Resourcing grassroots activism: Why relationships matter

By Otto Saki

Global Program Officer, Civic Engagement and Government at Ford Foundation
This blog was originally published on Saki’s Linkedin account.

On March 29, CIVICUS hosted a discussion for activists and funders on why relationships matter in resourcing grassroots activism. This was a timely conversation as the world faces wicked problems demanding urgent resourcing of grassroots actors to provide grounded and localised solutions towards a more just and equitable global order. Barriers for resourcing grassroots activism are numerous. However, the overarching enablers of resource limitation is given mollifying attention. This is power, race and decolonisation of the developmental sector and development aid, mixed with other enabling behaviours such as, patriarchy, misogyny, ableism, class and caste.

That said, there are numerous efforts to shift these practices involving private funders (and some bilateral). But a lot still needs to be done. The leaders of Funders for Real Cost, Real Change have been introspecting and daringly providing solutions on the true cost of supporting social change work and ending of the starvation cycle for civil society, and by extension grassroots activists. Anchored on these efforts, Humentum research findings showed that building of trust and resourcing civil society to fully cover their operations is essential in breaking the starvation cycle. Unfortunately, the unequal power dynamics place a heavy burden of proof of trustworthiness on grassroots activists. Funders can demonstrate trust through unrestricted support, flexible funding, and more importantly, respect for ideas emerging from grassroots activists and communities. This creates necessary conditions for deeper, genuine and sincere engagement.

Avoiding transactional conversations enables conditions for building transformational relations. This is possible through long-term partnership that directly addresses the unequal power dynamic inherent in the funding relationship as Humentum observed. Funders have an opportunity to reframe funding relationships as a collective desire and intent to support efforts to solve societal challenges. Humanising grassroots activists and funders engagement is indispensable. Funders must embrace disruption to their practices, organisational wide. This includes reducing bureaucratic processes, embracing flexibility, and designing mutual accountability frameworks. To resource grassroots activism, the ingrained biases in funders must be challenged. These include debasing statements that minimise and at worst infantilise grassroots activists’ contribution, such as this is ‘taxpayers money and not to be wasted’. Funders must embrace ambiguity of outcomes. True partnership accepts failure as mutual, and failure as part of the journey, and not the destination or opportunity to punish grassroots activists, and the communities they belong to.

Moving money as a resource is a transaction. Increasing resources beyond money is transformational. The humanising of grassroots activists as equal, capable and competent actors is indispensable to dismantling colonial attitudes and frames in developmental aid infrastructure. The shifting of resources is an irreversible path, littered with loss of power and privilege, but sowing seeds for new and mutually beneficial relations and outcomes. There is hope after all!


Watch the webinar recording here: