Six Actionable Steps Towards Decolonizing International Development
“Inherent in the very concept of aid is race and racism because only in this system can majority white societies with ample resources determine what poor black and brown people need, how much they need, set up the parameters for delivery of what they need, and of course create an elaborate mechanism for monitoring how well they have managed the donated funds to meet their needs.” — Angela Bruce-Raeburn
“Decolonization of aid” has become a catchphrase in the international development sector, gaining prominence in the US on the heels of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and the racial reckoning that has followed. This term refers to the common practice in which Western practitioners and organizations impose their ideas and “expertise” on people and countries with low resources, without involving those people in the design and development of solutions to address their needs, while controlling key resources such as money. Research findings and recommendations from Time to Decolonise Aid, a report commissioned by Peace Direct, Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, capture this moment well.
While working in the international development space for the past 25+ years, I have witnessed firsthand the racist structures that exist at the foundation of the sector. And yet, until recently I never adequately recognized the radically different ways my friends and colleagues of color must navigate this space, and the world. I have played a role in sustaining this flawed system and have been reflecting on my own identity and privileges to help dismantle it.
I was drawn to working in international development through my upbringing in a family dedicated to global health and social service, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. From an early age, I wanted the chance to help those who have less access and opportunity than I have had. This may resonate with colleagues — especially white colleagues — yet why then do we find ourselves working in a broken system that is having the opposite impact for so many of our teammates?
As anyone working in development knows, power dynamics and decision-making are determined by big funders (e.g., governments, the UN, and the World Bank) and international NGOS (INGOs) from the west — even though the people we are aiming to support and serve often know best. Moreover, competition for resources generates lack of trust across all stakeholders, both global and local, at the expense of those we are aspiring to serve. My Black and brown colleagues in particular experience daily bouts of overt racial discrimination and micro-aggressions in the workplace while dominant institutional policies, practices and cultures marginalize them (Black colleagues in international development have rarely if ever been in a room full of Black people during their entire careers). Black and brown colleagues in the US have to put in far more effort at work just to be accepted and viewed as legitimate actors in their organizations. My Black and brown friends have told me they are held to higher standards compared to white peers, and I have witnessed how they lack visible role models to help them progress in their careers; people who both reflect the majority of populations we serve and can help attract new talent into the sector.
“The international development system requires more than a fix… it requires an overhaul.”
The international development system requires more than a fix. From my INGO experience and perspective, it requires an overhaul. Inaction equates to continued support for the status quo. I propose six concrete actions for the INGO community to take.
1. Shift power to local communities, so that local actors on the frontlines who reflect and represent their community are trusted to design and determine program priorities, and quickly receive funding to meet those needs, with minimal bureaucratic hurdles. This may involve supporting the establishment of mechanisms for local communities to hold influencers and decision-makers — including representatives from the government and private sector — to account. Individually, I urge my colleagues to position their skills to support, not replace, work that should be designed, implemented, and validated by the local communities we serve.
2. Compensate young people and local actors for their knowledge and expertise and eliminate “voluntary contributions” many projects demand; related, this will require stopping the common practice of compensating expats from another country, while expecting local actors to provide us with information and labor based on their own goodwill, often without pay, for the international development system’s gain. I encourage you to engage decision-makers within INGOs and the broader international development community to respond by changing policies and mental models to allow everyone to get compensated for their time, knowledge, and expertise no matter their age, experience or academic accomplishments.
3. Consolidate and position INGOs to act as advisors to local actors (e.g., providing targeted technical and operational support on request), and no longer implementers. This will require INGO leadership to explore different business models, and consider merging and/or acquiring similar entities. Individually, I urge my colleagues to proactively participate in uncomfortable community-led conversations about our role, which may lessen and eventually end over time.
4. Spotlight local organizations, leaders and change-makers, to recognize and appreciate their work that is directly impacting communities; this is part of a core socio-economic valuation process to shape global perceptions, investment decisions, and resource allocation. I encourage INGO colleagues to work through local staff and communications firms, creatively showcasing young community leaders working in the shadows without gaining the recognition they deserve.
5. Hold the international development system accountable by waging strikes against the top policymakers, funders and international agencies until serious reforms are implemented. Individually, let’s hold white leadership accountable for implementing a global “NGO Compact” and/or “Anti-Racism Standards in International Development” manifesto signed by CEOs of key stakeholders (e.g., INGOs, governments, funders, private sector), to help drive this change. We can inspire and support our INGO leaders to establish and then monitor an “Anti-Racism Standards in International Development” code of conduct, borrowing from the Sphere Humanitarian Standards model adhered to by emergency response colleagues, to hold our industry accountable and change the system. We must push our institutions by engaging leadership to look critically at manifestations of racism (e.g., board composition, hiring, and remuneration practices; use of words and imagery, especially in marketing), and establish benchmarks for staff composition and greater representation of Black, brown, and Indigenous colleagues in positions of power.
6. Shine a light on ways INGOs are successfully shifting power dynamics in international development, and addressing anti-racism; IYF’s #4toSoar initiative can serve as an example, a model for others to follow. I encourage my colleagues to own the role that we have played in sustaining the current international development system and use your platforms and privilege to help change the system and dismantle the racist structures in place. Look for opportunities to elevate inequity and share practical steps to decolonize aid in international development forums and conferences (e.g., UN General Assembly, World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings, Society for International Development, InterAction, BOND). The OLAM Focal Point 2020 panel entitled “Addressing Power Dynamics, Saviorism & Racial Justice in Global Development” is one example.
On a personal level, I invite my fellow international development colleagues to join me in this difficult yet necessary journey that will require time, humility, and many uncomfortable conversations. There are life-changing, critically important decisions ahead, including job changes for people like me.
We are in a moment now where the “decolonization of aid” conversation is about power and justice, no longer the technocratic discussions of the past. A first step for the INGO community is to relinquish power and strengthen trust with local communities where we work; for true partnership, only they can determine whether we genuinely have their true interests at heart. We also need to educate funders about the value of local and ethical programming, which is more efficient and cost-effective, and grounded in the community’s best interests. These are only small steps on a journey that must be swift, yet will require patience, since our ultimate goal is to dismantle a racist system that has been in place for centuries.