Decolonizing aid sounds good. History says it won’t happen.

by Sasha Alyson

A recent story on Medium caught my eye:

Six Actionable Steps Towards Decolonizing International Development,
by Matthew Breman(1)

Breman has worked in international development 25 years, and clearly has given this issue much thought. If implemented, his six steps would indeed be a step forward.

But they depend on the development industry wanting to decolonise, and willingly handing over the reins. We can find individual exceptions (mostly small), but where is there any evidence of such a willingness on the part of the big players?

Here’s a summary of what he proposes, with my comments. His words are in boldface:

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.

Good idea. Motivated local people will get far more results, from the same funding, than the INGOs that usually get this funding. We can all point to examples.

But it’s been proposed before. “Empowerment” has been a favorite aid word for decades. Why isn’t it happening?

2. Compensate young people and local actors for their knowledge and expertise and eliminate “voluntary contributions” many projects demand.

This perhaps could be done on a small scale, without threatening the existence of the large INGOs. It already happens in some cases.

But let’s think through the consequences. It means that local people who are already active will start drawing significant income through INGOs. Inevitably, I think an awareness of what the INGOs and funders want will begin to influence their actions and decisions.

Reparations are due. But having INGOs decide who will get money just keeps decision-making in the wrong hands.

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….

Agreed, it would be far better for INGOs to wait until their advice or assistance is requested. They’ll never consent to that. They know quite well that (except if they’re also giving out money or goods) often it will not be wanted. They must be able to tell donors that they play an indispensable role.

….Individually, I urge my colleagues to proactively participate in uncomfortable community-led conversations about our role, which may lessen and eventually end over time.

Your colleagues will be open to having a different role – something interesting, please! with a lot of travel – but they aren’t interested in a conversation about ending their role. Even those who would be open to it (such as those approaching retirement) are surrounded by colleagues and a social circle whose incomes depend on aid. They’d be traitors if they started scheming about ending it – and they’d be treated as traitors. Ask any whistleblower.

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.

This is another good idea but also a non-starter. INGOs do not want a high profile for independent local leaders. First, because while not much funding will shift over (local people won’t have the contacts, and won’t know how to package themselves to appeal to most funders, who often aren’t looking for results anyway), some funding might shift, and that’s to be avoided. Second, that kind of visibility would cast doubt on whether the INGO is needed. INGOs depend on a perception that the people they help can’t do anything by themselves.

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.

I wrote a story a year ago about UNICEF’s tendency to hire Western photographers for their reports about non-Western countries. I had assumed the preference for hiring Westerners was partly from clubbiness; and partly from assuming Westerners could do better work. A number of readers pointed out what they felt was the biggest reason: A local photographers want to portray their country at its best; UNICEF wants to portray it as needy. Western photographers understand the message their work needs to convey.

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.

They’ll be happy to. In fact, they may pull out one they’ve already done, update it where needed, and present it as new.

Jessica Alexander at The New Humanitarian recently ran a timeline of purported efforts to increase accountability in the aid world.(2) There were (among others) the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International of 2003, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005), the Accra Agenda for Action (2008), the IASC Transformative Agenda (2012). This year Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, launched the new Independent Commission for Voices in Crises, just before he left office, which means it will be up to a successor to do the harder work of trying to make it achieve something.

Had these achieved what they were supposed to, then Breman’s suggestions would all be commonplace today. These same organizations will be happy to, once again, say the right things. They just aren’t going to give up any control.

6. Shine a light on ways INGOs are successfully shifting power dynamics in international development, and addressing anti-racism.

We can always find someone doing the right thing. Or, if we prefer, we can find someone doing the wrong thing. We need instead to look at the big picture and the overall trends.

Not “Did somebody do a workshop about racism?” Rather, “What have UN agencies and INGOs done – already – to ensure that the supposed beneficiaries of aid have more control in deciding how it is used?”

I think we come up pretty empty-handed.

What’s the answer?

Here’s another way: Give the money directly to the people who are supposed to benefit. Let them make the decisions. This is called cash transfers, and I’ve explored it in several stories.

Several questions immediately arise. Will they just spend in on beer? No. Many studies have found that little is spent on what is called “temptation goods.” (Go to a massage parlor in a city with a lot of aid workers, and tell me if the same can be said of where today’s aid funds ultimately end up.) How will we get it to them? That depends on circumstances. It will be easier where electronic banking is widespread and reliable, but cash transfers have been done without that, quite successfully.

And further, let’s not call it aid. The West owes reparations to countries it once colonized and looted; let’s call it that. Furthermore, this establishes that it’s entirely up to the recipients, not the donors, to decide how to spend it. If they want to spend it on beer, that’s their right, but the evidence still says they won’t.

Matthew Breman made some thoughtful suggestions. But they only work if the self-serving nature of aid is just bad luck, rather than being the main reason that aid exists. If we look beyond the feel-good rhetoric, history shows that the primary purpose of aid is to benefit the donors. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

Notes and Sources

Top art: Eva Blue, Upsplash; modified.

1. Six Actionable Steps Towards Decolonizing International Development, by Matthew Breman.

2. Then and Now: 25 years of aid accountability, by Jessica Alexander, The New Humanitarian.

Related stories