By Peter Sargent

This blog is part of INTRAC’s season on shifting the power through organisational development. The season is part of our celebrations of INTRAC’s 30th anniversary.

People should have control over their own futures. It is an idea which is at the centre of all international development work, and in 1991 INTRAC was founded on this premise. It has stayed with the organisation ever since. For us, what it means in practice is an emphasis on community-led approaches. We want to see decisions being made locally, to support the changes that are needed to support a thriving civil society. It is a civil society that works on that basis which is best able to meet the needs of marginalised power, and to hold the powerful to account. We believe that the more rooted a decision is in communities, the more effectively power is held to account. This applies on different scales: at the city, region, or country level. It is crucial to foster a more effective civil society, and it is why shifting the power is so vital.

Across its 30-year history, INTRAC has sought to shift the power in a number of ways . Our approach has varied based on the relative strength of civil society in a particular context. Where civil society is strong, our role is in collaborating with like-minded organisations to ensure good dialogue on policy and practice. One example is on the topic of responsible exit, where we have worked to influence funders to trust and empower their partners during that challenging process. Through our events and publications, we act as a convener and push for better evidence-based practices in areas such as capacity strengthening, core grants, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL).

We work differently in contexts where civil society is weaker, for example where there are few civil society support organisations and networks.  We see our efforts to strengthen organisations in the global South as part of the broader effort to shift the power in development work. We believe strongly in the value of localised consultancy, and through our Consultants for Change (C4C) programme we took concrete steps in that direction, supporting the development of a cohort of skilled local consultants. In those contexts where civil society is weaker still, and there is an absence of local support infrastructure, we work more directly with organisations.

Shifting the power is not only a process that we engage in externally. It is important for us to ask ourselves difficult questions internally, too – including about how we are set up to achieve our mission. We feel that we have been working to shift the power for many years, but the spotlight that has been placed on INGOs recently allows us to re-imagine what INTRAC could be in a changing context. Already, the pandemic has catalysed and accelerated some of this change. We have built on our rich experience with online training to make it even more accessible to people around the world. We continue to think hard about how we work with our network of consultants. To have the best impact that we can, we know we need to ensure we have skilled consultants in the right contexts, working in international teams which provide support tailored to client needs.

In all of these efforts, people are at the centre. One example is our ethical research policy, which draws on our expertise in participatory methods. Our evaluations, too, are not just evidence-based but also strongly people-centred. Further, our mentoring work helps embed learning which is context-appropriate in a practical, usable way.

INTRAC’s origins are rooted in the experiences of people based in Oxford and our founders were practitioners and academics who wanted to do something different to support civil society. Over time, we have taken steps to ensure we have a variety of perspectives reflected in our governance and our decision-making. These both now better reflect the communities we exist to serve, and we recognise it is an ongoing journey. We have written our desire to shift the power into our theory of change and into our values, but we know that there is much more to be done.

To that end, INTRAC aspires to be a catalyst for change. Our aim is to facilitate the shift the power process with others, to accompany others, and to be a trusted friend in processes of change. We are changing, and we want to accompany others to do the same. We believe in the essential contribution of a strong civil society to all social change. We believe strongly that change is achieved from the inside out, not from the outside in. Individuals and organisations alike are changing, and it is as a system that we need to move forward – it is on this level that the great shift of power must take place, and INTRAC stands ready to do its part.