Anna Feuchtwang: Empowerment in Action, Not Words

Anna Feuchtwang

Anna Feuchtwang, CEO of the National Children’s Bureau, has spent her career working for NGO’s and international development. She was most recently CEO for the international children’s charity EveryChild

Before leaving EveryChild, Anna began the process of shifting control of the programmes run by the charity, from the London based organisation, to local NGO’s and community organisations based in the countries where the programmes are run. In this blog, she talks about the transfer of power and genuine participation. In her experience, international NGO’s will often talk about empowerment, but will rarely apply it in practice. She challenges organisations to consider where their power lies and tells them: 

“If you want to do good, get out of the way!”


A few years ago I was chairing a meeting of international NGOs about the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals.  Around the table were excellent people with lots of experience who would all describe themselves and their organisations as wanting to do good. During the conversation we talked about empowerment and participation, the importance of the voices of people being heard directly by those in power.

The event we were preparing for was one of the many consultations leading up to the UN summit, and this event was being held in New York City, home of the UN and therefore closest to the actual corridors of power. As we talked excitedly of what could be achieved it emerged that nearly every organisation round the table was planning to send large delegations of UK staff with just a smattering of partner organisations from developing countries invited.

The rationale for this was clear: the professional skills of policy staff from the head office meant they were best equipped to be able to have influence at this critical meeting. The credibility of an international NGO with a name that opens doors means being able to get in to see government ministers from many countries in one go; no need for any coaching for staff who are experienced in international summits.

But what about empowerment and participation? These ideas it seems were ideals.They could be met by making sure that partner organisations were consulted and, as long as some non-European/North American activists were included in the delegation, then that would suffice. It was too big a risk to allow people without the “right” experience at the top table. The ‘Top Table’  is a club that is exclusive to those well versed in an elite language, who are comfortable with each other and therefore able to do business. And the end justifies the means.

It is this kind of well-meaning but highly conservative and anti-progressive attitude that jaded my views of the international NGO sector. INGOs have a vested interest in holding on to power and their talk of bottom up development, empowerment and participation is just that – talk.

It is this kind of well-meaning but highly conservative and anti-progressive attitude that jaded my views of the international NGO sector. INGOs have a vested interest in holding on to power and their talk of bottom up development, empowerment and participation is just that – talk.

Joining NCB a year or so after this I was excited by the charity’s reputation for convening. From the Council for Disabled Children, which brings together more than 200 organisations representing children and young people and their families as well as professionals, to the Lambeth Early Action Partnership (LEAP), a partnership between the local authority, health authorities, practitioners and parents. For complete disclosure I should mention that LEAP is funded by Big Lottery Fund and NCB is the lead agency.

NCB is putting into practice empowerment and participation principles. Structures and process like parent/carer forums provide an outlet for the numerous frustrations felt by those trying to get decent services for their children. LEAP’s co-creation by parents and practitioners of programmes to support parenting and early childhood development empowers the service users.,

It was at the recent Future of Doing Good event that some of these ideas really came together for me. Funders, social enterprises, SMEs, NGOs, public bodies – the power holders – were in one room talking about the difference we can make.

Three things came out of it for me:

  • NGOs can be a channel for constituents to transmit their anger, not mute it or pacify it but express it constructively.
  • Funders are anxious about the risks involved in handing money to less established, emergent community-based organisations. Therefore there is a role for NGOs that have the systems and processes in place to mitigate the risk by providing the financial and reporting controls, but not get in the way.
  • No organisation should ever talk about empowerment until they are actually prepared to give some of their own power away.

The group with the greatest power can only empower the group with the least power by giving some – if not all – of their power away. And if you really believe that those from the poorest communities in the world have the right to be heard then support them in their efforts to organise – but don’t get in the way.

Are charities and civil society organisations doing enough to transfer their power to their service users? Who is best placed to do good? Do the largest NGO’s have a monopoly on Doing Good?

Let us know your thoughts by writing us a blog, or commenting below. Tweet at @AnnaFeuchtwang  and #FutureGood


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