Responsible Transitions to Local Ownership: Reflections from the 3D Program for Girls and Women


Sia Nowrojee is Executive Director of the 3D Program for Girls and Women

The Starting Point 

“Who feels it knows it.” – Bob Marley, Philosopher and artist (1945-1981)

Local knowledge has long been the primary source of wisdom for many of us working in feminist movements around the world. The awareness that local knowledge is the best starting point has received more attention recently in the global discussions on localization and decolonization of international development. It also came into clear focus for me more personally, when in 2020, six months into the COVID pandemic, the 3D Program team decided to transfer ownership of the program from our team based at the United Nations Foundation in Washington DC to our partners in India.

The 3D Program for Girls and Women advances gender equality and girls and women’s empowerment by helping local governments work with civil society and the private sector, while strengthening women’s voices and platforms to hold government accountable. Originally positioned as a gender equality program, it evolved into a good governance program, linking women’s collectives to local government and creating mechanisms to increase accountability. We relied on girls and women to identify their own priorities, but our work generally covered four main issues related to gender equality: economic empowerment, health, education and public safety.

From 2017-2021, the 3D Program worked in partnership with civil society, the private sector and local government officials in Pune District, Maharashtra State, India. Operationally, we worked in a fairly typical way, like many international NGOs. Our Washington DC-based team led strategy, facilitated connections within and beyond India, and provided funding and interfaced with donors. We convened a consortium of partners in Pune District, Maharashtra who provided strategic advice and ground-truthing and led implementation in our demonstration sites of rural Pune District and Pune city. We also relied on guidance and support from our 3D Program Advisory Committee, made up of experts from across India and various disciplines, and our hosts at the United Nations Foundation. We were a program that evolved over time but we consistently put women’s voices at the center. The DC-based team worked closely with our partners in India through consistent online communications, and before COVID, we traveled to India three times a year to facilitate regular in-person interactions with our partners, local government officials, women’s collectives and other stakeholders.

Stepping Away

“Community-led development is a formidable task because it requires not just having a deep respect for communities but the courage to step away, relinquish control and see the power of sustained transformation emerge.” – Dr. Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi (Movement for Community-led Development, January 27, 2021)

In 2020, the 3D Program team decided to transfer ownership of the program to our partners in India. We made this decision against the backdrop of two significant global events.

The COVID Pandemic: COVID has endangered hard-won gains in the fight for gender equality. It has also put the spotlight on rigid gender-based norms and barriers, and critical weaknesses in public systems. 3D Program implementation sites in Pune District have been at the epicenter of the pandemic in India since the beginning and continue to be heavily impacted by COVID. The women’s collectives we supported were designed to address disparities, inequalities and barriers to accessing services before COVID. During the pandemic, they have been stress-tested and have shown their value, proving vital in facilitating multi-sectoral partnerships to deliver COVID relief, information and responses. This has validated and helped us focus our programmatic efforts.

Like other international programs and partnerships, COVID also impacted the ways in which we operated. Following travel restrictions, the 3D Program team effectively adjusted to online platforms and our partners took a more strategic lead in shaping our programs, which continue to adapt based on emerging needs. The pandemic also resulted in the erosion and reallocation of donor funds, with a focus on COVID responses and localization. This pushed us to assess the advantages of taking the DC-based team off the budget.

The Global Reckoning on International Development: The 2020 wave of social justice movements put the spotlight on structural racism and power imbalances, leading to a global reckoning on international development. As a result, traditional development models are now being examined in mainstream discussions about international development. Questions that have long been asked by grassroots activists are now being asked at organizational board meetings and are reshaping donors’ criteria and decisions. Who leads programs? Where does decision-making power lie? How do you measure impact? Who has access to and controls resources? Over the past year, these questions have led many international NGOs to contend with issues related to equity and inclusion. The 3D Program team realized that it was the right time for us to intentionally examine and transform the structure of our program.

The Transition

Against this backdrop, the 3D Program team designed a three-phase transition process to transfer ownership of the program to our partners in India. The process was implemented over a nine-month period of September 2020 to May 2021.

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Buy-In and Strategy: The first phase focused on buy-in and strategy. We began with conversations with each implementing partner to assess their commitment to taking ownership of the program, identify the programmatic elements they preferred to advance, and the ways to do so. We then facilitated a series of partner retreats to enable transparent discussions, reflections and a shared understanding of next steps. The 3D Program was created to demonstrate a multi-sectoral programmatic model to advance gender equality and not to establish a permanent program. However, we realized that we had not articulated a clear exit strategy from the beginning. Our early conversations with partners helped clarify our strategy and revealed some surprises. For example, we had been proud of how we had convened a remarkable mix of partners who worked together well and contributed rich, complementary expertise to the program. However, we found that each of our partners working in rural Pune wanted to proceed on their own or with a different partner and focus on their respective geographic areas. They all decided to take forward just one key component of the program – our village women’s committees. Once we had established a process for moving forward with our implementing partners, we shared our plans with other key stakeholders[1]. Internally, the DC-based team developed plans to guide us as we wound down our programs and operations. Acknowledging the personal disruption and economic impact of the transition, we also made a commitment to supporting each other as we each began to assess our own next steps and look for new jobs.

Planning and Action: The second phase in our transition process focused on planning and action. With our key stakeholders onboard, we worked with each implementing partner to develop strategic plans for scaling up their particular component of our model in their particular geographies. We reallocated resources to our partners to support their planning and transition process and developed a fundraising plan to support our partners to raise the necessary resources to implement their plans. More broadly, we began consulting colleagues who were going through similar processes and sharing information on our transition.

Completion and Reflection: The final phase of our transition process included both completing the transition and the ongoing process of reflection and learning. Logistically, it included the final steps of officially transferring ownership of the program to each of partner, communicating the transition to our broader network, and working in partnership with UN Foundation to close down our DC operations. Each DC team member is now working either full- or part-time with other programs but continues to engage with the transition. We are well into the transition and grateful for the commitment and confidence our partners have in the model we jointly developed. Notably, once the decision to transfer ownership was made, the balance shifted and changes in roles happened quickly, with partners playing a leadership role and the DC team providing support. While the continued disruptions of COVID will define the work of our partners for a long time to come, we are confident that they will continue to strengthen and scale up the 3D Program model.


Leading the 3D Program transition has been a privilege and has provided a unique opportunity to reflect and learn. As the transition comes to an end, our reflection and learning continues.

Partnerships are Key: In 2017, when the 3D Program launched our website, we proudly included “Partnerships lie at the heart of 3D” on our “Who Are We” page. That truth has served us well through our transition process. In fact, the 3D Program transition was strongly influenced by the nature of our partnerships in India. From the beginning, our partnerships were rooted in deep respect and growing trust, as well as genuine friendship. We all shared a commitment to gender equality and agreed that girls and women should and could be served better by the government and non-governmental programs designed to serve them.

We also had a clear understanding of the relative advantages we all brought to the table and respected our different approaches and resources. We co-created our programmatic approaches drawing on both local and global best practice and ideas and created the space to adapt [2]. The nature of these partnerships enabled us to work together effectively for four years, and when we faced the decision to close down our DC operations, they enabled us to have honest discussions about our transition with our partners. While we did not plan the transition from the beginning, we have all benefitted from the quality of partnerships and trust that we had cultivated and have been able to move forward quickly and intentionally.

We also benefited greatly from our other partnerships, including our 3D Program Advisory Committee, our donor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and our host, the UN Foundation. Each provided strategic and practical support as we planned and navigated our way through the transition.

Finally, in sharing our process with others who are working in international development and are dealing with similar issues, we have benefitted from colleagues who have asked important questions that have enriched our thinking and strategy. We have also benefited from being part of a community that is committed to equity in international development and is creating opportunities to continue to learn and change [3] .

Take Care of Each Other: In reflecting on the transition, it became apparent that there were three streams of work in the process – programmatic, operational and emotional. We were expecting to deal with the first two. However, it soon became clear that there are emotional processes that we needed to pay attention to. Most of us working in international or community development – on both sides of the partnership – do this work because we are committed to social justice. Our partnerships often go beyond the work and we build meaningful and personal relationships. In any transition, you have to allow yourself and others the time to both celebrate and grieve. This is no exception. Even with the challenges of COVID, we created space to both celebrate the achievements of all of us and to allow time to shed a tear and say goodbye to the way that things had been.

There are also real economic consequences to these transitions. Program budgets and personal livelihoods are at stake, creating uncertainty for everyone. To help mitigate the disruption, the DC team reallocated the resources that we could to support our partners as they managed their own transitions. Additionally, the DC team openly supported each other to find other positions. This included sharing job opportunities, providing time to apply for jobs, serving as references, and encouraging each other. In the end, we were able to find other positions and some of us were even able to continue to support the transition.

Allow for Complexities: The 3D Program experience and transition revealed a key limitation of the broader, important conversations that are taking place about localization and international development. Generally, these discussions have a starting point of assuming an us vs. them model, a simple North-South dichotomy.

Throughout our four years of operations in the US and India, it was clear that rather than a dichotomy, the global North and South are facing disturbingly similar development trends. While global geopolitical power imbalances persist, inequalities and human rights violations are in focus everywhere. In the US, the spark for both injustice and advocacy has been race, and in India, it has been caste and religion. The events that sparked the 2020 social justice movements led many colleagues working in international development to transition to domestic advocacy.

COVID has revealed in stark relief how public systems are failing everywhere. The US was ill-prepared to deal with the pervasive deep mistrust of public systems or the logistical challenges of widespread testing. India applied global recommendations, such as lockdowns and travel bans, with little assessment of local realities. In both countries, hospitals have struggled to provide beds, oxygen and ventilators in the face of COVID spikes, and in both countries, the private sector and civil society have stepped into fill gaps in services and supply chains.

Rather than an ‘us vs. them’ model, development could benefit from a ‘sharing lessons learned’ model. Movements for social justice are leading the way in this approach, growing and supporting each other across borders, regions, generations and issues, revealing the futility of simple, binary approaches to identity and advocacy. 

Finally, many of us working in international development exist in what I call ‘the spaces in-between’. We are neither from the North or the South, and in the 3D Program’s case, we have roots in India. The founder of the 3D Program is originally from Maharashtra, which is why we worked there, and I have family in Maharashtra.  Working in India was a homecoming of sorts for us both and our personal identities shaped how we worked there, sometimes facilitating progress, but not always. Increasingly, with globalization and immigration, many of us working in international development bring multiple social identities and knowledge of a range of cultures, languages and places into play. This itself is reshaping the field, enriching it with diverse perspectives and increasing accountability both within organizations and across partnerships. International development is being challenged and strengthened by these complexities.

For the 3D Program team, we were keenly aware that our experience was more about commonality than difference and there was an opportunity to build on that. Looking ahead, we are confident, not only that our partners will advance the work we started together, but that the foundation of those partnerships will lead to even greater things.

This blog has been informed by rich conversations with the 3D Program team in Washington DC and our partners in India. The author wishes to thank Geeta Rao Gupta and Vanessa Coello of the DC 3D Program team, as well as our implementing partners at the Center for Environment EducationChaitanyaICRW IndiaKKPKPMASUMSangini and SWaCH, and our rural coordinator Shailaja Aralkar.

Originally posted on the From Where I Stand: Unpacking "local" in Aid, a CDA Virtual Learning Forum on May 19, 2021.

Citations: [1] This included our 3D Program Advisory Committee, a multi-disciplinary group of Indian experts who provided guidance to the DC team and our implementing partners; our donor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who was flexible and supportive of our adaptations during the COVID pandemic and through the transition; and our host, the UN Foundation, who provided strategic and logistical support as we dismantled our DC-based operations.

[2] 3D Program partnerships reflected three principals of collaboration identified by the Movement for Community-led Development as well as insights from the Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA) From Where I Stand dialogue on localization.

[3] This includes the Movement for Community-led Development; the WomenLift Health Leadership Journey of Stanford University; and the Malaria Elimination Initiative of the University of California San Francisco’s Global Health Group.

Photo Credit: All photos courtesy the 3D Program for Girls and Women. Photo 1: A meeting of a 3D Program village women’s committee in Khed, Pune District. Photo 2: The 3D Program team meeting with women leaders in Purandar, Pune District. Photo 3: 3D Program team and partners.

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