Dignity in Development: A Different Way of Coming to the Work

PSJP’s recently published paper on ‘Dignity and Development’ looks at the idea of ‘dignity’in development and philanthropy. The first point to be made is the need to recognize that development practitioners do not impart dignity to others. We do not ‘empower’ people – a word that carries a taint of colonialism in its definition of granting power to others. The PSJP paper also points out that the replication of colonial power structures and the ‘civilizing mission’ are practices in development that reduce dignity. We must recognize from the outset that the dignity of others is equal to our own. In practice, this means committing ourselves to the time it will take to build authentic relationships with the communities where we work. It means weathering all of the potential cultural misunderstandings and failings on both sides to create lasting trust. It means coming to the work with humility, an open mind and a big heart.

Climate Wise Women is nearly ten years old and I can honestly say that I have only begun to learn these lessons in the last few years as our work has turned from public advocacy on climate change to developing and supporting the communities most affected. The women in sub-Saharan African and the Pacific Islands with whom I work have been my greatest teachers.

Researcher Jonathan Glennie is quoted in the PSIP paper as saying that development with dignity requires ‘a different way of seeing the world’. I would argue that it also requires a different way of coming to the work. In every grassroots project or organization with which we interact, are we as development practitioners asking ourselves these questions: who holds the power? Who should hold the power? How do we collaborate with our local partners in programme design? Are our programmes and initiatives the result of a truly participatory assessment?

Without the kind of deep awareness these questions provoke, we may unwittingly undermine the dignity of those whom we are privileged to serve. The PSJP paper highlights the issue of enabling ‘agency’ as a practice that ensures dignity in development. It lays emphasis on the importance of doing things with the people we seek to serve rather than to them. This resonates strongly with our practice at Climate Wise Women. If we are not taking decisions collaboratively, with full transparency, suspicions and misunderstandings arise. Can we share with our partners how funds are used? Are we acting on an unconscious bias towards the input of outside experts over local wisdom? The goal of our work must be community ownership. Working backwards from this goal, our ‘design thinking’ on programme planning and implementation has to recognize our partners as equals in decision-making – from goal setting to budgeting to community inclusion.

As we build our programmes are we already planning for our own obsolescence? To accord true dignity to our partners, we must understand that they are the leaders who will carry the work forward, complete the projects and, based on their own successes, develop new ones. We leave our own egos at home.

As Climate Wise Women works toward a new collaborative project in East Africa with partners from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and the US – a network of Women’s Climate Centers that is the result of a self-assessment by village women in Kenya – we are keenly aware of the need to place dignity at the front and centre of our work. The purpose of the Women’s Climate Centers is to support African women’s desire for peer-to-peer learning and access to information and training that expands their resilience – whether in the areas of climate smart agriculture, entrepreneurship or political influence. And further, to create a network that is African led and financially self-sustaining so that it will not be vulnerable to the changing priorities of international donors.

We are consciously examining the inherent power structures of affluent white women working with rural African women and striving to create a new way of working that defers to African leadership. Making common ground together, ensuring that we are all being heard and understood, fostering the kind of deep trust that occurs only through time and shared experience – these are the values of dignity that we are seeking to embody in our work.

One of our goals is to share what we learn through this process with other practitioners. We hope to develop a model that is instructive to others. I’m not sure if we will end up with something that looks like a matrix or some other type of empirical measurement. But I do believe that, in honestly recording both our failures and our successes in achieving full equality and dignity among all partners, the Women’s Climate Centers may provide one small step forward in our journey towards lasting social change.

Tracy Mann
The Green Climate Fund: Can it work for the grassroots?

I met Liane Schalatek, Associate Director for the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America,early in the life of Climate Wise Women.  On a chilly afternoon in a D.C. coffee shop, I asked Liane about the opportunities for small grants for grassroots women’s groups in the Global South.  Her response did not leave me encouraged.


Liane, however, is not discouraged.  She is an active civil society observer to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the first multi-billion-dollar international fund to mandate a consideration of gender from the outset of its operations.   The GCF is a key financial mechanism to support the efforts of developing countries in response to the challenge of climate change under the Paris Agreement.  In this role, Liane has been a tireless advocate for marginalized groups, women, indigenous people and youth, pushing for new channels to deliver GFC funding assistance to the grassroots.

 When I ask her for an update on our long-ago conversation, Liane tells me, “We have made some incremental progress with some policies, but the larger picture has changed too little.  The same actors who have failed to ensure that funding reaches local groups are the key implementers in GCF – the big multi-lateral development banks and UN agencies.”  Direct access entities, domestic organizations, including non-governmental groups, are still way behind in getting their own project proposals considered and approved.

 “What makes things difficult,” Liane explains, “is that the accreditation process is very rigorous – there are lots of requirements in terms of policy documents, institutional fiduciary guidelines, auditing procedures, etc. The existence of written policies is taken as proof of due diligence and is weighted more than a track record in delivering results. This approach disadvantages small national and local entities.”   One avenue for grassroots groups to access funding is to align with already accredited groups rather than spend the time and energy working towards unlikely direct accreditation with the GCF.

Liane says that skepticism still exists in many developed countries around community-based and grassroots solutions as successful strategies for GCF investment.  She says that many GCF board members tend to assume that larger projects and programs are better by equating greater financial leverage with more effective climate financing.  Networks of civil society groups, including an increasing number of women’s groups from developing countries, now provide some critical input on project proposals up for approval before Board meetings.  More grassroots participation is essential to persuade the Board to consider alternative funding priorities and implementation strategies that can bring about real transformational shifts towards low-carbon and climate resilient development in the developing world.

 Liane’s dedicated work with civil society colleagues has insured that that the GCF has a gender policy mandating a project-level gender analysis and action plan for every proposal under consideration by the GCF.  All entities that are seeking accreditation must also show that they, too, have gender and climate change policies, which has a been a challenge for many private sector entities wanting to work with the GCF.  On the financing side, Liane and civil society colleagues have lobbied the Board for consideration of full cost financing for projects, which is much more sustainable for community-based projects, over solely relying on incremental costing.

 What can civil society groups do?  “Some of the current opportunities to influence and claim a place at the decision-making table will go away if they are not taken,” says Liane, pointing out the urgency for more groups to get involved as observers to the GCF and as monitors of GCF funding implementation.  “At the international level, there must be engagement on climate finance provision and specific GCF policies and approaches.   Nationally, advocates need to apply pressure on the government contact points, liaising with climate funds such as the GCF to ensure that national funding priorities include those in the best interests of local groups and grassroots organizations, including women’s groups. Finally, get involved.  Too few groups are engaged.  Civil society needs to master an understanding of how the fund works and become familiar with the vocabulary of climate finance, the GFC financial instruments and approaches.”

 On October 23, the GCF approved $1.04 billion in new grants and loans for 19 projects and programs.  Only a minority of the recipients, representing a tiny percentage of the overall amount, included funding approaches for the direct benefit of grassroots groups and local communities.




Tracy Mann
Raising Ambition

As I was doing some on-line reading on International Women’s Day this year, I found a number that shocked me.  A study by Global Green Grants and the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds found that only 0.2% of all global foundation funding was directed towards women and environment.  Over the years, the Climate Wise Women have shown me how many climate-smart, resource-efficient initiatives are pioneered by women in the communities most affected by climate change.  I couldn’t believe the stats I was seeing.

A few months later as I listened in to a planning call with fellow USCAN (US Climate Action Network) members for the upcoming Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, my hopes for the gathering drooped as I learned that the focus would be on big challenges for governments, business and industry.   Where was the entry point for the grassroots community, the people who live with the most severe impacts of climate change?

I thought about the challenge that I would make, the challenge to the philanthropy community to raise their ambition for supporting the global grassroots women who are the first-responders in preserving their communities in the face of climate change. It felt like a quixotic exercise until I discovered that a few smart and dedicated funders were already leading a persuasive education campaign to explain how and why their peers should join them in a bottom up approach to climate resilience. 

The CLIMA Fund (Climate Leaders in Movement Action), led by Thousand Currents, Global Green Grants, Grassroots International, and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights was formed in 2016 to provide the support that has been so scarce for grassroots and indigenous communities confronting severe climate change impacts.  As they support these groups the four organizations are also looking to educate the philanthropic sector writ large and engage the larger, mainstream foundations as partners in the fund.   I spoke with Lindley Mease, the fund coordinator, who highlighted the key messages of the coalition:  

 “There is still an underlying distrust in the wisdom and abilities of the grassroots,” Lindley told me.  “We need to build the case in a different way.”  The coalition plans to release a study in October 2018 with data that demonstrate the collective impact and potential scale of frontlines community action on climate change.  “We need to change funders' framing from one solely focused on mitigation to one focused on nurturing a society that is humane and just,” Lindley adds.  “I’m really thinking about our success as whether in one to two years, we have a cohort of funders that would not otherwise be investing in grassroots climate solutions.”

The CLIMA Fund has already raised almost $500k and made grants to 19 global grassroots organizations working on advocacy, movement building and fossil fuel-free community development.

Inspired by this ambitious coalition, Climate Wise Women co-founder Constance Okollet and I will head off to San Francisco next week for the Global Climate Action Summit where we hope to continue the conversation on grassroots women and funding and all the work that still needs to be done.

Tracy Mann, September 4, 2018

Tracy Mann
A New Look for Climate Wise Women

It’s taken much longer that I ever expected to launch the new Climate Wise Women site.  Like most of the work we do, we’ve had to reevaluate our initial ideas, iterate our concepts and spend a lot of time patiently working through the process to ensure that we are making the most meaningful impact. We’ve come a long way from that breakfast event in New York in September 2009 during the opening of the UN General Assembly that was one of the first public celebrations of women’s leadership on climate change. One breakfast featuring the stories of grassroots women’s experiences of survival in a dangerously changing climate, in their own words, became the catalyst for all the travel, speaking engagements, networking, learning and advocacy opportunities that were to follow.

Over the years, we’ve gained insights on how to move from international advocacy to on-the-ground solutions for communities feeling immediate and urgent climate impacts.  It still isn’t easy. But with a strategy of fundraising assistance, community-responsive training opportunities and, most of all, visible support for grassroots women’s leadership, we feel emboldened as we look ahead.

Our next stop will be the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 12 through 14, where Climate Wise Women will call on policymakers, business leaders and philanthropists to do better on the current .02% investment in women-led adaptation and mitigation projects. We’ll also meet with our partners on the Women’s Climate Centers, a knowledge-sharing and skills-training program proposed by women’s groups in Uganda and Kenya, that we hope to pilot later this year.

Our deepest thanks to all of our friends and supporters – we wouldn’t have made it this far without you. A new website and an experience-informed strategy to advance grassroots women’s leadership set the course for the next steps of our journey together.

Tracy Mann