Time to Decolonise Aid

In November 2020, Peace Direct in collaboration with Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, convened a three-day online consultation to discuss the issue of structural racism and how to ‘Decolonise Aid’. Over 150 people from the development, humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding sectors took part in the consultation over three days, and we are indebted to all those who shared their insights, stories and analysis. Many of the key findings will come as little surprise to those who have been campaigning to change the system, but we acknowledge that there for many these findings may prove surprising, even shocking. Our findings include the following: 

  • Many current practices and attitudes in the aid system mirror and are derived from the colonial-era, which most organisations and donors in the Global North are still reluctant to acknowledge. Certain modern-day practices and norms reinforce colonial dynamics and beliefs such as the ‘White saviour’ ideology visible in fundraising and communications imagery used by INGOs, to the organisational structures of INGOs in the Global South and the attitudes of some White international aid workers working in Global South. 
  • Aid flows between former colonial powers and former colonised regions often mirror their past colonial relationships, with decision-making power concentrated in the Global North. 
  • Structural racism is so deeply embedded in the everyday culture and working practice of those in the sector that it has affected the way local staff regard their own communities and how they engage with INGOs. 
  • Some of the language used in the aid system reinforces discriminatory and racist perceptions of non-White populations. The phrase ‘Capacity building’ was cited as one example that suggests that local communities and organisations lack skills, while other terms, such as ‘field expert’ perpetuate images of the Global South as ‘uncivilised.’
  • Many global north aid sector practitioners perceive themselves (and the wider sector) as operating neutrally, which is not only a fiction, it also reinforces the ‘white saviour’ and ‘white gaze’ mentality that has its roots in colonialism.
  • Structural racism benefits organisations in the Global North and also those from the Global South who know how to ‘play’ the system. The most widespread example cited in the consultation was funding opportunities for programmes and research which benefit a relatively small number of ‘usual suspects’ i.e. INGOs with pre-existing relationships with donors.
  • One of the most obvious manifestations of structural racism in the sector is the parallel system for employing staff in the Global South, not only in terms of salaries and benefits offered to Global South staff compared to the Global North counterparts, but also in how skills and experience are devalued in practitioners from the Global South.
  • Programme and research design are rooted in Western values and knowledge systems meaning that many programmes inadvertently create a standard based on the West that communities in the Global South are required to meet. Local knowledge is, by default, devalued. 
  • The challenges faced by individual practitioners of colour are amplified if they belong to other marginalised groups, including women, the LGBTQ* community, the disabled community, the non-Anglophone community, etc. Attempts to bridge the global-local divide often focuses on a particular identity group failing to incorporate an intersectional approach. 

The recommendations which emerged from the consultation include the following: 

Recommendations for donors, INGOs and policymakers 

  • Acknowledge that structural racism exists and acknowledge that there is a collective responsibility to tackle the problem. 
  • Encourage conversations with grantees and communities about the power dynamics that influence the relationships between funder and grantee or INGO and local partner. 
  • Create space for change, especially for those with marginalised identities, and expect and encourage those groups to question the current system and the power relations that underpin it. 
  • Mind your language. End the use of outdated language such as ‘beneficiaries’ and involve communities in choosing new ways of describing terms that are no longer appropriate. 
  • Encourage an internal organisational culture of openness to critique, and ensure that this is cognisant of gender, age and any other factors that might impact someone’s willingness to critique. 
  • Fund courageously and trust generously. 
  • Recruit differently, and in particular reassess the need for recruiting expatriate staff for any position based overseas. Commit to recruiting a greater diversity of staff in offices in the global North. 
  • Invest in indigenous knowledge creation and value local knowledge 

Recommendations for INGOs specifically 

  • End the practice of ‘White gaze’ fundraising and audit your communications through a ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ lens. 
  • Adopt a transition mindset for organisational strategies, which puts in place clear milestones for the transfer of power and resources to local organisations. Such a transition mindset should be enshrined in clear organisational strategies that measure success according to the extent to which an INGO is reducing, rather than expanding, its traditional organisational footprint. 
  • Avoid localisation spin. Don’t reframe ‘localisation’ to defend a particular organisational position or to justify the status quo. 
  • Re-evaluate partnerships with local organisations so that they are more equitable, and mutually accountable, and support and strengthen local leadership and sustainability. 

Recommendations for individuals 

  • Reflect on your identity and motivations for working in the sector, and what privileges and ‘baggage’ you bring to your work. 
  • Remain humble. 
  • Shift access and power to those who don’t have it, in whatever ways you can. 
  • Organise and connect to networks and groups that support this agenda. 

These recommendations are not new. They have been said, in one form or another, in various meetings, blogs, papers and conferences for several years now. Our hope is that in bringing them to the fore now, at a time when the system is in such flux, it will provide an opportunity for those in the system to seize this moment to shift power in ways that create more equitable partnerships, leading to better humanitarian, development and peacebuilding outcomes for all. 

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Peace Direct


Anti-racism and Decoloniality
Humanitarian Sectors