A cropped shot of hands painted to look like the earth. Image credit: Credit:Yuri_Arcurs

How to realise a bold new future for international cooperation

I came to Bond from a sustainability and systems change background, recognising that international development was grappling with a maelstrom of change that I hoped I could contribute to.

I was not disappointed, but I could not have anticipated quite what a journey it would be. We came together through the pandemic, the merger, cuts to the UK aid budget, the murder of George Floyd, more cuts and the ever-present threats from climate change. Bond has played a critical role in supporting, challenging and uniting our members during this time.

As CEO of Bond, I have seen so much to celebrate in our members, and we have come a long way in four and a half years. We have gotten serious about locally led development, with our locally led guide helping to chart the path. We have stopped shying away from the need to recognise our colonial past, and centre anti-racist practice in our work, as described in our decolonising framework.

We have continued to make progress on safeguarding and have responded to numerous crises and changes such as leaving Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine and Brexit. We have challenged the wider system that perpetuates inequality while strengthening our partnership with the government. Bond has turned 30. I have not experienced another sector that is so generous in its collaboration or more committed to being better together. I will miss that.

But we can’t be complacent. There is a lot further to go. At Bond, we have gathered your thoughts on what direction the sector should take. There is a strong consensus that we want a bold new direction, focused on international cooperation for people and the planet, that gets to the root causes of poverty and inequality. That would see the UK international development sector take a role as broker, fundraiser and advocate. This is courageous and exciting, and also profoundly challenging. So, what is going to help the sector through this next phase?

Keep an eye on the long-term

When you are grappling with the latest crisis in the world, or in your organisation, remember to look up and out to ensure that you are progressing to the future we want and that marginalised communities and the planet need. Leadership is a constant balance between the short and long term.

Our new articulation of the sector’s direction gives us all a north star to work towards. It is a future where we move beyond the traditional “aid” narrative to one of solidarity and international collaboration where everyone contributes, decides and benefits.

It should mean support for, and reform of, global and regional institutions to make them more equitable. We will have embedded an anti-racist, equitable approach, recognising and addressing past harms. It will involve taking a wider systems approach ensuring that tax, trade, debt and the economic system work for people, as well as to generate profits. There will be a focus on partnerships to ensure that core systems such as food, health, energy and water are resilient. All this will be underpinned by transparency, protection of rights and freedoms, a vibrant civil society, greater security and addressing humanitarian needs.

In periods of change, it is even more important to know where you are going. To give those in transition something to understand and work towards. At Bond, the team will be using this north star to shape our influencing and working with you to support the necessary transition.

Combine the principles and pragmatism

In my time at Bond, I have found that the sector often gets bogged down with the finer points of principle. We can end up divided on issues or terms when in reality we share the same ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, language is critically important and we need to get that right. But at the same time, there is a real opportunity to combine strong principles with practical steps that take us forward. This is the key route to demonstrating that we are more than just commitments but are serious about action.

I have found two ways to do that. Firstly, to consistently link principle with practice. When we talk about a critical principle like Leave No One Behind, we don’t just want it to be words on a page, we want real change in focus and behaviour – what is that, what can I do tomorrow, and what do I need to be building towards? I have often been in meetings where we make statements of principle but do not provide others with the agency to do something with it – we get further by bringing both together.

Secondly, look for the links between the big ambition and the immediate next steps. For example, decolonising the sector requires massive political shifts including reparations. That is the big ambition, though it will take time and the right political opportunity.

In the meantime, make practical progress towards locally led development and anti-racist and equitable practice in your organisations a priority. I think of it as an elastic band between ambition and these small steps, so that we can be confident that they are mutually reinforcing, and that we don’t inadvertently perpetuate the harms of the current system. You might want to burn the whole house down, but I have found that an ‘and, and’ approach where the different levels of change co-exist is more effective.

Take people with you

One of the most powerful things that I have learned at Bond is the importance of enabling people to shape their futures. That is the essence of decolonisation, of locally led development and of how we lead our organisations.

Many of the innovations that we surfaced in the Futures Innovation cards were about participatory practice and giving communities agency. The changes we are confronting are so profound that we can’t afford people to be on the outside. If we are going to address inequality – we need a different economic system, with new measurements for success, ideally something along the lines of Doughnut Economics. That requires a very different conversation where people are not told, not consulted, but truly engaged as partners and decision-makers.

This comes at a moment when public support for internationalism is on a knife edge in the UK. We need to engage people differently, recognising domestic and international challenges together. It has been fascinating to see the Aid Alliance, The Climate Group, faith groups and many others rebuild those connections over the last few years. We need to do that on a concerted basis through canvassing, through citizen assemblies and movement building. There are many routes, but it will happen with one conversation at a time.

Stay together and look after yourselves

Work hard to stay together as a sector. In times of change, there is a great risk of fractures emerging as we disagree on the route to take, of how fast to go. It takes effort, but coming together to understand and recognise differences will lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Look after yourselves personally too. If we are truly going to realise this new direction, we need to unlearn as much as we need to learn. This is hard, emotional work. Do what you need to do to stay grounded – meditate, connect with nature and use Bond and your other networks to support and sustain each other.

The potential for increasing impact, delivering on the SDGs and making a dent in inequality, poverty and the climate and ecological crisis is immense. If you keep an eye on the long term, combine pragmatism with practice, bring the public with you and look after yourselves you can achieve so much. I am confident the sector will take this on and have no doubt that Bond, and the brilliant new CEO, will be with you every step of the way. Best of luck everyone.