One of my strongest memories from my youth is the sting of my mother’s humiliation.

She was a civil society leader in Somalia and founded Horn Relief (now called Adeso) to promote peace, protect the environment, and support Somalia’s pastoralist communities.

She had been born into a pastoralist community in northeastern Somalia. Through a mix of faith, good fortune, and fortitude, she managed to get a master’s degree and become a champion for Somalia’s environment and the pastoralists, helping to curb deforestation by outlawing the export of charcoal and empowering hundreds of pastoralist communities to protect their environment.

But when she entered the halls of the United Nations, this hijab-wearing, brown-skinned, firecracker of a woman was viewed with suspicion, dismissed, and sometimes even laughed at.

She was told that she had no right to be in the room when a group of White men were deciding the fate of her nation of Black people. Meeting after meeting to discuss how to stabilize her beloved Somalia occurred hundreds or thousands of miles away in Nairobi, Geneva, and New York.

I watched her as she pleaded in heavily accented English, her third language. That image, seared in my brain, broke my heart.

Standing Toe to Toe

My goal, when I started out in the world, was to get a lucrative job so that I could support my mother and nudge her to retire from all of her various projects, including her advocacy work on behalf of her people.

That’s what led me, ironically, to take a job with the United Nations — the very organization that had so demeaned my mother. When I started at the U.N., I thought, “I’m tough. I can handle it. I can stand toe to toe against these people.”

And I did.

But that didn’t make it any more palatable.

I eventually left the U.N. after almost four years and joined my mother’s organization. I became its second employee. Though that makes it sound more official and grand than reality, given that neither of us were paid.

Camels Dying of Thirst

It was 2003, a fortuitous moment to return to Somalia. Parts of the country were experiencing the worst drought in decades. Through our work with pastoralist youth, we heard stories of a massive loss of livestock. It was so dry, the pastoralists told us, even their camels were dying of thirst. We carried out a survey and found that many communities reported losing 70% of their camels. We knew how devastating this could be for pastoralists who rely on the animals for milk, meat, and transportation.

I immediately submitted an urgent report to the Somalia Aid Coordination Body, an initiative of the U.N. I proposed
cash transfers for the affected communities.

I was met with disbelief and incredulity.

 “You want to give money to people in Somalia? Are you crazy? They’re going to buy guns.”

Eventually, we did receive US$900,000 to launch a cash transfer program to provide immediate aid to the thousands of vulnerable communities. It was the first emergency and large scale unconditional cash transfer program in Africa. We developed an inclusive community-based targeting model and a cash for work program that sparked a revolution in the sector, with some of the biggest names adopting our approach, including UNICEF, Save the Children, and Oxfam International.

Our model recognized that the traditional approach of humanitarian organizations to distribute aid through village and clan elders likely did not result in equitable or optimal distribution. Instead, we removed the middleman and mobilized the community, including women and vulnerable groups often overlooked by traditional elders, to lead the process of identifying the most vulnerable households.

But I can’t help wondering how many other locally developed innovative approaches never got off the ground. How many other local leaders with transformative ideas were met with distrust or laughed out of the room?

Tipping the Power Balance

Global data indicates that the challenges I have outlined are far from unique. Only between 0.2% to 2% of humanitarian funding from donors goes directly to local organizations in the Global South. The figure is slightly higher for the development sector, reaching an estimated 4%. And only 12% of international grant dollars from U.S. foundations goes directly to local organizations based in the country where the programs are implemented.

We know that local groups, whose intimate knowledge and understanding of the socioeconomic and political dynamics of their own communities, are better positioned to develop more sustainable, innovative, and impactful programs. Nevertheless, local leaders and civil society organizations are typically hired only to implement programs designed half a world away. The big ideas, the revolutionary approaches — they are all assumed to originate far away from where the problems reside.

As a result, our efforts are less efficient. Layer upon layer of international organizations peel off their overhead fees before the money reaches people on the ground. In addition, the current approach robs the communities closest to the problem of any agency in solving the problem.

This approach is at odds with both common sense and research, which shows that locally driven solutions, designed and led by people proximate to the problem, are most effective in creating impactful solutions that are sustainable.

The long overdue current global discourse about shifting the power dynamics in aid, development, and philanthropy is exciting, important, and urgent. No doubt, it is also bewildering. There is still a lack of clarity within the humanitarian and development sector about how we can shift power and resources to local groups.

The Path Forward

For forward-thinking social investors who are grappling with these same issues, the path forward isn’t obvious.

Many leaders in our sector have responded to the challenge by calling for trust-based philanthropy. And that sounds great. But trust-based philanthropy is only as good as your network. For trust-based philanthropy to work, you must purposefully expand your network to include those proximate to the challenge at hand.

This long overdue moment of reassessment and introspection in the philanthropy sector is an opportunity to do something more transformative. We need to decolonize the global development system and philanthropy. Decolonization is essentially a recognition of the political, economic, and financial underpinnings that have caused Global South and former colonies to be in need of aid. The decolonization movement recognizes this and actively works to dismantle these mechanisms while also trying to find some practical short-term technical solutions to shift resources and power. This requires a major shift in the way philanthropy has traditionally been practiced.

All of this brings me back to the drought of 2003 in the Horn of Africa. Our ability to innovate was based on our intimate knowledge of what the affected communities needed — cash injection to revitalize the local economy and to give dignity to people to choose their immediate needs.

The intervention’s success was a direct result of our inclusive community-based targeting model. That model sidelined village and clan elders, who traditionally served as middlemen, and put the power directly in the hands of the communities closest to the problem.

Today, it is time to do the same with our philanthropic dollars.