From a rectangle to a circle: It’s time to turn the turn tables on aid

7/2020 | Ada Ichoja Ohaba

I am the coordinator of the Do No Harm Humanitarian Development Initiative, a Nigerian NGO that trains civil society across the country about conflict sensitivity. I train, monitor, and mentor activities of over 80 organizations to ensure they implement activities using the principles of conflict sensitivity. For me, it has been an exciting experience, and it has given me great insight into the realities, challenges and opportunities experienced by these organizations. In my role, I get to see local civil society learning, adapting, and becoming stronger every day. For example, an organization I worked with in Adamawa adjusted their branding practice to reduce religious tensions after participating in Do No Harm training. This action of theirs brought about increased trust and confidence between the community member and conflicting parties as it helped the conflicting parties disengage from the conflict and together discuss their needs as it relates to their priorities.



However, from where I stand, I see that external organizations (e.g. international NGOs, national NGOs, and Government agencies) lack trust in local civil society. Many international groups are reluctant to give opportunities and funds to grassroots leaders and volunteers because their CVs do not show that they have been well-schooled. However, for the people in their communities, being well-schooled has nothing to do with their ability to do the real, hard work of building sustainable peace. Local civil society groups succeed because they are faced with reoccurring conflicts on a daily basis and often are able to successfully leverage their traditional modes of dispute resolution to settle them.

But because international groups do not trust their funds in the hands of ‘locals’, they are hesitant to give these organizations any real power or agency in projects. This not only denies local civil society the chance to make their voices heard in projects, but it also denies them the opportunity to explore and grow. Expectations around the management of funds is something that local civil society can learn, but it seems that listening and trusting are skills that international groups struggle to learn. These narratives can be changed, however, as the capacities of both groups can be adapted to fulfill what is expected of them.



From where I stand, the tables need to be turned: INGO’s and donors who use a using a top-down approach to aid communities is simply no longer acceptable. Opportunities need to be given to community members to generate solutions to their problems, rather than outsiders creating the solutions they think people need.

Often, INGOs offer the idea of building community capacity, when communities already know what is needed in their own community. Peacebuilders and sponsoring organizations need to begin thinking outside the box in order to turn the “rectangular tables” into circular ones – that will allow for a more equitable relationship.

  • They need to explore what kind of partnership is appropriate: a partnership of peers, a training and mentoring relationship, a partnership of sharing and learning, but not one of contractor and sub-contractor.
  • Capacity building should also be more equitable: INGOs should create exchange programs to allow their ‘well-schooled’ staff to learn practically how local people have been able to manage disputes in communities and averted the escalation of conflicts.

Rethinking what partnerships look like allows members a better strategy for sustainability because they own the process from the beginning.

In a recent dialogue with Peace Direct about local Inclusion in program design and implementation, I shared the following statement:

“Efforts to include local participation can be improved if local actors can speak for themselves and if the suggestions they give are taken as priorities. In my opinion, we have supported a lot in leading the way for them in building their capacities, it’s time to allow them take the lead.”

We also need to turn the tables at a local level and ensure that community members, particularly marginalized ones, are able to speak for themselves. Communities are not homogenous and have their own power dynamics. For example, I was implementing a peacebuilding project and began talking with people living with disabilities in a community. I worked to create a safe environment through dialogue to enable them to voice the challenges they were experiencing. It was so important, because they were frustrated that the people selected to represent them did not actually live with any disabilities themselves, and therefore could not fully represent their experiences or offer practical solutions. With this feedback, we worked together to find a solution – I worked to train people living with disabilities on conflict transformation, dialogue, mediation, and conflict sensitivity, which led to one of them being elected into the disability commission and having their voices heard. This was a success because it gave the community members a feeling of being listened to, recognized for who they are, and a sense of belonging.



Turning the tables to make peacebuilding more community centric will not be easy. We, as a sector, have a long way to go to achieve this. This road will require us to rethink what matrix of factors “qualifies” an organization to take the lead on programs. And so, I ask you, my colleagues and fellow practitioners:

  • Can we turn the tables? This table needs to be round, not long and rectangular. In this new configuration, internationals organizations do not sit at the head; but rather, we collectively sit at a round table so we can collaborate equally in our mutual ambitions to build a more peaceful society.
  • Can we ensure that the people sitting at that table fully represent the diversity of experiences and knowledge in a community? Can we make sure that all voices are heard equally and we work towards greater inclusion?
  • Can we turn the tables? Can we shift the way we evaluate the qualifications of our colleagues? Making space for people who may not have the appropriate education, but have a richness of experience and the impacts they have already made in their community.

To achieve sustainable development and social stability in a changing world, communities and key stakeholders must be strategically engaged. Communities need to be positioned at the forefront of conflict prevention programs because they are the ones who face the negative effects of conflict and therefore must be adequately equipped to manage it. 

From where I stand, inclusiveness and equity bring about better impacts and lasting peace. But we cannot achieve that until we have, once and for all, turned the tables.

Photographs listed from top to bottom: Photograph 1: Building Bridges; Group photograph of youth participants during a Do No Harm workshop in Jos Plateau State, Nigeria; Photo Credit: Ada Ichoja Ohaba. Photograph 2: Rethinking Strategies; Photograph of participants in a group work session during a Do No Harm workshop;Photo Credit: Ada Ichoja Ohaba.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Ada Ichoja Ohaba has over 10 years’ experience working in program management and capacity building in Nigeria. Her fields of expertise include conflict transformation and peace building, dialogue and mediation, conflict sensitivity and coordination for community peace partnerships.

As an articulate peace worker, she has been involved in building relationships that are affected by violent conflicts, and has experience in dialoging, training and facilitating peace programs, conducting surveys on internally displaced persons and making adequate provision for the distribution of relief and humanitarian items.

She interacts freely with both Muslims and Christians and continues to work in building relationships among religious leaders of multiple faiths in peace building. Presently, Ada coordinates Do No Harm Humanitarian Development Initiative in Nigeria. She is also close to completing a Master of Science program in Social Work at the University of Jos in Nigeria.