Reflecting on VENRO Forum 2023: Shifting Power for a Transformative Future

With over 100 participants from development and humanitarian NGOs in Germany and their global South partner organizations, the VENRO Forum 2023, held in Bonn on December 4th 2023, was a collective exploration of the urgent theme, “Shifting Power: New Paths for NGOs in Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid.”

Decolonization Imperative

Mathias Mogge (VENRO board of directors at the time) underscored the need for German NGOs to critically reflect on the historical roots of their practices. The call for a conscious shift in approaches and strategies resonated strongly: What does decolonization mean for us? How can we actively involve those directly affected by projects in decision-making? The forum served as a space for introspection, urging organizations to rethink project implementation with a focus on local empowerment, recognizing and valuing local knowledge.

The VENRO NGO Report on “Shifting Power” served as a backdrop, revealing that many VENRO member organizations are already on the path towards more partnership, actively working to overcome colonial continuities. At the VENRO Forum, German employees on site and digitally connected colleagues from partner organisations were able to discuss these initial steps and think them through together in a hybrid format.

Stop, Think and Listen

Individually, we often find value in stopping and thinking—moments of reflection that allow us to assess, learn, and grow. Transposing this personal practice onto a collective level in the realm of humanitarian and development aid means deliberate pause, a moment to collectively reflect about the strategies, the methodologies, and the meaning of cooperations. It means reassessing the impact of interventions, questioning assumptions, and acknowledging that it is a dynamic critical process, requiring agile and adaptable responses. It involves fostering a culture of openness to new ideas and a readiness to discard outdated models that may no longer be relevant.
The event was all about listening carefully to the opinions of employees from the partner organisations and giving equal space to all voices. In order to promote a critical approach to power and create a conscious event culture, an awareness team accompanied the VENRO forum.

Power-Sensitive Partnerships and Critical Perspectives on Racism in Organizations

The podium discussions began with thought-provoking quotes, setting the stage for a nuanced exploration of power-sensitive partnerships. Chilande Kuloba-Warria (Warande Advisory Centre) and Sid Peruvemba (Action Medeor) underlined the need not only to connect power with money but with local knowledge and social relationships.

What does shifting power actually mean? Sid expressed the concern that since the emergence of the term in the early 2000s, we might now be at a point where the term could degenerate into a policy routine and could also be becoming a “white saviour complex 2.0“.  There is then a danger of giving the wrong answers to long-standing questions. The concept of “Shifting Power” was of course discussed in the context of financial dynamics and the necessity to break the cycle of financial dependence, highlighting the importance of either implementing a true power shift or accepting the current state as an act of solidarity.

On the other hand, it was determined that it’s crucial to recognise that power extends beyond the realms of financial resources alone. Chilande raised the question of whether organizations in the South have no power. She emphasised “that money definitely shifts the balances but it is at least as important to break some of the mental cycles. We need money but it is not the only way“. Often, external narratives might assert that certain entities or individuals lack power. Yet, the reality is that power is inherent, manifesting through various avenues. It resides within the people and their rich experience and expertise worldwide, in each country. Chilande emphasised that “power” lives within the tapestry of local resources, the depth of local knowledge, and the capacities present within local communities. The empowerment lies in recognizing the wealth of resources and knowledge that exist within the community and the people itself.

As power also means strength and capacity it must also be given to the North, which lacks capacities in terms of skills and awareness for the power shift. Accordingly, the call to “Shift Power” implies a responsibility for those in the global north. It needs a commitment to building capacities collaboratively, understanding that true empowerment comes from a shared exchange of knowledge and resources. She further added, that “partner organisations do not want to work with powerless institutions. Power shift is not about taking power away from someone so that they have less. Working together in partnership means recognising the respective power and doing things together”. In this respect, the term Shift the Power is not entirely appropriate.

Augusta Muhimpundu and Anthea Bethge from EIRENE brought forward a critical perspective on racism within organizations. They shared the organisation’s journey towards diversity and inclusion from 2017 to 2023, highlighting efforts to diversify teams, revise job descriptions, and foster linguistic diversity. The emphasis is on implementing inclusive human resources policies, amplifying partner voices, granting them decision-making roles, and creating an inclusive work culture: “It’s not about making a team more diverse, but about truly perceiving different perspectives and learning from them. It changes the culture towards and among each other“.

Central to this initiative is the commitment to amplifying the voices and opinions of their partners, granting them a more prominent role in shaping the discourse on issues relevant to their countries. EIRENE is dedicated to providing spaces where partners have the right to discuss and decide on topics that hold the utmost significance for their work. It’s a nuanced and gradual process, with acknowledgment that there is still progress to be made.

At the local level within EIRENE’s team in Germany, it was looked at linguistic diversity as a diversity indicator, assessing how many people with different native languages are represented in the office: the higher the linguistic diversity, the more perspectives in the team. This diversity sparks curiosity and creates an environment where team members engage with different languages regularly. Importantly, this has contributed to overcoming language barriers, fostering a deeper connection among team members. The use of multiple languages has not only enriched communication but has also become a catalyst for a more inclusive and collaborative work culture at EIRENE.

Bridging Divides and Exploring Solutions

In the forefront of the VENRO Forum, employees from partner organisations had the opportunity to discuss the topic “Bridging the Divide: CSO Dynamics in Global South – Global North Partnerships” with Chilande in a protected space without the presence of members from Northern NGOs. Chilande presented the results at the VENRO Forum and provided a deep dive into the journey of partner organisation- members within successful partnerships, highlighting the need for a reset. Suggested solutions included supporting local organizations in their unique efforts and transforming risk assessments into capacity assessments.

Acknowledging that organizations need support when pursuing their own initiatives is crucial. This involves placing them on the frontline, listening to them promptly, and prioritizing local knowledge. It also means shifting the focus of risk assessments from simply minimizing risks for one’s own work to understanding their agenda and identifying their needs. To support peer-to-peer learning, implementing cultural competency training as well as emphasizing the use of translations wherever possible is also deemed highly important to enhance communication and mutual knowledge exchange.

There were also calls for VENRO to continue to create spaces where independent dialogue can take place. The partners wish for a safe space to continue talking with each other and to continue what has been started: dialogue in both directions. Due to the funding from Germany CSOs must adhere to German rights but also undergo local contextualization. That’s a dilemma for partnerships and needs good communication.

Various aspects of the topic were explored in greater depth in further exchange spaces during the event. On the humanitarian help- debate of localization the participants supported more efficient locally-led humanitarian aid and international cooperation. But lingering questions remained: What does ‘Localization’ truly entail? Does it imply the self-dissolution of international NGOs? When can we consider Localization successful?

Key takeaways and strategies with regard to more equitable partnerships encompassed global citizenship education, advocacy in Germany to alter awareness and structures, reducing funding conditions and diversifying funding for Global South partners and local networking, utilizing local/national media (such as photographers). In addition, the issue of continuity was underscored: Long-term partnerships can establish more impact and trust, providing opportunities to balance power dynamics.

The findings from an exchange session on overcoming the concept of development underlined the need for an inclusive process involving all stakeholders and the urgent call to question privileges within organisations and to challenge power structures and hierarchies.

Concrete Steps for Change: Shifting Power as a Leadership Mandate and Mutual Capacity Development

German NGOs must actively engage in self-reflection and dialogue to incorporate the lessons learned from the forum into tangible actions—restructuring policies, fostering inclusive decision-making, and reshaping narratives. Along with advocacy efforts in Germany, global education plays a central role to raise awareness and alter existing structures. It is about building an understanding of global interconnectedness while listening to local voices and valuing diverse perspectives.

German NGOs are called upon to make leadership decisions that are in line with the principles of decolonisation. An important take away of the VENRO forum is to hold leaders accountable on this issue. This includes reshaping narratives, not only within their organisations, but also in dialogue with the German government. The forum emphasised the need to create space to discuss difficult issues without being silenced – a crucial aspect of fostering genuine power-conscious partnerships. How can advocacy work be reconciled with the principles of power shift? How can NGOs prevent the debate from being hijacked, in the sense of being instrumentalized by donors or other forces that cling to power and resist changing structures?

In the global north, there should be an emphasis on building capacities that respect and integrate the unique strengths of local communities and reverse the situation: the global south organisations could train the teams from the global north organisations on competencies that are lacking: i.e. deeper knowledge about communities and issues and recognition of local expertise to co-design projects. Training and capacity-building should not flow in one direction but be based on mutual exchange.

Looking Forward: A Path to Equity and Sustainability

New directions for NGOs arise from the need to rethink traditional models and explore innovative ways forward. One of the visions is to focus more on collaborative partnerships with local communities to co-create sustainable solutions. These partnerships can take different forms.

Overall, the journey requires a collective effort, appreciating the diversity of perspectives. That is one of the strengths of civil society. The Forum 2023 showcased the ongoing efforts of VENRO and its members to grapple with the complexities of power dynamics in development cooperation and humanitarian aid, emphasizing the need for continuous self-reflection, dialogue, and action.