What’s the best prescription for achieving the SDG’s? For international NGOs and funders to cede power and control over decision-making to the constituents they aim to serve. That’s the conclusion of a prototype trial on participatory grant-making (PGM) undertaken through the RINGO Project and led by Transform Trade, an INGO that supports farmers and workers to achieve trade justice, alongside Norsaac, a human rights organisation working with women and young people in Ghana.

For the past couple of years, the RINGO project has been centering its work on decolonising the aid business and shifting power from international NGOs and donors alike. Through a series of prototypes, the project has sought to move the conversation towards understanding the practicalities of the ‘how’ in this whole endeavour. One of the initiatives to emerge was a deeper look into how PGM can strengthen local civil society and the communities with whom it works. This is one of the overarching aims of the SDGs and also one of the central aims of the OECD’s development assistance community’s aims of strengthening local civil society.

In trial carried out in collaboration with local communities, participants experienced not only a higher income, but reported improved confidence and more independence. As a consequence, the women’s collective took on more leadership from Transform Trade and, in the words of one smallholder farmer began ‘creating more independence for their own destiny.’ This speaks to the very heart of Goal 5 of the SDG’s: to achieve gender equality and independence for all women and girls.

Norsaac worked on PGM in Ghana at the national, sub-national and local level. At the subnational level, participants saw it as an opportunity to co-create solutions; at the local level, they saw it as a process to take power completely into their own hands. ‘What we learned was that in each process, PGM significantly changed the power relationship that saw communities as recipients of aid/support to become chief participants and decision-makers,’ said Mohammed Awal Alhassan.

There is a lot of talk about participatory grant-making, but in practice, it remains on the fringes, as funders are reluctant to let go of power.  A recent webinar hosted by the RINGO Project highlighted that whilst PGM has been around as a concept for about 15 years, its principles have yet to be widely adopted.

Some of the reasons for this are because of the challenges associated with the practice. The model goes against most mainstream practice, where civil society applies for funding; funders decide if they want to fund it, and then hold them to account for short-medium term measurable outcomes. For one, PGM requires a different approach to investment: the pilot took longer and more upfront investment than any of the participants anticipated, as it took time to invest in building trust amongst partners.

Measurement of outcomes is also less clear. ‘PGM creates challenges for funders who are used to seeing reports for outputs and outcomes on their reporting cycles and the two just don’t align. People are funding us because they want to see outcomes around trade and development, because that’s our core mission, but not recognising the length of time the process takes and the value in that process,’ said Charlotte Timson, CEO of Transform Trade.

‘How we measure change….will change,’ confirms Alhassan of Norsaac.  It may seem obvious, but process becomes the centre of this work, not the same old short-term ‘measurable’ outcomes.

Ultimately, investing in process pays off. As a result of these trials, those engaged in the work were confident that by letting go of the reigns of control, PGM can reduce dependency on donors and INGOs in future, whilst strengthening the hand and power of local civil societies to face the multiple challenges coming their way.

Read the full article about participatory grantmaking by Deborah Doane at Alliance Magazine.