Shaping a post-colonial INGO

Dr. Kumar with staff at the Ipas Africa Alliance office in Nairobi, Kenya

By Anu Kumar

A year ago, I wrote about white supremacy in global health, and made a Juneteenth pledge to continue the long and ever-changing march toward anti-racism, ending oppression and achieving justice. Since then, I have been actively pursuing an anti-racist approach to organizational design and management, specifically that of an INGO.

As the president and CEO of Ipas, a global reproductive health and rights organization, it’s my job to tackle the patriarchy head-on — to fight the racist, sexist and colonialist policies and practices that deny women and girls the right to safe, high-quality abortion and contraceptive care. But what does it mean to look inward, and to decolonize Ipas itself?

And what does “decolonize” really mean? There are identifiable, historical time periods demarcating pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras, but the reality is that we are in all of them simultaneously. Coloniality is a state of mind. As we work to decolonize global health, we must recognize it is futile to try to recapture a mythical pre-colonial moment of the past, just as it is delusional to imagine a future devoid of colonial thinking.

I don’t mean that we should just accept our fate. On the contrary, we should be inspired by the near-constant resistance of our ancestors. Anti-colonial movements, guerilla warfare, slave revolts, indigenous uprisings, and non-political acts of defiance and home-grown rebellions — the preservation of language, custom, food ways, music, clothing and much more — are all instructive in how we can forge a new path.

One thing I have learned is that post-coloniality is a journey not an endpoint. And, I believe, a post-colonial organization does the following:

o Shifts power by moving control over organizational decisions from a centralized body to a more dispersed set of actors

o Redistributes wealth — both human and financial resources — toward the countries where we work

o Fosters ownership, agency and autonomy in all, but especially those who have historically been in the role of ‘receiver’ of aid or ‘beneficiaries’ of programs

Based on those goals, we began a multi-year journey last year — which we’re calling the Ipas Road Map — to transform Ipas into a networked global organization with authority, power and leadership dispersed and shared across the network of offices, rather than centralized in the U.S.

To do this, we are making significant changes in the way we work, especially in the relationship between the U.S. office and our offices in the 17 countries and regions where we work around the world. A networked model means that some Ipas offices will be independently registered, though not all. Beyond legal status, however, changes in our management approach and organizational culture are significantly shifting our relationships so that we are a flatter and more horizontal organization.

We have begun using a shared leadership approach to management. It’s an organizational philosophy, affirmed by our core value of interdependence. It will continually move us toward dispersed responsibility, shared authority, strategic distribution of resources and collective accountability. Indeed, the work that I describe here was done by many staff in many locations in the organization and with the support and guidance of our Board of Directors.

In practical terms this has meant:

#1 Sharing leadership of the change process itself. Key decisions about the future of Ipas are now being made by a working group consisting of members of the U.S.-based executive team and directors of our offices in Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mexico and Central America.

This has meant adding more hours to their already-packed work lives, in the midst of a global pandemic. But they saw the need for change and took on new responsibilities, and, importantly, new authority.

Staff from across the organization are also getting involved, making recommendations on how critical functions such as fundraising and financial management should be handled as authority and responsibility become more dispersed. The majority of staff making these recommendations are from Ipas country offices, just as the majority of our more than 380 staff members are located outside the U.S.

#2 Sharing funding decisions. Dispersing power, authority and leadership boils down, in many ways, to control of money. Decisions on where and how to allocate funds traditionally have been made by the Ipas leadership team based in the U.S. But in the fall of 2020, when a major donor unexpectedly reduced funding for some Ipas country offices, two country directors not affected by the cuts and two executive team members worked together — in a transparent, inclusive and fair manner — to develop criteria and a weighting system to make allocation decisions. A similar process was used when a funding windfall from another donor came up and recently in allocating precious unrestricted funds. At the core, these processes rely on teams to best determine their needs and to make a request, regardless of location or scope.

#3 Listening to our staff on the issues of anti-racism and equity. Based on input from a staff survey conducted in 2020, we developed an anti-racism and equity U.S. workplan that focuses on systems and culture and includes internal salary transparency, to guard against pay practices that may create inequity, particularly among historically marginalized groups. We also are masking identifying information for U.S. job applications and increasing recruitment from diverse spaces. Globally, we are strengthening and simplifying our approach to compensation so that Ipas leaders in each office will be able to clearly explain how their staff salaries are set. Salaries will be consistent, equitable, transparent, and competitive relative to the local NGO job market. We are also in the midst of an equity audit conducted through a series of interviews and focus groups, with a particular emphasis on traditionally marginalized groups, to understand how staff from across the organization experience our organizational policies, practices and culture.

#4 Drawing on collective expertise. Traditionally, we have consolidated expertise and authority in a single person. For many years, for example, Ipas had one person, based in the United States and with American credentials, serving as medical director. After discussions with staff across many of our teams, we decided that the functional tasks of a medical director will now be met by drawing on the expertise of medical staff throughout the organization, including our country offices. Through a medical community of practice, we will capture their collective knowledge as doctors, nurses, midwives and others working in diverse environments to support abortion care.

#5 Changing our culture in small but important ways. As one staff member puts it, we have had many “small adventures” in shared leadership. Ipas country directors used to meet once every two years, but now have virtual meetings every week. We are hiring interpreters for key parts of the Road Map process, so that non-English-speaking staff can participate fully. And when positions formerly based in the U.S. open up, our internal advertising for those positions now goes out to the whole organization, not just to U.S. staff. These are concrete ways to signal that we are seeking real, lasting change.

Our journey is just starting, and I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. We are part of a long tradition of rebels and resistors. In the introduction of C.L.R. James’s book, “A History of Pan-African Revolt,” Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “First, as long as Black people are denied freedom, humanity, and a decent standard of living, they will continue to revolt. Second, unless these revolts involve the ordinary masses and take place on their own terms, they have no hope of succeeding.” What we see today with the Black Lives Matters movement and its reach into sectors like global health and development is that both conditions are being met. We must all confront the legacy of racism and colonialism and I call on others to tackle this head on and share what they are learning and doing so that, together, we can change the global health and development sector.

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international reproductive justice organization

Ipas is an international reproductive health and rights organization.