Thoughts on decolonising the sector – part 2

22 March 2022


It is important that organisations are honest and transparent about the structure and history of the international aid sector and the inherent cycles of privilege and power, continues Mariama Deschamps, Director of Global Safeguarding in part 2 of this blog series.

It is important that organisations are honest and transparent about the structure and history of the international aid sector and the inherent cycles of privilege and power. 

There must be an understanding of the cycle of dependency that has been created in aid recipient countries and populations. This understanding should result in a relinquishing, transferring and sharing of power at all levels of its structure. 

What follows are 5 starting points for decolonising the aid sector from within. 

1. Review leadership and governance

To decolonise aid, INGOS should start by addressing lack of diversity in leadership and governance. 

“It is not enough to merely be diverse. Leadership and governance should be genuine, equitable, welcoming, inclusive and respectful of difference.”

Often, senior leaders have few similarities to the people that they work with and for in terms of race, culture and even gender.   In many instances, as the systems of domination, patriarchy and white supremacy go hand in hand, those in governance and leadership are white and male, or have had to emulate white and male ways of being in order to gain legitimacy within that space.

We have seen a big push to get more women in leadership positions. There has been success with (mostly white) women gaining access to governing systems. The same just can’t be said for race, or other social identities. The governing boards of INGOs remain predominantly white, or from the white/European diaspora. 

Increasing the racial representation on INGO boards is the first step to ensuring rich and different experiences are infused and embedded into these influential spaces. It is a key step to decolonising INGOs. 
But it is not enough to merely be diverse. Leadership and governance should be genuine, equitable, welcoming, inclusive and respectful of difference. Power holders must truly understand their power and privilege. 

2. Assess how we carry out programmes and interventions 

Currently, INGOs primarily prioritise the needs of the white, Western, or white majority affluent country donor(s). They provide the funding, choose which projects go ahead, write proposals, and determine what expertise, development and success look like. 

In other words, the work is not centred around the impacted people. Take for example our case studies and communications. Often, this storytelling is for the white gaze. It is written by staff, who are frequently white, from the European diaspora and far removed from where programmes and projects are delivered. 

INGOs often have little to no knowledge or understanding of the colonial and imperialist histories of the countries they run programmes in, the global nature of ‘white supremacy and the white /colonial lens’ and the impact this may have on authenticity of relationships, perceptions or interventions. Such approaches are colonialist as they side-line the needs, history and even the culture of the people their programmes serve. 

Every programme should be centred on, co-created, co-implemented with the people who the project directly serves so that management of the project can be based on the contexts. We must ask; What are the needs that those we work with and for have stated are important to them and not what we deem are the needs? How do they wish to fulfil them? Who would be able to execute and implement the programme in its totality? Are we listening to all parties involved? How do we ensure that our work is sowing the seeds of these communities’ autonomy and self-sustainability instead of reinforcing inequity, white supremacy and unequal power relations?   

3. Act in true partnership

“White supremacy and colonisation will always prefer western academic ways of knowing over traditional forms of knowledge and lived experience.”

Partnership relationships are often rooted in models which uphold colonialist power structures. Usually, information given to locally based partners is limited and accountability is one-way i.e. from locally based partners to the partners based in white-majority affluent countries. Furthermore, the white-majority affluent country-based NGOs, donors, or offices usually have the budgetary power and the last say in many if not all areas – so can we truly say we are working in partnership?

More trust is often placed in organisations based in the white-majority affluent countries than local organisations. 

However, local experience and expertise is far greater, and white-majority affluent country-based organisations spend a significant amount on overhead costs rather than on individuals they work for and with. This is because white supremacy and colonisation will always prefer western academic ways of knowing over traditional forms of knowledge and lived experience. 

4. Elevate national and black, indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) expertise

Another way to help in decolonisation of INGOs is through advancing local and BIPOC skills. Usually expertise, leadership, direction and engagement which is valued, and held as credible comes from white-majority affluent countries, people who are white, or from the European/white diaspora. 

Those who are not from this group e.g. indigenous, Black, people of colour, local to the countries we programme in, are often not held as credible or seen as ‘less than’. In humanitarian deployable/response teams, serving humanitarian responses in Africa, Asia and the Americas it is not uncommon to find all members of the management staff to be from white-majority affluent countries or in charge of ‘capacity building’ for local staff with far greater expertise required for the humanitarian response. 

5. Consider language

“Describing the recipients of aid as beneficiaries or as ‘the third world’ creates a power imbalance.”

Power is hidden in the language that we speak. Some terms should never be used when talking to donors. Describing the recipients of aid as ‘beneficiaries’ or as ‘the third world’ creates a power imbalance between donors and participants, and it creates a mindset of dependency and internalised oppression for aid recipients. Instead we could use terms such as ‘programme participant’. 

Finally, it is important not to shy away from the difficult conversations about decolonising our work and engage honestly on this topic with those we work with and for and with donors and funders. These conversations should be had openly and objectively so we discover for ourselves where our limitations are, our red lines, and then act from a place of honesty and integrity. 

INGOs do have an important role to play in the world today but it means being more aware of and accountable to those we work with and for. We need to move away from frameworks that support power imbalances, to ones that share power, enable equitable relationships, and are centred around the people we work with – getting us closest to the point of impact. 

The change must come from within. This cannot be done by one organisation alone – it needs all organisations in the international aid sector to work together to make this happen. The onus is on us all. 

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