Do donors know how aid is perceived at the other end?

by Sasha Alyson

Is most foreign aid and charity rooted in assumptions of racial superiority?

It depends who — and where — you ask. But a lot of people think so. Here’s the final tally of our recent Twitter poll:

We’d expect that many followers of our Twitter account, which looks at the harmful effects of aid, would vote Yes. But we promoted the poll widely, and it was often retweeted; only about 20% of these votes came from people who follow us at @k_colonialism.

To get an even broader sample, and to break down results by location, we followed up with a private poll (tweeted only as a promotion, which we could thus target by area.) Here are the results:

A Twitter poll is not a random sampling of the population. But it seems clear that attitudes vary enormously depending whether you live in the global South – and see aid projects in action – or in the North – where U.N. agencies and NGOs feed stories to the media, which in turn shapes opinions about aid.

In short, it appears that all the aid activity which the West believes is winning hearts and minds in developing regions, may actually be generating resentment. And they don’t know it.

How did I vote?

The big picture, shown by tens of thousands of votes, tells more than one opinion. But many people, in their comments, assumed that I would answer Yes, so I’ll elaborate.

I didn’t vote, but I would probably have answered No. The aid industry is driven by many motivations, often simultaneously: A desire to control, a desire to benefit, a desire to feel (and appear) helpful… along with feelings of paternalism, cultural and religious superiority.

And, yes, unspoken attitudes of racial superiority are surely present. But to say aid is “rooted” in this seems to me an over-statement. I think other motivations dominate. However, having read the responses from those who see it at work, day-to-day, perhaps I ought to reconsider.

Do donors know?

If you look at the replies to our original poll (all regions), you’ll find many people in the West, often with liberal affiliations, who are indignant that I question the motivations of aid. They appear to have no idea of how this aid is viewed by recipients.

Likewise, in the U.S., U.K., and other regions of the West, most white citizens did not understand the extent of police violence against people of color in their country. That changed only because a small number of committed activists, helped by those suddenly-ubiquitous cellphone cameras, pushed the issue. This hasn’t stopped police violence, but it has started a necessary debate.

If we want to end karma colonialism, we’ll need to find ways to follow that example. All of us who see the harm can look for opportunities to speak out, to document it with stories, with first-person accounts, with photos when possible, until it’s impossible for the aid industry to keep saying, with any credibility, “We’re only trying to help.”


Details of the poll, and further reading

Twitter allows “promoted-only” tweets which, instead of being sent to one’s followers, can be sent as a paid promotion to groups and regions selected by the user. We ran this poll over a 2-day period, 25-27 January 2021, in the regions indicated. We used an varied assortment of 51 keywords and categories, trying to get a diverse group of people who had an interest in politics, development, and foreign affairs. Where one country has a particularly large population (Nigeria, India, Brazil, the USA) we had the poll sent to that country for only part of the overall time period, so that it would not dominate results.

There are many limitations to a poll done via Twitter, but it does seem suitable for comparing attitudes in different regions. We should not draw any broad conclusions about how the population at large would answer this question, based on this poll, nor can I find that anyone has conducted such a survey. However, many people have written about racial discrimination within aid organizations. These two stories are worth reading:
Bearing witness inside MSF. Arnab Majumdar writes of his experiences within Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and the distinctions that MSF, like most large NGOs, makes between international (mostly Western) versus local staff.
“Grassroots means no brains.” Racism is at play “when only 1% of humanitarian relief funds reach national or local organisations responding to earthquakes in Haiti or in Nepal, or fighting Ebola in west Africa,” write Rashida Petersen and Jennifer Lentfer in the Guardian, as they look at the many mechanisms that keep control in foreign hands.

Comments from Twitter

The poll drew hundreds of comments. To see a selection, please click here.

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