How to decolonise International Development: some practical suggestions

December 18, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

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).

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.

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.

December 18, 2020
Duncan Green