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Dr. Christine Sow on Embracing Local Expertise and Equitable Practices

September 19, 2023

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Vincent Turner

Podcast host
Shape the System


Christine Sow, CEO

Chief Executive Officer & President, US

In this episode of Shape the System with podcast host Vincent Turner, Christine Sow, CEO of Humentum, shares insights on the importance of working globally while considering local expertise and nuances. They discuss the shift towards locally-led development and the challenges civil society organizations face in gaining trust and funding. Humentum’s focus on driving fair, meaningful change in the global development sector is also highlighted, emphasizing its vision for equitable, resilient, and accountable operating models.

VT: How does aligning locally-led development with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals help to better address global challenges?

CS: There’s a real argument for working globally: you can bring together experiences from all over and standardize some approaches. You have best practices, and you want to share the learning that’s going on in different places. At the same time, you can’t go in with a cookie-cutter approach. You can’t say this works in one place, so if we apply it elsewhere with a different population, it will work that way.

You need to have the nuance, local knowledge, and expertise brought into the conceptualization of the problems, the solution’s design, and the intervention’s application. It’s a balance between wanting to identify what we know will work and, at the same time, saying, well, things need to be adapted to the setting in which they’re being carried out. This takes us to the idea of locally-led development.

VT: What do NGOs look like today at a global level?

CS: We talk about international NGOs (INGOs) and national or local NGOs [also called civil society organizations or CSOs]. INGOs are organizations that typically have a centralized headquarters and what they call their country programs. For example, Oxfam might have headquarters somewhere and then 60 countries where they work. And perhaps they have a country program or country office in each one. And so there is a centralized way of working, and then there are the decentralized projects they implement.

At the same time, we see a growing phenomenon of civil society organizations (CSOs). So, organizations in communities working at a district, state, or national level within a country.

We're seeing these large INGOs looking hard at their business model, thinking: is it equitable? Is it appropriate for us to run these programs from a centralized headquarters, call the shots, and send the money from there? Or should we be shifting to helping those local and national organizations strengthen their capacity, build their systems, and put them at the forefront of the projects being implemented?

Dr. Christine Sow, CEO, Humentum

VT: This is the bit that I’ve been curious about. I imagine the hypothesis is they would be able to have, on a per capita basis, a much higher impact. Is that what you’re seeing and hypothesizing?

CS: That’s basically it. I think the other idea is just this thought that people who are close to the problem understand the problem best, so they may be able to do a better project or intervention to address the problem because they’re really in tune with what’s going on and the reality.

Because of the way that global development has evolved, these big organizations are seen as having proven themselves by funders, so they typically get the money. They are trusted partners, whereas smaller organizations that tend to be younger are really building their own accountability as they go, are not as trusted by funders. Not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because the funders don’t have a long track record with them. So, funders tend to use these INGOs as intermediaries.

VT: Are these larger organizations starting to play an intermediary role where they’re like, “We’re not best placed to deliver the programs, and we have to work out how to allocate the capital”?

CS: We see a spectrum of change and openness to transformation in these large organizations. Some of them say we will work ourselves out of a job—that is our goal—and we will find smaller organizations that we can invest in and eventually transfer over what we’ve been doing. We see some large organizations saying they will open their country-level organizations and become affiliates and partners with the smaller organizations doing the work. And then some big organizations say no, we’re good with our model, and we’re not going to change it.

We also see commitments from international funders; I'm referring to private foundations and bilateral governments. For example, in the United States, USAID has said that 25% of its funds will go to local organizations. However, there are bottlenecks in how that will work because the rules and regulations that the US government, a large bureaucracy, have put in place don't necessarily work to get the funding to those small organizations. And so, they are trying to figure out how this happens.

Dr. Christine Sow, CEO, Humentum

VT: Can you speak to the four or five challenges? Because I think this is where Humentum plays a part.

CS: We look at operating models with four key components:

  1. We start with institutional architecture, looking at the operating model, governance, and leadership. How is the organization structured?
  2. Secondly, it’s the human capital; human resources, people, and culture. Who is working in the organization? Where are they? What skills do they have? How are they compensated? Who is doing the work?
  3. Third is the funding and financial system, so any organization working in this space. What are their funding sources? Do they have one primary donor, or do they have many donors? Do they want to shift the donors that they are asking for funding? And then what knock-on effect does that have in terms of the financial systems they need to have in place? And here, we see the critical issues around financial sustainability. We work with a lot of organizations on the question of do they have financial reserves. Do they have a rainy-day fund? Do they have money to invest in strategic improvements they want to do in their organization? Are they receiving the money from the donors needed to implement the project they have been funded for?
  4. And the fourth area is risk and compliance. It’s around what kind of partnerships are put in place and the requirements between a funder and an organization that will implement the project. We are trying to help the sector move from a compliance system based on mistrust, suspicion, and fraud everywhere, to one based on trust.

VT: Humentum has an embodied knowledge around how to do that so well that it moves from just the people aspect to a platform aspect where it provides the tooling. Is that the journey you are on?

CS: It’s a journey we’ve been on for a long time. We work at an individual and an organizational level and at a global and policy level. In 2022, we held more than 300 meetings. We talked to thousands of people and compiled those findings into a series of three reports published on our website.

We have a Policy Blueprint for Locally-Led Development. Our second report is an ERA Index that we launched last year, but we intend to do it yearly. We talk to international and national NGOs and check in with them on where they are on this journey to transform how they work to be more equitable, resilient, and accountable [ERA].

The third report consists of interviews and insights from discussions we had with more than 50 leaders of national and local NGOs. We hear many discussions globally about locally-led development but very few local voices. So, we asked them what does locally-led development need to do? Are you part of the conversation? What do you think all of us need to hear?

That’s the broader-ranging work we are doing because we want to influence the sector as a whole, not just individuals and organizations.

Learn more about Humentum’s Collective Journey to Equitable Development