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International development is a vast network of moving parts. Activists, development organizations, community volunteers, and local advocates for inclusive global development are all working towards similar goals. This year’s World University Service of Canada (WUSC) International Forum drew on these diverse perspectives to create a better understanding of the social impact work being done on different levels, and how these players can collaborate better.
Speakers from across the world discussed issues from LGBTQ2S+ rights to funding youth climate change initiatives and more. Sessions also explored deeper questions — like what a joint effort between activist and development organizations can look like, and how it can benefit communities in need.
Here are five main takeaways from WUSC’s 11th annual International Forum.
People with lived experience must be centred in decision making
In the first session of the forum, titled ‘Nothing for us without us: representation in development work,’ Jean Marie Ishimwe, a youth advocate for refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, emphasized the need for INGOs to involve the communities they’re trying to help in the decision making process.
“For example, in Kenya you’ll hear a lot of refugees saying, ‘We’re not given a chance to be part of the system, we’re not given a chance to actually use the skills that we’ve learned. The refugee community is seeing themselves as people who are not just beneficiaries of projects, aid-seekers or just people who want to be supported, but people who want to be involved in their solutions. They want to be involved in the development of their countries,” said Ishimwe.
Many other speakers throughout the forum echoed Ishimwe’s idea that the voices within these communities need to be elevated and empowered. For development organizations, Ishimwe says elevating those voices can look like partnering with more refugee-led organizations and allowing them to determine what issues need to be addressed in their own communities.
Youth organizations are vital changemakers and should be treated that way
The forum held two sessions which highlighted youth perspectives: one on social movements and development, and the second about youth involved in the climate change movement and climate action.
Amina Doherty, director of the Equality Fund’s Women’s Voice and Leadership in the Caribbean, said that supporting youth-led grassroots movements is vital, and funders need to be flexible to their needs. She recalls with her own experience in the past, working in youth feminist movements, where they weren’t taken seriously because of the perception that they might fold in a year’s time. But Doherty says this shouldn’t be an issue.
“So what if an organization shuts down in a year? I think that’s the dynamism of youth…the magic of social movements is that there is work that can happen in a short space of time, and there is work that needs to actually happen over a long period of time. I think that it’s really important for donors to recognize that and be able to move with that energy,” said Doherty.
Eunice Manteaw, who was involved in many youth development initiatives in Ghana, points out that young people have always been part of social movements — it’s nothing new. “Most of these movements have brought about change, even if some of them have not achieved the goal to a higher extent, it’s showed us how young people are actively pushing for better lives.”
Sharing resources and knowledge must start now, not later
Chris Makena Njeri, CEO of BOLD Network Africa, noted that connection through building collaborative networks is a resource in itself because of the doors it opens. “We need to share [resources] together; we don’t need to share them when everything is nice and dandy but while the fight is going on.”
Lucky Kobugabe, an African feminist working in the field of Violence Against Women adds that, “If we work in isolated camps, often we tend to duplicate the efforts, because we all mean well and we’re all trying to do things that make change,” said Kobugabe.
She says sometimes accessibility to resources is difficult when working as just one individual or just one group. However, having a network will open up this access to different resources. “If you have an original network with different organizations that have different access, then when you come together, you share the resources, you share the knowledge, you share the money, the finances, it makes the work 1000 times easier.”
When it comes to shifting power — lift up those who are last first
Doherty’s Black feminist fund FRIDA uses a methodolgy that primarily amplifies the voices and supports the causes of those who are most disadvantaged, and works from “the margins to the centre.”
In terms of building a movement, building a community, Doherty says that both development organizations and social movements need to focus on shifting power and intentionally creating space for others where it doesn’t exist, rather than maintaining a platform for those who already have access.
Then, expanding the network of voices within a movement, and showing a diversity of experiences, Kobugabe explains, can build a powerful cohesion across organizations. “Everyone who joins the network feels like they’re part of something big; something beyond themselves as an individual, something beyond themselves as an organization.”
Development organizations must let go of their rigidity and be flexible to social movements
In the final session of the forum, Chimwemwe Manyozo, a youth changemaker and international development expert based in Malawi, Africa, spoke in detail about how international development organizations need to make a greater effort to adapt their methods to the needs of social movements.
“INGOs have a very taxing, bureaucratic structure, that sometimes a simple thing requires a decision to be made at headquarters, and then to be approved by a regional office, and it has to go to the local offices,” says Manyozo, urging for a high level of trust and adaptability in local actors within a social movement.
“When you’re dealing with social movements, things happen in real time. There has to be a level of flexibility for local offices to be able to make certain levels of decisions and be able to support social workers. Otherwise, by the time this document has been approved in D.C., people are being killed in Malawi because you are not acting at the time that your [action] was needed.”