Episode 19: Shifting power through participatory applied learning and co-decision-making. Maya Hasan interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Maya Hasan, founder of the Fearless Project, talks us through her Shifting Power Accelerator program. Maya approaches decolonisation from her personal experience as a ‘third culture’ individual straddling multiple identities and growing up and working across the Global South and Global North. These overlapping identities have facilitated her integration of an intersectional approach into all the work that she carries out. She introduces her training program, which takes on a participatory applied learning approach which adopts feedback into the design of the program. Through the training program, Maya attempts to challenge the hierarchical notion of a set of values or technical expertise being valued more than lived experience of a local community. Throughout the conversation, we discuss alternative funding mechanisms which put individuals from the communities being funded at the centre of decision-making panels for grants. We also delve into interpersonal relationships and how we can go about decolonizing emotions.
Episode 19: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 19

Shifting power through participatory applied learning and co-decision-making. Maya Hasan interviewed.

Maya: [00:00:00] It’s not enough to think critically about power, position and participation. Yes, you must start there, but there is so much more to do and this is what really sets apart the change thinkers from the change makers. They are the ones making the change happen. They’re not waiting for anyone’s permission to integrate principles of shifting power into their practice.

They’re doing it and they’re doing it now. So I would say do what you can with the resources that you have. Set the example, get comfortable with experimentation.

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird, and I’d like to introduce our next episode of the Power Shift: Decolonising Development. Today, we’re talking to Maya Hasan, and Maya discusses identity as a third culture person, both Pakistani and American. And this experience, plus being multilingual and living in different countries across the world, has provided insights used within her work on decolonisation and anti racism. She [00:01:00] talks about power and power analysis tools, and the importance of decentralising and untying funding, and how this links back into shifting power. She also discusses the relationship between people and how that shows up in our bodies, and about her experiential online training program, The Shifting Power Accelerator. Listen on for more. 

Charmaine: Welcome to the Power Shift. Good to see you, Maya, and good to see you, 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 McCaulay, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program, Racism in Real Time.

And my co-host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub. As a Black psychotherapist and a White development [00:02:00] professional, we are using our lived experiences and professional skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks, Charmaine. So Maya Hasan, today’s guest, is founder of the Fearless Project, an online startup for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

She’s also the facilitator of the Shifting Power Accelerator, an experiential cohort-based online course on decolonising aid, empowering local leaders and fostering equitable partnerships. In her 20 year career, Maya has worked across a number of roles in NGOs, including partnerships, grants, in research supporting civil society development in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, DRC, Myanmar, and South Sudan.

Maya is Pakistani and American. She’s a proud, multicultural, non-binary woman, trauma survivor and person with invisible disabilities. She speaks 10 languages and lives in [00:03:00] San Juan, Puerto Rico. For more on Maya, the Fearless Project and the Shifting Power Accelerator, please click on the show notes below this episode. Back over to you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine: Thank you and once again, thank you Maya for being with us today. Really appreciate that. So I have a couple of questions for you, and the first one is, Maya, you described yourself as a third culture, are experienced at straggling cultures and speak 10 languages. You also see yourself as a bridge builder. How have these qualities influenced the way you approach your work in humanitarian and development?

Maya: Thanks Kate for having me on the show. It’s a pleasure to be here. So yeah, jumping right in. These identities you mentioned are a big part of who I am and how I approach shifting power in the aid and development industry.

I’m the child of Pakistani and Indian immigrants to the US as you mentioned, I have two citizenships, Pakistani and US. I spent my [00:04:00] childhood in the US, but in a more or less insular community of Pakistanis, and I’ve spent most of my adult life outside of the US in the Global South, and that’s mainly been in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. So I’ve always felt that I was straddling two worlds, never really squarely fitting in one, but that’s also given me an advantage as a cultural mediator. 

Charmaine: Thank you. Like us here on this podcast, you are keen to provide people with practical tools to shift power, root out racism, and apply decolonised approaches in development and the humanitarian sector. What is your approach? 

Maya: Sure. So my approach I think is a bit different from many of the approaches out there in that I try to be as intersectional as possible. So I think a lot of people come to this from the perspective of being anti-racist or decolonial or feminist on its own, but they don’t always integrate the [00:05:00] aspect of intersectionality.

And I think part of the reason why I’m so passionate about that is because of my own overlapping identities. So I tend to use the phrase of using an intersectional, anti-oppressive approach, which means that I do draw from decolonial, feminist and anti-racist frameworks, but I do so in a way that recognises the complexity of overlapping identities and experiences.

So, as an example, when we talk about being feminist or centering women in programming, or people of all genders and no genders in programming. That’s not the same as talking about being intersectionally feminist and recognising that some women are more oppressed or marginalised in certain settings than others, and we need to take that into an account.

So, using myself as an example, I’m a light-skinned Pakistani American woman. Another woman who is Pakistani and dark-skinned is going to [00:06:00] be in a very different position as I am in terms of how people relate to her and how she’s perceived. Someone who has an American accent right, is going to be perceived very differently from someone who has a South Asian English accent, and so on.

And so I’m acutely aware of these differences and differences in power dynamic and how they show up in the workplace as an example. 

Charmaine: Thank you. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Yeah, I’d just like to invite Maya just to expand on that a little bit because I know that you are running a training program where you are showcasing your ideas, and I wondered if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about that.

Maya: Absolutely. So my approach to learning and training as well is very participatory. So one of the things that I think is lacking a lot of the time in learning approaches is one, that it’s interactive, that it is taking into account students’ feedback from the very beginning. So in the design of the program [00:07:00] itself.

 And maybe that’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my backstory and how I got started in terms of this training program. So it was actually during my time working for international NGOs and supporting civil society programs in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar that I kept encountering the same disturbing dynamic.

Within the international NGOs, there were explicit but also implicit hierarchies. So some people, the ones with the preferred nationalities or educational backgrounds just had more power than others. And in particular, usually light-skinned Global North staff or partners were empowered to make all the decisions and determine the ways of working.

And in contrast, usually dark-skinned Global South staff were disempowered and resigned to follow their lead, and it didn’t stop there. This top-down effect [00:08:00] rippled to the way we worked with our partners and the communities that we were supposedly serving. So that was not only unjust in my eyes, but it also made no sense from an effectiveness standpoint.

So it was wrong on many levels. And I went on my own journey of applied learning. I immersed myself in social justice, tradition, participatory approaches, equity and inclusion, and the examples of shifting power initiatives happening across our sectors. And so one of the things that I realised was for so many, that resistance to change isn’t due to a lack of will, it’s due to a lack of know-how.

And I didn’t see an applied learning program out there that showed you how to do this and kept you accountable. So that’s why I started Fearless Project and launched the Shifting Power Accelerator so that emerging leaders, the future leaders of the aid and development industry could finally act on our [00:09:00] values and learn the knowledge and skills to change it for the better.

Kate: Thanks Maya. And for those of you who are interested in hearing more about Maya’s training program, please have a look at the show notes below this episode and you can find out more. So I’m interested in hearing more about power, and you’ve talked a little bit about power already, but I think that power and the way that power is distributed and used is really central in our thinking about rooting out racist cultures and in decolonising development and humanitarian sectors.

And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about what you’ve identified as useful tools, for power analysis and how they help you to understand power better and the positionality of different players in the development and humanitarian sectors. 

Maya: Absolutely. I think when I think about power, the focus that I have is really on the Global North- Global South dynamic as well [00:10:00] as the dynamic of global organisations in general having technical expertise of some sort that they are trying to share with perhaps community groups or local groups with lived experience which they’re bringing. And so there’s a power dynamic there and there’s a valuing of technical expertise and experience more than lived experience.

And so I’m really trying to challenge that notion that one sort of experience or set of values or skills and knowledge is better than another, that they both have something great to contribute. And so, one of the reports that I share in my Shifting Power Accelerator course is a really great one by the Ringo Project.

So, the West Africa Civil Society Institute, and the Rights CoLab who formed the Ringo Project, which is a phenomenal initiative, and I highly recommend everyone to check it out if they haven’t already. It’s a wonderful community of practice, really[00:11:00] doing the work of shifting power.

And this report, which was published a couple of years ago, but is still very relevant, discusses what North-South partnerships look like from the perspective of Global South civil society leaders and whether partnerships are in fact, equitable or really lopsided. So the results of this were very surprising.

They asked questions of 600 civil society leaders across the Global South, and according to the report, called Voices from the South, 84% of Global South CSOs said that their partnerships with INGOs were collaborative. Okay? 84%. Which is quite a high number, right? Saying that these partnerships are collaborative, and yet 86% of the CSO leaders said that their partnerships were not mutually beneficial.

So, collaborative, mutually beneficial, something seems up, [00:12:00] right. So, further, 65% of the CSOs said that their partnerships are based on bottom up or equal partner approaches. So it wasn’t really adding up. And this was really interesting because in the report itself and in the presentation that they did, they asked the CSO leaders then to explain that discrepancy and the responses were really illuminating.

Here’s a couple of quotes from the report because I found it so powerful. One CSO leader said, “Our recommendations are usually disregarded, especially when determining budgets. They place importance on things that are less important to us. Funding usually comes with a preset agenda, and the Global South CSOs will often bend over to fit into the funding.”

So, this is really compelling because we may enter into these partnerships from the intention of being equal at all levels in terms of taking decisions at the program implementation [00:13:00] stage. But one of the things that we frequently lose sight of is the details that a partnership is not in fact, collaborative, bottom up, or equal, unless partners are co-deciding at every stage. That’s pre-project, that’s during the project and post-project, but most importantly at the problem setting and the program strategy phase. So the language that’s often used to describe partnerships often doesn’t reflect the reality.

Kate: That’s really interesting. Thank you. I would like to think about the links between power and funding, because what’s clear to me is that it’s not just decision making, but you’ve already alluded to this, it’s how decisions around funding are made.

And you mentioned just now that civil society leaders in the Global South or in the majority world, feel that they’re having to bend over backwards [00:14:00] to accommodate the preferences and the priorities of their funding organisation so that they’re trying to accommodate those preferences in order to gain the funds.

So there’s a great deal of power within that relationship and the decisions, the preferences are driven by organisations in the minority world, in the Global North, and they’re being accommodated. I wonder if you could help us to unpick some of the myths around decolonising funding, because there’s a lot of discussion about participative fund making, participative grant making, about localising grant making decisions, and I wonder if you could talk to that issue please. 

Maya: Yeah, absolutely. So I think when it comes to decolonising funding, the entire system needs to be changed, right? I think that needs to be said upfront, that the system as it is, is [00:15:00] a neo-colonial framework.

So, short of that, of changing the system entirely in all of the funding mechanisms, it’s what can we do in the meantime, right? And so that’s really what I focus on. And what I’m really excited about, and learning more about at the moment, is innovative financing.

What are the other ways and areas, and what are the other organisations doing? The leading organisations that are doing funding differently, that are doing funding radically in a completely different way than it’s been imagined before. But that’s really, I’m still on a learning journey when it comes to that.

So in the meantime, what I’m focused on in the course, and in these discussions is about flexible funding and participatory grant making. So those are the two areas in which I’m more focused on at the moment. And direct funding has been the gold standard, right, of shifting power in the global aid and development sector, but it’s really far from the norm.

But there [00:16:00] has been progress. Donors are prioritising it, aid organisations are increasingly exploring what’s possible. But the reality is, as you mentioned, hitting hard about the institutional systems and the cultures that we find ourselves locked into. So there are the institutional barriers like risk or conceptions of risk, compliance, due diligence, eligibility of organisations to qualify for this funding, the request for proposals, the RFPs, the intense amount of paperwork that needs to be done.

And so all of these things need to change. But then we also have the emotional barriers, the emotional pushback within these organisations of, “we’ve always done it this way, what will the donors say?” And I think those are really excuses about the change. And I think what really needs to happen is getting more comfortable with experimentation.

And the nice thing is that if your organisation isn’t ready to do the experimentation itself, that’s [00:17:00] okay. There’s plenty of other organisations who have been doing it and we can take their examples. So one of the guides and reports that I highly recommend and that I share in my course as well is the Deciding Together guide, Shifting Power and Resources through Participatory Grant Making, which was put together by Candid. This is an amazing guide because it has examples and insights from a lot of participatory grant makers, as well as the benefits, the challenges and strategies for engaging in the practice.

And some of the organisations that are already using this include FRIDA the Young Feminist Fund, UHAI, which is the first, I would say, one of the only really prominent groups doing this kind of work, an African indigenous activist fund in which all decision making panels for grants are made up of peers, which are individuals from the [00:18:00] communities which this funding is meant to support.

And so you have peers that are then making the decisions about where to issue the funding as opposed to people sitting in offices in the US or in the UK. So it’s really transformative in that, but it really doesn’t take much to make this happen. So there are examples out there, it’s just a matter of pursuing them. 

Kate: That’s really interesting because one of the things that I was noting down as you were talking was that the funding gatekeepers have all the power. And what you’ve just described is a process by which you remove the gatekeepers and you pass that power into the majority world, so people’s peers are sitting and making the decisions.

So I think that’s very powerful because it really changes the dynamic, doesn’t it? One of the things that I’m aware of is that when there’s any change, you have potentially winners and losers. You can have a situation where everyone gains through a dynamic process of change. But I think at least some people [00:19:00] fear change because they fear that they will lose status, they’ll lose their role, they’ll lose something.

And one of the things that I’m conscious of with a change to long-term decentralised funding is that if you have a very long-term grant, so 10 years, 15 years, which is an untied grant to a particular organisation, by its nature, that will mean that you have a more focused number of organisations that you can support.

I’ve seen that in the UK development sector. Many years ago, a small number of organisations used to have a core grant that used to cover their core organisational costs, and that supported a concentration in the sector. And I wonder if from the reading and the discussions you’ve had with civil society actors, whether there is an anxiety in the sector that [00:20:00] yes, we feel joyous about this process of localisation, decolonisation, and anti-racism.

But there are concerns that this might create a kind of winnowing process. And a concentration where the organisations that secure a long-term grant early on, that guarantees their survival, and other organisations who don’t secure those long-term funds may be then at risk of ceasing to exist.

Maya: Yeah, I think you bring up a really great point that we don’t talk about nearly enough. And we talk about a lot of the time the binary divide of power between the Global North and the Global South. Okay? But even in the Global South, it’s a huge area, right? There’s countries, many countries that make them up, even within a country, the ecosystem of civil society is diverse and it’s vast.

And there’s many organisations, national NGOs, civil society organisations, even unregistered [00:21:00] groups, right? And so there’s power dynamics there. There’s the larger organisations and the legacy organisations that have been receiving funding from large INGOs or bilateral donors for many years.

And they are in an incredibly privileged position compared to the unregistered groups, the smaller groups who are really struggling. And I think during the pandemic, we saw that come to a head because so many groups were struggling to access funding in a way that was flexible, that was multi-year, and that allowed them to survive at a bare minimum, right? To keep going. And an interesting story comes to mind that I also mentioned in my course about Oxfam. And their successful attempt to develop a flexible funding mechanism. And the reason why flexible funding is so important is because it is multi-year as well.

But in addition to it being multi-year, it also greatly reduces the requirements needed to access [00:22:00] these funds. And so they specifically created a fund that was meant for small women’s rights organisations that would otherwise not have a chance to compete against all of these larger organisations.

And the way in which they did this was, there was an individual, Mona Mehta who is the Global Gender Lead at Oxfam Great Britain. She began an influencing process internally. Even Oxfam, really large organisation, how do you get the change done? Donors have their different preferences about how things should be done as well as the compliance requirements.

And so she had a conversation with the fundraising team within Oxfam Great Britain, and mentioned to her this great need of these really small women’s rights organisations in countries that were going through extended conflict, right? So it was multiple levels of being marginalised.

And the fundraising team, after a few months, was able to find an individual philanthropist who was [00:23:00] willing to give funds for this cause and be open to experimentation in the flexible way. And so, she then started that influencing process within the organisation and as you said, the gatekeeping entities within an organisation as well, the different departments, the grants and compliance department.

What she encountered was that the systems themselves, the databases and the software had required fields and required forms that needed to be filled for it to even be registered in the system. And so something as simple as, ” okay, we’re going to do away with the requirement for audited accounts, we only need the organisation to be registered.” That was a way to make it more flexible in the meantime. That was hard. And so they had to work with that. And one of the workarounds that they did was, instead of labeling it as a grant, they ended up labeling one of the organisations as a service agreement.

And that was as a workaround. And so it’s like in the meantime, what [00:24:00] can we do to make this possible so that these groups who need funding can access them in terms of proposal requirements? Instead of expecting a 10, 25 page proposal with budgets, with all of this kind of thing, it was a one page description of what their needs were.

And the local partners, they were shocked and in disbelief as well. So there is also, I think, that level of change that needs to occur in terms of culture change, is like you have to convince your institutional partners, your donors, your internal departments about this change and actually create the change.

But you also have to convince your local partners to gain the trust that yes, this is actually possible. Yes, this can happen. Yes, you can use this towards your rent, towards salaries, that there aren’t these restrictions that were formally there. So it’s a long term change. 

Kate: Yeah. That’s a lovely example. Thank you. And I can see from the way that you’ve described, I mean, I can picture vividly somebody trying to input [00:25:00] this new project into their system and going, “oh, we don’t have data for that field in our system and therefore we can’t allocate this grant.” And then having to find the workaround that you’ve described.

I think that’s brilliant. Moving forwards, I think it’d be really interesting to give our listeners and viewers, an example of one thing, one practical thing that you think they could do, whether they work in development or they’re interested in the area, one thing that they could do to support decolonisation and the anti-racist agenda within development and humanitarian sectors.

Maya: I love this question because it’s about taking action, and believe me, I can nerd out for days about how important it is to end every discussion with concrete, actionable advice. So thank you, Kate, for giving me the opportunity to share. So for those tuning in, who are looking for what they can do now immediately to push the shift the power agenda, I will [00:26:00] say this: it’s not enough to think critically about power, position and participation. Yes, you must start there, but there is so much more to do and this is what really sets apart the change thinkers from the change makers. They are the ones making the change happen. They’re not waiting for anyone’s permission to integrate principles of shifting power into their practice.

They’re doing it and they’re doing it now. So I would say do what you can with the resources that you have. Set the example, get comfortable with experimentation. Yes, the stakes are high, and it may be scary to experiment with donor funds or when it comes to providing life saving or life improving aid.

But I would say the stakes are even higher if we fail to do something because we weren’t willing to try something new, something likely more effective, something likely more dignified. So, much of these conversations around shifting power are focused [00:27:00] at the high level of statements, strategies, plans, and frameworks.

But what we gloss over are the tools, the processes, and the procedures, because those aren’t considered as sexy or impressive. But that’s also where real change is happening. It’s in the micro actions you take on a daily basis. It’s in your own sphere of control or your sphere of influence. And so I would say that it’s a dangerous myth within our industry that change can only happen at the top in the halls of the United Nations or the boardrooms of INGOs.

Change doesn’t only start at the top and trickle down. It also doesn’t only start at the bottom and trickle up. It happens as a result of concerted, coordinated efforts at every level. Everyone in an organisation, everyone in a movement, is responsible for change. And this is what I teach in my course.

It’s about feeling empowered [00:28:00] that you can do what you can, when you can, wherever you can, see what’s working at other organisations, embrace a growth mindset, build those relationships with your community partners as well as your leadership, experiment and just demonstrate the value. That’s what I would say.

Kate: I love that. Thank you so much. So it’s about not being intimidated by the size of the task, but taking a small step and taking responsibility for the change that you can make as an individual. Thank you very much. Charmaine, I wonder if there’s anything that you would like to add at this point in the conversation.

Charmaine: Well, I just thought just very briefly, because I realised we don’t have a lot of time and so because I’m a body psychotherapist, my thing would be the relationship and the relationship to each person’s body and the relationship to actually working with others in this. And like you said, the stakes are really high.

So one of the things I thought was just really interesting is also decolonising [00:29:00] emotions, decolonising resilience. I think you actually said that for the donors, their emotional stability, because they were uncomfortable, presided over those ones who were going to be receiving the money.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and how does your course actually talk about that, because I think, like you said, you can have all the ideas, but to input every single idea is an emotional content, is a psychological content. You don’t just do something and there’s no emotional fallout.

So does your course, in a way, talk about how to help the donors manage the priority that White donors’ emotions are more important than the receivers of the money. Do you talk about that and how do you decolonise emotionality and psychological awareness? 

Maya: Ooh, yeah, that’s a lot, it’s [00:30:00] great, it’s great. The circuits are firing in my brain. I’m really passionate and so I’m glad that you mentioned it. It’s that body mind connection. And I think especially in training courses a lot of the time, they’re highly intellectualised. Our industry as a whole is highly intellectualised. We value the mind over the body. We value facts and figures over story and connection, and that’s another thing that I’m very passionate about and I hope shows up in the course as well, is relation. And who we are as human beings is very important to this work. That is what is flipping the narrative. And so actually every workshop that I start with, as an example, includes an icebreaker or a grounding exercise of some sort.

That is how we begin every single workshop because that helps you shut off from work, from whatever you were doing [00:31:00] before, it helps you be fully present. Whether it’s a fun, playful thing, right? So that it doesn’t have to be all serious. I think this is the thing when it comes to this sort of work is that we’re so serious about it and it is a serious thing and we should be very serious about it.

But if we lose sight of our humanity in the micro interactions, what is it all for? Right? We are trying to push for increased agency of every community, every group to have agency over their own lives, to be able to make decisions over their own lives. And so for that, you need to be fully present.

 In the community of practices that exist today in shifting power and decolonising aid, one of the things that I’ve seen that is lacking is the one-to-one connection.

We do a lot of programming in groups. We bring lots of groups together. But we don’t have that one-to-one human-to-human connection. And so that’s actually, I guess, a teaser for something that I’m working [00:32:00] on behind the scenes is developing a community of practice that emphasises just that. It’s something that we do in our courses, we encourage every person that shows up because these are global nonprofit peers, to share their experiences with each other from their own organisations as being professionals as well as their organisational challenges. But being able to connect one-to-one, building trust, is an integral part of this process.

Charmaine: Thank you. It would be nice to invite you back to kind of explore more of that, because I think you have a lot there, but given the time constraints, we can’t really hear everything that you’re saying. But thank you as a starting point for those people out there listening. Thank you so much. 

Maya: Thank you. 

Kate: Thank you Maya and thank you Charmaine. I think we will now draw the conversation to a close. We’ve had a lot of rich content here today and we’ve covered a lot of ground thinking about power, thinking about decentralised funding, thinking about [00:33:00] the relationship between funds and power, and thinking lastly about the relationship between people and how that shows up in our bodies is often missed out in thinking within the development sector, partly because it is, as Maya has said, so intellectualised. So thank you for your contribution today, Maya, and goodbye for now.

This weeks guest:

Maya Hasan is the founder of Fearless Project

Fearless Project, an online education start-up for diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is also the facilitator of Shifting Power Accelerator, a experiential, cohort-based online course on decolonizing aid, empowering local leaders, and fostering equitable partnerships. 

In her 20-year career, Maya has worked across a number of roles in NGOs including partnerships, grants and research supporting civil society development in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, CAR, DRC, Myanmar, and South Sudan.

Maya is Pakistani and American. She is a proud multicultural, non-binary woman, trauma survivor, and person with invisible disabilities. She speaks 10 languages and lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Recent work:

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