Finnish NGOs and decolonisation: insights from a survey on civil society initiatives


The Partnering for Change project of the Deaconess Foundation and Filantropia ry carried out a survey in spring 2023 to assess the engagement and understanding of decolonisation within the Finnish development cooperation NGOs. It found that many organisations had already begun addressing unequal power relations, but there is still a need for more training and support. The survey also provided insights to guide future efforts towards a more equitable approach in development cooperation.

Five people standing and one sitting in an office setting, listening to a woman wearing a hijab.

In spring 2023, Partnering for Change (PARC) distributed a questionnaire among employees, volunteers and others involved in development cooperation NGOs in Finland. The questionnaire was devised to map and analyse the level of engagement and knowledge of the subject of decolonisation within the development cooperation community and to determine how PARC could support civil society in this subject. 

A diversity of roles was represented

The 71 respondents represented small, large and medium-sized organisations. 55% of those who replied had over 10 years’ experience in development. 48% of those who answered were project staff, 11% were involved in communications, 10% in fundraising, 3% in finance, 12% in leadership and 16% in support services. 

Over half said they believed there was inequality and hierarchy between Finnish and local partner organisations.

First steps towards more equitable development cooperation have been taken

According to the feedback, Finnish development NGOs have already begun addressing unequal power relations in their work – 65% of those who answered said their organisation had already made changes or had begun orienting themselves on the topic giving examples such as awareness training. We categorized the level of progress organizations had made in their localisation strategies as follows: 

Discussion level: some organisations had explored basic themes regarding changing power relations, decolonisation and associated ideas such as racism, using training and other capacity building tools. 

  • “The team’s personnel have participated in anti-racist training and events dealing with the power structure.”

Consensus level: A second group had recognized the significance of decolonisation and localisation and are preparing for future activities.

  • “We are doing a process related to decolonisation under the leadership of a consultant. Internally, we have a workshop series going on, where we deal with advocacy, communication and programme work.”

Strategy level: the third cluster has included these themes at the strategic level for instance in strategy and programme planning. 

  • “The topic has been included in international seminars, e.g. in the discussion session. It has also been taken into account in programme planning.

Implementation level: A few respondents described their organisations as having made headway in implementing localisation in their processes and programmes. 

  • “This is a very central part of the orientation in the programme processes from the beginning, planning power rests with the partners in the South, in communication and influence work, whenever possible a voice is given to the partners in the South.”
  • “The issue is strongly highlighted and it is already visible in attitudes and practices.”

Integration level: The last category described equality, with giving voice to the Global South and other related concepts being founding principles of the organisations in which they worked.

  • “Increasing global equality, also in partner relations, was the starting point for the development of operations.”
  • “Equality is at the centre of our work, intersectional feminism guides the work.”

What should be done to tackle decolonisation?

When asked to rate which themes should be tackled to enhance decolonisation in order of importance, the following were ranked highest: 

  • Increasing the utilisation of local knowledge and contextual expertise
  • Incorporating decolonisation into organisational and programme strategies
  • Building more equitable relationships with partner organisations and their staff

NGOs need support to start decolonising their work

14% of respondents said they required a lot of help when asked “Do you feel that you need more training and support to contribute to dismantling decolonisation in development cooperation?” They cited the following areas as the most critical: incorporating decolonisation into organisation and programme strategies, and decolonising the monitoring and reporting requirements.

Feedback and pathways to equity

The final section of the questionnaire offered the opportunity for thoughts, opinions, or ideas regarding localisation in Finnish development cooperation.

Some responses offered a critique of the need to change saying:

  • “If one has the money and the right to dictate the terms of its use, the relationship can never be equal. In addition, the situation has gotten worse all the time as the various support conditions and reporting requirements have increased.”

Others suggested the idea of localisation was built on faulty assumptions:

  • “Employees of partner organisations do not always represent the target group of development cooperation; they can also be part of the force that maintains it. Especially in fragile regions, the partners are rarely truly democratic member organisations, they are development cooperation professionals.”

PARC received some recommendations about clarifying the terminology and concepts being used:

  • ““Decolonising aid” has become a buzzword in the sector. However, I would prefer alternative terms and go to the core of the issue: a new model for humanitarian aid that puts anti-racism and power shifts at its centre. Colonial is a term heavily marked by past heritages with a risk of getting stuck in a “the colonisers vs the decolonised”. We need to build today for a future unified world, without forgetting the mistakes from the past.”

Many ideas were given on PARC’s activities or goals regarding decolonisation:

  • “It would also be interesting to consult diaspora organisations as part of the project, especially perhaps through examining the processes and structures that support diaspora development cooperation.”
  • “I think it would also be important to concretely address whether Finnish organisations are ready for more development cooperation funding to be directed directly to local organisations, whether they are ready to do advocacy work for this and what the role of Finnish organisations would be after this.”

The survey enabled PARC to identify the concerns and ambitions of those working in the sector. The responses received provided insight into the sector’s work regarding unpacking the concept of decolonisation and creating an agenda to help guide the sector towards a new, more equitable and realistic depiction of the Global South and more equal power sharing among actors in development. 

Read the survey report

Partnering for Change project is a part of the development cooperation programme of the Deaconess Foundation funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.


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


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