13. In focus: International non-governmental organisations pledge to shift power and resources

Rose Caldwell
Plan International UK
Danny Sriskandarajah
Oxfam GB
  • International non-governmental organisations that sign the Pledge for Change commit to actions focused on shifting power, decision making and money to places and people receiving aid. Signatories have begun translating the pledge into practical actions.

  • Development co-operation providers can support the achievement of the pledge’s aims by aligning their own support and actions to its goals, encouraging other partners to align, and committing to support the signatories in fulfilling the pledge.

The need to “localise” and “decolonise” the work of the development sector is an idea that has become increasingly widespread over the last decade. Yet substantive behavioural and systemic progress on this issue has been slow and patchy at best. Now, a small number of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have committed to moving beyond rhetoric in a new “Pledge for Change”, a set of commitments to shift power, decision making and money to the places the most affected by crisis and poverty (Pledge for Change, 2022[1]).

The pledge, launched in October 2022, is an important step towards reforming an international aid system that has long functioned as a hierarchy dominated by those in the Global North – a system that many say has upheld and perpetuated the unjust, unequal power systems that stem from a history of colonialism and patriarchy and in which racism is embedded (Barnett, 2022[2]; Peace Direct et al., 2021[3]; Robillard, Atim and Maxwell, 2021[4]). It is a system that too often has prioritised accountability to Global North donors at the expense of accountability to aid recipients, has largely blocked local actors from accessing direct funding and leadership opportunities, and has allowed a humanitarian elite to dominate the discourse that sets the agenda for action. It is a system that reflects neither our common humanity nor the solidarity that we, as the leaders of two large INGOs, espouse. Six years ago, dozens of agencies and donors agreed to a set of commitments around localisation as part of a Grand Bargain (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2022[5]). But thus far, though talk of shifting power has firmly entered the development lexicon, we have yet to see meaningful change to our system or indeed an increase in the resources that can help smaller and local organisations scale up. The Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020 found that just 0.5% of tracked funding in 2019 directly financed local and national NGOs – a far cry from the Grand Bargain’s target of 25% by 2020 (Development Initiatives, 2020[6]).

Though talk of shifting power has firmly entered the development lexicon, we have yet to see meaningful change to our system or indeed an increase in the resources that can help smaller and local organisations scale up.  

The Pledge for Change process differs from past processes for change in this area in several key ways. First, it is about us as INGOs taking responsibility for the role we can play, from the way that we tell stories to the way that we can help resources flow more directly and in more empowering ways to Southern partners. It is also notable that we as INGOs have been convened by Adeso, an East African humanitarian and development organisation, and we have tried to engage peers from the Global South throughout the process.

Second, the initial two-year development phase of the process deliberately involved a small group of chief executive officers, all of whom have a personal commitment to decolonisation. The process created a space for this group to imagine change with their peers and to co-ordinate and collaborate in such a way that all members had a real say in the final product.

Third, the pledge commits these chief executives to not only track and publicly report the progress of their own organisations over the next eight years but also to press for wider implementation across the sector. Focusing on three key areas – equitable partnerships, authentic storytelling and influencing wider change – the pledge represents a historic, Southern-led commitment to transparently share progress and learning, with clear goals and metrics setting out how change will happen between now and 2030.

The seven INGOs that represent the first cohort of signatories to the pledge have stated their belief that being locally led and globally connected will deepen their impact on people’s lives, reducing aid dependency by enabling communities to embed resilience. They have committed to ensuring that their involvement strengthens rather than detracts from local civil society by allocating more resources to helping local and national organisations take the lead. They have agreed that their storytelling, while reflecting the harsh realities of poverty, conflict or disaster, must avoid casting aid recipients as helpless victims, reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Some of the stories told and images used by development sector actors have distorted reality, failed to reflect the contribution of local partners and co-opted rather than amplified the stories of aid recipients. The signatories of the pledge believe that putting the global majority’s voice at the heart of decision making is not just a moral imperative, it is an essential step to tackling many of the challenges the world is facing. The pledge is a commitment to a stronger aid ecosystem, one that is based on principles of solidarity, humility, self-determination and equality.

The journey towards creating this set of commitments was far from straightforward. Unpacking the reasons for this, we hope, can offer important insights for others in the sector who are keen to work towards transformative change.

Perhaps one of the reasons why genuine progress in shifting power and resources has been slow to emerge is that progress largely depends on those with the greatest interest in maintaining humanitarian hierarchies being prepared to dismantle them. As large, established INGOs, our self-preservation drive – our instinct to protect the privileges, resources and influence bestowed upon us by our dominant position – can often be in fundamental conflict with our desire for transformative change. Indeed, grassroots, bottom-up action has been the driving force behind most significant localisation shifts thus far. But the fact remains that buy-in from Global North entities is critical to rebalancing skewed humanitarian and development power dynamics.

Buy-in from Global North entities is critical to rebalancing skewed humanitarian and development power dynamics.   

While it was relatively easy for participants in the process to coalesce around their shared commitment to changing the system, it proved more difficult to balance what we agreed to be morally and ethically right with what was practically achievable within the given period; that is, what was versus what was not in our control. Many donor policies, for example, involve onerous compliance and reporting requirements that are prohibitive for many civil society organisations, especially smaller national and local ones. It is also often not clear what an organisation has to do to become eligible to receive funds or where to go to find out, so organisations without dedicated staff capacity for managing donor relationships are at a disadvantage. This, we agreed, is why the third component of the pledge – influencing wider change – is so important: It seeks to address those parts of the system that will be critical to change but are not under the direct control of INGOs.

The process has so far taken more than two years, with each organisation needing to achieve buy-in internally and engagement undertaken with Global South actors, to ensure that the resulting pledge would be relevant and meaningful across the sector. Intensive consultation and thoughtful and often challenging exchange, involving a diverse range of expertise and perspectives, were necessary to unpack and overcome existing barriers and to achieve mutual understanding on what are we are collectively trying to achieve. The changes put forward by the pledge go to the very heart of the INGO operating model, and agreement did not always come easily. All organisations involved in its creation are now working alongside experts from the Re-Imagining the INGO, or RINGO, lab1 to define a set of common metrics that will enable us to regularly and transparently share annual baseline reports and review progress towards a set of clear goals for change by 2030.

Oxfam, Plan International and others have already begun to implement practical changes to our operating models to enable more locally led responses. Over the last two years, Oxfam GB has chosen to work directly in fewer countries, but to invest more where we do work, especially in providing core support to local partners and allies. We hope that doing this will help to build a more resilient local civil society, strengthen our shared impact and recalibrate power dynamics to create radically transformative partnerships. Oxfam GB has also now started sharing indirect cost recovery resources – funds that cover an organisation’s overhead expenses – with local partners and is helping local actors to negotiate indirect cost recovery as part of grants given by other agencies. We are also giving greater amounts of unrestricted funding to our country offices.

At Plan International, we are building deeper and more honest reflections on the inherent power dynamics within our own organisation and in our partnerships with local and national organisations. Recognising that shifts at the individual as well as organisational level are required if we are to achieve transformative change, staff are participating in training and reflection on power, privilege and bias, and these are already changing the questions we are asking ourselves and the day-to-day decisions we are taking. We are establishing a clearer vision for how we can build more equitable partnerships, in alignment with our feminist leadership principles, that better transfer resources and power to local and national organisations for greater impact. We see this as a first step to increase the proportion of our partnerships in which all partners have equal voice and decision-making authority and where accountability is mutual, including through progressively removing our internal barriers to partnering equitably. We have also developed a set of anti-racist communications principles that are guiding how we tell stories and the pictures that illustrate them, which are helping us start to create a culture of anti-racism, reflection and learning.

These are some of the first steps of a long ongoing journey that is critical to our shared mission of ending poverty and tackling inequality and injustice. But it is a journey that INGOs cannot make alone. We will need other actors to join us, including donors, Global South civil society actors, philanthropic organisations, co-ordination groups and networks, and academic institutions. INGOs can become full signatories of the pledge and other actors can become supporters, committing to support the signatories in achieving the pledge’s aims and holding them accountable as they do so.

It is a journey that INGOs cannot make alone. We will need other actors to join us, including donors, Global South civil society actors, philanthropic organisations, co-ordination groups and networks, and academic institutions.  

We hope that donors will rapidly accelerate delivery of commitments under the Grand Bargain and increase the proportion of funding provided directly to local and national civil society organisations. Funding requirements need to enable rather than inhibit the deep involvement and leadership of the communities where aid is delivered in decision making around what aid is spent on and how. Ongoing, concerted action led from the most senior level in every institution, including governments, United Nations agencies and others alongside INGOs, is needed to understand and transform the systemic power imbalances in all parts of the aid system. As INGOs, we are committed to ongoing collaboration and to continuing to challenge both ourselves and others as we move forwards on this journey together.


[2] Barnett, M. (2022), “The humanitarian global colour line”, ALNAP blog, https://www.alnap.org/blogs/the-humanitarian-global-colour-line (accessed on 14 November 2022).

[6] Development Initiatives (2020), Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020, Development Initiatives, https://devinit.org/resources/global-humanitarian-assistance-report-2020.

[5] Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2022), “About the Grand Bargain”, web page, https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/about-the-grand-bargain (accessed on 9 August 2022).

[3] Peace Direct et al. (2021), Time to Decolonise Aid: Insights and Lessons from a Global Consultation, Peace Direct, https://www.peacedirect.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/PD-Decolonising-Aid-Report.pdf.

[1] Pledge for Change (2022), Pledge for Change 2030 website, https://pledgeforchange2030.org (accessed on 14 November 2022).

[4] Robillard, S., T. Atim and D. Maxwell (2021), Localization: A “Landscape” Report, Feinstein International Center Publication, Tufts University, Boston, MA, https://fic.tufts.edu/wp-content/uploads/Localization-FINAL-12.30.21.pdf.

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