This Practice Paper aims to contribute to ongoing reflections and debates taking place among aid practitioners about if, and how, big international NGOs (BINGOs) can be more effective agents of ‘progressive social change'.
It summarises a series of conversations that took place among seven members of the Institute of Development Studies Participation Power and Social Change team and staff from eight BINGOs between July 2008 and March 2009. During the conversations, participants considered how internal and external factors influence the potential of BINGOs to contribute to shifts in power relations; greater realisation of rights; and enhanced economic, political and social justice for poor and vulnerable people.
All of this was encapsulated in the term 'progressive social change'. At the end of the process, participants agreed that there is considerable scope for many BINGOs to pursue a more progressive agenda. They recommended that similar conversations need to continue and branch out, both in topical range and in participants in order to stimulate the kind of reflection and organisational learning required to do so.
This paper includes accounts of discussions, case studies shared by participants, inputs from academic critiques of BINGOs and practical tools to feed into such deliberations. It explores the types of changes that BINGOs are trying to achieve, the approaches they use - their models of change, and challenges and tensions commonly perceived to prevent BINGOs pursuing more radical social change agendas.
Provocative questions are raised as a means to help practitioners identify changes that their organisations need to make in order to more actively pursue social, economic and political justice. In some instances inspiring examples from BINGO participants suggest means to do so. References to organisational theory, meeting discussions and BINGO case studies are used to interrogate assumptions about how large complex organisations behave and to identify lessons that may be used to inform efforts to transform BINGOs into more effective agents of progressive social change.
The ActionAid Participatory Methodologies Forum 2001, which was hosted by AA Bangladesh, attracted 44 participants from 20 countries. This was an unprecedented gathering of key people working at different levels in different vertical or horizontal functions across ActionAid. The forum was initially conceived as a space to share experiences around participatory methodologies, adapting them to the new strategic direction of ActionAid. However, it rapidly evolved into a space for the analysis of power relationships, with the recognition that all participatory methods, tools and techniques can easily become manipulative, extractive, distorted or impotent.
This meant looking inwards, at their own personal experiences of power and at power relationships within ActionAid, in order to identify contradictions and develop new “lenses”, sensitive to power, with which to see their work with partners, allies and crucially with the poor and the excluded.
This is not a traditional workshop report as it does not attempt to offer a simple sequential or chronological overview of proceedings. Rather it aims to present a synthesis of the key ideas and a flavour of the experience. Moreover, this report has been compiled by the core planning team and is very much the planning team’s collective interpretation of the Forum. They are hence respectful that each participant in the forum experienced the process differently and that no report can ever hope to capture such diversity.