Feminism’s new frontier: Localising aid

Forming real partnerships between donors and local organisations is key to achieving progress in women’s rights issues.

Localising Aid
Women take part in a memorial service for the murdered rights activist Berta Caceres during a protest in El Salvador, April 2016 [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

This International Women’s Day, my hope is that we start rethinking existing patterns on how human rights funding decisions are made.

Recent discussions on localising aid show that this is not just a women’s rights issue – it relates to trends in the entire international aid community.

In practice though, direct funding is the exception rather than the rule. This gives the impression that small women’s groups are not trusted to “do the job properly” and that international donors need to micro-manage projects on their terms.

The data we have available shows our concerns are valid. According to the World Bankinvesting in women is vital to end poverty and boost economic growth.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that while $10bn had been provided to civil society organisations working to ensure gender equality in the Global South in 2014, only 8 percent of such aid had gone to groups who were based in developing countries (PDF).

Yet, it is the groups on the ground that do most of the “heavy lifting” and they are the ones who have the know how to use any level of resources effectively and efficiently.

The OECD noted that most aid is being used at the international level, potentially causing local groups “to act primarily as implementing agencies rather than to pursue their own agendas”.

Frontline organisations are forced to adjust the focus of their work to “fit” with often arbitrary donor objectives and rather glossy “results”, which are often designed to make the donor look good, rather than convey tangible impact on the ground.

‘A form of neo-colonialism’

We have disempowered the very people who are doing the most vital work in their environments to ensure that women and girls are free from violence and discrimination.

Frontline-led solutions are always going to be more impactful and more sustainable as they are provided by trusted experts, who understand local context. Initiatives which seem to be led by “outsiders” are much more likely to be resisted.

Human rights funding through “consultancies” and international NGOs with relatively less local expertise are proliferating a form of neo-colonialism, which seems to be founded on the basis that the West “knows best”.

Agreeing on a way forward on the world's most pressing issues, which prioritises leadership from those most affected - rather than those with the most dollars - would transform how we all see the world.


It gives the impression that a donor’s subjective preferences for what funds should be spent on and how a project should be monitored and evaluated is more relevant than building the strength of a local organisation and ensuring that it can use the grant in a way which it knows will have the most impact.

Real partnership between a donor and a local organisation means building up strategies together hand-in-hand. This collaborative approach reflects a true form of feminist equality and puts the power in the hands of the group to build its own capacity and prioritise work according to its own vision, rather than a donor’s preference.

This means change can take place in the most effective and sustainable way possible – from the roots up. People are much more likely to respond to somebody from their own locality when changing a social norm or making policy to end violence or discrimination against women and girls.

Ensuring lasting peace

The broader rationale for supporting frontline feminist activism is clear too. In this turbulent global political environment, the empowerment of women in their homes and in society is increasingly seen as a solution to ensuring lasting peace.

According to the International Peace Institute, when women are included in peace talks, there is a 20 percent increase in the likelihood that any agreement will last at least two years (PDF). However, many peace negotiations have no women at the table at all.

OPINION: Not one woman less!

I hope more donors will take that leap and start trusting women leaders and locally-led feminist solutions – particularly from the Global South.

Agreeing on a way forward on the world’s most pressing issues, which prioritises leadership from those most affected – rather than those with the most dollars – would transform how we all see the world.

This is the new frontier in feminist activism and international development, and it could be our saving grace.

Jessica Neuwirth is the founder of Donor Direct Action , an international women’s organisation, which partners with visionary front-line women’s groups around the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.