Facilitate development from below and from within
Seven practice-based recommendations for philanthropists

Fons van der Velden and Ntombi Nyathi (in www.alliancemagazine.org, 23 June 2020).


World Bank data indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998. Organisations such as Oxfam International argue therefore that it is the time ‘for bold and visionary choices for our collective future’. Massive investment will be required, to avoid that so many people will be sliding back into poverty. As two seasoned practitioners, we offer seven practice based recommendations for philanthropists who want to provide support to counter these trends.

In his book Rural Development; Putting the last first, (1983), the British development expert Robert Chambers makes a strong plea that it is important to promote reversals, which first and foremost put the wishes of the poor themselves first. For this to happen, Chambers argues, it is important that power relationships between giver and recipient, outsider and insider change. Very unfortunately during the past three decades not much progress has been made with regard to this topic.

To contribute to such a reversal, the following seven interrelated strategic suggestions (presented as ‘lessons’), which are based on practical experience of working with development organisations and social entrepreneurs, are offered.

Lesson 1: Nobody – not even development professionals – develops the other; people develop themselves and can set their own priorities. In this context, it is a good start if professionals and the organisations within which they work at least start to adapt their language, which is often a manifestation of deeply rooted views, and no longer talk about ‘target group’, ‘capacity building’, ’empowerment’, ‘guidance’, et cetera and develop more respectful alternatives for this.

Lesson 2: Bear in mind that dominant Western-based knowledge systems, history, and experiences are not universally relevant, valid, and accepted, and develop attention to, and respect for, other views.

Lesson 3: Demystify the role of outsiders as ‘experts’; start listening and probe further and stop working with imported approaches, models and tools; link with – and build on – what is already there in terms of approaches, methodologies and tools, and organisational relationships.

Lesson 4: Engage in co-creation of change processes from the initial phase, i.e. also with regard to the formulation of strategic principles of those who provide funds (donors, social investment funds), policy formulation, formulation of subsidy frameworks, and the development of operational guidelines.

Lesson 5: Do not consider change processes as apolitical, technocratic, neutral processes and pay attention to power relations in the context of a programme or project and in the cooperation among partners in the (aid-) chain.

The sixth lessons requires a short introduction. It seems that with his famous poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) Rudyard Kipling mainly wanted to make a call to colonise ‘less civilised’ peoples by the Western powers. The poem has now become a euphemism for racism, colonialism and imperialism.

The African psychiatrist, writer, philosopher, and activist Frantz Fanon has made an important contribution to thinking about racism with his books Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). He argues in essence that racism is not about skin pigmentation, but more about power. Ghanaian former president Nkwame Nkuruma also states that identity is defined internally, ‘not because someone was born in a certain place, but because of who you are’. The late South African anti-apartheid activist and leader of the ‘black consciousness’ movement, Steve Biko, states that black people must recognise their identity from within as a source of power.

From people such as Fanon and Biko it may be learned that it is important to approach matters from the perspective of those who are oppressed and marginalised. It is also important – analogous to Biko’s argument that ‘blacks’ should become aware of their internalised oppression– that ‘white’ people need consciousness to recognise what whiteness means. ‘Decolonization of the mind’ and consciousness are therefore needed.

Lesson 6: In meetings, evaluations, and learning sessions, pay conscious and systematic attention to expressions of racism, also within partnerships between outsiders and insiders. Pay regular and conscious attention, both at organisational and team and at individual level, to decolonisation of the mind set also.

Lesson 7: As an outsider, both at the organisational and individual levels and in the cooperation with other organisations, make critical self-reflection an integral part of the work (for example, as part of the annual planning and learning cycle) and, in particular, ask the question ‘Are we doing the right things? (Instead of just ‘Are we doing things the right way?’).

Ntombi Nyathi is the TFT Strategic Networking and Resource Mobilization Officer. Fons van der Velden is director of Context, international cooperation, the Netherlands, and the author of several books including Towards a fair and just economy; Social business as a transformational approach (2018).