Winnie Masai standing at the World Village Festival.
Winnie Masai visited Helsinki in May. Image by: Mika Niskanen / Fingo

Winnie Masai: Citizens and communities need to be in control

“There is hope and things are changing”, says Executive Director Winnie Masai from InformAction. The human rights organization uses film and community discussions to get ordinary people to take action. We discussed with Winnie Masai about shifting the power in development cooperation.

Text by: Mika Niskanen

Q: There is currently a lot of discussion about shifting the power in international development. In sum, the main argument is that local actors should have more power. In your opinion, why is it important to shift the power in international development?

Winnie Masai: First, thanks for the opportunity to have this discussion. I am glad this kind of discussion is happening in Finland: it is really relevant if we look at how power dynamics are manifesting in the global context and in the grassroots level.

I think it’s important to shift the power because it makes the actors and citizens in control. They know their own needs the best. It is important to ensure that whatever is coming in terms of aid and in terms of program design is addressing the needs of lowest level. Ideally, after this conversation the grassroot communities, marginalized voices and minorities are included and their voices are heard.

Q: You are an executive director of InformAction, a human rights organization that uses film and community discussions to get ordinary people to speak out and take action in Kenya. In your work, how are you engaging with or advancing shifting the power?

Winnie Masai: We do it with different strategies. First, we provide the platforms for marginalized communities and rural communities to meet. We go to them using their own facilities and spaces – there is usually no infrastructure, but the meetings can be held, for instance, under a tree – and that is where we have a discussion. That begins the process of working towards something.

At that space, we show films that are designed in a manner that communities can relate to what they see. We show them these films so that they know their rights and what those in power should do.

Second, we research: what are the issues in that community. Our team leaders are trained activists and journalists so they can facilitate discussions to help the communities to package the issues that affect them. Importantly, our film teams are embedded to the communities to record different situations or human right abuses. They live there, understand the culture, religion and power dynamics and any other community dynamics.

Third, we facilitate communities to form groups. We call them community action teams. They are made of 7–10 community members. They must be inclusive and include women, youth and people with disabilities: we ensure that the voices of each part of the community is heard and included.

We encourage them to identify at least three things they find as key issues. If they choose that an issue is a road they want to work on, then we ask what they want to do about the road. If the road is not repaired to the standard, they can, for example, decide that they want to do a petition, contact a duty bearer or do a protest. If it is a protest, the community can, for instance decide if they want to plant trees on the road and protest the situation by showing that: ‘see, it’s no longer a road, it’s land’.

If they want to do a petition, we facilitate them by providing skills and materials. We walk with them through the journey and document every step including submission of that petition. Some actions lead to redress immediately: as soon as you submit the petition, there is a duty bearer coming to fix a road.

But there are some that require legal intervention. Most of the time, we help the community to identify a lawyer. If they decide to take the legal way, we walk with them through the process until there is redress.

So, we inform communities to take action.

Q: You are basically facilitating community-based action and truly community-based solutions, based on what the community decides to do. In a more general level, that is not always the case, hence we are discussing about shifting the power. What are the most important steps that should be taken to improve the current situation and to truly shift the power?

Winnie Masai: To answer that question, it is important to first describe how the power dynamics work in our country. In Kenya, the politicians or the duty bearers hold the power whereas the constitution actually gives the power to the people.

By empowering communities, by firstly giving them information about what is their role and what is the role of their leaders, what are the platforms to engage and how can they engage, helps them to begin take back power. It is about creating awareness.

Secondly, by giving this space to come together and importantly, take collective action. In Kenya, there are not particular spaces for citizens to ask questions from decisionmakers. We are giving them the platforms and tell that the platforms do not need to be expensive. A leader can come to the people and answer their questions.

When communities are empowered and prepared with necessary information, they ask good questions and demand accountability. What you see in terms of shifting the power, things are advancing: resources are coming to the grassroots because of that accountability is being realized. Communities are taking back what is rightfully theirs. That is important and changes the narrative, the culture and the perception.

Q: It is all about strengthening the local community so that they are able to take what is basically…

Winnie Masai: Theirs according to the constitution.

Q: When discussing about the power dynamics there is one question about finding the rights partners – in relation to risk aversion. I am asking this because donors or western CSOs might be worried that if they let go of power and control, there might be some misuse of that power in the local communities. So, when a western CSO is looking for a partner in the global south, how to find those who use power genuinely, equally and transparently in the local community? What are your thoughts on this?

Winnie Masai: I will give you a very good example. We are now a partner of KIOS that is an international actor. Our journey started in summer 2019 when we came together in an initial small project. Because we both were able to deliver fast on what we see needed to happen we were able to create trust. That begins to build a relationship.

It is important to have relations where is a lot of cocreation. KIOS has a long history of supporting civil society actors and we have a very long history of working with the communities. There is a shared understanding and we cocreated the program together and discussed issues. We have a common understanding of what the global power dynamics look like and how they manifest.

With KIOS we did a joint venture to apply for funding from EU. We were selected because we demonstrated that we work together and that the accountability checks. We were ticking the boxes.

Q: In general, are there reasons for optimism when we are talking about shifting the power? Do you think that things have changed into better in recent years or is it all just talk?

Winnie Masai: I think there’s hope and things are changing. I understand the role of conversation around decolonizing aid, it is an important platform. This is about bringing our voices from the global south to actors who are working around aid. We are telling them: this is how the situation looks like from our perspective.

I see a lot of collaboration. And I see a lot of positioning our voices in the global discourse on how things are like. It is important that we engage in the conversations and understand the dynamics because that involves also how the programs are designed. I think the discussion will be helpful in the long run to aid donors, supporters and the implementers.

Q: What are your main messages for the Finnish civil society organizations that are working in international development on this topic?

Winnie Masai: I would say that the need to share their best practices. I see a lot of best practices in terms of cocreation and continuous conversations around this subject. I see collaboration in terms of understanding how things are and how is this being implemented.

There is also lot to learn from Finland as a donor: how they manage aid and focus on grassroots organizations and work with informal structures.

It is also always good to monitor what is happening in the global level in terms of best practices, power shift and what that means. Be it positive or negative, it is good to know what is happening.