ActionAid International went through a tremendous transformation through what was called its internationalisation. It moved from being a British charity with branches in several countries, to a an alliance of few European members and now to a federation of 27 national members across all regions encompassing countries as diverse as Vietnam, Denmark, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Guatemala.
This new federation would be serviced by an international secretariat, with the roles of coordinating international work, ensuring compliance with federation wide policies and supporting countries directly or by enabling peer support as well as managing the programmes in those countries that had not yet gone through a local governance development process.
Before internationalisation ActionAid was a northern development NGO where one country structure had direct management and control over operations in other countries. Therefore, it was crucial to ensure that the new structure would break with such power inequity amongst countries. Some key measures took place: the members of the Federation would be led by their respective national governance (assemblies and boards); other operations in countries without a member should be led by the international secretariat, on behalf of the federation; resources flow in the organisation should be regulated by predictable and transparent mechanisms.
Those measures were crucial to deliver a radical power change in the organisation. Over time the idea of “double citizenship”, in which each member had the responsibility to deliver our mission in its respective country and also the responsibility to cooperate to deliver our mission internationally became increasingly important. The members’ international responsibilities would take many shapes, such as cooperating on global campaigns, providing peer support, implementing programs and ensuring its accountability to funders in other countries and raising funds to other countries.
Through this process the very idea of a federation “centre” started to evolve from central functions delivered by one unit (the international secretariat) to one where central functions were delivered by various units, with mutual accountability. At this stage a new vision of a networked federation was required, so that the international responsibilities of members could be enhanced and made accountable to the federation and those responsibilities could be strongly coordinated allowing better impact globally. In order to do that, in 2014 we created a few new instruments to enable such networked federation.
Firstly it was recognised that federation wide management decision making required direct country participation, so a federation leadership team was created with country representation. Secondly it was recognised that some countries could deliver some functions and processes to the whole federation through formalised delegations (which included accountability mechanisms). Thirdly there was a need to create some platforms per objectives of the Federation to enhance coordination of the activities planned by members and the secretariat.
These changes took place over the past two years and have allowed increased impact by harnessing countries’ global leadership. For instance AA USA and AA Bangladesh led our global work on climate, and AA Liberia led our global Safe Cities campaign. The platforms allowed more efficient planning towards global opportunities. The federation leadership team ensured stronger country perspectives on decision making. AAI has moved significantly towards a networked federation. This journey has also brought a number of lessons. One is that some core functions cannot be delegated, otherwise power inequities may rise. For instance, we decided that management of other countries could not be delegated; neither functions around compliance or implementation of resource allocation. Secondly, a networked federation may lead to increased transaction costs if roles and responsibilities are not clearly established.
From my experience in the past two years of leading such change, the main lesson is that the networked model allowed our federation to adapt to change in a much faster and agile way. In many examples the multiple leadership opportunities allowed us to increase our work on climate negotiations, on women’s rights and humanitarian responses, on campaigning and also on organisational development and expansion.