Engaging partners and diaspora for more equal development cooperation


On 17 August 2023, Deaconess Foundation’s and Filantropia’s project Partnering for Change (PARC) held a discussion entitled Decolonising aid: Utilising the expertise of partners and diaspora through more equal partnerships in Helsinki. The event examined the current model of Finnish development cooperation and how this results in the unequal distribution of power, resources and authority favouring the Global North and disempowering the Global South.

Four people working together

Photo: Canva

The meeting investigated three aspects of creating more equal partnerships in Finnish development cooperation; the role of the diaspora, rethinking donor-partner dynamics, and the need for Finnish nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to restructure their partnership model to create better ways of empowering the global south.

The event concluded with group discussions that distilled the day’s insights into three core takeaways:

  • that decolonising aid should not be a buzzword but rather a concept that requires introspection and building understanding among the sector’s many actors,
  • that the process of reforming power relations would require open dialogue that encompasses all those involved, and that narratives that perpetuate structural inequalities should be challenged, and
  • that is was time that Finnish NGOs step back and re-evaluate their tools for engaging the Global South, and that their partners should be involved in this re-evaluation.

The distribution of power in the development sector disempowers partners in the Global South

In recent years, the power structures that exist in development cooperation and the need to revise them has become the focus of discussion in civil society. The authority to make meaningful decisions, especially regarding funding, is firmly vested in the Global North. The process of dismantling these power hierarchies is known as the “decolonisation of development cooperation.”

The traditional development cooperation narrative of the Global South is firmly tied to this inequality – recipients of Finnish funding are often portrayed as powerless and dependent on Finnish good will.

Part of PARC’s mandate is to facilitate a shift in public and civil society organisations’ (CSOs) perceptions of people in the global south as passive recipients or aid-dependent to recognising them as equal? collaborators in the development process. In addition, as collaborators they have invaluable contextual knowledge and the right to take the lead in addressing matters that concern them and their communities.

Rethinking donor-partner dynamics

Samiira Mohamed representing Deaconess Foundation’s partner organisation Somaliland Y-Peer shared her Y-Peer’s approach to supporting locally led development. In setting up the project the Vamos project in Somaliland, the Deaconess Foundation held discussions with its Somaliland partner before the project began, and the local government was kept informed of its progress.

This approach offered alternatives to the typical top-down approach and ensured that the specific needs of Somaliland’s youth were represented and addressed. This project was also founded on an exchange of expertise between Finland and local experts – local experts brought their understanding of their society’s while simultaneously benefiting from the information provided by the funding organisation.

As a result of this approach, Somaliland Y-PEER has trained 600 young people in life skills leading to many of them finding employment or becoming entrepreneurs.

Another guest speaker, Tuomas Tuure, from Abilis, discussed his foundation’s strategy in rethinking donor-partner dynamics. Abilis Foundation has been making local ideas and agency a priority since the CSO was founded in 1998. Their approach is to support people with disabilities directly, giving them control of the planning and implementation of any interventions that involve them with the support of Abilis country offices.

The role of language and representation in dispersing power

The event’s participants discussed the power of the vocabulary currently used in development cooperation. They identified terms such as “capacity development” as problematic and emphasised the necessity of revisiting this language as a crucial step in sharing power among the actors in development cooperation. It was suggested that creating guidelines for inclusive and more equal language in Finnish should be created and using it would be an opportunity for Finnish CSOs to lead by example and eventually influence donors.

The participants suggested that ensuring that partners and programme participants are properly represented in the sector will build mutually beneficial relationships. It will also ensure that local actors are able to actively participate in the principal aspects of development work: in developing funding strategies, activity planning, and in communications and fundraising campaigns. In this way, Finland’s partners can help define they way they represented in development communications and in public media.

The role of the diaspora

One pressing issue raised was the numerous misconceptions about Africa and its needs. It was also emphasised that “decolonisation does not mean that we should remove global solidarity and development work completely.”

Harnessing the knowledge of the diaspora in Finland was recommended in order to create a more honest depiction of the Global South as the diaspora contains people who with expertise on their societies of origin. Therefore a critical question becomes how to use the knowledge and potential present in its diaspora?

It was agreed that decolonisation does not equate to the end of Finland’s solidarity and development work with the Global South, and a possible new tool in development cooperation would be making use of the knowledge and potential the Finnish diaspora offers – for instance by engaging diaspora-led companies.

Restructure the Finnish partnership model

Participants at the event offered a critique of Finland’s current model of supporting CSOs in the global south. The points raised included project thinking (short-term “boxed” engagement), a preference for networks and consortia, and bringing in partners to participate in discussions in which the outcome is already fixed such as in “funding strategies”.

Many suggestions were given on orienting Finnish NGOs towards locally led engagement, such as including local thinking in planning, and revolutionizing the narratives in fundraising such as ending the use of campaign images that disempower their subjects.

Nonetheless, it was acknowledged that there are many obstacles to embarking on a locally-led model for instance donor funding is usually short term and it’s difficult to fulfil the terms demanded by doners. More questions that arose included how decolonised funding could be defined, where such funding would come from, and how much autonomy could be given to partners in the Global South?

A vision for decolonised development cooperation

The event highlighted that there was still a great deal of work to be done to arrive at an understanding of decolonised aid. Development funding is currently a highly contested political question with people in power asking whether it should exist at all. The NGOs present agreed that they can influence this discourse.

The platform provided by PARC highlighted that “decolonising aid” should not be a buzzword and that open dialogue was crucial to challenge narratives that perpetuate structural inequalities – including language. The event recommended that by acknowledging past mistakes, learning, and restructuring and by harnessing the power of local expertise, diaspora insights and collaborative platforms, a more inclusive and equitable development landscape can be created.

Read more about Partnering for Change

Partnering for Change is implemented by the Deaconess Foundation and Filantropia ry.

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