Give Away Power: An NGO responsibility

In a recent article on The Guardian the question was posed: “Do International NGO’s have the right to exist?” The question was really about the responsibility of NGO’s to prove their worth versus having real direct impacts on what they say they are doing. Simplistically the question is posed, ‘would you rather spend $100 on reporting or $100 on a farmer in a field?’ The answer is that they are not mutually exclusive.

You can read the article here ( and see what you think of the question.

??????????But the real question is ‘how you can do both?’ — have impact and prove your outcomes (or impact). In Edge of Seven terms our “outputs” are the classrooms we build (right), our “outcomes” are that girls barriers to education are broken down, and the “impacts” are that communities poverty is diminished because of that.

To get that “Philosophy of Change” we believe in Seven Principles. They are crucial to not only what we believe, but how we act. We believe that like a flock of birds that operates on three simple rules so that they don’t crash into the ground, OUR rules allow us to achieve the emergent outcomes that are above in our change model (philosophy of change, change model, theory of change, logic model, etc.).

Our Seven Principles are:

  1. Build Capacity
  2. Transfer Power
  3. Play on Strengths
  4. Leverage
  5. Focus on Generations
  6. Collaborate
  7. Learn

What much of the article deals with is the importance of doing one important thing (INGOs giving up power). Now we don’t believe in saying/believing/doing only one thing. As you can see we have SEVEN things that we believe in and act on. But the thing that the article emphasizes is, “to give up power.”

Ironic, yes? But we’re arguing that they are only getting #2 of our principles. There are six more to go…

FROM THE ARTICLE: “Prof Robert Chambers in his book, Development: Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last, reflects on the view that listening and participation isn’t enough: the whole idea of empowerment means development institutions need to disempower themselves too. The book is about the urban/rural and north/south bias, but his overall thesis resonates far more widely: much of the challenge of development, he argues, is to give up power. [emphasis added] It could be argued that over the past two decades, many have done little more than pay lip service to the sentiment.”

While we agree that the principle of “transfer power” is a primary principle in creating the emergent outcome of “Empowerment” in the communities where we work, it is the overall system of belief AND action that creates the outomes sought after. We believe that this is similar to baking. Try to bake with only flour and see how you do. It may take eggs, flour, milk, butter, leavening, sugar and chocolate chips — plus you mix it in a certain way, use a certain process and a certain temperature for a specific time and you MAY get chocolate chip cookies. International Development is even more complex as a system. So to only look at one ingredient is a bit simplistic.

_MG_0932-webFor example, our principle isn’t just “Transfer Power” – what you will see is that we work toward, “2 Transfer Power: Push power to others. Give it away. Reinforce. Take it back only when necessary. Repeat” ( This ingredient has complexity just inside that one. AND we have to combine this principle with #7 “Learn” to truly make this work. And “learn” may be more than what you think it is at first as well. Then those two (and all the others) operate together.

So the question in the Guardian Article is “Do INGO’s have the right to exist?” but in reality the question should be rephrased “What do INGO’s have to do to prove their worth?” In our opinion the answer comes in seven little words that indicate a complex system is at work and that the outcomes have a better chance of success with than rather than without them. We’re not perfect but in our opinion, we’re on a principled and powerful track.

We hope that you’ll join us — Executive Director, Peter Mason


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