Looking to feminist and women’s rights movements to improve aid localisation

| June 21, 2023

Localisation is a key topic in the lead up to Australia’s highly anticipated new international development policy. Real impact leans heavily on how the government improves its localisation strategies and becomes an authentic ‘trust’ partner. But while the government and Australia’s development community engage with this issue, it’s worth highlighting that global feminist and women’s rights movements – and the funding ecosystem that supports them – can provide some food for thought.

Locally led is not always locally led

Development programs should not just be ‘informed’ by local partners. They should be conceptualised, led and implemented by those who are grounded in the context and whose lived realities programs will impact. This requires a shift in power. The Development Intelligence Lab, for example, recently said “there’s a blueprint we can follow from programs that are doing [locally led development] well. Often, it involves a flipping of power dynamics.”

This is a complex process that takes intention, time, and involves listening to local actors. There are also significant power differentials in the local dynamics that need to be taken into account. For example, even if programs are led by local partners, there is a deeper and often unseen dynamic of grassroots communities and networks being overlooked for the larger and more visible organisations in that country.

Larger organisations often have the legal recognition and financial resources to mobilise through the formal mechanisms of their governments and other international development stakeholders. Operating in arenas such as policy advocacy and service provision, in most cases they are the ones that end up managing the funds and holding power.

This is not to say these organisations don’t deserve funding, but rather that funding misses the critical and severely underfunded work of movement or constituency-led groups that take a more intersectional, contextually-grounded, decolonial, systems-change approach.

How this translates on the ground is a further marginalisation of smaller, social movement-based groups who are directly experiencing systemic injustice; are the most actively engaged on the issues; and are best placed to respond to and address them. They often form the majority of civil society organising.

Constituency-led groups go beyond advocacy and service provision to engage in the longer-term, political and risky work of narrative change that gets to the heart of racial, economic, gender and other inequities central to the issues ‘development’ aims to address. Importantly, these groups also demonstrate alternatives to the status quo and practise rights-based strategies that are just, equal and often kinder to the planet. Such groups include feminist and women’s rights, Indigenous, Black, LGBTQI+, youth, domestic and migrant workers and rural communities to name a few.

Power shifts need to occur at every level, starting with the money

Women’s/feminist funds like Women’s Fund Fiji; Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific; Women’s Fund Asia, and the recently launched Pacific Feminist Fund (now part of the Amplify-Invest-Reach (AIR) partnership supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), have worked to overcome these power imbalances and ensuing funding disparities. They are examples of how power and money can move in a way that is more conducive to localisation.

Women’s/feminist funds are grounded in and part of their local contexts. They act as intermediaries for larger sums of money from funders like governments and private foundations, that are then re-granted to smaller groups that would typically miss out on funding. But women’s/feminist funds are not just ‘intermediaries’.

They are authentic ‘trust partners’ who listen to and accompany community groups on their journeys. Grants are almost exclusively in the form of core, flexible funding that grantees decide how to spend, and non-financial resources are also provided, such as training or spaces for groups to connect, share and collaborate. This proximity and flexibility is the key to their success.

This funding model has proven particularly impactful for unregistered groups, those who in some contexts are deemed ‘outside’ the system such as LGBTQI+ communities, sex workers, domestic workers, and others; and groups working at the intersections of issues that fall through the cracks of siloed funding pools.

Bilateral funders like the governments of the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden and Australia increasingly recognise the reach and impact of women’s/feminist funds. Ironically, however, these funds were created in response to the huge amount of funding earmarked for ‘gender equality’ that has missed feminist and women’s rights organisations for decades.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has shown, for example, that “a remarkable – and disturbing – 99% of gender related international aid fails to reach women’s rights and feminist organizations directly. Three-quarters of the funding never leaves development agencies themselves, and the remaining money that does goes almost entirely to mainstream CSOs and INGOs.”

And this problem is also happening in other, intersecting areas like humanitarian assistance, where it has been estimated that less than 2% of all humanitarian funding goes directly to local and national actors, despite them being at the frontlines of risk and better placed to act.

These are clear examples of how even when vast amounts of funding are allocated towards a particular issue, if the money isn’t carefully directed, it can miss the most important actors doing all the work. So how can Australian development funding better reach and serve constituency-led groups?

Match funding to the diversity of needs instead of the other way around

‘Flipping power dynamics’ involves examining relationships and unpacking systems and processes at every level, starting with the money. This would be a funder shift from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’.

Taking insights from the women’s/feminist funds model, Australia’s development community should continue to find ways to match funding to the diversity of needs, exploring how this might work across the entire international development portfolio. Rather than over-relying on the usual suspects like contractors and large NGOs, deepen local relationships and invest in trust. Then tinker with the systems and processes that currently make it onerous or impossible to fund smaller, local groups.

AWID’s research into best practice bilateral funding for feminist movements provides some useful insights for localisation that could be extrapolated for wider use. Several common practices were identified among the nine funding programs profiled that overcome ‘stumbling blocks’ to directly funding constituency-led groups.

First was the political will and mandate to build relationships and change the status quo. But the mechanics that made these programs succeed included: flexible eligibility requirements like different funding tranches and allowing for re-granting; flexible, long-term general operating support that allowed for money to be spent where needed, including the institutional strengthening of funded groups (eligibility for managing funds often depends on a funder’s perception of that group’s ‘readiness’ to do so, which only perpetuates entrenched power imbalances). These programs also built avenues for partnership: assembling steering, advisory, and technical committees made up of feminist and women’s rights activists; as well as engaging grantees in tailored accountability systems.

Real change happens when you put resources and power directly into the hands of those fighting for their own needs and priorities. Feminist and women’s rights movements are examples of this, and continue to be key actors that should be abundantly funded due to their intersectional work on issues central to international development.

But going further – these movements and the funders that support them continue to move the needle on resourcing and implementing locally led work. This provides food for thought for ‘development’ as a whole.