Vice Versa: Taking the measure of Ariette Brouwer

Article: 29.07.21, Amsterdam

In this series Vice Versa gauges directors of development organisations against the shift-the-power yardstick. How far are they prepared to go in reconsidering the balance of power within international development cooperation? Will they transfer control and what will the new division of responsibilities between Northern and Southern partners look like? This fourth article features Ariette Brouwer of Simavi.

This article was published in Dutch magazine Vice Versa. Text by Marc Broere, photography by Leonard Faustle.

‘Powerful women, healthy societies.’ 

The Simavi website looks very different from just a few years ago. The framing is different. In the past Simavi presented itself as a more traditional development organisation in the fields of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

‘Well observed,’ says Ariette Brouwer, Simavi’s director, when we meet at their offices near Amsterdam Sloterwijk station. From the doorway you step right into the canteen, which has a cosy living room feel to it. The meeting room is just as welcoming and is decorated with photos and mementos of Simavi’s history. The impression she wants to give, it seems, is that the feel of the place matters.

A lot has happened in recent years. Simavi lost out in the last round of funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; it had three submissions rejected. Instead of throwing in the towel, Brouwer seized the moment as an opportunity to make some real changes and embrace the principle of ‘shift the power’.

‘Three years ago we went through a similar strategy process,’ she says. ‘That was during a period when we still received a lot of funding from the Dutch government. It actually prevents you from taking a critical look at yourself, because you’re stuck in a funding straitjacket. Losing that funding and all the rules that go with it now gives us the opportunity to reflect. What choices would we make if we were to build Simavi up again from scratch?’
Since January Brouwer and her team have been busy developing Simavi 3.0, and you can see she’s enjoying it. ‘We looked at current trends compared to the situation in 2018, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate about decolonisation and development cooperation.

‘What are we doing here at the moment, if we’re really honest? We are sitting here in an office with fifty predominantly white people developing programmes for women and girls in Africa and Asia. This has a lot to do with the shift of power debate.
‘What exactly does that mean and how can we make a contribution? Another aspect is the shrinking space for civil society, which makes it more difficult to make its voice heard.’

With this in mind, Brouwer came up with four changes she wants to implement at Simavi before 2024. 

‘The first is about gender equality, about women and girls. Soon will we not only be working for women and girls, but mainly with them – to ensure they really do get a place at the table and can take part in decision-making.

‘We want to become more activist, which means that we have to give our lobby and advocacy work a more prominent place in our theory of change; we must hold governments and the business community to account for what happens.

‘In our own field of activity we want to focus solely on WASH and the impact of climate change on water and gender equality. It means letting go of SRHR and concentrating on what we do best: helping women and girls to claim their right to water and sanitation and ensure they have a voice.’

Brouwer offers me a piece of vegan cake from the bakers in her village and collects herself before launching into the fourth change: ‘This is the whole issue of shift the power. I sometimes lie awake and wonder what we are doing in the development cooperation world. We have built it up into an industry and I wonder if this is the best way to bring about change, or whether we are simply keeping each other busy?

‘We are trapped in a system from which it is hard to escape. Major donors come up with up funding frameworks, often with quite specific objectives – and more or less the whole sector then competes in this beauty contest to obtain funding.

‘Donors grant the funding and then we go with it to our partners in the South. They too would like to have access to these funds to do their work, but there is little or no flexibility to develop a programme that really addresses the priorities of the target group.

‘It all has to fit into the given framework, as if we know what they need and our knowledge is more important than theirs; but theirs is the reality, what is actually happening on a day-to-day basis. We have to adapt to that, not the other way around.

‘And then I feel happy that Simavi is very flexible, a bit like a speedboat. We are not tied to big offices in the South, which only leads to more power inequalities. We see that staff working for local partners are often enticed away by large organisations offering them high salaries and better fringe benefits.

‘Those country offices also frequently have a dominant say in the local voice and this frustrates truly local initiatives – and we do all this to ensure we will live in a “fairer world”? We’re just maintaining the established order.

‘For Simavi the trick is to ensure that our programmes are led by our partners in the countries themselves. If I look at the directors of our partner organisations I see highly educated people who know the local context, and that forces us to look very carefully at what our role here still is.’

Ariette Brouwer
Ariette Brouwer Managing director Simavi
From now on every programme we develop, whether it’s with a company or a fund, starts with the local partners – and preferably a step further, with the target group itself.

To what extent do Southern partners have an influence on your policies?

‘I give us a 2 for now (see 'Shift the Power' at the bottom of this article – ed.), because it’s simply not enough yet. Our current programmes are also still largely too donor-driven.

‘In the past we had a lot of grant funding, which means you do the best you can to write up your proposals in a way that will attract the funding needed to carry out the programmes. Luckily there is now a tendency, at Foreign Affairs too, to involve Southern partners in developing programme proposals.

‘In general, though, the way things work in the sector is still that donors decide what needs to be done and then you develop a programme in line with that and say to your partner in the South, “Here you are.” A bottom-up approach in which you ask the people on the ground over there what should change has not yet got off the ground.

‘That must and will be different in the new Simavi. For the strategy process we obtained input from forty partners on what works well, but also what can be improved in how we work together. Some of them have been involved more deeply in the development of our new policy and we were able to get feedback from them on the direction we want to take.’

She says that in this transition she talked to three or four local partners each week. ‘On the telephone in the office, to hear what’s what: “What do you need? How do you think things are going?" It was refreshing to get a good feeling for that and to understand their position. On the other hand, you notice on occasions that they do their best to please us so that they will still receive funding in future.

‘That’s what I meant by an industry; this development industry is top-down driven and that has to change. We hired someone for the partnerships and said: from now on every programme we develop, whether it’s with a company or a fund, starts with the local partners – and preferably a step further, with the target group itself.’

To what extent do the needs of the target group determine the direction of policy rather than the priorities of your own and potential donors, such as the Dutch government?

I give us a higher score for that, a 3. Simavi’s strength is that we work with local partners: they know the context, the culture and the complexity of the problems. In future we want to go a step further and work more with organisations driven by women and girls, often from the target group itself.

‘During my telephone calls I noticed that our partners often mentioned water and sanitation as a need – which I think was also because I called them right in the middle of the pandemic. They said, “We took it for granted.” Partners working on SRHR are also working much more on hygiene issues. It is shocking to think that a third of all people do not have access to water and sanitation.’

To what extent are the programmes embedded in an analysis of situations of poverty, exclusion or human rights violations, and is this anchored locally right from the start?

‘I would answer this one with a 3 as well, as it ties in with the previous question. We have our network there and begin each programme with a problem analysis. One of our biggest programmes, on water and sanitation, is financed by the ministry from the SDG6 fund. We implement it with eleven Dutch partners and more than fifty partners elsewhere, and Simavi is the lead organisation.

‘A few years ago there was a bridging year for that programme. We used it to get a feel for the context with the partners in the seven countries where it is run. What is going on exactly and how much has that context changed?

‘Of course it was great that the ministry gave us permission to do this, so that we could get more in-depth knowledge. Often you get follow-up funding right away and you hardly have time to take stock and think properly about how you want to proceed. It is precisely because we made that analysis and did our homework that we are now getting much better results in this phase.’

And then, with a wry smile, ‘But you never know. The local partner is still too often an extension of ourselves, and then the old “white supremacy” rears its ugly head.’

Photography: Leonard Faustle

How much do you talk to Southern partners about power relations – within international cooperation as a whole and between you and your partners in particular?

‘Again, a 3. Within a few years we want build a relationship of co-creation with our partners in everything we do. That means that our partnerships are crucial and that sometimes, if we know that someone is unable to make the required change, we will have to end that relationship.

‘We are now looking critically at all our partners and engaging with them in a real discussion: “What is your philosophy, your vision and way of working? How do you involve your target group in policymaking and decision-making – and does that fit in with Simavi 3.0?” That’s going to be difficult and it means we will have to say goodbye to some of our partners. And in some cases that will be fine, if they can pay their own way.

‘We need partners who are on our wavelength, who want sustainable change. And then there are the organisations led by women and girls, and we’re entering that process now. That won't be easy, either, because in the WASH sector in particular, male dominance is pervasive. The combination of WASH and gender equality is not the norm in the countries where we work.’

She says that Simavi is on the lookout for like-minded organisations that want to serve a common goal and work according to a number of principles. 

‘Such as feminist leadership and social and climate justice,’ she says. ‘We are looking for partners who also want to make an impact and involve their target group – women and girls – right from the start of the decision-making process, not only in programmes, but also in the organisations themselves. It’s about legitimacy and raison d’être.

‘The Dutch development sector could certainly take a more critical look at itself. Dirk-Jan Koch recently wrote an interesting article about how we’re so focused on getting good results to make sure we get the next round of funding from our donors…

‘There is so little time to learn, whereas our work is hugely complex. Of course you should celebrate and share success, but above all you should think about what you are not good at and where you want to improve. If you’re satisfied with yourself, you won’t make any real changes.’

Asked whether the way the development sector works at the moment has passed its sell-by date, she nods in agreement. ‘Completely,’ she says. ‘It’s had its day, it’s finished. We have built up an entire industry and it pays us well, but is this really the most efficient and effective way to bring about change?

‘We need to adopt a different attitude to power and no longer say that we’re doing the right thing. I really do believe in change from within the community itself, empowering the grassroots and giving them the opportunity to influence the big decisions and claim their rights.’

She hopes in the coming years to make an active contribution to the discussion and is talking about this with other Dutch directors of development organisations. ‘We are all on the case,’ she says, and then bursts into laughter: ‘But most have received funding from the ministry and now they have less time on their hands…

‘As Johan Cruijff said: every disadvantage has its advantage. We now have the “luxury” of being able to concentrate on what, I think, the sector needs. If we can be a frontrunner, so much the better.’

It remains curious that you apparently need a bridging year or have your funding submissions rejected before you can reflect and take a good look at yourself.

‘I totally agree,’ says Brouwer. ‘In 2018 we still had a lot of money for three SRHR programmes and so I didn’t dare make a clear-cut choice for WASH. You’re stuck in that web. The reason the system doesn’t change is because the system is there in the first place. You can only step out of it when you’re not involved in it.

‘Perhaps that is now my role, to step out of it and take a helicopter view and see what’s going on so that I can get that message across as well as possible – also in our lobby work. And to constantly ask myself and others, what is really needed? Are we funding an industry or creating a just world?’

Eight years ago Ariette Brouwer made the switch from the business world to development cooperation. She was head of corporate social responsibility at Libresse and got to know the sector through a partnership with Oxfam Novib.

Many NGO directors who come from the business world have the feeling that running an NGO is a lot easier. Brouwer now knows better. ‘I thought the business world was complicated,’ she says, ‘but I’ve never had such a challenging job as this.’

Shift the power

The call to change the balance of power within the development cooperation world is growing louder. A movement has even emerged with the hashtag #ShiftThePower. In cooperation with Wilde Ganzen, Vice Versa has devoted much attention to this topic, both in the printed magazine and in the knowledge file on its website. 

In this interview series we gauge a number of directors of development organisations against the shift-the-power yardstick. Before the interview they are sent a list of questions, which they have to answer with a score.

1 = poor
2 = moderate
3 = good
4 = very good
5 = excellent

Ariette Brouwer

Date of birth: 29 December 1961
Current position: director of Simavi

Curriculum vitae:

a master’s in business administration at Erasmus University, twenty years in various jobs in marketing and sales, three years and two directorships at Essity and since 2015 director of Simavi.

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