Localisation, racism and decolonisation: Hollow talk or real look in the mirror?

September 29, 2021
Smruti Patel
Be the Change cards

This article is dedicated to those change-makers who are working on issues of localisation, anti-racism and de-colonisation – it is not an easy path. It is especially dedicated to Ritah Nansereko, the Executive Director of Africa Women Youth Action for Development (AWYAD) in Uganda, who passed away from COVID-19 recently. Ritah showed leadership and great courage in speaking truth to power. She was a dedicated humanitarian and advocate for localisation and is greatly missed by her family, colleagues and friends.

Why is this important and why now?

Unprecedented anti-racism protests across the globe, triggered by George Floyd’s death, put a spotlight on deeply ingrained historic and systemic racist attitudes and racial discrimination that deny people their fundamental human rights, and challenges us to consider our own blind spots. The protests have – finally – created an opportunity to speak openly about racism in the ‘humanitarian’ and wider aid sector, where underlying attitudes of superiority and discrimination, and negative narratives such as being labelled corrupt, incapable, unable to be principled and high risk and untrustworthy, undermine the quality of relationships between international and local and national organisations and stymie progress on localisation.

Recognising the need for more open, honest and respectful dialogue, interactive panel discussions were hosted by UNICEF at the Annual Partner Consultation in November 2020 and by Charter4Change at the annual meeting in December 2020. They covered anti-racism, anti-discrimination, decolonisation and localisation, with the aim of identifying how to form more respectful, inclusive, diverse, equitable, mutually accountable and safe partnerships. On both occasions, people of colour from national and local organisations in the aid-recipient ‘global South’, as well as staff in international aid organisations of the ‘global North’, shared their experiences of inequity, discrimination and racism, and interpretations of what creates and perpetuates those. This article captures some of those experiences and references some other sources.

Speaking and writing about these issues is an uncomfortable experience, especially if you have encountered such forms of discrimination yourself. The late Ritah Nansereko stressed that ‘if you raise your voice you are marked as a troublemaker and your institution is sidelined, you do not get funding anymore’. Many people face retaliation for speaking up on these issues within their organisations, and many leaders of local organisations from the global south experience retaliation when they are critical and advocate for localisation. In this article, some contributors asked to remain anonymous as one person put it ‘the threat of retaliation is real’.

After the recent initial flurry of public statements 1. Oxfam UK, https://views-voices.oxfam.org.uk/2021/03/institutional-racism-in-the-aid-sector-and-how-oxfam-is-responding/; Save the Children, https://www.savethechildren.net/building-anti-racist-organisation; Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/org10/2863/2020/en/; World Vision, https://www.worldvision.org/christian-faith-news-stories/3-ways-world-vision-fighting-racial-bias-injustice; CARE International, https://www.careinternational.org.uk/stories/blacklivesmatter-statement-support-care-international-uk; MSF statement on racism and discrimination, https://www.msf.org/msf-management-statement-racism-and-discrimination. by international organisations acknowledging the issue, and the deaf ear turned to it for several decades, people of national/local organisations and staff of colour in international aid agencies have overall seen little change. On the contrary, as Corinne Gray writes ‘Suddenly, we find ourselves apologising for making a colleague uncomfortable by pushing back against a racist comment. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a world where the act of calling out racism is more offensive than racism itself’. 2. Corinne Gray, ‘Doing good and being racist’, 15 June 2020 (https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2020/06/15/United-Nations-racism-black-lives-matter).

Although there have been some high-profile figures from the diaspora talking about racism, some local and national organisations from the global South have been uncomfortable about how it is being discussed. 3. Themrise Khan, Opinion, Racism doesn’t just exist within aid. It’s the structure the sector is built on. The Guardian, 31 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/aug/31/racism-doesnt-just-exist-within-aid-its-the-structure-the-sector-is-built-on It is going to be a long and hard process, but as a Chinese proverb says: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

Some hard facts

A recent report from Bond on ‘Racism, power and truth’ found disturbing evidence of racism in aid organisations. Out of the 150 organisations who responded to a sector-wide survey on diversity, equality and inclusion in 2020, 73% reported having diversity and inclusion policies in place. However, 68% of people of colour who responded said that they had experienced an incident of racism in the workplace within the past year or had supported someone else who experienced a racist incident. The report therefore finds that ‘Social justice organisations are perfectly capable of reproducing the kinds of oppression practices inside their organisations that they purport to transform outside of them’. 4. ‘Racism, power and truth: experiences of people of colour in development’, Bond.

A survey of humanitarian workers by George Washington University (GWU) in May 2021 5. https://blogs.gwu.edu/barnett/171-2/humanitarian-survey/ inquired into the views of aid workers regarding the current inequalities in the sector and the possibility of fundamental change. Sixty-eight per cent of respondents from the global South said that a major obstacle to building trust between international and local organisations is that the former treats the latter as inferior. In the survey, 66% of respondents agreed that racism has a major impact on southern aid workers’ access to high-quality jobs. An additional 63% agreed racism has a major impact on the treatment of workers in southern agencies, and 56% felt it has an impact on support for localisation. 6. ibid

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, 62% of respondents who work in the West said racism within international agencies was a major obstacle to increasing trust between local and international agencies.

‘We realize that diversity and inclusion do not speak to the entrenched racialized power imbalances that define those who receive aid and those who deliver aid’. 7. https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-international-development-has-a-race-problem-94840

A meaningful conversation about localisation, racism and decolonisation cannot take place without talking about the legacy of aid, power and privilege.

The legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism

Scholars such as Robtel Naejai Pailey argue that international development suffers from a ‘white gaze’ problem in which whiteness is considered as the standard category against which non-white people are judged. According to Pailey: ‘The white gaze of development is measuring black, brown and non-white people against the standard of northern whiteness, and taking their political, economic and social processes as a norm … Development uses that standard of northern whiteness to measure economic, political and social processes of people in the so-called global South’. 8. ‘A hard look in the mirror: reflecting on racism and whiteness in the development sector’, The Broker, 24 September 2020.

Ms. Saranel Benjamin, Head of Partnerships at Oxfam GB pointed out that ‘capacity, knowledge and resources coming from the North are seen to be superior. Capacity development, policy influencing and campaigning are often devoid of the context or the struggles of the global south. International development institutions have long been criticised for perpetuating the power dynamics of colonialism through their work. The challenges and inequity in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic has further pushed us to rethink solidarity’.

Being subjected to ‘white’ power and the ‘white gaze’ for a prolonged period affects the self-confidence and self-image of ‘underdeveloped’ people (and organisations). Ms Regina “Nanette” Salvador Antequisa, Executive Director of Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits Inc, Philippines, stressed that often local organisations have also been hindered by self-limiting beliefs, a legacy left by the colonial past and new international aid hegemony. Limited self-confidence means potential is under-used and valuable contributions are not made. The continued vulnerability of people in aid-recipient countries is a result of a colonial past of injustice, racism, discrimination and unsustainable development practices and structures. Colonial rule dismantled and damaged traditional and indigenous self-help community cooperation and damaged local culture and support systems contributing to present-day vulnerabilities. While the humanitarian system has become an important conduit for providing aid to crisis-affected people, it also perpetuates inequality, exploitation and injustice, as well as structural racism and discrimination, reflecting its colonial past. Insensitive aid (inappropriate food, clothing, shelter) can rob people of their dignity.

Racism remains a structural ingredient in the mindsets of aid-providing countries that see themselves as ‘developed’, and in the institutional practices that shape international aid and ‘development cooperation’. It ignores how that development was also enabled through colonial plunder and ongoing post-colonial resource extraction that shifts much more wealth to the West than it returns in terms of aid funding.

Pyles in her article emphasises that ‘Without acknowledging the historical and current socio-political context … disaster interventions may perpetuate the values and practices of neo-liberalism, colonialism and oppression without careful consideration and action’. 9. Loretta Pyles, ‘Decolonising disaster social work: environmental justice and community participation’, British Journal of Social Work, Volume 47, Issue 3, April 2017 (https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcw028).

This also applies to faith-based relief and development cooperation networks, which cannot ignore their mixed legacy of providing ‘modern’ education and health care, while in their missionary activities they also sought to convert colonial subjects to the ‘true’, i.e. superior, faith. The legacy of ‘white saviour’ attitudes means that faith-based organisations must live with the negative heritage of the colonial past, and this tension exists side by side with high values. However, an INGO staff member from a secular agency challenged that belief, stating that a lot of aid organisations are built on a Christian missionary past. On the other hand, faith-based organisations have been the first to commit to accountability and localisation agendas.  Whether real transformative progress will be made remains to be seen.

Colleagues from aid-recipient local and national organisations were very vocal about how the international aid system is deeply shaped by power dominance and privilege, yet the international actors within the aid system and the aid system itself are remarkably blind to it. This is a symptom of a profound moral confusion and loss of values. It can only be addressed by deep and critical reflection on whether an organisation’s existence is grounded or not in solidarity with the affected population, through genuine belief in shared humanity and respect for others and for the richness that diversity can bring.

Power and privilege

There have been lots of meetings, conferences, studies and articles on localisation, racism and decolonisation 10. See https://oxfamapps.org/fp2p/powershifts-resources-anti-racism-in-development-and-aid/ – this being one more. Yet despite these efforts, no structural change or transformative practice has been observed in the aid sector.

Talking about the relationships between INGOs and local organisations, a local NGO leader from East Africa stated that ‘The lack of mutual respect is a big issue. There is a master-servant relationship between INGOs and local partners’. Reflecting on the experiences of local organisations in Africa, but which are similar for many local organisations around the world, she felt power stems right from budget allocations, where local organisations are given very minimum funds to run a project and in many cases without the necessary equipment. Whoever has the resources sets the agenda, and international agencies have more power because they control more resources. Their decision will always be the final one. If local ‘partners’ question or criticise their international partners’ actions or decisions, they are labelled as ‘lacking capacity’, ‘corrupt’ or ‘lacking local legitimacy’, and other negative labels.  

She emphasised ‘the issue of lack of trust between the INGOs and national and local organisations.  Superior attitudes and behaviours are not limited to international staff. National staff of INGOs can also act as little gods to control rather than work together’. Robtel Naejai Pailey calls this ‘internalising the white gaze’, where elites from the global South behave in the same way as international staff, demonstrating superior and discriminatory behaviour towards their own people.

Ms Rumee Ferdous, Deputy Director for Gender Relation, Training and Community Radio at COAST Trust, Bangladesh, talked about her experience of working on gender issues.  She noted that ‘Some international partners are very good and others are rude, and treat local organisations as subordinate to them’. She shared that there is little openness to listening and appreciating the experience of local organisations and the local context. The actual need at the field level or the current community need is not centrally important for them. She emphasised that ‘Our aim is to be result oriented and effective and the impact should be long term, not just to spend the money and close the project, but we really do something for the community for their development for their capacity and local agency’s capacity. Sometimes the international organisations do not have faith in the local NGO and they directly implement’. There are some international aid organisations that work in fairly equitable partnerships – but they are very few.

Mr Sudhanshu Singh, Founder and CEO of Humanitarian Aid International, India, recalled his days working in international aid organisations. He said he only now understands the extent of discrimination he had faced in the system: ‘I faced discrimination because of my religion, skin colour or my nationality’. His European colleagues with far less experience got promoted and became his supervisors, due to donor preferences that have greater trust in Europeans in higher-level positions. He also recalls attending a meeting in Nepal with 100 participants, 80 Nepalese and 20 expatriate staff from international organisations. The whole conversation was conducted in English, and expatriate staff were talking about Nepal and problems of democracy and elections, while Nepalese people, who knew the environment very well, were mostly silent.

Ms Oenone Chandburn, Head of the Humanitarian & Resilience at Tearfund, also shared her experience and recognised her position of power and privilege. Her experience of being in a mixed-race marriage and parenting mixed-race children has given her another perspective and shaped her thinking. Reflecting on past trips she remembered sometimes being seriously embarrassed and appalled by the behaviour of her peers. Often, she would seek to correct a situation, but was left with a feeling of inadequacy because it was just a moment in time and did not address the structural issues. She became a first responder alongside friends and extended family in Asia when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit, before international responders arrived. There was a general sense that we can respond to our own communities and address needs for ourselves. Subsequently, she found herself briefing incoming international people telling them they have to be conflict sensitive when they go to the various locations and be aware of context and culture. She admits that ‘she was broken by this experience because they would say to me “oh there is a conflict in Sri Lanka? Oh, I never knew”’. She recognised that ‘there is a lot more to be done’.

A UN staff member working on anti-racism and discrimination reflected that ‘the process has immersed me in one of the most difficult and draining racial experiences of my life. Things that I had been actually unaware of came to the surface, my safety was challenged, the racial trauma that came up repeatedly from talking about my experiences and having to explain it to people and I’ve had to wrestle with the difficult dynamic of being black, but also American in a sector where wealthy, and mostly white Western countries hold disproportionate power’.

Nanette reiterated that ‘Aid in itself is a manifestation of inequality and imbalance of power. The current donors have gained more from centuries of exploitation of the world’s resources including those of their former colonies. We cannot deny that the former colonies have dependent thinking, although we see more and more action not only from civil society but government as well as aid recipient countries to assert local and national leadership. This is what drives our passion for localisation’.

The commitment to channel a larger share of international humanitarian funding to (not only through) local and national organisations is laudable. Tracking those flows is proving difficult. What we do not know, and do not track, is the recurrent cost of maintaining the expensive structures of a large number of international aid organisations.

Path forward

Decolonising aid can take many forms in action: from localised leadership in programmes on the ground to increased funding. But fundamentally, decolonisation means decision-making is in the hands of the people directly impacted by aid and development programs. Anti-racist work is about the urgent task of unpacking power dynamics that continue to limit the possibilities of collective well-being and social justice.

The commitment to localisation has been around for 25 years, but the general trend has been one of increased domination and subordination in the relationship between international and national/local organisations. The momentum built during the World Humanitarian Summit further catalysed more concrete commitments and action.

Nanette stressed that ‘To bring real change in the balance of power between the donor and recipient of aid and to effect social change that harnesses the potential of localisation and a participation revolution, requires also a decolonisation of aid and active mobilisation to counter structural racism and discrimination. This has to go deeper than policies and procedures can reach: it requires more critical self-examination and a change of mind-sets’. Local leaders hoped that some donors’ emphasis on community-based response approaches might lead to changes in practice and offer local actors better-quality funding to enable them to cover core costs and sustain programmes and capacity. Sudhanshu emphasised that ‘We must continue to speak up and raise our issues and continue to demand our space at the table in our own countries’.

International actors need to acknowledge their power and consider how they can work in complementarity with national and local actors and be more accountable for their commitments to global localisation, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and equity. Some INGOs are now scheduling annual partnership reviews and invite feedback from their partners. Saranel observed, ‘What is clear is that there is a long way to go, and it will take time, we have just scratched the surface. We must interrogate our own internal structures, recruitment practices, pay scales, attitudes and behaviours and we need to make sure the people of colour are leading the process, they need to be supported and resourced. We need a lot more open and honest discussions of this kind’.

Oenone emphasised that ‘we must come from a place of genuine listening and choose the right language and reinvent the business model and restore the quality of the collaborative relationship – justice is key’. A Former UN staff member noted that we should ‘Allow people to get real and raw about what they’ve experienced. Allow them to tell the world just how angry they are about racial injustice’. 

Donor administrations must also reflect more deeply on their motivation and how they provide aid and listen to local and national actors.  They must provide opportunities for local organisations to feedback directly to them, rather than via intermediary partners.

Anne Ikiara, a development practitioner from Kenya questions whether the racism discourse is becoming hollow and asks, ‘Are those shouting the loudest coming with clean hands? Have they held up the mirror reflected on their own behaviour?’ Practicing what we preach is important if we are to show up authentically and to make real progress towards decolonisation, localisation and anti-racism. We all need to be aware of our blind spots, for people of all colours and creeds can be blinded by the white gaze. Robtel Pailey points out that ‘Global south-north binaries are not fixed. Even within the south or north, there are hierarchies. Another way of de-centering the white gaze is looking for the south in the north, and the north in the south’. 11. Robtel Pailey, ‘How to tackle “internal colonization” in the global South?’ (https://oxfamapps.org/fp2p/does-development-have-a-problem-with-racism/).

Deeper listening and dialogue is necessary to open our minds and hearts, and the will to first acknowledge and then to act on the power dynamics. Pailey stresses that ‘Diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) hiring protocols and guidelines are not enough … Hiring practices have to be about rupture. We need to be looking for the people who are not interested in maintaining the status quo but turning the sector on its head. These individuals exist, but many others have a stake in maintaining the status quo’. 12. Robtel Neajai Pailey, ‘Does development have a problem with racism?’, 16 June 2020 (https://oxfamapps.org/fp2p/does-development-have-a-problem-with-racism/). If we acknowledge our blind spots, positive change is possible. To be truly anti-racist means we must interrogate all structures and systems that underpin white supremacy and work towards dismantling these. It is more than diversity and inclusion. Long-lasting change takes time and effort. It is disruptive and uncomfortable and frightening to many, especially at a time when the threat to the global economy looms large with the pandemic. 

Ijeoma Oluo makes a liberating observation: ‘The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward’. 13. Corinne Gray, ‘Doing good and being racist’, 15 June 2020 (https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2020/06/15/United-Nations-racism-black-lives-matter).

Over the last year, the Global Mentoring Initiative, in collaboration with a number of professionals from the aid sector, has been hosting a dialogue ‘Bridging the Divide’ with a diverse group of participants from donor administrations, diplomatic divisions and international, national and local organisations on inequity in the aid sector. Through self-reflection and listening exercises we have been exploring how to bridge the divide. What is clear is that we all need to be an active part of the solution; passivity makes us part of the problem.

Smruti Patel is the Co-Director of the Global Mentoring Initiative and a member of the Alliance for Empowering Partnership


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