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Ten years on …

some thoughts and reflections

by Sally Stevenson, indigo foundation Chairperson

In 1999, a small group of us, frustrated and disillusioned by our experiences of mainstream development practice, came together to discuss the possibility of setting up a new and different community development organisation. An organisation called the indigo foundation, we thought, could address the gaps we had identified in the way international aid was delivered: we could practice community development in a way that was truly community-led and which saw the building of equitable and equal relationships with communities as paramount to the success of any partnership. This, we believed would result in development outcomes that could ultimately lead to real empowerment of marginalised communities.

indigo foundation is now ten years old. Reflecting on our achievements, challenges and lessons learned over the last decade I think we can be quietly pleased with how we have evolved, and what we have managed to do.  I strongly believe the core of our success has been an ability to stay true to our beliefs and our principles, and to maintain an intellectual rigour and practical integrity in all that we do. This solid sense of identity and continuity struck me as I was reviewing discussion papers that were written when indigo foundation was just an idea. Below are a number excerpts from these documents. For me, what they say remains as true and as strongly felt today as when they were first written.

The idea of establishing indigo foundation sprung from a belief that it is possible to take a more creative, dynamic, responsive and innovative approach to international aid and development.  The promises that development aid made over the last 20 years, just haven’t been delivered. 

….there are large discrepancies which continue to exist between the rhetoric of local input into the implementation of aid projects and the ‘on-the-ground reality’ of this rhetoric.  Many people from within the communities that [non-government organisation (NGO)]projects have been supposedly established to serve, continue to voice frustration over both the approach of NGOs and the lack of real input they have in the creation and implementation of these projects.  Essentially there remains a lack of any sense of community ownership of these projects, which in turn naturally lessens the effectiveness of these projects in many varied ways;

…..many NGOs….use the same model of operation in every country in which they work.  [support needs to be]… better adapted and tailored to meet the specific country and cultural needs and aspirations of aid recipient populations.

….development is not a linear model, issues are interactive, interdependent and fluid – they change over time, within communities, according to the success and failures of one sector or another

…..[we] should provide support for local community inspired, owned and led development projects.

…we believe it is crucial to acknowledge that aid recipient communities are in the best position to judge what their priorities are in terms of development projects.  As such, we envisage [we] would play an actively supportive role, keeping an emphasis on community ownership of the project, but providing the necessary finance, technical support and evaluative research to assess and ensure that the project continues to meet its aims and objectives.  In this way [we] hope to offer more scope to develop projects that strengthen local institutions and respond to, rather than displace, local initiatives.

….we believe that global realities need to be considered in local initiatives, as micro and macro contexts constantly impact upon and influence each other.  We therefore accept and support the need to enter into the ‘politics of engagement’.  This may be at the local, national or international level.  As part of this, we explicitly acknowledge that power imbalances exist between and among these parties, and will seek to incorporate this recognition in the development of initiatives.

….The focus of some NGOs has actually stifled development, despite their collective good intentions: paternalism, economic colonialism, disregard of cultural and sub-cultural entities, the preaching of development principles for overseas which are not practised in the NGOs’ countries, and finally, the provision of aid where the primary aim is not to assist the recipient but to provide economic advantage to the donor country/NGO.

….indigo foundation is born out of shared concerns around issues of social inequity, concentration of economic power globally, environmental degradation, the erosion of diversity (cultural, ecological, economic, political etc) and the dominance of private interests over public interests – all of which are increasingly critical to the wellbeing, dignity and integrity of people and communities everywhere. 

….indigo foundation is particularly concerned with the way in which these issues relate to the concept of ‘development’ – and the way in which much of ‘mainstream development’ is not only failing to bring about meaningful positive changes in these areas, but is actually contributing to worsening the problems -and are inherently part of the institutional and structural factors which exacerbate them.  [We are]  also concerned about the lack of quality evaluation, analysis and critique of ‘development’, even among Australian NGOs.

….The fundamental philosophy and orientation of indigo foundation is to support a shift of power and control over ‘development’ from global towards the local.

….The effectiveness and relevance of indigo foundation will depend on the quality of relationships, information sources and analysis from local communities….and our ability to respond to the needs and requests from these [communities]. [We] will seek to remain small, creative, flexible, responsive and independent.

A dedication to our foundational principles is what drives us and what grounds us. It is also what has enabled us to develop a unique model of collaboration – our four Guiding Principles. These principles provide direction, clarity and stability in our relationships, and they have proven time and again to deliver outstanding results, often far more than we could have anticipated. These principles, our operational principles (such as core funding and risk taking), our professionalism and an unwavering commitment to, and belief in, small marginalised communities, are the cornerstones to our success.

And, whilst our beliefs and principles have at times been put under pressure, they has been sustained by an intangible yet essential reference point: a conviction that development is first and foremost about the human relationship. One must act in good faith, with good will, and have a robust trust in the integrity of communities and individuals that you work with.  Our commitment to maintaining direct and vigorous relationships with the communities we support means we can speak from the heart about those communities.

As an organisational philosophy and culture this not only differentiates us, but empowers us. Respectful relationships create the environment for empowerment of everyone involved in the development process.  There is no question that those of us in Australia have enjoyed numerous benefits as a result of our involvement with indigo foundation.

While we have learnt about the courage and resilience of communities under pressure, our own understanding of development has matured significantly and we have, through practice, come to more fully understand and appreciate the complexity and strength of our own principles.  Not least of this is to know and accept that ‘for all things there is a season’. That letting go (at the right time) of the development process can result in a project taking a new and unforeseen but powerful direction, with successes that we could not have imagined.  This appreciation of allowing projects to develop their own momentum, in their own time and to evolve according to the manifold influences upon them has been one of the most important leaving curves we have enjoyed.

We have also learnt from, and been encouraged by, the deep loyalty and confidence of our supporters. We would of course not be here without you all. Moreover, the way we have grown organically through word of mouth, and the enthusiastic and optimistic culture this offers has been vital to maintaining a growing all-volunteer organisation. People have truly been inspired to support us because of our way of doing development and because of the informal yet respectful way we treat people.  This has allowed us as an organisation to over time, renew ourselves with new people and new ideas while remaining a cohesive unit.

Challenges remain of course, and of these we speak often. However, as Frank Mannix, a friend of mine once said ‘if it was easy, someone else would have done it’.  Confronting and working with challenges is what makes life with indigo foundation interesting, edgy and ultimately satisfying.

In the beginning we thought our fundamental philosophy should be ‘to support the shift of power over development from the global to the local’. I’d like to think we: you, us and the communities we support, have achieved some small steps towards this.

I hope the girls from Borjegai going to University in Kabul; the children of M’bore going to University in Kupang; the pregnant and malaria-free mother who now sleeps under a mosquito net with her two year old in Koklopori, DRC; the Ugandan HIV orphan in Budaka who spoke up for the first time of her fear and hopes for the future in one of our workshops; the young man in the Solomon Islands who has the skills and willingness to stay and build a life with his family on the Weathercoast; the Dalit child in Tamil Nadu, India who is thinking Year 11, Year 12 and even beyond may now be possible; and the young girl in the West Bank of Palestine who is learning to protect herself against sexual violence, would agree with me.

From the beginning (or close enough to it), Zoe Mander-Jones, Jenny Noble, Sally Blake, Susan Engel, Pat Duggan, Sue Cunningham, Sarah Kelly, Salman Jan, Margaret Easterbrook, Theresa Huxtable and Libby House you have worked passionately to build indigo foundation into an organisation of integrity and success. Thank you.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to every single person who has supported indigo foundation over the years. I hope and trust you’ll come along with us for the next 10!

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