Welcome Forums Funding for SRHR On empowering more with less: rethinking capacity

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    In March 2016 representatives from LGBTI organizations in Swaziland exited a meeting with officials to discuss funding opportunities for Key Populations within the Global Fund. They left more than disappointed. Sub grants were not available. After almost a year of consultation and engagement, community based organizations were sidelined due to the perceived ‘lack of capacity’.
    How does hearing ‘lack of capacity‘ affect the confidence of small organizations trying to serve their communities with the little they have? It can sound like a broken record that translates to ‘we don’t think you are able to do this’.
    Does ’lack of capacity’ stop us from implementing health care worker sensitizations? Or prevent us from promoting responsible sex practices within the community? Does it hold us back from commodity distributions, providing psycho-social support, engaging with the media, promoting advocacy platforms, peer educating, conducting research, and reporting on our projects? Absolutely not. In fact these activities are not only done well but they often achieved organizing from a closet sized office (if one at all) sharing one laptop and relying on the mercy of the bus schedule.
    Community based organizations do all of this and more, and they do it with less resources, support, and funding. The ability to do more with less should be seen as an asset, not a weakness, and not as excuse to withhold funding. Instead of focusing on our gaps, look at our strengths as organizations and communities and know that we are always a work in progress, not because we are imperfect (which we are) but because we are always pushing to reach one more person. We should be empowering our community based organizations. Assuring them that not only are they capable of running programs that serve their community but that their insight and approach is often the most effective and sustainable.
    The following day The Rock of Hope held our first community planned, funded, and implemented event of 2016, a sports day to celebrate International Transgender Day of Visibility. We are working to build shared ownership by encouraging community members to take an idea, flush it out, and make it happen. We are there to guide and support them along the way. As successful as this day was, the most valuable aspect was knowing that our intern, Phaty, put it together on his own, for his community. He took his idea and made it into a reality. That is empowerment, and it never comes from the outside, it comes from knowing you are capable. When you offer people and organizations the resources, guidance, and yes, funding, to do things for themselves, they don’t just grow, they thrive.
    Next time any of you hear that you ’lack the capacity‘, I ask you to respond in saying there is nothing we are incapable of doing. How will you be there to support us reaching new heights? Our communities are not to be underestimated, and neither are we.
    Oh, and we’re not giving up on you, Global Fund.
    Wendy Kessman
    The Rock of Hope


    Ashley Green-Thompson

    In my experience, it’s helpful to use the word capability rather than capacity. I think it shifts the thinking / discourse from the kind of prejudicial and judgmental notions that ‘capacity’ conjures up. Capacity is often about complying with a set of expectations determined by mainstream, corporatist, wealthy donors – financial management systems and audits, formally qualified personnel, internal policy and controls, and all the things that make for an organisation that will fit into a mainstream setup.  Capability refers to our ability to do what it is we say we are going to do. I think it speaks to indigenous knowledge systems – it values what homegrown expertise there is regardless of whether it has formal qualification wrapped around it. It breaks the power imbalance that ‘capacity constraints’ is loaded with.

    For funders to decline support to community-based initiatives betrays the inherent contradiction of philanthropic or aid-driven responses. Ultimately, power relations remain entrenched when it is those who have the money determining where the money goes. I am an independent consultant with, among others, the Other Foundation as my clients. In my experience, there are examples of participatory philanthropy or grantmaking that involve grant recipients in the decision-making process. The FRIDA Young Feminist Fund [link to do/ ], UHAI in East Africa [link to ], and the Other Foundation [link to ] come to mind, with their variations of a peer review process that involves people from the sector in making granting decisions.

    I think this participatory approach is in line with transformative responses to social problems – it elevates the voice and power of those who traditionally are defined as passive recipients of aid.

    But I also think it takes serious commitment from the funder to radical social change –  I’m not sure that the Global Fund or any other official aid institution is prepared for that. There’s a whole lot to look at in how funding agencies give the appearance of consulting with local actors in setting priorities for funding, but closer inspection of their practice shows that it is primarily about the form and not the substance.

    I think the reflections from Rock of Hope describe a problematic attitude. Even if there are concerns about the capacity of organisations to manage the financial aspects of things – which is reasonable when the donor must comply with public financial management requirements – there is the option of using sponsor organisations who hold the money, carry fiscal responsibility for the funds, and help to build the necessary skills that will bring the organisation to the requisite level of financial management capability. And there really should be no space for external donor agencies to comment on the validity of programmes that oragnisations run with local communities. If they need reassurance, then there should be a peer review approach that takes local experience and local knowledge into account. It requires real consultation with local communities, not just in form but substance. 

    I guess this speaks to the fundamental question of power and accountability, and as long as donor agencies make the decisions alone without the need to consult with those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of those decisions, the power balance won’t change.

    Even when private foundations try to devolve decision making authority to local beneficiaries, the very model of philanthropy doesn’t seem to allow for anything radical that really challenges the class divisions that characterise modern economies – it is the elite that remain the ultimate arbiters on where funding goes. There may be models that actually work at bringing about real change – it would be good to hear about them.

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