NGO: Change to be able to change

"We are joining in with the reflection that many are already making and which inspires us"

by Asier Hernando Malax-Echevarria

Born in Bilbao (Spain), since he finished his studies he has spent his life especially in Latin America, although before that he also lived in Angola and Australia. When he started in the cooperation they told him that he had a more political profile than a technical one, so, before assuming management roles at Oxfam, he dedicated himself to campaign work in Latin America, especially in support of social movements. He has always encouraged collaboration and learning with Asia and Africa. He is founder and director of The Sherwood Way.

It is an open secret. Many of us who dedicate our lives to working in development organisations recognise that, while being more crucial than ever, their need to transform is now undeniable if they want to continue contributing to the enormous challenges of the current context.  

The pandemic, climate change and the debate on decolonisation have been triggers for many years of simmering reflection that we need to address in order to avoid the boiled frog syndrome in the sector. Many NGOs are already part of this transformation and we must follow their lead. 

Because the criticisms no longer come from outside, they come from those whom the international development community claims to support, from civil society in the global South itself.

They are calling for a greater commitment to the deepest causes of poverty and inequality, to stop piling on the bureaucracy that stifles them and, above all, for a better distribution of power within the sector.  

It is precisely for this reason that The Sherwood Way was born. We aim to contribute to the transformation of the international development sector in order to adapt to the enormous challenges of the current context. It is a space for reflection, learning and collaboration for NGOs and social organisations where we can debate, learn, share and act. It will be a global initiative, bringing together voices from different parts of the world, where we hope yours too can be included.

For our launch, we began, naturally, by listening to some of the most respected global voices on this debate. They write from academia, social movements, as part of some of the world’s largest NGOs, and from all walks of life. 

They all share a common message. «Two decades ago it was obvious that the development community was needed. Today it is not, at least not as it currently stands. This is a time of change, doubt and uncertainty that should not be taken advantage of by those who believe that development aid should be cancelled», says Chema Vera.

As for how to address them, Amitabh Behar recommends «a combination of imagination and a return to the founding pillars of NGOs. Seeing development in today’s times not as a decontextualised professional and technocratic intervention, but as part of the broader socio-economic and political battle to build a just, equitable and sustainable future». In these battles, NGOs must show solidarity and take sides with the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities.

There are four areas in which we as a sector propose to take firm steps. The first is the need for a better distribution of power in the development community, very much connected to decolonisation; the second, its de-bureaucratisation and donor dependency; the third, the introduction of feminist principles; and fourth, its contribution to more systemic changes and engagement with communities. 

Fatema Z. Sumar encourages the sector to «consider its internal operations – in a world where borders and boundaries are less relevant, NGOs can think differently about how they operate, their size and physical infrastructure». Technology allows for more cost-effective structural solutions that would, in turn, reduce donor dependency. More political and more operational thinking must surely go hand in hand.

And how do we intend to continue? 

Each month, we will address a theme that will be announced in advance and we will gather different voices, tools, examples and debates to help us move forward. These will then remain open to continue exploring and sharing knowledge. The theme will be chosen by the editorial committee, based on what you tell them is of most interest to your work. 

We also know that we are not discovering the lukewarm water, 

we are joining in with the reflection that many are already making and which inspires us,

the NGO coordinators, universities and within the organisations themselves. We will seek alliances from different parts of the world, we will bring in many voices from the South and we welcome the development community that thinks and feeds from academia, and we will be close to both. 

Two further important issues.

Firstly, there will also be room for a sense of humour in this space. We know that some people think that changing the world is a very serious thing to do, and we know that this is not a sector that has traditionally taken criticism very well. We ask you to bear with us, as there will be doses of both. 

The second is about the name, The Sherwood Way. Yes, it is the forest of Robin Hood, who took money from the rich to give to the poor, because we believe that the international development community should address inequality. It is also a forest in England, for a project that we conceived in Latin America and Africa. The reason is that we wanted to avoid new paternalisms, the change in this case must take place in the North, and it is in England where the first and most emblematic NGOs began and which must therefore make this transformation. 

Welcome to the Sherwood Band.

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