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Attributes you need to lead effectively in the evolving humanitarian and development sectors

June 10, 2024

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Torrey Peace

Leadership Coach & Trainer
Aid for Aid Workers


Christine Sow, CEO

Chief Executive Officer & President, US

In this podcast episode of Aid for Aid Workers, Torrey Peace, Leadership Coach, Guide, and Trainer, talks to Dr. Christine Sow, CEO of Humentum, about what it means— and what it takes — to lead effectively in the evolving humanitarian and development sectors. They discuss the essential strategies leaders must consider for enhancing equity, resilience, and accountability in global development organizations, and Christine shares how Humentum walks the talk. The conversation also touches on insights from Humentum’s report on Cultivating a Healthy Global Development Ecosystem, part of the Operationalizing Locally-Led Development series. Check out the excerpt from their discussion below.


Can you explain more about the work Humentum is doing around DEI localization? Especially in relation to your recent report “Cultivating a Healthy Global Development Ecosystem.”

Humentum starts by recognizing that all sorts of meaningful conversations are going on in the sector that are pretty conceptual and big thinking. For example, the recognition that we need to change the way that global development works because it’s built on the foundation of a colonial, top-down approach to funding flow, where ideas and strategy are set in Global North and then imposed on those who are actually doing the work closest to the populations.

That’s Humentum’s starting point. We work at what I call the next level down, at the operating model level. Having those big conceptual ideas is one thing, but when folks start trying to implement and operationalize them, they get stuck.

We support individual organizations to work on the how by working on their own operating models. We also work at the ecosystem level. But again, from the operation side of things.

That means asking questions like:

  • What are the practicalities about how funding flows?
  • Do we have the right partnerships and relationships in place?
  • Do we have the right parameters, rules, tools, and resources for it to work?

We also support the sector and the organizations working within it to become more equitable, resilient, and accountable. By doing so, we work towards shifting power because it will move the work closer to where the issues are being addressed. From a practical standpoint, removing those bottlenecks will also help organizations be more effective and efficient.

What was one of the most surprising outcomes of this report?

At this point, we can go to any setting where people working in the sector are coming together, and if we ask the right questions, we will hear common pain points, priorities, and agreements about what people think should be happening and the roadblocks to getting there. In fact, whether we’re talking to INGOs, civil society organizations, or funders, they know the pain points.

Now, people see them from different perspectives because they approach them from their own positions, but there’s much more agreement on what isn’t working than disagreement. The challenge is: how do we move towards a transformation that allows them to work?

Our sectoral challenge is that those solutions can’t be generated or applied to only one stakeholder. We must recognize how they are interrelated, interdependent, and frequently codependent. We must have complex conversations and root-cause analyses that show how different parts of the structure hamper movement toward resolving those obstacles. That means we need to have many complex conversations and analyses to come up with solutions that we can all apply from our own positions.

Regarding positioning, what trends are you observing amongst INGOs as they seek to implement DEI initiatives and localization?

The biggest challenge for leaders is letting go of their current position. Frequently, leaders rise through the ranks, moving into these positions linearly, which is how things have always been done.

What we are saying is, “Yes, that’s true. But now, let’s just take a step back, open up, and work from a listening position. We need you to absorb the insights we can bring forward because we talked to thousands of people about these issues.”

It is about letting go of power. It’s letting go of control to some extent to say, “Wow, okay, I’m in this leadership position because I know how to wield power. I’ve been successful in imposing control and having the right ideas and the right answers, but now I must let go a little bit. I know things need to change. Let me listen and let me be informed by these insights and by these practical things that we’re learning and then see how I can build that into my own leadership style and my own leadership journey and how I lead my organization.”

When we think about shifting power—which is a big concept—it's about how we show up at the same table as human beings who recognize each other as equals and share a space together. We come to it as equal human beings.

What do you think are some other attributes of the modern humanitarian leader (that’s what I call this particular leadership) that are in line with this healthy ecosystem, as you speak of in your report?

One of our core values at Humentum is that we walk the talk. Our mission is to work with other organizations to support their efforts to be more equitable, resilient, and accountable and to have strong operating models.

That also means that we must do what we preach. If we ask tough questions to external partners, we must also ask those same tough questions internally. We work deliberately on that, and it’s not always easy.

So, I have to interrogate myself and talk with others about how we will walk the talk. How far does this go? What makes the most sense?

As the leader, I have the final word, but I do not simply make that decision based on what I woke up one-morning thinking was the right one. I do that based on conversations and consultations.

Over the last five years, we’ve learned to do that much better. We’ve had some things that didn’t work very well, and we’ve had to recognize that.

One of our equity principles at Humentum is to be humble and own our mistakes. As a leader, and to answer your question about what it means to be a leader in the humanitarian space, I think it is that balance between vulnerability, accountability, and transparency.

How can you recognize the challenges you’re dealing with and share that to the appropriate extent with those with whom you’re working in your organization and externally as well? And being transparent about the decisions that have been made, why they’ve been made, what your expectations are, and being accountable.

You learn from everything you do, whether it’s a positive or negative outcome, and you have to take that forward and do better the next time…

Struggling to bridge the strategy-to-action gap? From models and structures to team capacity, Humentum helps you to build lasting operational effectiveness and achieve your organization’s mission.

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