Can you tell us something about your background? And how did you come to your current position?
I am an anthropologist by training, and have always been interested in other cultures. I traveled a lot and lived in several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tanzania, working with local organizations in each place. I became increasingly interested in the role of religion and spirituality in society, and especially the interface of religion and development. My interest piqued and I went on to study theology to come to a better understanding.
I had grown up in a Protestant culture and family, but during my student years I came to think of this as too narrow, and became involved in an ecumenical church community. I was much interested in Catholicism also (during my travels I had worked with some Catholic organizations). So I began to label myself a Catholic Protestant. I did work on interfaith approaches also in the Philippines and in the Netherlands. In my advanced studies, I also learned about Islam and had a long standing interest in Buddhism, and for a time called myself a Buddhist Christian. But once again I realized that I was not really Buddhist, that it did not reflect my roots, but also that I was not at ease in the old church framework. The upshot is that I now consider and call myself a religious person, but try to transcend the boundaries of organized Christianity. And I am glad that I have had the experiences that I have gained on this religious journey.
I have now been with ICCO
for 10 years. I first began as a program officer for South-East Asia, working with funding arrangements and with partners. For the past 5-6 years I have worked at the policy level, and am now part of the Research and Development department. Since the last three years I focus particularly on Religion and Development, including the role of religion in conflict and peace. How does your work relate specifically to religion?
In my work at ICCO, religion as a topic came up all the time. The role it should play in ICCO's work was so much debated that I felt it was time for the organization to think more about religion. I pleaded with the Board of Directors to create a special project to allow this. And that is essentially what I am doing now, though with time the work has become an integral part of the policy department, rather than a distinct project.
My work on Religion and Development has two dimensions or angles. The first centers on external relations, including with the Dutch government, as it concerns integrating religion in ICCO projects of many kinds, including HIV/AIDS, economic development, conflicts, etc. I do this through research, building a database, gathering experience from partners, training, workshops, etc. The other is really inreach, within the organization. That involves probing what it means for ICCO to be faith-based, its relation to its role as an NGO, and also the significance of its Christian roots.
This task is a continuing challenge. ICCO has a diverse staff in terms of religion, rather a cross-section of Dutch society, including many different Christian denominations and also strands of secularism. ICCO needs constantly to reaffirm and to rethink its identity, and to hone our mission. So we have taken this process of reflection very seriously, though not through a top down process, which would not work, or one grounded in papers, which would not work either.
We have instead focused on a mix of small, informal sessions and workshops that allow for and encourage reflection. We have been curious to find out what it is that is motivating people. How do they understand their work, and what they do? What does it mean for them? And what are their underlying values? Through this iterative process, we have identified a set of values that are held in common. These are not framed in terms of Christianity, though many if not all have clear echoes in Christianity. Some, though, are clearly drawn from the Gospel of Jesus. They include compassion, courage, trust, integrity, professionalism, and dedication. In essence, they are overall human values, though they echo the Gospel story. They are deeply felt human values, that we can own no matter what our religion.
This reaffirmation of values has become more and more important as ICCO decentralizes its work. It is vital that all staff, in different cultures and countries, feel that the values are part of the institution's and their own identity. We do not want to dilute our Christian character or call in question our roots, but are looking for a grounding that is inclusive. Our approach is a pragmatic one.
One mechanism in this process is my effort to keep feeding our staff with reflective moments. We hold morning devotions each day, and though not many come, it is important to the overall ethos of ICCO. We organize sessions for reflection, for example on the dilemmas that arise in people's work. Managers are invited to share what motivates them in their work, and to do so in creative ways, for example with photos and videos. What I see in these various efforts is what I like to call the soul of the organization.
And it is more important than ever. The work of development can work to kill the soul. The pressures for accountability, reporting, demands of daily work, government relations, constant reorganizations, and the speed of change today, all sap time and energy. They require staff continually to adapt, to learn new ways, and to respond to demands. All told, it is a very complex force field, and in it we need to keep the connection with the soul and with what inspires us. My desk is a symbol in the organization. I have focal points in different departments to engage staff, and all managers do make collective efforts in this direction. Can you tell us a little more about how ICCO began and how it works?
ICCO in some senses is comparable to Christian Aid in the UK, though there are important differences. The similarities are mainly in scope of work and approach. Christian Aid, however, is clearly part of the Church, while ICCO is not.
ICCO was founded about 45 years ago, in the 1960s, by the Protestant churches of the Netherlands, as a conduit for government funding for development programs. The Netherlands government acknowledged that NGOs and faith-based organizations had roles to play in development and developed programs to apply part of government development funds through partnerships with these non-government organizations.
From the start, ICCO worked with government funds. This had advantages and disadvantages. The advantages included assured financing and independence from the churches. The disadvantages included the fact that we became rather alienated from the churches that had created us. The funds were clearly not church funds and indeed we were not allowed to raise funds from churches or other sources.
This situation made us vulnerable when a recent Minister of Development (in the year 2000) set new conditions for the assistance channeled through civil society. The conditions included a provision that organizations had to provide 25 percent of total funding from their own resources and constituencies. We had to scramble and struggle to redefine relationships and connections with the Dutch churches.
One result was a new relationship with Kerk in Actie (Church in Action, or Global Ministries, the arm for global diakonia of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands). We have semi-merged with this organization, though not entirely: we are one organization from most perspectives, with one policy, but still two boards of directors. This has had many consequences, as we have worked out new modalities and relationships. Among other changes, we have had to focus much more on advocacy and on making our work much more visible.
Another result is that we have put much energy in developing alliances in the Netherlands. That involves working with the other Christian development organisations such as Prisma, which represents primarily the small reformed and evangelical churches, Edukans, which works on education issues, and Oikocredit, mainly in microcredit. We have close working relationships today within this community, to the extent of working with a joint strategic plan. What do you see as the major challenges for aid coordination that this suggests?
We have come to see much more clearly, as a result of these changes in funding arrangements as well as in the larger environment, the importance of aid coordination. The current situation is confusing for our partners in the south. We have thus worked to build new coordination mechanisms, first in the Netherlands, but also in Europe. There are coalitions of groups of “like-minded” organizations in the Netherlands and several European countries. At the European level, we have APRODEV
, a platform for coordination and EU advocacy of 17 ecumenical development and humanitarian organisations.
We work closely with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and in that context have been instrumental in the recent establishment of a new development arm, called ACT Development. The idea is to pull together, within an ecumenical framework, the different faith-based development organizations. It is so far mostly European but also includes American, Canadian, and southern faith-based organizations. It began just over two years ago, so it is still very new. The idea is to improve the flow and implementation of development towards greater donor coordination, and to increase the visibility of the ecumenical efforts. We also work with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, especially for advocacy on trade and HIV/AIDS issues. Can you describe ICCO in a bit more detail? How large is it? How many staff? How do operations work?
ICCO's staff numbers about 300, including a large number of part-time people. There are three main operating departments: fair economic development, access to basic services, and peacebuilding and democratization. We currently have operations in 50 countries.
ICCO's funding now is about 75 percent from the Dutch government and 25 percent from other sources, including the European Union and our Dutch Alliance partners. The arrangements for government funding are negotiated every four years with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We submit a corporate plan laying out the programs we intend to pursue. They need to meet the criteria set out by the ministry (including self-funding). These now include expectations about coordination and collaboration. Innovation is an important criterion, one we currently devote much attention to. There are annual reviews, and evaluations of the impact of our work.
We find that we have many areas of agreement with the present Minister of Development, who has come with a clear strategic vision and ideas about development. He supports our philosophy and plans for co-responsibility, and also appreciates the complexity of the process of development. He recently gave a very thoughtful speech outlining his vision.
It is a fundamental part of Dutch development philosophy and organization to rely on and work through non-government organizations, and this so-called co-financing system has operated since the 1960s. A substantial part & 20 percent of Dutch development aid - is administered through this partnership system. For many years, this has been a stable mechanism, but it may change in the near future as we get signs from the Ministry that this high percentage is no longer being taken for granted. How many organizations are included within this system?
There are the four largest organizations and a large number of smaller ones. The large ones are CORDAID, ICCO, Oxfam/Novib, and Hivos. How does it compare with other European systems?
The Dutch co-financing system is distinctive. In other European countries other arrangements exist for government funding of nongovernmental organizations, generally including the faith based organizations which were the leading organizations when the systems were established. In Sweden, for example, government funds for NGOs are distributed through the para-statal SIDA. How does your working relationship with the Dutch government work?
We have a structure of formal annual meetings and reviews, and far more contacts at the working level. There are many contacts at country level, with people working in the same sectors. However, the essence of the relationship is that we do keep some distance, and it is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.
There is a balancing act involved, nonetheless, and there can be ambiguities. You asked for some examples. These often arise when we, with our deep concern for human rights, see that the official government position in a country can be supportive of regimes that abuse human rights. We are aware of behind-the-scenes diplomacy but nonetheless do have and do raise our concerns.
We also give feedback to the Ministry on both bilateral and multilateral projects. Often we hear a very different story from our partners compared to the “official” version, about what is happening on the ground & not glowing success but many problems. So we challenge the government by putting these perspectives in front of them. What kinds of problems do you see? And how does this relate to the gap you referred to between the ideals of the development process and achievements?
We see both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, we see far more willingness, among many in the development community including our own development ministry, the World Bank, and others, to learn, and to recognize and admit their mistakes and learn from them. And there is sharing of lessons also. They seem to be genuinely concerned to do the right things and to do them right, and there is much reflection about it.
In contrast, the pressures from institutions and from the system overall are mounting and they are having some really negative consequences. The margins of manoeuvre are very small and thin and the pressures to deliver and to show results are increasing. And survival is at stake.
We all need constantly to prove that we are relevant and that we are delivering. This results in a constant, built in mechanism that perpetuates what we are doing, rather than trying new things or moving in a different direction.
We also have many concerns about what funding does. This is particularly true for the large funders, like the World Bank, where the availability of such large amounts of funding can distort priorities or institutions. But it is even true for organizations like ours, that are small overall but large in a local context. We need to reflect on what the funds do at the receiving end. We need more awareness of the complex dynamics of aid, which comes back to issues of power. And it also has an impact on us at the giving end, as we are the ones in a position of power. Our partners should not just be at our mercy and we talk about empowerment and are very sincere about it (as are other organizations). But when it comes down to it, it really is we who decide and that can introduce many distortions. We are deeply convinced that we need to find better ways to redress this imbalance of power. How do you work with partners? Do I understand correctly that ICCO makes grants to local organizations? Are all faith-based? All private?
ICCO works with partners in a variety of arrangements. Some partnerships have lasted for many years & 10-15 years, though always within a three year program framework. Different organizations present proposals which we consider. We look at our criteria and how they fit within our program priorities & at least that is the system at present, with its admitted centralization. We also obviously look at the quality of proposals. Sometimes with a new organization we will have a first year of a pilot, then a full three year program. All partner organizations (and there may be 20-30 partners in a country) are private & we do not work through governments, though sometimes there is cooperation. A significant part of our partners have a faith link.
So far, we have worked on a project-by-project basis, but we are now shifting towards a program framework. Where, for example, we are engaged in education, we look for a clear fit of activities within an overall program. The different partners and agencies sit together and agree on how they see the vision, what they want to achieve, and on allocations of responsibility. There is discussion of how budgets are allocated depending on different functions. However, funds go to individual partners, at least at this stage, and are not managed as a program. You mentioned an ongoing decentralization process?
ICCO is engaged in a transition that aims to transform our operations, and to build regional field offices. These will be staffed largely with people from the countries and regions concerned, with some Dutch staff. I do not like the term field office. We prefer to look as these as regional centers. The process is starting with four pilot regional centers, in Central America, West Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia. At the end of this year, we will evaluate the experience, and, if it is positive, will move to a structure with 12 regions, covering the 50 countries where ICCO operates.
The idea behind the decentralization is important, as it is part of a larger shift. We want to move away from the current model, essentially a central office which distributes funds; while it has done much meaningful work and done much good, we have recognized that we are not making a real difference on the larger problems of poverty, injustice, and inequality. And while our methods are participatory and engage our partners, still in the end it is we who decide. We are moving towards a very different structure based on a different philosophy, which we call co-responsibility. We are very serious that we want to share power and decision-making with our southern partners. The policy choices in the future are to be made by regional councils, with proposals presented by southern partners. The councils will include academics, policy makers, activists, and will include those who represent different religious traditions. They will make decisions based on the context of the region, looking to the wisest policy options. How do you see this working and how might it differ from the present system?
One difference is that our current structure based on operating departments in different fields will be challenged. Now, feedback comes through the different departments. However, we realize that this department structure is rather artificial. A different pattern will arise from the local structure, depending on local cultures and stakeholders. They emerge with a different approach, programmatically, one that demands much more flexibility. Peacebuilding might well overlap and merge with a different sector. The idea is that the stakeholders will work to their vision for making a difference, and building coalitions. It will represent a countervailing power.
For example, in West Africa, we are seeing the building of an interesting network of education practitioners. They include representatives of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Malian Ministry of Education, municipal government services and councils, parents' committees and educational NGOs. In the making is a local coalition of advocacy and quality improvement of non-formal literacy education.
One of the things that we hope will result from this decentralization process is a better use of local resources. We know well that money will not do the job. And also there are many local resources that we are not using today, that we do not even see because they are not visible to us as we use the lens that we currently have available. They are just not part of our framework. They include capacity and inner resources. So we are asking how we can meaningfully relate to these untapped resources. And, more negatively, we want to be sure that our efforts, however well meant, do not destroy these unseen resources. We know that that can sometimes happen, in part because of the imbalance of power.
A central role in this process is to go to the regional councils, which can help in linking different partner activities and can have a vision of what can make a difference in each situation. Do you frame this in a context of human rights?
Yes, we do speak that language and focus on the rights dimension. It is to a significant extent a state of mind, a culture of respect and appreciation of a real equality in decision making and responsibility. However, we have to appreciate that a number of our partners do not speak this language and may not appreciate it. We need therefore to speak a language of faith and spirituality when needed. We need to be creative within the framework of diversity in which we work. We must never forget the importance of listening to and understanding the local context. We can only do this by spending time and establishing good and long term relationships with our local partners. How does this work when development priorities change, as they seem to do so often?
This does cause problems, as there is a tendency to chase fads and to change language. We are hopeful that our new partnership framework will help to avoid these traps. And the Minister does seem open to and sensitive to this. He understands the philosophy and objectives behind our co-responsibility and decentralization process.
As we move forward we are hoping to learn and to develop new knowledge. We are investing substantially in the process. And we are very much aware of the pitfalls that go with inequality in power, and inequality in income. So we want to develop tools to narrow those inequalities to the extent we can. And there are opportunities. Among them is the new generation of young academics from the south, striving to connect, open to new ideas. They often have little opportunity to travel and engage so we try to offer them those opportunities. The new technologies that are available, like Internet, wikis, etc., are moving fast and offer some real chance to redress the imbalances and bring us much closer together.
We also are looking at new ways of working with the Dutch government, and, again, are investing much effort in planning the dialogue, for example on approaches to fragile states or, as we prefer to say, to fragility. You have highlighted aid coordination as a major issue. How does ICCO work towards coordination?
The main place is at the country level but also in the context of the several coordinating structures within the NGO community that I mentioned before. You spoke of the effort to work to a set of core values that represent the “soul” of the organization. How does this work out in recruitment of staff and in their orientation and training?
When we recruit staff, we present the core values and try to take them into account in the selection process. We want to make clear what kind of organization we are, including its Christian roots. We ask people if they agree. We do not require them to be Protestant or church-going. But we do want to be sure that they identify with our core values.
That is the first step. Then, when they join, as part of their orientation we organize a session to present both the history of the organization and the guiding values, and the Church network through which it functions. This is a half-day course, which sets out the Dutch and international ecumenical religious landscape, which may indeed be quite unfamiliar to many new staff.
Because this is just a sketch, we have developed a more in-depth treatment, a four module course that will include four half-day sessions. This goes into the same material in greater depth but also includes different world views and religions. It will start in the fall.