People would always give me a quizzical look.

"And what is that, exactly?" they would ask, if brave enough to reveal their naiveté about what was to become the next decades of my life.

"Well, it’s the study of how to help poor countries become richer," I would explain of my choice to study international development.

"Oh that’s very good," my friends and family would invariably reply, my obvious altruism shining through. (Cough.)

And that’s where it would end. The next part of the conversation about macroeconomics and international trade policy is rarely the stuff of great chit chat or dinner conversation outside of a specific professional bubble.

Promoting economic growth has been at the center of the international aid and philanthropy since its inception. Underneath this goal is a set of assumptions rooted in colonialism and racism that it is important to probe. Have we rid ourselves of the idea that 'traditional' societies must be assisted to develop in the same manner as rich countries? Can economic advancement, good governance and gender equality happen without outsiders offering solutions for people in the Global South?

To put it another way, are people who are poor and people of color capable of leading themselves?

We know they are.

New Name Is a Game-Changer

In 1985, when the founders of my organization came together with like-minded people — those who wanted to create an alternative to top-down development — the name International Development Exchange (IDEX) seemed right. The organization strove to ignite cultural exchange and also change how U.S. citizens related to the Global South. They were united not around raising GDP, but around improving people’s economic opportunities, health, education, and overall well-being.

Since then, the field of "international development" has changed significantly. Now a loaded term, it carries the weight of parachuted-in "expertise" and resources. Its economic roots also cover up the ecological realities in the face of the climate crisis, corporate-driven agriculture policies, and rising inequality.

And that is why last year, after more than 30 years, IDEX decided to change its name to Thousand Currents.

We wanted a powerful concept from the natural world to express the positive, transformational changes emanating from women, youth, and indigenous leadership around the world. Though activists and ordinary people alike suffer constant setbacks, such as the jailing and torture of Bobi Wine in Uganda or the death of two-year-old Mariee Juarez under ICE custody or the murder of natural resources defenders in Guatemala, there are grassroots organizations and movements on all continents bucking the "old school" paradigm of international development.

What hasn’t changed in more than 30 years is that the people living and working closest to these problems are the source of the solutions. Currents, like visionary grassroots leaders, have force and direction. When small, yet formidable pockets of people power come together, that’s when Thousand Currents sees results.

Time to Take On the Status Quo

Today, Thousand Currents is focused on addressing our shared global challenges, not just the issues faced by a marginalized community or a poor country. Acknowledgement of this complexity requires new approaches from donors. Our grantmaking model — which is based on unrestricted financial support, multi-year timeframes, and culturally-competent personnel — reflect the world we want to see at Thousand Currents.

Old notions of development no longer serve us, and neither do rote unnecessarily bureaucratic responses to our most urgent problems. We as funders must move faster, think more creatively, build stronger relationships, and engender more effective collective action.

Currents affect every single person on the planet every single day. They are part of a moving, interdependent global picture.

And all of us — donors, grassroots activists, U.N. employees, everyday people — are the currents of change.

Three Ways to Move Past Old Paradigms

Learn about the key principles of trust-based philanthropy, as outlined by our friends at The Whitman Institute. Without trust, we devalue or dismiss expertise that doesn’t look like ours and miss out on important opportunities for social transformation. How can we remove the barriers for people to make decisions about how our resources are used?

Fund directly at the grassroots level. Effective grassroots groups are part of the social fabric of any community and spring from existing, lasting, and mutual relationships. Staff and volunteers have the most relevant contextual knowledge and analysis and often know the people they serve on a one-on-one basis. This personal stake results in a long-term commitment that outsider organizations can never have.

Attend the Thousand Currents Academy. In this week-long, residential course we connect funders to grassroots wisdom by offering tools, models, and good practices. Faculty are global thought leaders — frontline community organizers, ecologists, artists, funders, and grassroots activists from the Global South. Perhaps most importantly, participants join a collaborative peer network of over 100 skilled Impact Influencers shaping over $4 billion worth of philanthropic investment who offer continued support.


Original contribution by Jennifer Lentfer, Thousand Currents Director of Communications. (A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian.)