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Integrity Action’s journey to Gender, Social, and Climate Justice: the right recipe or recipe for disaster?

Annalisa Renna

Head of Operations, Integrity Action

If there is one piece of advice that my Italian nonna has left me with is that the best dishes are made from few ingredients. In other words, less is more. However, when it comes to gender equality and social inclusion, Integrity Action has taken the opposite direction: more is more. My nonna would have probably not approved of our stance; well, I’m afraid we will need to break with tradition on this one, nonna.

In the cauldron that is Integrity Action’s new approach to gender, social and climate justice, you may see coming to surface several commitments: from working with women and girls to ensure that their voices are heard by service providers, to partnering in solidarity and equality with organisations at the forefront of the action; from centring the voluntary carbon market around the communities who should – yet often don’t - benefit from it, to adopting feminist leadership. Elements that seem distinct from each other, but which are bound by one dominant flavour: power. I’ll get to power in a moment, but before, allow me to explain how we got to this point.

When Integrity Action started grappling with gender and social inclusion mainstreaming in 2017, we took a very straightforward route. Our main problem at that time was the lack of women and people coming from historically underserved groups among our cohorts of citizen monitors. To solve this, we committed to actively targeting diverse demographics in the recruitment of citizen monitors, developing accessible and inclusive training for citizen monitors, and creating an enabling and supporting environment for them. Assessment of services was adapted to include considerations on their accessibility and inclusion, and we established a working group with our partners to discuss challenges, risks and lessons learnt. We saw results almost immediately.

So, we set our bar higher: whilst participation was of course essential, what could be said about leadership? Were women monitors and those from historically underserved groups gaining self-confidence? Were they able to successfully demand integrity from duty bearers? Was their standing in their communities improved? We began building initiatives that focused on women and young people monitoring services that were meant to specifically serve them. We also started tracking attitude and behaviour change among monitors, disaggregated by demographics; and published case studies and evidence that women and people with disabilities feel an increased self-confidence and improved standing in their community when they have had experience in monitoring services.

Then, the 2018 Charity Commission inquiry into Oxfam safeguarding reports pressed us into self-reflection mode. We upgraded our safeguarding policy and practices and linked them directly to our gender mainstreaming work. We carried out staff training and discussions on the degree of power we hold as global development practitioners, on the concepts of privilege, positionality, and intersectionality. We started talking about racism in the sector. Discussions converted into changes to our hiring practices, working principles, communications practices, and MEAL approach. 

We didn’t have the time to be complacent though: COVID-19 took us (and the entire world) by surprise, the groundswell of protest following the death of George Floyd ignited the initially timid discussions about racism in the sector, while the impact of climate breakdown increased in magnitude. We took time to process the ever-evolving situation and the rapidity of change around us. We had already adopted an intersectional approach to gender mainstreaming; however, these further developments took intersectionality to the next level. 

Initially, both Covid-19 and climate breakdown were portrayed as phenomena with indiscriminate impacts on people: we were all in it together. However, it soon became clear that, despite these being global issues, their effects are very much dependent on who you are and where you are based, so solutions must be contextualised too and centred around the people who are likely to be hit hardest: typically women and girls, and groups who have been historically underserved.

Meanwhile, our sector witnessed a renewed wave of discontent about the missed opportunity that was the 2016 Gand Bargain, which had promised – and failed - to reform the humanitarian sector and bring it closer to the people whom it was meant to serve. The discontent, which had now drawn strength from the Black Lives Matter movement, re-framed the issue as a need for the sector to decolonise.

We joined the conversation early and started being vocal on the need to come clean about the sector’s legacy, honest about our attitudes and behaviours, and intentional about shaking our sector to the foundations. Our aim is to rebuild it, this time in solidarity with - rather than domination of - the organisations at the frontline. We started making practical changes to some our practices. For example, we had a thorough review of the terms of our partnership agreement (and their wording) and to our due diligence process, and restructured both with a view to remove any underlying assumptions that our partners were only implementers, while we were the decision-makers. We devised a partner survey to consult with them on what we need to change and what we should continue doing, and started having more candid conversations with our partners on how we can have trustworthy partnerships based on equal terms. In all honesty, it feels like a drop in the ocean; but while we trial and test practical solutions to our day-to-day work, we have also joined many of the sector’s platforms aimed at ‘shifting the power’, to be part of a critical mass.

So here we are, in 2024, trying to figure out a new approach for Integrity Action that takes into account all the lessons learnt from our own experience, and applies them to the new way of working most suited to turbulent global dynamics. 

We could have written different strategies for different topics. We could have had an organisational response to climate breakdown, a strategy for gender equality and social inclusion, and a separate approach on how we want to ‘shift the power’. Yet we decided to take the opposite direction and develop an integrated approach encompassing all the above, for the reason I mentioned at the beginning: power. Power is the keyword to unlock connections that may not look that obvious.

Power links a woman monitor demanding better-quality services for her community to a due diligence process that makes organisations feel respected rather than scrutinised, to unrestricted funding enabling frontline organisations to be there for their communities, to citizens approving carbon credits that provide real additionalities for their communities.

Power, and the lack of it. Power, who withholds it, and who doesn’t. Power, how to relinquish it, how to share it, how to redistribute it. Once looking at things from this perspective, it became obvious that everything belonged in the same pot.

Talking about inequality also didn’t make sense to us anymore. Inequality is systemic and needs to be discussed and tackled in a systemic way. It is also the product of centuries of injustice, not of an unfortunate circumstance. Justice is a much more appropriate term to continue this journey. And yes, we went for journey, rather than strategy, in the recognition that this has been – and will continue to be - a process. It has hurt at times and will continue to do so. It has taken us to unexpected routes, some of which were wrong, and we have learnt from the experience.

Let’s now go back to the title of this blog. Isn’t that just too much? By working across many fronts, could we be failing to give each the necessary level of attention? Yes, this is undoubtedly a risk which we will need to constantly assess. However, we felt that by not linking issues to each other we would have persisting blind spots, and it would lead us to apply ‘sticking plaster’ solutions rather than being part of a much bigger, systemic change.

Are we sure it is going to work? Nope. But we are going to update you regularly, so you keep up with our progress (and we promise to keep you updated on our failures too). Meanwhile, here is Power with – our Journey to Gender, Social, and Climate Justice

We would love to hear what you think. Just drop us a line here and we can continue the conversation!