Let’s build back differently and then build back better
Humentum’s earlier OpEx365 Retreats—Making Room for Innovation: Reassembling our World of Work—brought global development professionals together to explore ways to define the nonprofits of the future. Led by our Retreat Facilitator, Maggie Chumbley, the final gathering featured a discussion with Dr. Dorothy Nyambi, CEO of MEDA, who dived into how the sector can move forward post COVID-19.
This is an abridged transcript of Dr. Nyambi’s insights and perspectives from that conversation.
Maggie: What unique perspective do you think you bring to the discussion Dr. Nyambi?
Dr. Nyambi: I come with three distinct “M”s: First, I’m a mother, I have three children, and I feel like that’s a really important qualification that I bring to this conversation because parenting is a unique education in itself. The second “M” is, I’m a medical doctor. And the third “M”, I see myself as a manager—in life, no matter what we do, we’re always trying to manage.
I started my career as a medical doctor and moved into management at several international development organizations like Right to Play International and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Today, I’m really humbled to be leading a team of wonderful colleagues at MEDA, an organization focused on economic development and using business solutions to address global poverty.
Maggie: From your point of view, what can this sector do moving forward from the chaos of 2020?
Dr. Nyambi: It’s been more than a year, and we are still predominantly in shutdown mode in our sector. I think, like with anything chaotic, there are always opportunities. So that’s why I preface this by saying I’m a mother and when you are a parent there’s always chaos. There’s chaos in the home with the children, and how do we go through that? We don’t just “snap back” in our homes, in our personal lives, or in our relationships.
Let us respect people’s lived experience. Let us not snap back. Let’s build back differently to be sure we build back better.
This past year, while chaotic, has given us two big opportunities. First, we have slowed down and reflected and that has been really important. Second, we have been forced to ask, “how do we move forward and prevent returning to how things were?” We have to acknowledge some of the ways we worked in the past were not ideal, not productive, and those elements we need to leave behind. As northern based iNGOs, we are not ‘saviors’ and that is a major mentality of the sector we need to work to leave behind. It means giving up power and sharing power with others. It means realizing we are not ‘the experts’—the experts of poverty are those who are living through poverty. We have to ‘listen and hear’ them. Let them drive the nature of interventions that would work for them. Let us respect people’s lived experience. Let us not snap back. Let’s build back differently to be sure we build back better.
Maggie: When we spoke before, you brought up the term, snap back, and I remember you saying, “As a leader, all I do is manage for the snap back.” Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Dr. Nyambi: In the development sector, the greatest risk is snapping back to old ways. I have reflected, and by snap back, I mean that our perspective is centered on our ability to maintain power, or relinquish some of it, or sharing the structures that have allowed us to exist in our ecosystem in a certain way.
When we think about building back differently, we have to think about what power we bring when we want to go back to business-as-usual. What power do we need to share for decision making or developing programs? What power dynamics are key points of our vision as we think about recovery during and after this chaos / opportunity.
Maggie: So how do we create that new space—you said something about creating a new space, sharing power?
Dr. Nyambi: I think we keep talking about inclusion, and very often in many sectors, but specifically in the development sector, inclusion means you simply know somebody like me. Yet, I end up adopting a Eurocentric norm that has been defined by those who have set an arbitrary standard. What I’m describing is a new space where you bring what is normal for you personally. I can bring what is successful for me, an African Canadian, and we now create a new space of inclusion, where our voices, our ideas, will come with power and the ability to shape and reconstruct how we work, how we set up our organizations, and who we ultimately become.
We have a culture where we want to be the ones who go out there and save others. And I include myself in this, I’m operating out of Canada. When I head out to Nairobi or Yangon—no matter what I do, I have to be very intentional about managing the power I bring, real or perceived. I don’t presume to have the solution. The people who live in Nairobi or Yangon know best what’s going to be their solution. The question is how to genuinely bring their voice and perspective into the conversation.
To prevent snapping back, how can we build back differently and better? We cannot succeed without the funders also coming along. As a sector, if we are we able to bring the funding structures (institutions, private individuals, foundations etc.) along that will be great progress. Because the past and current funding structures have been established to serve the old power centers, it has hugely contributed to how iNGOs have set themselves up—we traveled into the region, we were the ‘technical experts’, so that’s the construct for most of the funding today. We need to deconstruct it to better serve our communities and improve our sector. The good news is, many funding bodies are making the shift, thinking and working on it and now iNGOs need to work to be ready for this new chapter. The preliminary steps that organizations can take is to shift power to field operations. Then the individual needs to be prioritized over the organization to make that happen.
Maggie: How can we genuinely share power?
Dr. Nyambi: To genuinely share power, we must be ready to be humble, recognizing that our power has been inherited. Power that exists because of the color of our skin or power that is derived by our social location is handed down. Until we accept that vulnerability and put it on the table in an authentic manner, it will be impossible to share power.
To genuinely share power, we must be ready to be humble, recognizing that our power has been inherited.
I think it is a personal commitment that we make, not an organizational one. Individuals have to reflect and then decide what power they need to share to succeed.
Maggie: So, who takes the lead on that? Do implementers come first, or do we wait for funders to start?
Dr. Nyambi: Implementers need to begin the process. If somebody has the funds, and cannot get out to do the work, the money will never reach where it needs to go. I think the first way is to rethink the work and propose it to the funder differently, which will then ensure that funders deconstruct how they invest for impact.
We must decentralize the funding structures of the Global North. The decisions have to be made closer to the ground in the countries where the work needs to be done.
It won’t work if we try to do it as a sector without bringing along the funding architecture behind our work. We must decentralize the funding structures of the Global North. The decisions have to be made closer to the ground in the countries where the work needs to be done. This is a growing trend as USAID has done.
We need the larger foundations to do the same. The more we can bring the decision-making as close as possible to those we want to empower and transform, the better. Both need to happen at the same time.
Maggie: How do you recognize that people are comfortable where they’re at, but encourage them to accept change?
Dr. Nyambi: First of all, how do we learn as an organization to become comfortable with these difficult conversations? Not every organization is ready; preparation needs to happen where participants can deal with the necessary discomfort. This is not about abandoning the role, but transforming it. We’re not voiding the expertise. It’s really important to look at the needs of your staff at an organizational level. You need to bring them along on the journey because you cannot do it alone and organizations will resist, but people within organizations need to shift their mindset to achieve it.
But when that happens, then we need to involve our donors: the foundations and the bigger government organizations. In Canada, when dealing with the Canadian government, we have Corporation Canada for a collective voice, similar to Humentum. We’re advocating through that agency and bringing the government along too, simultaneously.
It’s really important to look at the needs of your staff at an organizational level. You need to bring them along on the journey because you cannot do it alone and organizations will resist, but people within organizations need to shift their mindset to achieve it.
Localization of the development sector, what does that really mean? It doesn’t mean that my organization MEDA opens an office in Dakar and we shift everything we’re doing in Waterloo, Canada. Today, localization means we recognize a local capacity. We acknowledge that after more than 60 years of international development, the context has changed. And how do we leverage that and not duplicate what could be done locally? It is a complex dialogue but one that needs to happen simultaneously at the organizational, civil society, government, and philanthropic levels. Localization cannot be effective and authentic without power and the construct of power in this sector being at the center. Let’s share power – some have to give up some so others can bring theirs to the table.
If we can do these difficult but necessary reforms, we can build back differently and better.