This blog was originally published on EngenderHealth’s website.
Exploring the TIME initiative’s journey over the last year has provided as many valuable insights and lessons about the process of operationalizing sector-wide transformation as it has built clarity around changes that sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) international NGOs need to make to remain fit for purpose, sustainable, and legitimate.
It’s also raised a lot of questions about the future of SRHR INGOs and how we as a development community—and SRHR specifically—have a responsibility to reflect on our history, celebrate our successes, examine the structures and systems that govern our sector, and assess our value and purpose.
TIME is a collaboration-based initiative that seeks to explore how SRHR INGOs can and should rethink how to operate and contribute to equitable development. Research findings from 2022 on the current relationship dynamics between SRHR INGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) indicated that while INGOs will continue to be relevant, they will need to change to be fit for purpose. In response, in 2023, 18 SRHR INGOs established three working groups which met 22 times in total to identify actions that INGOs could take to align on and operationalize locally-led development.
This past year has been one of introspection among INGOs, which is just one important part of sector-wide transformation. Going forward, we know that INGOs, CSOs, and funders must come together to define a common vision for where we are headed and a plan for how we reimagine a future that is more equitable, accountable, and resilient. While there is still much work to be done, it is important to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned from this past year of co-creation and collaboration.
The lessons extracted from TIME extend beyond its immediate context, providing valuable insights for the broader movement advocating for equitable, locally-led development. While more hard truths are outlined here, four main lessons learned stand out from this year of collective work.
Lesson 1: The process is the project. Collective action requires collective understanding.
Within the first two months of TIME working group meetings, it became clear that the process of questioning and reassessing the purpose, process, and participants of the work was as important as the outputs of the working groups themselves. All three groups actively engaged with the following process-related challenges:
- Identifying the exact problem to be addressed, which impacted decisions on who should participate in discussions and why.
- Ensuring that the way the work was done didn’t perpetuate existing problems and power imbalances, requiring careful consideration of the project’s approach.
- Language posed a barrier, leading to significant time being spent on clarifying meanings and interpretations during discussions.
- Acknowledging that INGOs need to do internal work before they can effectively engage with other stakeholders, while at the same time recognizing that those involved with TIME are only a subset of a larger community.
- Working to build a safe space for participants to feel comfortable about expressing themselves, especially critical given the subject’s ambivalence.