Back to Basics: Solidarity, Trust and Adaptability for Revitalised Development Collaboration

By Margreet van Doodewaard and Antonia Potter Prentice - 08 November 2023
Back to Basics: Solidarity, Trust and Adaptability for Revitalised Development Collaboration

Margreet van Doodewaard and Antonia Potter Prentice make a new case for the old values of solidarity, adaptability and long-term commitment as the basis for effective Civil Society collaboration in development.

We’re worried. As development practitioners, working with civil society organisations around the world for over 25 years each, we are struck by development practitioners’ levels of stress, exhaustion and frustration. We feel some of the best things civil society has to offer, aren’t getting the play that they should, as the funding-strapped humanitarian and development juggernaut rolls on.

Don’t get us wrong: the passion remains, and the drive to do more and better is admirable. Yet, why are many of these well-intentioned colleagues so mired in organisational complexity, so hamstrung by compliance to unsurmountable accountability rules, so far from living the activism that inspired them to this work in the first place? Why do we and our funders keep thinking we can control and produce predictable results in a world this complicated and volatile?  We wanted to put things in perspective and offer a more positive paradigm.

Civil Society Organisations in Crisis?

CSOs are in a time of reckoning. Yet, as the world burns, their role is more important than ever. Funding is short, multi-stakeholder partnerships aren’t delivering systems change, space to operate is diminishing and positive results for the most vulnerable lag behind. At the same time, we’re deep in important, uncomfortable debates about decolonizing aid, shifting power and locally led development. These are critical and necessary considerations in our ‘aid ecosystem’, as is our commitment to keep self-reflecting and learning to adapt and get better at what we do.  But none of this should detract from our striving towards our core purpose in real time: working together towards a world that is healthy, fair and a safe place for everyone.

It is time to make a case for a more positive and collaborative approach. This is the right moment to re-calibrate international development collaboration, building on the principles of solidarity, trust and long-term commitment.

An alternative approach: back to basics.

We propose three basic approaches to help navigate the complexity and find good outcomes for the power debate even in the midst of crisis:

  1. Rediscover the power of true solidarity: build genuine, trusting, collaborative relationships based on solidarity as the launchpad for concrete initiatives.
  2. Relinquish control in favour of adaptability: accept that sustainable development is a winding road and organisations on the ground often deal with unexpected and tough setbacks. Have clarity on the ultimate goal, support those on the ground without being overburdened by pre-fixed detailed accountability frameworks. Invest in the relationship, rather than for control through paper.
  3. Commit and engage for the long term: agree on a common goal then take a long-term perspective to get there; long-term means ten years at minimum and preferably more. The SDGs in themselves are a good example of this directed common effort; even though we may not achieve them, they set a clear destination ‘dot’ on the 2030 horizon. Knowing where we’re headed means we can put our energies into working out the different possible ways to get there.

The power of Solidarity

Solidarity is often defined as unity in agreement of feeling or action. It is something we do - defined by the willingness to act in support of others, even when it is difficult or not without risk to do so. Solidarity, if practiced with sincerity, can obviate the worst aspects of power imbalances, and enable people working alongside each other to concentrate on what they respectively know and do best.

We believe that by bringing solidarity to the heart of our development endeavours, we address the need for equality, justice and mutual accountability. By standing together and striving for a shared goal, we create a level playing field to forge strong bonds of mutual accountability and can give a real push for positive change.

If you think this is all a bit too good to be true, remember how the combined efforts of activists within the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the many supporters across the globe led to Nelson Mandela walking into freedom. It was never an easy process; the road to freedom was full of challenges; mistakes were made but as solidarity continued to bring very different people together rallying for a common goal, the train kept rolling in the right direction.

We believe the climate movement can achieve something similar. Likewise, we see that when solidarity disintegrates, interests start to disperse, and conflict emerges; power dynamics shift to those holding power and distrust pits power holders against their own people, such as in South Sudan and Sudan. To counter this, local civil society needs the long term solidarity and support to be able to deal with realities on the ground.

Likewise, it seems easy to talk about trust-building, but it’s another precious commodity which doesn’t respond well to the projectized approach. In peace process management, there’s a phenomenon called ‘’confidence-building measures’’, tangible, measurable actions designed to help bring parties together towards a trustful relationship in which they can mutually show vulnerabilities and tackle problems. Such measures or a trust-building phase is not a recognised part of the standard development project cycle. Yet, it is worth the time and investment. Ask any CSO worker what a critical success factor in an initiative they are proud of has been, and they will mention trust and good relationships. But check any budget: you won’t find a line for it there.

People are trying out things like this all over. For example, as part of the Reimagining INGOs social lab project, a team hosted what we called a ‘’brave conversation’’ about compliance modalities between a funder (USAID Localworks), an INGO intermediary (Global Giving) and a local organisation working on sustainable community preparedness and response in the Philippines (Centre for Disaster Preparedness). ‘Brave’ because it already takes a lot of trust and confidence to open this conversation between ‘big’ funders and ‘little’ funding recipients. Knowing that risk management and compliance procedures tend to act as a prism illuminating power imbalance, they tried out an innovative way of dealing with due diligence requirements.

The positive results, according to them, could be traced to some key factors.

First, the donor intermediary was someone known and trusted in the communities where the project was working; this person acted as a bridge mediating between two ‘worlds’ which he could navigate - the donor’s world, and the communities’ world. Second, due diligence for small grant disbursement was carried out under the mantra of a ‘’character-based approach’’, with an emphasis on collecting views on reputation, integrity and effectiveness from community members, not from ‘’outsiders’’; and on a ‘’join the journey’’ rather than ‘’one time document check’’ approach in terms of some of the basic requirements of financial management.

Relinquish control: a measure of flexibility.

Given the complexity in which we operate, we cannot expect to fully (or even partially!) control the outcomes of our endeavours. Accepting this is the first step.

Civil society actors in (some parts of) the aid ecosystem talk a lot about complexity, systems thinking and approaches in the face of today’s recognised ‘’poly-crises’’. Our anxiety to retain control in the face of chaos, has translated into our nervous obsession with log frames, theories of change, SMART objectives, deliverables, qualitative and quantitative indicators: all potential avenues to feeling some sense of control on how interventions will move the development agenda forward in a setting of unpredictability and complexity. And there is merit in doing this.

At the same time – in spite of all control measures - we often do not (fully) achieve what we set out to do, as reality turns out differently. Our frameworks don’t allow for adaptations, and we end up with disappointed participants who do not wish to continue with the project or want entirely different results; or CSO implementers or funders who feel they should pull the plug. This exacerbates distrust and hampers real progress. We believe a better sense of grip and accountability can be obtained by finding ways to work that harness the strength of trust, an appreciation of reality and the flexibility to adapt to it.

Commitment for the long term.

Rather than getting hung up on defined deliverables in the short term, we believe it is more constructive to create breathing space: to set a clear dot on the horizon and adapt approaches as reality unfolds and changes over time. We still might not end up exactly where we wanted to be, but we would know we are moving in the right direction and if not had the freedom to adapt. It is great to see that several development CSOs and funders are already trying to bring this into practice by developing short strategic compass documents setting directions and visioning dots on the horizon, rather than creating bulky strategic plans that are crammed with deliverables and objectives. The Ford Foundation experimented successfully with this approach; investing in the relationship for the longer term, building the work on mutual trust and allowing freedom to adapt.

The secret ingredient

There are so many good examples that show a different, more promising path. This makes us hopeful, as does the recognition on most sides that development collaboration and humanitarian action continue to be urgently necessary. CSOs from all levels are indispensable actors linking people in communities to institutions and duty bearers. There are numerous new opportunities and avenues we can travel.

It takes courage along the whole value chain - from institutional funders to the smallest community initiative to rely on mutual trust and a shared dot on the horizon. Yet each one of us can change our attitudes and approach. If you are an employee in civil society or in a donor institution, you can encourage your leadership to bring trust and solidarity back centre stage. If you are in a leadership role, shed a bit of compliance angst, park your ego, find, model and share ways to collaborate through trust and equality and encourage others to do so too. This road to reclaiming development for its essential purpose needs to be travelled by all actors in the development value chain for it to be successful, and that includes you.



Margreet van Doodewaard is a strategy consultant and interim executive leader – helping CSOs to own their future - in the philanthropy, development and human rights sector (

Antonia Potter Prentice is a leader who designs, builds, and animates inclusive processes and relationships aimed at just and sustainable change for people and planet, presently Executive Director of Alliance2015.(

Photo by Harshit Tiwari

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