“Launching such an initiative [RINGO] was brave. The way it was done was participatory, it was fun, and it was insightful. And what came out of it already shows how relevant this is. So, I am looking forward to continuing being part of this journey.”
-Wolfgang Jamann, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Commission (ICSC).
For years, civil society organisations (CSOs) in the global south have decried the power imbalance within the global civil society.
They have called for a shift of power and resources from donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to the south so that local CSOs can gain the ownership and autonomy they need to drive development ‘for the local people,’ ‘of the local people’ and ‘by the local people.’
This has triggered many conversations in the third sector as actors embark on a journey to find a lasting solution to this.
The birth of #ShiftThePower movement in 2016 at the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy is one of the critical approaches perceived to challenge the power imbalance between donor and recipient, as the universal remedy for improving the effectiveness of aid and transferring agency to the ‘local people’.
However, while this is contributing to addressing the problem, there has been the need for a more radical and systematic approach to investigate, examine and test the very structures that underpin the power struggle in the sector – A more disruptive approach that can transform how aid giving and development are done. It is against this background that the Re-Imagining the Role of International Non-governmental Organisations (RINGO) project was born in 2020.
Developed by Rights CoLab and the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), RINGO is a global, cross-sectoral initiative which is thoroughly examining the purpose, structures, power, and positioning of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) on a global scale.
Fundamentally, the project is finding ways to disrupt existential power imbalance pertaining to ‘who has’ capacity, knowledge, and expertise in the development ecosystem. It seeks to change the narrative of the north providing capacity building, knowledge transfer and bringing expertise ‘to’ southern civil society.
It is also thoroughly examining ways to enable and mainstream a justice and solidarity-based approach that changes the way INGOs think about their success and shifting power to local activists and CSOs.
Also, RINGO is co-creating partnerships of genuine solidarity between international actors and local civil society, where risk is shared and continuously navigated and negotiated by all stakeholders, including funders.
Unsurprisingly, RINGO has gained great momentum after two years of implementation. The first two years of implementation, which constitute phase one, unmasked some critical problems in the INGO sector and the programme has since been looking for ways to address these challenges.
One of the problems identified, which persists, is that INGOs are perceived to be holding too much power and resources and at the same time, are a key blockage for change, holding onto power and protecting their coveted positions in the international system.
In addressing these challenges, the partners over the past two years, launched the RINGO social lab which created eight prototypes tailored to transform the global civil society by impacting structures of INGOs, examining their funding and accountability models, and understanding and aligning what solidarity means to local organisations.
This will break development barriers and disrupt “stiff and obsolete” structures and weave into the sector a new change in thinking, where INGOs become vehicles of global solidarity.
RINGO’s Success to Date
Out of the eight prototypes, it is exciting to note that we have tested seven of them and are now exploring ways to apply them within the wider INGO system. This has been a great learning experience for the partners.
Deborah Willig, Director of NGO Futures at InterAction, and RINGO prototype team member has recounted some of her experiences being a part of this transformative journey.
“My highlight from RINGO so far has been the opportunity to collaborate across organisations, countries, and roles to chip away at some of the world’s most intractable challenges to creating a better world. Having a team to do it with, with diverse minds is fulfilling and creates such better solutions,” she said.
The creation of the prototypes has provoked some important conversations in the third sector on a myriad of topics purported to challenge the status quo and shift existing paradigms.
It was therefore not surprising when the maiden RINGO learning festival held in November 2022 to unpack the narratives of the prototypes, saw over 1000 civil society actors register to take part in the different sessions. This is a bold step in the right direction.
The successful four-day event witnessed a global audience including Northern and Southern CSOs, donors and development actors fully engage in 24 live sessions of stimulated conversations. The recorded versions of these sessions have also seen 715 views on YouTube (as of February 2023). Even more exciting is that 70% of the audience engaging themselves in the RINGO conversation off-live are new.
This, to us, means only one thing—that, there is a dire need of disruptive mechanisms to shift paradigms in the INGO sector for a more cohesive and egalitarian global civil society. As promising as it is, RINGO has an ambitious plan to be a “game changer.”
At a partners’ strategic meeting held in Accra in January 2023, Deborah Doane, convenor of the project noted that RINGO is giving CSOs in the global south a sense of hope and has the potential to build a harmonised and transformed global civil society in the next ten years.
“RINGO is catalyst for transforming global civil society. Our dream is to have a more harmonised civil society in the next ten years,” she said.
Executive Director of WACSI, Nana Afadzinu is strongly optimistic about the prospects of the disruptive project.
“It has been a learning process. One which is building solidarity globally. It has been remarkably interesting, engaging and a challenging process for a systemic change to address power imbalance within the international development system,” she said in an interview held on the sidelines of the strategic meeting.
Phase one of the project set a daring tone to anchor the change that is needed within the civil society ecosystem. In fact, the initiative has received global applaud and support.
Our first research work got responses from 600 national and local CSOs globally as highlighted in our 2021 report titled ‘ Fostering Equitable North-South Civil Society Partnerships: Voices from the South’.
We have had twelve global convenings and 72 coaching sessions as part of the Social Lab convening and coaching initiatives whereas we have received 47%, 45% and 8% for global north, south and diaspora representations, respectively.
To ensure we build a more robust support system for the project, eight organisational partnerships including Partos, the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, Disrupt Development, and the Council on Foundations, as well as strong relationships with CIVICUS, the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) and the Pledge for Change continue to enhance the potency of the initiative.
These partners have understood the importance of RINGO and the need to rally support for it.
The RINGO Social Lab has received input from 95 change agents from across the ecosystem. This includes local and national CSOs, social movements, large INGOs, bilateral and independent funders, researchers, academics and think tanks as well as independent consultants and social enterprises, constituting a rich repository of knowledge.
We have successfully assembled 35 RINGO speaking engagements, six funder action pods, one southern action pod (hosted by GFCF), issued and dispatched five RINGO community newsletters to a mailing list of over 1000 subscribers, composed four RINGO podcasts as well as two ‘open house’ events with over 275 attendees.
RINGO is a leading globally coordinated cross-sectoral effort to revolutionise the sector by interrogating the purpose, structures, power, and positioning of INGOs.
From Innovation to Transformation – Phase two of RINGO in the Offing
Because transformation is a gradual process, RINGO is on a journey. A ten-year journey that will revolutionise and reform global civil society.
Though it was originally designed as a two-year process, intended to close in December 2022, the challenges identified in the global civil society require a lot more work and time. The RINGO process has accordingly been tailored to adapt to the evolving challenges. This requires more work.
Phase two, which opens a new chapter of RINGO effective 2023, will see initiatives that will augment the impact of the project. The drive for transformation remains high!
“We want to see more impact and better results in the next ten years. Deborah Doane, project convenor said at a partners’ strategic meeting on Wednesday, 25 January 2023 in Accra.
The next chapter of RINGO will see WACSI leading as a convener and being supported by all the other partners including Rights CoLab and Reos Partners.
“WACSI’s expertise and experience in working with civil society groups in West Africa makes it well-suited to lead this important initiative,” Nana Afadzinu, Executive Director noted.
Charles Kojo Vandyck, Head, Capacity Development unit at WACSI, a key member of the RINGO core team highlighted the learning experiences gained by WACSI while playing a pivotal role in the first phase of the project.
“It has been an empowering opportunity for us to be involved in RINGO. It has given us visibility for the work we do.
RINGO also exposed us to new skills, spaces, and interactions on particularly important conversations on development and civil society in general,” he said.
According to him, leading this phase of RINGO is a profitable one for WACSI as the project’s overall goal aligns perfectly well with the Institute’s strategic ambitions. “For years we have been spearheading discussions on localisation and #ShiftThePower as a way of driving people–led development,” he added.
RINGO will therefore position WACSI at the core of efforts geared towards promoting local leadership, localisation, decolonisation among other new development innovations aimed at improving the global civil society ecosystem.