insights and ideas. When those same communities incorporate those ideas, even if they originated “outside,” they are still bottom-up, because the decision making is local.”

– Stopping As Success, Online Consultation

Last October, our consortium organized an online consultation engaging 95 practitioners, researchers, academics and thought leaders from 40 countries to better understand the dynamics between international and local actors during aid exits and transitions. Participants discussed power dynamics in the aid sector, the role of local actors and capacity building, and sustainability.  Daily discussion starters were offered as launch points – and it quickly became clear that many aspects of the consultation pivoted on the use of language.

In the final consultation report, released two weeks ago, facilitator Rosie Pinnington points out that “language is not simply descriptive and explanatory but is also used to construct the realities of certain actors.” Language matters, but so do those who wield the language. Who propels the narrative, giving certain language its staying power? A key takeaway from the consultation was not, in fact, a perfectly honed definition of “locally-led development” but rather another question: why that framing, and not another? Who defines the social problem, the funding criteria, the implementation team, the sustainability plan for projects in peacebuilding and development contexts? Parameters of ‘ownership’ and who determines when and how this concept applies are themes that we at CDA deem worthy of in-depth examination.

In December, our consortium conducted an exploratory visit to Colombia at a time of significant changes in the country. We heard many echoes of the voices captured in Time to Listen. A Colombia civil society leader told us that “INGOs should play the role of the yeast, and not the flour.” The CDA team will be heading to Thailand, Bosnia, Georgia and India next to learn about INGO exits and transitions and to gather the perspectives of local CSOs. Our consortium partners will be conducting visits to the Philippines, Kenya, East Timor, Morocco and Bangladesh, among other countries.

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Image: Listening Exercise, Afghanistan 2009

About the authors

Isabella Jean Isabella joined CDA in 2007.  Her professional expertise is in conflict-sensitivitypeacebuilding effectiveness, program design, monitoring and evaluation methods, and accountability and feedback loops. Isabella has led collaborative learning processes and field research in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Caucasus, and co-authored Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of Aid.  Isabella continues to lead research on feedback loops and supports CDA’s work on peacebuilding evaluation. Internally, Isabella supports CDA’s monitoring and evaluation efforts to capture the results of our initiatives.

Kiely Barnard-Webster Kiely joined CDA as a program manager in 2015.  Her professional areas of expertise are in gender and development, monitoring, evaluation and learning, theories of change and peacebuilding effectiveness. At CDA Kiely works on peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity in Myanmar as well as with new approaches to combating corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she is supporting ongoing monitoring and evaluation efforts.


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