How to decolonise International Development: some practical suggestions

Guest post by Lucy Morris & Andres Gomez de la Torre, who work for and with INGOs in different capacities (e.g. members of staff, trustee, consultant, etc).

If your conversation on this matter is not uncomfortable, you are not having the right conversation!”

Recent developments around the world have rightly brought back old calls for structural change in the aid sector, including taking anti-racist action individually and as organisations, contributing to what some refer to as the need to “decolonise international development”.

This blog grew out of our own uncomfortable conversations, during a recent event to reflect on “How to advance anti-racism and decolonisation in our own lives and complex organisations?” as part of a Re-inventing INGOs initiative. In it, we reflected on key steps individuals and organisations can take on this bumpy journey.

1. The starting point  

It is important to start by clarifying what racism is and how it manifests itself in our own contexts. Broadly speaking, racism is a system of structuring opportunities and/or assigning value, based on the social interpretation of physical characteristics such as skin colour, in a way that unfairly disadvantages some, benefitting others. Racism is structural and embedded into all aspects of our society and is inter-sectional. As a result, it is inevitable that our sector has been deeply marked by it. In fact, it seems that for People of Colour, “from overt experiences of racial discrimination, to everyday micro-aggressions and unsafe workplace cultures, nearly everyone had a story about how the dominant policies, practices and cultures have marginalized them.” (link)

Acknowledging that racism is very real, highly complex, and inextricably related to the way in which power is exercised (how funding, knowledge transfer and aid, in general, are organised) is next. While the links are not immediately obvious to everyone, International Development (including Humanitarian work) is anchored in colonialism and white supremacy, where whiteness is considered as the standard category against which non-white thinking and people are judged, irrespective of the history of the organisation (i.e. if it has colonial origins or not).

Credit: 2017 09 30–8783 — DC — March for Racial Justice” by thisisbossi
is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

2. Making it personal

It’s important to reflect on our own privileges and how we have engaged with racism and the systems that embed it in our lives. If we are part of the International Development/Humanitarian sector, it is fair to say that by action or omission, we have all benefitted from and supported a system that is constructed through a dominant power and narrative of white supremacy. As Stephanie Kimou said: “You don’t need to be racist or a white supremacist to support white supremacy culture.” If we feel called out, fragile, guilty or uncomfortable with this discussion, as Kimou said, there are plenty of resources developed and written by People of Colour, that we can use to educate ourselves.

Irrespective of our individual starting point, there is always room to better understand the roots of the sector and why we have operated in the way we have. In most of our cases, this process will probably require a conscious determination to “un-learn” certain behaviours or habits too!   

3. Moving into organisation-wide reflections

Challenging racism demands that our organisations and operations “look in the mirror and talk about what hurts.” It is when organisations really look in the mirror and dare to face their own reflections and the uglier spots that they would rather ignore, that various issues become apparent which are the starting point for change. 

Part of the reason we have not tackled systemic discrimination and racism (including feelings of guilt and shame) is that we do not talk about race and racism in the workplace. It is therefore important to engage all employees in an organisation-wide process to learn (and un-learn) about racism; to better understand each other’s lived experiences; and to reflect on how best to promote change in behaviour and policies, procedures, structures and systems that enhance belonging and inclusion.

It is important not to limit these efforts as “a DEI issue” (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) or as an “HR issue”. While transformation can be encouraged by adequate policy, without the human conversation and a shared sense of urgency among the staff, inclusion and racial equality become ‘just another box to be checked’.  These conversations need to be supported, as they will not be easy, and creating safe spaces is critical. As someone put it, “if your conversation is not making you feel uncomfortable, you are not having the right conversation!” Leadership needs to promote these spaces.

4. From realisation to concrete action and commitments

Being non-racist individuals or organisations is not enough. We need clear organisational commitments to change, complemented by concrete goals, in support of a truly organisation-wide journey.

Those of us working on specific functions (Programmes/Operations; Fundraising; Communications; Knowledge Management; HR; Governance, etc.) are well-placed to identify how racism manifests itself in that particular area of work, and more importantly, to propose what can be done to tackle it.

For instance:

Leadership and governance: Self-education on racism and its manifestations, is critical. Also, people in leadership and governance positions in INGOs (still predominantly white men) should not run away from difficult conversations because of their political nature. The international aid system is political, as is everything about power relations. Increasing representation of People of Colour in Boards and leadership is an obvious first step.

Programmes: Enable programmes to be truly led by those directly affected/working in their own contexts. Key questions when considering any programme include: “What is needed and who is best placed to meet that need”, instead of starting by articulating what INGOs can offer or what we bring to the table (“our expertise/added value”). How we support our partner organisations to grow, as opposed to becoming better implementers of ‘our’ projects is also key.  Our metrics of success should be under scrutiny, particularly if they are still mainly about income and size. Instead, we should seek greater impact, quality of partnerships, solidarity, etc. Ultimately, having an exit strategy should not be optional if we want to avoid perpetuating our presence or creating harmful dependency.

Fundraising: Consider how we fundraise and work with our own donors to promote a different agenda.  Analyse how “flexible funds” are used, and how we support partners’ core and strategic functions and needs, instead of an exclusive focus on project-based funding. Be more aware of how much of the money we raise reaches local communities versus how much stays in our headquarters.

Communications: It is definitively not enough to ask for permission to take and use photos or tell stories “on behalf of”. Instead, we need to dramatically change narratives and who tell the stories, who gets the credit for the work, how stories are portrayed, and to check if we have fallen into the trap of portraying white staff as “white saviours” of “beneficiaries” in our marketing materials.

Oh look, a person has gone to The Field

Language: Power is exercised using language. There are certain terms that we are actively eliminating from our conversations: “beneficiaries”, capacity “building”, “first” and “third” world, “going on a mission” or “travelling to the field”. On this issue, Tessy Cherono Maritim said: “Going to ‘the field’ …fuels this…fantasy of ‘exploring in the wild’ or going somewhere dangerous to rescue people with no autonomy or initiative. We never refer to European or North American offices as ‘the field’. The term perpetuates this idea of a powerful centre and places outside this as the ‘other’.” Changing language is a simple way to communicate our commitment to anti-racism.

So … there is a lot to consider. If organisations are still struggling to see where to start and are looking for inspiration, then Degan Ali, who inspired many of the ideas here, suggests taking three concrete steps: “Consider something simple enough but potentially very telling: 3 possible audits (organisational culture, partnerships and communications). They will be good enough to inform a concrete organisational plan.” The main thing is to begin the conversation.

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5 Responses to “How to decolonise International Development: some practical suggestions”
  1. Thank you for this timely discussion! May I be allowed to add a further area to decolonialise — credentialism, the practice that values knowledge and experience only if accompanied by status and titles. To put it more bluntly, before one’s proposal gets seriously considered, the proponent needs a university degree, ideally a PhD from a European or US university. Capacity-building is structured and judged according to Western standards. Complex problems like poverty, violence, and conflict are examined using a very academic or ‘scientifically robust’ approach, often using quantitative measures, and deploying such tools as regression analysis. These are not bad by themselves and can in fact be useful. But it becomes a problem when ‘sophisticated’ language and design end up acting to exclude or marginalise certain voices.

    A classic example from the 1950s is when the British introduced cotton-growing in Tanzania, thought as a key poverty-reducing solution, as discussed in Goran Hyden’s book (Beyond Ujamaa, 1980). It never took off. Later when droughts became more recurrent, development planners introduced the drought-resistant cassava. Again, the peasants defaulted and continued planting maize. Evaluations concluded that the peasants preferred subsistence food production to modern cotton cultivation or higher value crops. It turns out, according to Hyden, that they rejected cotton because they did not want to gamble on food security by switching to a non-food commodity that becomes profitable only when sold to unfamiliar markets beyond their shores. Cassava was resisted because the peasants knew its flour was less nutritious than maize flour; and more importantly, it entailed so much more labour, notably to guard it against vermin. The peasants were neither lazy nor stupid and were completely rational, displaying far better knowledge of trading patterns and farming cycles. But their knowledge was not valued and excluded because the experts ‘knew better’ – a practice that continues until today.

    The philosopher Michael Sandel called credentialism the ‘tyranny of merit’, and further argues that the populist backlash of recent years has been a revolt against this tyranny by those it has humiliated, i.e. the Trump supporter or Brexit voter routinely dismissed as stupid by those with the credentials.
    I really do hope that difficult conversations will be started.

  2. David

    As the risk of being accused of mansplaining, white fragility, or tone-policing, it’s disappointing to see such pseudo-intellectualism on this blog. We can accept that racism is an issue in society, and that the aid sector is not immune from it, without needing to resort to clickbait like ‘international development is anchored in colonialism and white supremacy’.

  3. Geoff

    Good intentions with this article but effectively the main issue of the whole debate is pretty much missed, I.e who controls the money and who makes the decisions. Yes all of the above are really useful suggestions for shifting the dial a little, but the reality is that unless the money is coming from the countries where the programs are delivered and so are the decisions then it’s someone else’s agenda. Oxfam knows this.

    The post has a point, there is a serious problem, it’s just that the solutions are undermined by the fact that such reflections within organizations delivering aid won’t actually change the politics of decision making, they’ll only at best shift practice and at worst leave people disillusioned.

  4. ShiftThePower: a Manifesto for Change
    If we want to create a genuine alternative to existing ways of deciding and doing, we need to:
    1. Embrace a vision of a “good society” built around core values of equality, democracy and sustainability and a set of organizing principles based on global solidarity and distributed leadership.
    2. Cast off the restrictive framework of “international development,” which is defined by money and power and which creates artificial barriers between communities and movements in the global north and south.
    3. Move away from a system that is preoccupied with quick “solutions,” and is premised on and organized around the transfer of funds. Change how we approach, and seek to measure, the notion of success.
    4. Creatively find ways to unlock the inherent power of communities in determining their own development course – however they define it – and let the language of “beneficiaries” and “recipients be a thing of the past.
    5. Move away from “building capacity” as defined by external actors and requirements, towards community organizing and movement building, where “capacity” equates to relevance, rootedness and constituency.
    6. Ensure that external funding recognizes, respects and builds on local resources and assets, rather than over looks, undermines or displaces.
    7. Expand our horizons beyond money as the central driver of change, and place greater value on other kinds of infinite non-financial assets and resources (knowledge, trust, networks etc)
    8. Change the language we use so that it enables new ways of working and thinking, rather than constrains them. And challenge the dominance of English.
    9. Change ourselves. We need both humility and boldness, and to be ready to challenge our own power and to listen to and work with others.
    In short, we want a future that is negotiated, participatory, and widely owned, and which is developed through values and processes based on movement generosity rather than the success or failure of one organization over others.

  5. I would add another process which is conveniently avoided by many governments and organizations which are in positions of being able to share resources abroad: several such countries are in lands inhabited before the advent of foreigners. Yet many groups of indigenous peoples are enduring embarrassingly low socio-economic levels, including the so-called “basic needs” of –inter alia– health care (including hygiene and sanitation), education, housing appropriate to the local environment, potable water. This is as much in North America as in Europe and other continents as well.
    That these fundamental needs are still wanting in 2020 betrays the value we have attached to human rights. Furthermore, when representatives of wealthy countries (government and/or non-government entities) pour extraordinary effort into lifting the worlds’ poor, dispossessed and oppressed whilst neglecting or being unable to deal with centuries’ of basic needs of their own aboriginal communities is both confounding and exasperating.
    So how does this connect with decolonising? Well, if after several centuries—but OK, let’s just focus on the past 2 centuries—wealthy nations have been unable to sustainably improve their internal autochthonous living conditions, what gives the right to preach, teach, manage and govern abroad through particular projects and longer programmes? Of course the cost for helping, advising, and all the components of bringing projects to life is at times extraordinarily expensive.
    If the same level and intended quality of effort would be put into enhancing societal issues within one’s country, and if thereby the fruits of labour would be visibly and sustainably improved socio-economic conditions, then our governments and aid organizations could credibly offer assistance to others.
    Were domestic funding not the issue in one’s own country, then why has the work not been done? Either way, if there are in fact sufficient available funds but at the same time the work has not been done, then there is obviously a complexity of management issues between planners and implementers that ought to be rectified before deciding to aid another country.
    If domestic funding is a major issue, then I would suggest reallocation of corresponding funds from proposed international efforts so as to bring domestic human rights and socio-economic conditions up to standard.
    Again, it seems to me to be highly embarrassing to promote particular projects and management requirements overseas whilst one’s own home efforts flounder. To be able to truly decolonise, taking positive practical and verifiable experience from home would enable considerably improved functioning abroad. This is over and above other critical requirements when deciding to implement in another country.