Why Equity-Based Design Thinking is Key to Decolonising EIE

Humanitarian Sectors - Education
Anti-racism and Decoloniality

Courtesy of Rethinking Education. This blog was originally published 13 February 2021.

“Youth Activism” by androosh is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The politics of knowledge production and whose knowledge matters is at the heart of education. Speaking to colleagues who studied Education and International Development at university, despite these degrees focusing on education in formerly colonized lands and settler-colonial nations, rarely did their reading lists reference racism, coloniality, critical education thinkers like bell Hooks, Paulo Freire, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or decolonial scholars like Franz Fanon. The post-colonial African leaders' education initiatives such as Nyerere’s Education for Self Reliance in Tanzania, Nkrumah’s Education plans in Ghana, and contemporary indigenous knowledge systems, like Southern Africa’s Ubuntu communitarian philosophy of education, were absent from syllabuses. From my own educational journey, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to spend a year at the University of Havana, with students from Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam, Western Sahara Territories, Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil, (many of whom were recipients of scholarships) that I learned how biased and narrow my education and understanding of the world had been. I saw first-hand the long history of Cuban and South-South humanitarianism and I remember my Haitian roommate educating me about the Haitian revolution, and how they had been paying a debt to France ever since for having the audacity to overthrow their enslavers. Humanitarian aid looks very different with this wider narrative.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche stresses, the danger of a single story is that ‘it robs people of dignity’. There is no doubt that a limited lens of what constitutes knowledge contributes to perpetuating a certain way of thinking, doing, and understanding of the world. It is more than disconcerting that these elite universities, situated in the Global North, where the majority of Education and International Development masters courses are taught (and position the next generation of practitioners and leaders), without an understanding of the power dynamics at play or that aid, education, and research have been ‘ complicit in slavery, colonialism, and racism, in ways that are more and less visible’ today (Tuhiwai- Smith, 1999). After all, what we learn is what we practice and it is only through learning about these alternatives histories of Education and International Development that we can ‘overturn colonial relationships of hierarchy, dispossession, exclusion, and subordination’ (Okech & Underhalter,2020).

Decolonise/Decolonial thinking- what do these terms actually mean?

In 2020, the term decolonization was everywhere, particularly in aid, with calls to disrupt current operational approaches, rethink ‘localization’, and reframe funding as reparations. Whilst there isn’t a single definition, most decolonial scholars agree that colonial relations of power continue to manifest in contemporary global inequalities in political, economic, and socio-cultural terms, that are in turn reflected in hierarchies in contemporary knowledge production systems. But Linda Tuhiwai Smith outlines, we must ‘acknowledge that decoloniality is a long-term and multifaceted process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power’( Tuhiwai-Smith, 2010: 33).

If standard EiE responses were designed from an equitable base, they would be decolonial by default.

It is so important that as ‘decolonizing’ trends, that it is not forgotten why these conversations are taking place now. We are entertaining these conversations today in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the thousands of Black people who have been subjected to police brutality, racially motivated violence, and anti-Blackness, which is rooted in legacies of coloniality. Such was the extent of colonialism, that George Floyd’s murder, rippled across the globe to stand in solidarity and to challenge their own contextualized experiences of racism and oppression in over 60 countries on seven continents. Decolonial thinking, according to scholar-activists like Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and Eve Tuck and K. Yang stress that ‘true’ decolonization must be linked to direct action to interrogate and transform institutional, structural, and epistemological legacies of colonialism.

Whilst there are valid critiques of "deconolisation" and the term has been co-opted by aid agencies, ever the optimist, I believe that as a concept it does push open long overdue conversations, which will hopefully lead to change. Whilst both education and academia/research have contentious histories under colonial empires, both have also contributed towards antiracist and decolonizing movements and activism. It is time for the education and international development/EiE sector particularly agencies and practitioners sat in positions of power to reflect where and how their practices are maintaining hierarchies of power, which may in part be influenced by the colonial past.

Decolonising as a process towards Equity-based Education

In education, equity work is grounded in an examination of how policies, practices, and structures operate with factors such as country of origin, language, age, ethnicity, race, gender, parenthood, sexual orientation, migration status, class, and dis/abilities to limit or leverage access to learn. If the sector doesn’t ‘see’ these hyperlocal tensions and community assets, then they cannot address inequity or recognize the diverse set of needs, capabilities, and support networks diversity brings.

“Educational Postcard: Decolonizing Education means changing educational priorities” by Ken Whytock is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Take for example the problematic equity oversight in Education and International Development is the focus and framing of the ‘global learning crisis’, which perpetuates this idea that learning doesn’t take place outside of the classroom, at worst, devaluing the local skills, knowledge, and competencies that children learn in and from their communities and/or spiritual practices. This deficit narrative diminishes what Tara Yosso labels community cultural wealth and echoes what Mignalo calls the ‘Colonial matrix of power’.

Of course, the fact that 773 million people globally do not have basic literacy skills is cause for great concern, but for decades, adults and youth have been begging for post-primary learning opportunities in emergencies. This is routinely underprioritized by donors and INGOs alike and we see the cost today during the pandemic, as many parents are struggling to support their children’s formal literacy and numeracy development. To me, the greater learning crisis is that nobody in positions of power seems to be listening. Actively embedding equity from conception to completion ‘would undoubtedly lead to a different response to complex problems such as the global ‘learning crisis’. For this to happen, it is not enough to diversify the curriculum, instead,those most affected by the crises must have a prominent role in the design phase.

As a practitioner, I am interested in putting theory into practice. Whilst multilateral reform and changing the current models of humanitarian financing are ultimately what is needed for systemic change, every agency could adjust the way that it develops programmes- and this small change has the potential to transform aid. Designing and delivering aid programs is a core function of the majority of humanitarian organizations and therefore it is in the process that EiE needs to revisit to begin its equity-based, decolonial journey.

Embedding Equity in the Programme Design Cycle

OCHA Enhanced Humanitarian Programme Cycle https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/programme-cycle/space

Firstly, the humanitarian programme cycle (HPC) shapes the process of most interventions. Whilst projects start with needs assessments, this is often the only point of consultation with affected populations in the project design. With that data, programmes are developed but what if the analysis of the situation is wrong? This is similar to traditional design thinking where Hill, Molitor and Ortiz note that ‘while engaging with end-users, many forms of design thinking still see the designer as separate from the user and grant the designer the power in the relationship — the power to decide with whom to do empathy work, the power to interpret the results, the power to decide the framing of the problem, and the power to pick the best solution.’

In a humanitarian context who gets to be a ‘designer’ or an ‘expert’ is often linked to colonial hierarchies of knowledge. Wale Ofisun considers that “the intersection between race, gender, social class, and the passport you hold determines how you are valued in the sector and whether your ideas will be taken seriously or not”. Because of the unequal power dynamics that shape INGOs, the UN, and local actors, very often implementing partners have limited scope to be included in all phases of the project design, to negotiate budgets, and provide critical feedback on the implementing agency’s role in the project. These power imbalances ‘can lead to misunderstandings, to feelings of being treated unfairly, to frictions and to lack of trust’ .Even the terms ‘expert’ carries the unstated assumptions that these are two separate groups, assumptions about their roles and responsibilities, and assumptions about capabilities. And this where education inequity begins because whilst EIE actors are trying to design inclusive programmes, the right people aren’t always in the room, which is particularly detrimental in contexts where there are resistance and suspicion towards ‘outside’ education systems. Community involvement in EiE responses isn’t anything new — the INEE Minimum Standard 1 on Community Participation outlines that communities should be included throughout the programme cycle. If all EiE responses applied this standard, they would by default disrupt the colonial legacies of aid work, challenging assumptions of whose knowledge really matters, and embrace ‘possibilities of other modes of being, thinking, knowing, sensing and living’ (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018:18). We need to start seeing the ‘process as product’.

Equity-based design thinking, and one particular framework EquityXDesign seeks to challenge the notion of expertise, using a practice that merges the consciousness of racial equity work with the methodology of design thinking to illuminate racism and inequity — individual, structural, and institutional — that exists in the individuals involved in the design team (and potentially shapes the way problems are framed and solutions are proposed).

In education, equity means every learner and teacher receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. Equity-based design thinking involves inclusion from the very onset of programmatic design, which would mean co-designing the types of changes they dream for learners and teachers by leveraging expertise from within, among the children, families, teachers, and school leaders in their communities. (IDEO, 2020)

This approach is in contrast with the status-quo of last-minute rapid needs assessments, often tokenistic to fulfill donor compliance, that can shape many education and international development programmatic initial design phases.

Applying Equity X Design’s principles to an EiE response.

Source Equity X Design https://medium.com/equity-design/racism-and-inequity-are-products-of-design-they-can-be-redesigned-12188363cc6a

Design at the Margins

Firstly, if education responses are designed at the Margins, they would leave no one behind. Equity-based design calls on practitioners to ask:

  • Who is present at each stage of the project, and why?
  • Who gets a say in how a problem is framed, or if it’s even a problem in the first place?
  • Do those impacted get a say in decision-making, or if not, what other ways can you share power with them?
  • Education actors need to position those at the margins as leaders in the design process and experts in their experience, which means making sure people with disabilities, ethnic/language and other minority groups, gender considerations, etc must be involved in throughout the programme cycle and determine what key indicators of success.

Start with Self

All programme designers, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, nationality and other intersectional markers must be aware of individual biases and levers of privileges that enable us to see or not see things.Equity-based thinking calls for all people engaged in programme design to :

  • Self-reflect on how they ended up in that position.
  • Self-reflect on their positionality (relative to privilege and/or oppression) in all aspects of their identities (e.g., race, class, gender, nationality, caste, religion, language, dis/ability) and how levers of privilege can dominate design processes.
  • Ask if the people in the project design team really know the important customs and practices at play in teachers, students, and community members’ education experiences? (and how these practices work together to include or exclude?)

Ceding power

Equity-based design thinking advocates that those at the margins should hold the most power in the design process. Ceding power doesn’t necessarily exclude anyone who isn’t directly impacted by the problem, but calls for aid to radically rethink ‘expert’ roles, recognise the ‘process as product’, ceding power where necessary, and listening. For EiE this could mean:

  • Doing a ‘Power Assessment’ exercise at the start and throughout the programme cycle. This is one of many tools out there.
  • Setting measurable and time-bound commitments in 2021 to shift the power in global governance structures. All inter-agency working groups, EiE hubs, and global high-level panels should have diverse representation, institutions, and leadership, predominantly from crises affected contexts.
  • Diversify funding and resource mobilization by engaging with horizontal networks, diaspora communities, and national and regional philanthropy initiatives.
  • Reflect on who is setting advocacy agendas, how are national, regional, and global level policymakers and practitioners involved in setting priorities, and how are crises affected populations framed or ‘othered’ by these calls?
  • Establish strategic advisory groups (or local community engagement traditions) comprised of different national and hyperlocal stakeholders in all responses and ensure that they have critical roles in inputting, reviewing, monitoring, and challenging EiE programmes.

Making the invisible visible

Factors such as type of emergency, being on the move, country of origin, disability, language, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, parenthood intersect with gender and age to influence experiences of education in emergencies. To ensure EIE programmes are radically inclusive and address those who are most at risk of falling through the cracks, consider:

  • Are there voices, histories, forms of expression, and forms of knowledge that are absent or silenced in the EiE response? Why are they silenced and how can they be enabled to speak?
  • Reflect on what languages are used throughout the programme design cycle, cluster coordination meetings, online high-level events, webinars, and adjust (and budget) to enable all to meaningfully participate.
  • Reflect and reframe what is meant by ‘implementing partner’. Is there co-creation, acknowledgment of distinct roles, and dialogue around fair remuneration and budgets?
  • Is there any visibility of national partners, community-led organizations, or programs in the ‘lead agency’s’ social media, advocacy, and communication, and if not, why?

Speaking to the Future

  • Set up an inter-agency task team to address inequity in the sector- there is one for just about every other EiE sub-thematic but when it comes to racism and decolonizing structures- there is silence and inertia.
  • Advocate for the changes that communities want today. This could mean tackling the issue of ‘incentives’ at a global level, challenging donors who resist funding post-primary education projects with evidence of what works or investing in initiatives like adolescent teacher traineeships to address female teacher shortages.
  • Shift away from single-sector, agency-specific, and short-term solutions, recognizing that crises are multi-layered and systemic, and sustainable education programmes will need multi-sector responses.
  • Collaborate and co-design research, programmes and traineeships with universities and teacher training colleges in crisis-affected contexts (and don’t automatically assume that they need capacity building). This is where the next generation of EiE global leadership needs to come from.

Concluding thoughts

I once visited a refugee camp in Ethiopia where an organization had received a huge amount of funding to develop an Early Childhood Development programme in several refugee camps. Instead of building community-based tukul structures, near community blocks, the organization went for corrugated iron structures which were cheaper and quicker to put up. As temperatures soared to 45 degrees +, the structures were unusable after 10 am, and families, already with reservations about the type of education their children were going to receive, did not want their toddlers to cross the camp during the day.

How different would this programme have been if it had been designed equitably, with a wider range of stakeholders? For a start, it would be a lot more sustainable if there had been investment and resources allocated to involving community members from the get-go in the programme design because almost 20 years from the initial displacement, the camp is still there, and organizations continue to design responses on behalf of the population.

Nearly every single EiE programme includes parents and teachers associations, child rights clubs, and back to school outreach/community mobilizers. These people need to be in the design room and throughout the programme cycle because the cost of their exclusion is immeasurable. By no means are the suggestions or even the equity-based design framework exhaustive but instead I want this blog to be an invitation for practical, tangible action that practitioners to go away, reflect upon, discuss, challenge, and start thinking about how they can address inequity and how it shows up in their work. I am sure that there are examples of equity-based, radically inclusive EiE interventions, like the REFLECT project in Mozambique which successfully weaves indigenous knowledge, income-generating activities, co-creation with communities, and collaboration with local education authorities to transform youth and adult education. I invite practitioners to share their thoughts and suggestions here as it is only through a willingness for change by the current ‘gatekeepers' will there be systemic change.

Finally, 2020 was a year of bold statements, black squares, and commitments speaking to the future aid sector that would radically rethink and address the prevalence of racism, power imbalances, and inequity. Decoloniality is anti-racism in action, and because of its commitment to radical inclusion, it benefits everyone. If this sector is serious about equity, it needs to get to grips (and get to work) with decolonizing its practice.


Jess has spent the past decade working in the field of EiE. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London. Her research focuses on diverse young people’s intersectional experiences of education in emergencies and whether contemporary practices of Education in Emergencies reinforce colonial legacies.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.