Episode 12: What Womankind Worldwide’s anti-racism pledge can teach us about decolonising INGOs. Disha Sughand interviewed.

About this episode:

In this episode, Disha Sughand from Womankind Worldwide talks us through her organisation’s anti-racism pledge and what this means for decolonisation. Disha delves into the ways in which anti-racism and localisation should be approached from a reflective and thoughtful place. Disha emphasises interrogating processes across an organisation’s structure in order to think through how they can be simplified or made more flexible.

We also discuss the principles and values present in Womankind and other feminist organisations that can contribute to furthering decolonisation and anti-racism objectives. Particularly, we draw on self-reflection as a tool within feminist organising that can be applied to decolonisation.

As practical advice, Disha suggests not only seeking allies and support within your organisation, but also externalising the work to individuals or organisations that are specialised in anti-racism and decolonisation. At the same time, it is essential to allocate budgets and prioritise the work rather than classify it as ‘optional’. This episode shines a light on what can be learned from feminist organising in order to enact a power shift towards decolonisation and anti-racism.

Episode 12: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 12

Anti-racism in action: what Womankind’s pledge can teach us about N-S partnerships. Disha Sughand interviewed.

Disha: [00:00:00] I think as a feminist organisation our values already align with feminist thinking and perspective, and while decolonising and sharing power is a process that takes a long time, we’ve also made a commitment to consciously dismantle some of those power imbalances and structures that would prevent us not only from challenging that inequality, but also deepening our relationship with partners. So as an organisation we’re really learning from our partners. They bring so much experience from their context.

Charmaine: Hi everyone. Hi Disha. Hi Kate. Welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire, change, and identify tools for practical action. I am Charmaine McCauley, our body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program called Racism in Real Time.

My lovely and gorgeous co-host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub. [00:01:00] As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we are using our own lived experience and professional skills to set skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation. And over to you, Kate.

Kate: Thanks, Charmaine. Today we’re talking to Disha Sughand, the Director of funding and marketing at Womankind Worldwide. Back to you to start our question Charmaine? 

Charmaine: Yes. I just wanna say a lovely welcome to you, Disha. It’s so nice to see you and for you to take the time out to talk with Kate and I. 

Disha: Thank you for inviting me. 

Charmaine: You’re welcome. Could you tell our listeners why Womankind decide to put together and commit to an anti-racism pledge and what areas of your work it covers? 

Disha: Sure. So following the appalling killing of George Floyd back in May 2020, Womankind, like many organisations, embarked on a bit of a journey to really dig deeper into racism and colonialism in our own organisational [00:02:00] culture and the operations.

And we did this by developing an anti-racism pledge. The reason we decided on a pledge, rather than a statement, is because we knew that we had some work to do on becoming more anti-racist and felt that actually a pledge would set out aspirations and commitments that staff, partners, trustees, as well as external stakeholders could hold us accountable for. 

 The process of developing the anti-racism pledge involved working with an external facilitator, someone who really focused on anti-racism and decolonisation and helped Womankind staff and trustees to build a shared understanding of the ways that Black, indigenous and people of colour experienced discrimination.

And really recognising that the aid and development sector was founded in the context of colonisation and has ongoing power imbalances. As part of that, we also started to explore what commitments Womankind could make in this pledge. And what we did is really focused [00:03:00] around all areas of our work.

So for example, we had a whole section around internal commitments, which looked at how Womankind would strengthen anti-racism within our organisation working towards more equitable and feminist team composition and how we could create a really safe and conducive working environment for Black and people of colour and how our forthcoming organisational strategy that we were working on alongside this could really prioritise and support our work on anti-racism.

 It also looked at commitments we could make to partners and to allies, and that was including how Womankind could really forge better and more equal partnerships and collaborations with our women’s rights organisations that we partner with in the Global South. And finally also around funding and communications.

So what we were trying to do was aiming to address some of the colonial dynamics in fundraising practice, thinking about how we could make more flexible and core funding available to [00:04:00] our partner organisations, and how we could ensure that our communications didn’t perpetuate more power imbalances. 

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. Well, that sounds quite extense. It sounds like a lot of work and a fabulous commitment to keep everything going. I’ve got one question around your pledge. So how has your anti-racist pledge affected interracial interactions between White and BIPOC folk within Womankind and between Womankind staff and people working at your partner organisation.

Sorry it’s kind of loaded. So there’s three parts there. 

Disha: Yeah. Yeah, really good question. I would say that we’ve talked a lot together as a staff team with external support from specialists about anti-racism and about organisational culture change. And we’ve done that as a way of building a shared understanding that experiencing racism is really nuanced whether you identify as a Black or an Asian person, and depending on your experiences and your geographical context, I’d say that we’re much [00:05:00] more aware about our interactions as a staff team and with our partner organisations, but that we still have a long way to go. So we’re currently working as a staff team on a code of conduct that’s gonna support us to address any microaggressions that come up and yeah, I’d say it’s work in progress at the moment. 

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. And with your partners, how is that working? 

Disha: Yeah, same. I think we’re just really aware of those conversations and aware of that power balance and just thinking about how we address that in the daily interactions that we have.

But I think it very much plays out in how we work with them in terms of actually implementing projects and actually talking to them about fundraising. So I think it comes out in the way that we work together. But as I say, I think it’s still work in progress. 

Charmaine: If you don’t mind, without revealing any names, could you kind of give us an example of like a before and after and actually using your anti-racism themes and your pledge with a particular company or with the external organisation or your [00:06:00] partners. Could you kind of think of something like that? 

Disha: Do you mean in the context of the way that we work together as an organisation or just an example of an external organisation we’ve worked with.

Charmaine: Yeah. Yeah. And when a problem has arisen, how do you then attend to the problem based on your commitment for anti-racism? 

Disha: So I’d say that we don’t shy away from it. 

Charmaine: Okay. 

Disha: We raise it. 

Charmaine: Can you give an example when you say we raise it, can you be a little bit more specific? 

What is it that you raised? I think for a lot of us , particularly because you’ve done it, it’d be really helpful to hear exactly what was it that was risen? What was it that was a problem that you needed to solve?

Disha: So I guess because we’re working on a process at the moment around how to address microaggressions, we don’t have an exact process for it right now. 

Charmaine: Okay. 

Disha: So, I don’t know if we have fully done it. 

Charmaine: Yeah. Yeah. 

Disha: I would say that if a situation arises, that I hope that we are better at a) [00:07:00] noticing it, so it’s not always the person who experiences it, who has to raise it, that actually it might be a colleague who notices it before them. Maybe not before them, but maybe raises it themselves and really challenges it with the person who we feel has said something that doesn’t quite feel right.

And we thought about how to do that. We’ve involved senior managers as part of that conversation so that it feels like it’s done in a safe way, but it’s not allowed to just happen. But we have acknowledged that having a stronger process around it would really help us actually, would just make sure that it takes more of the onus away from the person who perhaps is experiencing it.

And we’ve talked about how we all get better as individuals about noticing that for colleagues, so that the burden of it doesn’t always sit with Black and people of colour who might be experiencing it. 

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. So I guess what I’m hearing is that you’ve been able to, or in the process [00:08:00] of, reducing the risk of retaliation, depending on who brings it up.

Because a lot of times, depending on who, whether you’re White or whether you’re Black and Brown, there’s a lot of risk in actually bringing this to the forefront and then having it worked out. And both sides can feel enormous risk and a sense of retaliation. We won’t want to do, but it sounds as if, I’m just reframing it a little bit.

It sounds like you have really mitigated the sense of risk that anybody can then call out anybody else on the staff. And it’s relatively safe to do that and whoever does call the person out, there’s a lot of support. Because oftentimes, what returned was a backlash. So it sounds like you have really dealt with or dealing with the potential backlash for whoever brings up the incident.

Disha: Yeah. I’d say I think until we have a proper process in place, I’d say we’re still on that journey, to be honest. Yeah. But the feeling is definitely there that we would want to address it. 

Charmaine: Great. Thank you, thank you. Kate? 

Kate: Yeah. [00:09:00] I’ve read your pledge and I was impressed by how extensive it was.

It covers a lot of different areas of an organisational behavior, an individual behavior within an organisation, but it’s also very highly specified. It doesn’t stop at kind of vague niceties. It actually specifies what you want to achieve. And I was really impressed by that and I would really encourage listeners and viewers to this podcast to take a look at the pledge, we’ve linked to it in the show notes below this episode. So do take a look and think about how you might apply a similar process to your own organisation or your own work. And something that strikes me about not just the pledge, but also the way that you’ve talked about it here already in the podcast, is the kind of reflective and thoughtful approach that you are taking to this process of localisation, anti-racism, and decolonising.[00:10:00] 

And something that I’ve experienced in the development industry is that many times the ends are seen as justifying the means. And it doesn’t matter how people are treated because we’re all the good guys, aren’t we? We’re the good guys and we’re achieving a good thing. So the collateral damage doesn’t really matter.

That’s the feeling that is projected so often. So what actually happens is a lot of exploitation and a lot of people feeling done to, and that they’ve actually got to swallow that down because they’re so lucky to be working in development. And what I like about the approach that you are taking as a kind of reflective organisation is that you are saying very strongly that the process is important.

And the way that you behave while achieving your goals really matters. So I really like that. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how [00:11:00] the pledge and how your process of embedding anti-racism within the work of Womankind Worldwide has impacted on the way that you fund your partners.

So I was wondering if you could first of all describe that change and how you are now funding your partners, and also how that change in funding processes and mechanisms has shifted power to your partners in the Global South. 

Disha: Sure. So on the funding side, one of the things we did was to set up some more flexible funding mechanisms.

So the first one of those was a Covid resilience grant that was set up back in 2020, which partners were able to use for their biggest priorities during Covid, so there were no restrictions around it. Partners used it for salaries for staff because some of their donors weren’t being flexible, they used it for technology so that their staff could work from home, they used it for PPE, whatever they needed it for. And then after the resilience grants, because we got such positive [00:12:00] feedback from partner organisations that this is really where they wanted us to go around flexible funding, we firstly set up a couple of further flexible funds, firstly Her Voice Fund, which particularly supports women’s rights organisations to influence policy at local level, national level, regional and international level.

And then secondly, we set up a movement- strengthening fund, which supports initiatives that strengthen feminist movements in the countries where our partners work. And I think what’s exciting about these flexible funds as well as being flexible, through them, we’re able to fund informal groups that we weren’t through previous processes.

And these tend to be informal groups that have links to our partner organisations and it’s helping Womankind to work with women who are most marginalised. 

In terms of what’s next for some of the flexible funds is, we are planning later this year to launch some strategic grants that will fund partner organisations with core funding and will have even less restrictions than the flexible funds that I’ve kind of mentioned.[00:13:00] 

And we’re also aiming to move towards participatory grant making over the next two to three years, and are really keen to learn from other organisations and women’s funds that are already using this approach. In terms of how it’s supporting the sharing of power with partner organisations, I would say that because we’ve really stripped back the project management side on these flexible funds, what we’ve done is put together a really simple application form, top line budget, there’s no log frame, there’s no milestones. In terms of the reports, we’re asking for one financial report and partners can report back in writing or with a video call or a phone call, and we just asked them to answer five questions. But really what we’re asking partners is to just tell us what they want us to know.

So we are trying as much as possible to pass on the flexibility that we have as an organisation. And what we’re finding is that it’s also trickling down to other projects that we have that [00:14:00] maybe don’t sit within the flexible funds and partners are telling us that it is just giving them the space to get on with what they want to get on with.

So hopefully that’s part of sharing the power. 

Kate: Yeah, very much so. I mean, I wonder in the way that you work, how you have avoided to, kind of, transmit the project management and contracting tools of more traditional donors. So the people who fund you as an organisation, how have you avoided transmitting their anxieties and lack of trust onto your partner organisations? I suppose, how have you ring fenced and protected your partners, so that you can build this more reciprocal and trust-based relationship? 

Disha: I would say that we do still have some donors that are quite inflexible, but what we’ve tried to do is to try and increase the amount of funding that we [00:15:00] raise that is more flexible and unrestricted. And at times that means not applying for certain types of funding because our partners tell us that those restrictions are not working for them. So it’s about, you know, kind of making choices. But with some donors, we’ve been lucky enough to have really open and bold conversations to be able to showcase the impact of flexible funding.

And the impact that that has on strengthening feminist movements where it gives the groups and organisations that we work with much more of a say in how they use the money.

But there are still some funding relationships that we have that do still come with restrictions. And although we’re trying to move away from those, there are some that are still there. So I think it’s, again, work in progress around how can we move towards much more flexible funding and much more strategic grants that have less of these restrictions with them?

Kate: It’s really interesting. I wonder if, after this podcast interview, we could have a [00:16:00] conversation about the extent to which you can make available information about the funding instruments that you have and also what evidence you’ve been able to use to showcase the efficacy of flexible funding, because I think that would be really useful for other organisations, both to reflect on their own funding mechanisms for their partner organisations, but also to perhaps build an evidence base to begin to persuade, convince, cajole the more traditional donors to shift away from this rather more rigid, rather more, I think, anxiety-based approach to funding and accountability.

So kind of related to that point, I was wondering if you could think about, reflect how your approach to funding and partnering with your organisations could be adjusted for organisations based in the Global North [00:17:00] who are working with organisations and individuals in the global South, but where rather than having long-term partnership arrangements, they’re working through short-term contracting arrangements.

Do you think your model can be adjusted? Or is that a kind of a no go? 

Disha: I mean, I think that’s very much for those organisations to interrogate and have a look at their own models. 

But I would suggest really to talk to the partners or grantees or whoever it is that they work with about what they would want to change, about the contractual relationships that exist, and to really trust those organisations to value their expertise and to name the power imbalance in the room. And then I think it is really worth interrogating the processes that organisations have and to think about whether those can be simplified or be made more flexible; can you remove restrictions, can you think about how funding relationships can cover core costs, and can you think about longer term partnerships?[00:18:00] 

I don’t think it’s okay to just keep doing things a particular way because that’s how we’ve always done them if it’s not working for organisations that are based in the Global South. 

Charmaine: I have a question. So just based on what, Kate, you’re talking about. So it sounds as if, as though the process of decolonisation and shifting power is less contested in Womankind based on what you’re saying, and I’m wondering if that is because it’s a feminist organisation and you’re conscious, like I can really hear how you’re really thinking about the process and how you’re consciously linking this with transformative justice and has this helped share an understanding and willingness to combat structures that oppress? 

Disha: Yeah. I think as a feminist organisation, our values already align with feminist thinking and perspective, and while decolonising and sharing power is a process that takes a long time, we’ve also made a commitment to consciously dismantle some of those power imbalances [00:19:00] and structures that would prevent us not only from challenging that inequality, but also deepening our relationship with partners. So as an organisation, we’re really learning from our partners. They bring so much experience from their context.

Charmaine: Yeah, I would imagine would be kind of difficult because, well, I was raised in Canada and in the UK, and whether I like it or not, I am part of the patriarchy. My thinking is along that, even though I wanna say no, no, it’s not, and it’s always a surprise when it kind of whacks me in my face.

Yeah, but you are thinking along the terms of gender. You are thinking in the terms of gender normative, you are thinking in the terms of binary systems, you know, and like, I’m just wondering when those things come up personally for you, how do you respond to that when you actually see yourself as part of the faction that you want to dismantle, you know, but then here you are actually working through it at the same time.

Disha: Personally, there’s a level of discomfort when I realise that. As an Asian [00:20:00] woman and the things that I stand for, realising that perhaps I’m doing things because I’ve always done them a certain way, and maybe that’s not good enough. But hopefully it’s then about moving through to the next bit and thinking, well, okay, but with the discomfort, what can we do to change?

Because like a lot of people who work in the sector, I kind of wanted to come and work around social justice and that is about change. So it’s about reminding ourselves not to get used to just the status quo and remembering why we came to do this work was to make change and to think about who you were doing it for and with as well.

So that’s what I was saying earlier about, you know, if it’s not working for our partner organisations, then actually we need to just rethink it. It’s not good enough to say, well, that’s how it is. 

Charmaine: Yeah, or that’s how it’s always been done. 

Disha: Yeah. 

Charmaine: Even though I like the word discomfort, because, it’s when I get really comfortable that there’s like a little pin that goes like, how come you’re so [00:21:00] comfortable with this?

Because it fits what I want to do, right? So I have to really acknowledge that the comfort level of 72 degrees feels really nice. And I have to take myself out of that and maybe go a little freeze or a little hotter , and I think it is what you’re saying. So the discomfort that real change, personal change can actually happen, but you’ve gotta feel it and be aware of it. Exactly like you said.

Kate: So, Disha reflecting on the process that you have been through as an organisation, you know, developing your pledge, bringing in external consultants and advisors to support you in a process of organisational change. I noticed in your pledge that you come together for an hour, I think, every month to do some kind of learning and reflective work around anti-racism and decolonisation.

So it’s both reflection as individuals, and it’s a process of organisational change, and it’s a process of changing the way that you work with your partners. So thinking about that in its totality, what would be, I [00:22:00] suppose, the first step that you would recommend our listeners and viewers take if they want to embark on a similar process in their professional work in development, or if they’re an interested observer of development but not actually working in the sector.

What would they do as well? So what’s the first step for embarking on a journey of anti-racism, localisation and decolonisation?

Disha: I think there’s a few, but probably starting with finding some allies within the organisation because what we’ve found is that that helps to share the workload if it’s not being led just by one person or one team. And it also helps to keep up the momentum because it’s a long process. And actually, if you’re trying to do it alone as an individual, you’re gonna lose steam at some point during that.

So if you’re working together, and also if individuals are thinking this, there are probably other allies within their [00:23:00] organisation that are thinking this. So find them. I think it’s really about getting buy-in from your senior leadership as well, whether that’s your board or your CEO or your senior management team.

Because I think that they really need to drive the change. The whole organisation can be part of it, and that’s what’s worked well I think at Womankind, is all the co-creating and the joined up working that we’ve done. But it’s been really important that a lot of that’s been led by the senior leadership team.

And then I would say get external support, from individuals or organisations that specialise in working on anti-racism and decolonisation. Because this isn’t work that Black and people of colour in your organisation are gonna do on the side of their day jobs. So use the expertise that’s out there.

And alongside that kind of link to that is really to secure a budget around it. Because otherwise it’s always going to be a ‘nice to have’ and it will be about people volunteering to do it for free because they care about it. So really [00:24:00] put some money behind it as well. I think one of the most important things though is, as you’ve both alluded to, is that shift in culture.

That’s probably the thing that’s gonna affect the biggest change in the systems and the processes. So again, spending a bit of time and budget on organisational culture. So as you highlighted, okay, we do have regular sessions to learn about colonisation, racism, and solidarity. And actually we’ve moved it from monthly to less regular, but actually having longer sessions because we found that that worked better than just doing an hour every month.

It was actually taking a bigger chunk of time has worked better for us. And I feel like also in terms of now where we are in 2023, there’s lots of evidence and examples from other organisations actually. So if you’re starting the work now, you’re in a much better position than lots of organisations that started this work a few years ago.

You can get in touch with those organisations that you think are doing interesting work and ask them to share some learning or have a chat to you. But I’d also [00:25:00] add to that, that it’s not really optional. If you’re thinking about it and your organisation hasn’t done it already, then you know, it’s definitely time.

There’s a groundswell of organisations that are aiming to work in an anti-racist and decolonised way, and I’m really hopeful that the sector’s gonna look really different as a result.

Kate: Thank you. That’s a very comprehensive list going from finding allies all the way through to getting budgets allocated and spending the time. So, Disha, thank you so much for sharing the lessons from Womankind’s work on, localisation, anti-racism and decolonisation. I think you’ve certainly given me lots of food for thought, and I hope our listeners and viewers as well. 

You’ve brought up lots of practical things and we are going to be linking through the show notes to your website and various resources that you’ve recommended. So thank you very much for your inputs today. 

Charmaine: Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s been really [00:26:00] informative. Thank you. Thank you, thank you.

Disha: Thank you both Kate and Charmaine. It’s been really interesting to reflect on those questions and I think to reflect on the process as well. Because when you are in it and you are just kind of getting on with it, you don’t really think about how far you’ve come and how much more you’ve got to do, but actually reflecting on it to talk to, perhaps, external people is quite a helpful process as well. Thank you. 

Charmaine: Well, thank you. 

Kate: Great. Thank you very much.

This weeks guest:

Disha Sughand is the Director of Fundraising and Marketing at Womankind Worldwide

Disha is the Director of Fundraising and Marketing at Womankind Worldwide where she leads the resourcing of feminist movements and women’s rights organisations. She has over 22 years of experience in fundraising and marketing for UK and international social justice causes, including over 12 years at Womankind. She is a Clore Fellow and was part of the first cohort working in the women and girls sector. She is also Co-Chair the Gender and Development Network.

Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s rights organisation and funder, working with women’s rights groups and feminist movements across the world to end gender inequality. We take collective action alongside women’s rights organisations, feminist movements, and activists in Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia. We support them to challenge inequality, at home, in communities and the workplace. We fund and strengthen these movements and advocate for change alongside them.

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