Compliance or change? We must start focusing more on change.

Over the past decade I’ve noticed a much bigger push towards ensuring compliance of internal procedures for donors and large organisations (INGO, UN and private agencies). More and more we spend time on reporting, data gathering and other documentation – for internal purposes. This is great for compliance experts – plenty of work there!

We are under pressure

We’re also all under a huge amount of pressure to implement more with less – we must leave no-one behind, but we must ensure it’s done with smaller budgets whilst proving our intervention is ‘value for money’. And if you deviate from the plan without permission from up-high, your actions become a risk. The announcement that DFID seeks cuts to aid projects doesn’t alleviate this pressure.

I completely understand the need to ensure organisations are compliant to rules and procedures. Systems are needed for the complex aid system. As with many other sectors, we need processes to reduce risks of fraud and corruption, and we need to safeguard the people we wish to serve – this is essential.

However, adhering to compliance procedures is stifling our creativity and imagination, and makes us focus on upstream accountability rather than the people we serve.

How did we get to where we are?

Does the focus on compliance lead to change, and empower leaders and organisations from the Global South? No – it becomes a huge barrier.

‘We must get the job done’ or ‘we must balance the needs of the donor deadlines with empowering our staff’ – are statements I have heard employers say. And I understand this need – we are all under pressure.

However, we have lost our ability to empathise with each other in the workplace. The compliance pressure encourages more alpha behaviour in our sector (i.e. more aggressive and dominant behaviour, ignoring the needs of our team).

The pressure pushes us to get things done quickly, sidestepping the growth, coaching and mentoring of our local teams. I’d argue that it’s a major force in creating barriers for the changes needed to drive anti-racism in aid.

Is ‘localisation’ working?

Two years ago I collaborated with ODI on research in South Sudan which showed that key obstacles for local NGOs to obtain direct funding  were compliance/due diligence processes and donor policies. We must ask ourselves if much has changed since 2018.

We can make change happen

I believe that the vast majority of people working in the aid sector want to help others – that’s why we chose to work in this sector. There are much easier ways to make money. The pressure on us (and you as managers) to be compliant to procedures has changed our priorities.

As individuals we all have a part to play to make change happen – we can help our team members to grow and create a new generation of Global South leaders.

My challenge to you is to make time and a safe space to ask your local team members or local partners, perhaps on a one-to-one basis, two questions:

  • What challenges have you faced due to the aid system?
  • What practical ways can I help you to grow?

This is a great place to start in helping Global South leaders grow – in between our sector’s donor reports, data gathering and immense documentation needs.

By Mo Ali, Programmes Director 

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