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Hivos operates in a highly volatile context. Our values and principles remain the same, but we aim to stay flexible in a world where changes keep overtaking each other. So how do we see the world of today, and what are our choices based on?

On a positive note

As much as 2020 was one of the most distressful years for people around the world, there is also reason for optimism. In the past decades, hundreds of millions of citizens have raised their voice and claimed their rights. More girls are enrolling in school, more women have assumed leadership positions, and an increasing number of countries have recognized same-sex relations. Extreme poverty rates have declined, and world leaders agreed on Sustainable Development Goals that intend to leave no one behind.

We witnessed the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and the rise of a strong global climate movement. Young people, women, indigenous peoples, and others who are most affected by a loss of biodiversity, are leading ecosystem conservation actions around the world. And last but not least, new technologies have demonstrably contributed to sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and civic activism. More and more people seem to understand and agree that we need to redefine our current economic, social and political models.

Photo: Matteo Barriga / Hivos

The paradox of anxiety

Yet, 2020 is also the year that will forever be marked by Covid-19. Tens of millions of people were infected and more than a million have died (and still counting). Healthcare systems collapsed, millions of people lost their jobs and sources of income, and we witnessed a horrifying surge of gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBTIQ+ communities. Moreover, some authoritarian governments have eagerly put their citizens under increased surveillance in the name of Covid-19 prevention.

 A shift to a just and life-sustaining society will require major transitions in all domains of life.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and has shown that the progress made in recent decades is undeniably unevenly distributed. Secure livelihoods, safety, equality and inclusion are still a pipedream for probably over a billion people. Democratic forces are up against political autocrats and (often multinational) companies that serve the short-term interests of shareholders, instead of the common good and longer-term societal values.

The world we live in is complex and full of anxiety about conflict and violence, and about loss of standing, income, and possessions. This leaves people vulnerable to populist, authoritarian and polarizing forces that increasingly dominate public debate with a fear-based discourse. Paradoxically, it is exactly this rhetoric that sustains violence and conflict. And it thwarts efforts to protect our planet, fight for equality and inclusion, create sustainable livelihoods, and promote substantive democracy and social cohesion.

Multiple faces of power

These realities are reinforced by that fact that power in 2020 has a multipolar face. The United States no longer dominates the world’s economy or its norms and values; China, Russia and Turkey have successfully claimed their slice of the global power pie. Consequently, we see a permanent power play between authoritarian leaders who most certainly will not save the world from extinction or acknowledge people’s right to be who they are and shape their own lives and societies.

While the European Union tries to assume a leadership role in fighting climate change and upholding its human rights-based values, it defeats its own efforts when it comes to migrants escaping death and desolation. When dealing with development and migration challenges, EU member states do not operate as a true union. Rather, they show a notable lack of will and power in matters of foreign policy and defense, and showed a clear reluctance to fill the void left by the United States under the Trump presidency.

Failed systems – and how to replace them

All the major challenges of our time have system failures and power imbalances as their common denominator. In the three impact areas we focus on, we see how these factors cause marginalization and stifle voices of change.

Our global economic system incentivizes the exploitation of people and natural resources, resulting in an unprecedented global suicide pact that hits the poor and marginalized the hardest. In fact, global warming threatens to drive another 100 million people into poverty by 2030. While they did not profit from globalization, and are not responsible for its deadly climate-changing impacts, they do suffer from the pollution, land degradation and biodiversity loss that it causes. Yet the voices of the very people and communities who are key to developing locally-shaped climate solutions are mostly absent in the (inter)national debates about – yes – climate solutions.

Communities should be in charge of their own local change processes.

Likewise, systemic sexism, racism, homo/bi/trans/intersex-phobia, ableism and ageism sustain longstanding practices of exclusion and discrimination. Same-sex sexual relations are still punishable by law in 70 countries, and well-funded conservative and religious groups fuel a strong “anti-gender movement.” Domestic violence, sexual harassment, bullying and hate speech are the order of the day for women and LGBTIQ+ people. All this despite the fact that a growing body of evidence shows that inclusive societies do better, including economically.

Other deep drivers of sustained power imbalances and systemic exploitation are public institutions that are weak, unresponsive and unaccountable. Freedoms are in decline, and so is public trust in democratic institutions that fail to be inclusive and accountable. Civil society activists face mounting legal restrictions and lethal threats. Rapid digitalization has facilitated the spread of fake news and hate speech. It has also aided data collection and surveillance by public and private parties, leading to serious safety risks for citizens and activists. Yet at the same time, digitalization also enables people and movements to connect more easily, collect vital data and evidence, and share alternative narratives and solutions.

A shift to a just and life-sustaining global society will require major transitions in all domains of life. Hivos deeply believes that people unlimited is the key to challenging current system failures, fighting power imbalances, and realizing climate justice, gender equality, diversity and inclusion. Yet we are also convinced that people must join forces in order to achieve real change. And that communities should be in charge of their own local change processes.

Donors and the development sector

Looking at the development sector that Hivos is part of, and the international donor community it depends on, we see much room for improvement. Although we are all convinced that people have a right to decide their own future, we have never really stopped appropriating their development processes. For example, even when the importance of local ownership is broadly acknowledged, we tend to “give” this local ownership to the marginalized, underrepresented people we chose, wrapped in our own values and conditions regarding the terms of this ownership.

Local ownership is too often a mere box to be ticked in the funding proposals designed by donors. Even worse, donors tend to shift the responsibility and risks of working with local actors to organizations like Hivos by contracting us to implement their programs. The counterproductive result is that local organizations are put in a straitjacket of strict compliance requirements, leaving little space for real local ownership. Yet local ownership means taking risks, so funding with should have fewer conditions and allow room to explore new paths. We see it as our responsibility to influence donors and increase their understanding of why change cannot be achieved by simple solutions without being willing to take those risks.