This post was written by Hazem Fahmy, Co-Founder of CARE Egypt Foundation.
Views expressed here are my own and do not represent the positions of CARE.
I led the transformation of a CARE Country Office into becoming an independent full member of CARE globally. This is the story of how we went through the change, and what were the challenges we endured – our story can hopefully help others to avoid some of our pitfalls.
CARE Egypt operated for over 60 years as a CARE USA country office – quite a long history! In January 2022 the CARE Egypt Foundation (new name) became a full member of the CARE International confederation. Although the idea to become a national NGO was considered as early as 2007, the actual transformation journey started in 2016. Would we be able to cross the finish line? How and with who would we get there?
In 2014 CARE discussed plans to diversify its membership by supporting “Global South” offices to nationalize with the intention to increase the legitimacy of its global footprint as well as the credibility of its local presence. At the time CARE Egypt was fully staffed by Egyptian professionals and the country has been through two revolutions… we were ready to chart new territory.
Aid effectiveness, INGO legitimacy, decolonization of aid, localization of humanitarian efforts. These have been important topics, and the subject of heated debates for many workers in the development ecosystem worldwide since 2014. In this blog post, I will focus on how we transformed, and the mistakes we made so colleagues on similar journeys can learn from how we faced our challenges.
It was first important to create ownership among our staff for this monumental endeavor. I started with convincing senior management to agree on why we should do this, what is our vision, and how we might go about achieving our goal. But we realized quickly that senior managers’ championship alone was not enough to overhaul our $5M annual portfolio, involving120 staff operating in a complex ecosystem. We needed to change relationships with the government, CARE members, donors, and partners. We had to mobilize staff across all ranks.
Mistakes that I will avoid in the future
1/ Being overly cautious: One of the bigger mistakes that I made during the transformation journey was to downplay the effects of the transformation on our staff. My intention was to comfort them by minimizing differences between being an Egyptian organization versus a Country Office.
The outline of the “new organization” we wanted to become was very ambiguous with lot of unknowns. As time went by, ambiguity decreased, and we found concrete answers to numerous questions we had at the early stages. Equipped with more answers, clarity did translate into bolder ways to confront and explain the reality of the future to our colleagues.
If I do it all over, I would be bolder earlier, but would continue calming staff about the future. I would better balance my messaging about what will remain the same versus what will be different. It is essential to cater to the fears and concerns of staff, as we move forward in the transformation.
Obviously, while we had our fair share of problems in the past six years, it could have been a lot rougher if we had not worked on bringing our colleagues along, starting from senior management, middle managers and field staff. Colleagues had to see themselves as part of the change and get excited about our future.
2/ Change is not a project: Looking back, I would avoid treating the journey as a project. It is too limiting to think about this change journey in terms of a plan, resource use, Gant charts and a risk management matrix. When we started the process, the emphasis was on what are the steps required, what resources will we need? What were the risks of not achieving or not being on time to complete planned steps?
We were describing a project rather than a journey to achieve a vision. Thinking like a project made us overly focused on the details and we lost sight of the intention. When you couple that with a high level of ambiguity, it becomes impossible to navigate and manage the complexities. Aspects such as staff concerns, government questions, questions posed by the CARE confederation members. It just became impossible to navigate and manage all the moving parts.
Our intent to transform, our new north star should be the lens to evaluate our progress. What mattered is what our strategy should look like, which business model should we adopt. Such views helped us to focus on what is important at any given moment, and it also helped achieve tasks with clarity and focus while not losing sight of the big picture. My senior colleagues and I stayed grounded and were able to put things in perspective as we tackled one challenge after the other.
In the end
In the end I am proud of what we achieved, as we pressed to create buy in by our colleagues. We expanded circles of engaged staff while keeping the visionary intent to nationalize our entity as the primary way to evaluate our progress.
Writing this post has encouraged me to document a more detailed description of the journey and what we learned. We are still discovering what it means to be a southern member in an international NGO. But that is for another blog post: to speak of power dynamics and how they shift (or not) in an INGO. Stay tuned!