How can we provide assistance on the terms of the recipients and at the same time be driven by a commitment to change? For RFSU, long-term cooperation must be based on a common feminist will to change, but it is our partners who can best concretize what this means in practice. The key is the conversation, writes Julia Schalk.
Some time ago, I was asked if RFSU in our international work can enter into a partnership with a non-feminist organization when we ourselves work from a feminist perspective. I answered no to that question. Do they have to call themselves feminists and be able to quote Judith Butler? Obviously not. RFSU works on the basis of a theory of change where people's organization, often in civil society, leads to change in the various spheres of society. If an organization does not see that power is unevenly distributed or lacks the will to change, there is no basis for cooperation.
Two issues often arise in an activity that supports feminist change. First, what does it mean in practice? Secondly, is there a conflict between a feminist work and the aid principle of ownership, that is, the countries / organizations that receive aid should design and prioritize?
The organizations we work with are in place, they are not something we create. They receive support based on their own priorities. In Argentina, they choose to go out in the square and demonstrate against restricted abortion rights. In Bangladesh, they get rid of the authorities' test if a woman has been raped by running two fingers up her vagina. In Ghana, a midwife lies to her patient's husband that she has removed his wife's copper coil at his request. It is still there, the woman herself does not want to get pregnant.
These actions are all examples of strategies for change, at the individual level or structurally. It is activism with a will to change, no matter what it is called. I call it feminism in practice.
The power lies in the choice of collaborations
Once RFSU enters into a partnership, it is based on a solid analysis of the organization's ability and willingness to change. Although it may feel awkward for many to admit, our greatest power lies in this very process. Thus, this is where the risk is greatest for a goal conflict in relation to ownership. Therefore, it is also important that we can be clear about the type of criteria we apply in our assessment. An ambiguity that nevertheless ends in a rejection is not transparent and does not change the fact that we have power in this situation.
Once the collaboration has begun, we will be there as partners, in successes and setbacks in the long term. Then we must also know that the values are solid. If it were not important, the assistance would be provided by audit firms.
The conversation is our tool
The Expert Group for Development Aid's evaluation of Sida's work to integrate gender equality shows that some organizations and institutions that receive support from Sida do not know what the authority means when they say that gender equality should permeate or be a goal for the work. One explanation for this ambiguity is that Sida does not want to control too much with templates and guidelines. Another is that the competence to conduct a dialogue on gender equality can vary. In the pursuit of ownership for the recipient, ambiguity is created.
I think Sida is far from unique. Within development cooperation in general, there is uncertainty about boundaries in order to utilize one's power as a donor and at the same time have development goals that must be pursued. It is linked to a very justified awareness of the challenges of all aid.
So how do we find the right balance? It may sound banal, but I believe in the power of conversation. So many times, my own truth has quickly come to shame once the conversation has taken place. But communication is difficult, the balance for retained ownership and "donor requirements / commitment" is not self-evident. A respectful dialogue places high demands on us who participate in it. Knowledge, openness and clarity with your own values. Respect also means that we place trust in the other party's ability to handle our perspectives.
We are not sitting on the solutions
The ownership disappears when we believe that we as players from Sweden are sitting on the solutions. When we let Swedish solutions become universal. For example, I do not want to see a single woman forced to complete a pregnancy against her will. Does this mean that Argentina, Bangladesh and Ghana should copy the Swedish abortion legislation? No. The path to the goal is, as always, dependent on the context, and the expert in that respect is the partner organization.
Having dialogue as an instrument also contributes to being more relevant as a donor. If we want to be more than a bag of money, we must understand the challenges and opportunities that people in organizations face. Only then can we contribute to change through our money, but also by opening new doors, creating other types of meetings and new paths for knowledge development.
Requirements must be placed on civil society organizations that enter into partnerships with other civil society organizations. We must live up to the principles of ownership and transparency. But we must also be clear that beyond the roles of donor and recipient, we are partners in a feminist movement driven by the will to change. Together.