By Sosena Lemma and Lucy Morris

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.

INTRAC recently had an opportunity to “walk the talk” on shifting the power from the global North to the global South, as part of a capacity development project with Ethiopian civil society organisations.

For 15 years, Oak Foundation supported partner organisations in Ethiopia within their Prevent Child Sexual Abuse programme. Having decided to re-focus future funding to “children on the move”, and to exit from their six remaining grantees, Oak wanted to make that exit a responsible and sustainable one. To do this, they contracted INTRAC to design what evaluator Ayele Ashagre later called an “unusual” capacity strengthening for exit programme which showed that “funders can end well”. For INTRAC, the goal was for this process to leave the Ethiopian organisations more resilient, and better able to survive post-exit.

The resulting programme ran from February 2020 to October 2021, and while INTRAC maintained overall accountability and provided backstopping support, the work was co-designed and locally led. Ethiopian consultants and coaches managed by local social enterprise AGAR Development Partners Consulting delivered all of the key inputs. AGAR and INTRAC focused on strengthening the capacity of the six Ethiopian civil society organisations in four key areas: leadership, strategy, resource mobilisation, and financial management.

Here, Sosena Lemma of AGAR and INTRAC Principal Consultant Lucy Morris share their reflections on the collaboration. They discuss the extent to which power was shifted in the collaboration, and in what ways; what the strengths and weaknesses of the programme were; and what lessons can be learned for the future.

On how the programme shifted power

SL: The programme shifted power in a number of ways. This was not only an opportunity for AGAR to undertake the work, but also to co-design the programme at the start. There was a great deal of consultation by INTRAC both with AGAR and with the local consultants during that co-creation process. It provided lots of scope to include the local context, needs, and modalities in the whole capacity strengthening process. So, we experienced a shift of power from Oak Foundation, to INTRAC, and then on to local stakeholders.

LM: Yes, there was the power which INTRAC tried to shift to AGAR, to Sosena and to the local consultants. Another key aspect was the role of women in the programme; the evaluation noted how many female staff and consultants were involved. This represented a powerful opportunity, which showed what is possible in Ethiopia where women don’t always have that kind of power.

SL: Both financial and decision-making power were shifted in this process too. AGAR managed resources in the way that we felt was best, and made key decisions in accordance with our own policies and ways of working. No policies or financial systems were imposed by INTRAC. Also, being trusted to identify where support is most needed and to bring that to the fore is also a kind of power in itself, and a power that AGAR had in this case. The CSOs being supported also had the chance to highlight the issues affecting them which was key. 

LM: There is power in who gets to set the agenda and the time frame for work, and the development agenda and decisions about the timing of different activities was set by the civil society organisations themselves, in consultation with Agar.  This meant that the “power to initiate” rested in-country and we adapted to work at the civil society organisation’s pace, but kept momentum going.  As Sosena has explained, most of the decision-making was taken in-country, supported by a few regular touchpoints with INTRAC.

As part of our attempts to ‘shift the power’ It was also significant that most of the funding was managed by AGAR, and that most decision-making was carried out in Ethiopia. It’s important to be clear that INTRAC was only able to facilitate this way of working, because of the power given to us by Oak Foundation. We benefited from a no-cost extension and the ability to re-allocate budget lines for example.

On the impact and strengths of the programme

LM: For me the work was more impactful because it was built on a deep understanding of the changing needs in Ethiopia – in view both of the pandemic and the ongoing conflict. Being able to conduct much of the work in local languages was also important. Personally, I was proud of being part of a successful organisational development project in a difficult context. That success is due largely to the dedication and skill of colleagues in Ethiopia. It means a lot that the organisations we supported continue to provide important services, mainly to vulnerable children and adults in their communities, after Oak has exited.

SL: I valued the flexibility of the project, which helped us to cope with the challenges that came up. It was not only Oak Foundation and INTRAC that formed relationships with the CSOs we were supporting, but also AGAR. If the organisations have issues they know they can still contact us. It makes me happy to have been able to contribute to the development of these organisations, and to continue to do so.

LM: This collaborative way of working felt familiar, from my previous experience in supporting partner programmes but what felt different was the holistic package of support being offered. The fact that the programme offered leadership development, the review of strategic plans, financial management, and support with resource mobilisation in a comprehensive way was a real strength.

SL: Much of our way of working felt familiar but worked well. It could be tiring to work at the pace of the CSOs we were supporting, but it was important and valuable to do so. It struck me that there was a large human element in the approach and the regular check-ins between INTRAC and AGAR helped us work as an effective team.

On what could be done better in future

SL: Part of the feedback from the CSOs we supported was that there were a lot of consultants. There could have been better coordination to prevent any repetition of effort, and to mitigate any potential for confusion. I think that if we were a little braver, we could have benefited from a more complete sense of transparency about the challenges different parties were facing.

LM: I think that INTRAC could have challenged AGAR a bit more on the topic of coordination. Handing over power and responsibility shouldn’t preclude you from challenging when something isn’t working as well as it could – but of course this has to be done in a respectful way. Additionally, I think that contracting, quality assurance, and payment of consultants should really all have been handled by the same entity. If Oak Foundation were braver, perhaps they could have looked at contracting AGAR, and AGAR could have subcontracted INTRAC for M&E support instead of the other way around….

SL: …unfortunately, due to the Ethiopian context and the banking system it would have been very difficult to work that way. That is a reality we have to live with, and to make the best of.

On messages for funders

SL: Funders must remember that they can and should work to develop the service providers they contract, like AGAR, as well as the CSOs which those service providers support. INTRAC is well-placed to deliver that kind of capacity strengthening and technical assistance. I also think that funders like Oak Foundation should consider the idea of providing support to individual consultants in the global South because that could have a big impact.

LM: The flexible funding arrangements we had made a big difference and I really appreciate Oak’s approach to this. If Oak Foundation had started their capacity development support earlier, the programme would have been even more effective because by the time this programme began the funding for programme activities had already stopped, and Ethiopian organisations were already struggling. If funders can add organisational development support into their regular programme approach, there are real benefits to be had.

SL: I think it is important for local service providers to be involved in work like this because of their deep knowledge of the local context. Funders can do more not only to strengthen civil society organisations, but also the context in which they exist. The capacity of local providers can and should be boosted, for example through mentoring and coaching. In Ethiopia and Africa more generally it can be difficult for organisations to present themselves in a professional context, and so I think that both thematic and presentational support for service providers are required.

If you would like to discuss how INTRAC can support you when it comes to exiting responsibly, please contact us. To keep up with all our news and publications, including future entries in this series, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

Sosena Lemma has nearly 20 years’ experience working in the development sector in Ethiopia. Under the multi-donor Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP 2011-2017) she led the biggest capacity development program that has ever been provided to Ethiopian civil society, working with 500 CSOs over the six years and managing a team of experts, finance mentors, national and international specialist providers. She is also managing a social enterprise working on capacity development, Agar Development Partners Consulting.

Lucy Morris is an INTRAC Principal Consultant focusing on organisational development. She is an organisational change specialist with more than 20 years experience of working in the not-for-profit sector in humanitarian and development contexts both in the UK and overseas, including at senior management level.  Her career has spanned work with the Overseas Development Institute, the UN, the Red Cross, faith-based and secular INGOs and national NGOs in the UK, Africa, Asia and Central Europe.