Shift The Paradigm

Philanthropy needs a new paradigm. Chinwe Effiong, GlobalGiving’s Chief Program Officer, explains how prevailing frameworks undermine equitable international development and what must be done to shift the paradigm.


A paradigm is a basic framework of assumptions, principles, and methods from which members of a community work. Paradigms are meant to shift as new knowledge emerges, but, unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some paradigms die hard.

Paradigms often become deeply ingrained in society, shaping perceptions, policies, and practices. Flawed paradigms can lead to biases like sexism, racism, neoliberalism, and climate inaction, to mention a few. Interestingly, behind each persistent paradigm is a vested interest by someone, or group of people, to maintain the status quo.

International development literature is replete with old paradigms that continue to dominate development thinking and practice, in spite of their failure to explain new realities. I came face-to-face with one at a conference in Sub-Saharan Africa.

During one of the sessions, attendants were asked to rank their sense of power—0 reflecting complete powerlessness and 10 complete confidence in one’s agency and ability to influence decisions. Most Global North attendants ranked themselves between 9 and 10, while most Global South attendants ranked themselves between 0 and 5.

It was clear to me that attendants were equating power with access to funding; they were neglecting to consider the numerous ways they hold and wield power in their communities and spheres of influence.

This exercise struck me as a chilling reflection of a skewed and insidious North/South power paradigm, which this article seeks to address. Through it, I am calling for a dialog about the contours of an alternative paradigm, one grounded in recognizing and celebrating the multi-faceted modes of power we all hold and have the potential to share.

Beyond Shifting Power

Seven years ago, the Shift the Power movement was launched by Global Fund for Community Foundations at a conference in Johannesburg. It started as a hashtag to promote the event. Today, a Google search of the phrase yields 1.5 billion results in a matter of seconds. Understandably so. The underpinning concept embodied in the hashtag—that sustainable development cannot be achieved until decision making power is “shifted” to actors in the Global South—is compelling. However, the implied modality for attaining this new decision-making ethos is flawed. Why? Power and perceptions of power, and powerlessness, are deeply entrenched in the history, culture, and identity of a people, and not easily relinquished. Relinquishing power requires the dismantling of entrenched structures and systems, belief patterns, and perceptions of self and others.

Look no further than the “Grand Bargain” as an example. It was heralded as the global move to “localization” in 2016. Fast forward to 2023 and the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report. A paltry 1.2% of tracked funding is directed to local and national NGOs. This is a far cry from the Grand Bargain’s target of 25%. Even with the updated and more evidence-based approach adopted by the Grand Bargain 2.0, there is still much to be desired. According to The New Humanitarian, the Grand Bargain’s supposed “participation revolution”—giving more voice and decision-making power to people affected by crises—has never materialized, despite continued investment in tools, task forces, and frameworks to try to improve engagement. Meghan Sullivan notes, “This top-down approach will fail to meaningfully achieve localization as it depends on those with the greatest interest in preserving humanitarian hierarchies to elicit change that requires dismantling existing power structures.”

To Meghan and others, I say “yes, and.” In my perception, the absence of power in the Global South is not the central problem plaguing international development. Quite the opposite. I believe power exists in many forms and each form has relevance and a role to play in a globally interdependent world. The secret to sustainable development, therefore, is not about changing the locus of one form of power but rather by challenging the modalities of how power is defined, valued, exerted, and documented in international development.

Unpacking Power

    Power is not one dimensional. As the Shift the Power Manifesto states, we must “expand our horizons beyond money as the central driver of change and place value on other kinds of infinite non-financial assets and resources.” There are innumerous ways local communities hold, nurture, and share power—through volunteering, in-kind gifts, access to local resources, youth demographic dividends, indigenous knowledge and practices, lived experience, cultural sensibilities, proximity to local communities and relationships of trust, to mention a few. The Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index 2022 documents some of these uncaptured and undervalued forms of power and how they are channeled to philanthropic giving from the Global South. The Index exposes the thin falsity of prevailing Global North/Global South stereotypes: During the height of the pandemic and beyond, seven out of the top 10 most generous countries were low- and middle-income economies. Remittances, or money that migrants send back home, now outpace foreign aid in dollar value by as much as twofold.

    Power is never linear. Power does not move from one location where it is predominant (the Global North) to another location where it is absent (the Global South). The reality is that power is dynamic and flows continuously in multiple directions. While philanthropic disbursements from the Global North to the Global South have increased exponentially in the last three decades, the value of resources extracted and exported from the Global South outstrip the total aid receipts over the same period of time by a factor of 30, according to a Global Environmental Change report. Stated another way, the Global South gives $3 trillion more than it gets from the Global North.

    Effective power is power used equitably. The data shared above does not obscure the reality that actors in the Global North still dominate access to philanthropic funds. A comparative study of funding flows between low-and lower-middle income, middle-income, and high-income countries by the Global Philanthropy Tracker (GPT) uncovers interesting, but not surprising data. According to the GPT report, 32 high-income countries (including the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, and Italy) contributed nearly $70 billion to cross-border philanthropy. The philanthropic contributions of the remaining 47 countries studied did not reach the billion-dollar mark, even when combined. So, while overall financial flows occur dynamically across the globe, the reality is that philanthropic decision making power remains predominantly in the Global North and those deciding how these funds are distributed are based and have lived-experience in the Global North. These stakeholders have a responsibility to use the power they hold equitably and transparently for the collective good.

    A 2020 study of US philanthropic institutions by the Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green, Racial Equity and Philanthropy, noted that 92% of foundation presidents and 83% of full-time staff members of philanthropic organizations in the US are white. Similarly, a UK Parliament Publication, documents racism in the aid sector. According to the report, “decisions around aid spending are still often made in the headquarters of European and North American donors and INGOs. They are detached from the communities that organizations serve geographically, politically, and culturally, which can lead to programmes being less effective.”

Sharing Power

As stated earlier, the mere narrative of a linear transfer of a single form of power from one geography to another does not result in transformation. For equitable, inclusive, and sustainable community-led development to be achieved, we must value all power assets and recognize how critical the responsible use of each asset base is to our collective well being.

The sector’s failure to recognize the dynamic dimensions of power, and the need to honor and harness all of it, like energy, to achieve transformation has resulted, not in a “shift in power” but a “shift in dysfunction.“ The reason why abject poverty, environmental degradation, illiteracy, public health epidemics, and human rights abuses persist, while trillions of dollars of development aid exchange hands each year, is a direct result of our failure to embrace this collectivist power-sharing paradigm. While we obsess over who has the funds and how we can position ourselves to get a larger share of it, those who hold real solutions to endemic global problems work quietly in the margins, waiting to engage. A personalized perspective on this issue is captured in this anonymous article published inThe Guardian.

What the sector needs now is a new authentic power-sharing paradigm anchored on an asset based and ecosystem approach that highlights power bases wherever they exist—and at all levels of an institution, government, or society.

Learning in the new paradigm

This paradigm underscores the need to not only share power, but also to share the responsibility and accountability for decisions on how power is harnessed for the collective good. It elevates local agency and ways of being and doing, while also acknowledging the importance of “northern” voices and global best practices.

GlobalGiving is modeling novel power-sharing paradigms that acknowledge the influence local stakeholders hold, and actively engaging in asset-based and equity-driven partnerships.

One of GlobalGiving’s core values, Always Open, emerges from an asset-based perspective. It is the belief in the power of great ideas and that these ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. This recognition of local ideas and solutions, as forms of power, is at the core of GlobalGiving’s work. Over its 21 years of operation, GlobalGiving has demonstrated this commitment to elevating power wherever it exists, alongside numerous allies. After our joint research with the Global Fund for Community Foundations and change leaders in six countries, we developed five community-led commitments to provide a framework and guidepost for GlobalGiving’s engagements with more than 6,000 nonprofit partners across 175 countries. These commitments are to:

  1. Share power and co-create solutions
  2. Listen and be responsive to all stakeholders
  3. Foster deeper relationships and invite our partners to transform us
  4. Be transparent, reliable, and accountable partners
  5. Identify and eliminate barriers

GlobalGiving recognizes the unique power it holds as an intermediary funder and also the responsibility it has to ensure that community-led organizations who otherwise would not be able to access global philanthropic dollars have the agency to do so.

As we evolve this new power-sharing paradigm, our community-based partners will play a critical role in ensuring local voices are heard, indigenous problem solving approaches are valued, decision making is evidence based, and all power bases are held accountable for the resources they control.

This new paradigm is well underway. To advance it requires each of us to be students in its pursuit. What role will you play?


Featured Photo: Help Tanzanian Youth Make Tech to Help Themselves by Twende

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