What can we do about it?

by Sasha Alyson

Karma Colonialism: The process by which international aid, while claiming to help countries develop, actually benefits the donors while harming countries that get it.

Will you join us to stop karma colonialism?

The global elite have far too much power, but the rest of us aren’t helpless – unless we choose to be. Here are some suggestions about what we can do. The first two are easy.

Express yourself on social media.

That can be as simple as clicking Like, retweeting, or re-posting. If you’ve read a story that you believe is important, think about ways to share it — adding a few words of your own about why this is important. Comment and reply, when you can. That will get far more attention than one more Like.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Social media will not bring about big changes – that will take work, risk-taking, and long-term commitment. But it can help to lay the groundwork.

Talk with others.

Make a list of five people that you think are affected by karma colonialism. This could include family members, friends, work or school colleagues, people you socialize with, even people you barely know, but with whom you share an interest. If your children attend a failing school, other parents are surely concerned about that too.

If you know people who work in the aid industry, should you include them on your list? Keep in mind Upton Sinclair’s observation: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Yet within the aid industry, many people – albeit a minority – have growing doubts about what they’re doing. A firm push may inspire them to think about it more deeply.

Then, look for an opportunity to raise the subject. You could re-read a story on this site that you think is especially important, so you have a couple of points fresh in mind.

There are many ways to start such a conversation. For example: “I recently read about ____. What do you think?”

In all your communications, oral or written, you’ve got a choice of being more subtle, or more blunt. If you see colonial or racist attitudes, should you say so directly? Is it better to merely hint? Lay out the facts and let the listener decide?

Contribute to Wikipedia.

Perspectives from the global South are greatly under-represented on the world’s biggest encyclopedia. Why not become a contributor? Here are tips to get started: Wikipedia needs more voices.

Form a group.

You can take action by yourself, but if you find just a few people who share your concerns, that’s enough to make a group which can offer encouragement and support to one another. You can do this whether you live in the global South, or North.

Before you call for a meeting, give some thought to what will make it successful. People go to their house of worship for the obvious spiritual reasons, but in most cases, they go for social fulfillment as well. An organization is likely to be more successful if it keeps that in mind. Meetings could include a short presentation (perhaps an outside speaker); some time to plan, or actually do, activities that will help toward your goals (such as those suggested below); and also a social element, an opportunity for members to get better acquainted.

This could be simply an ad-hoc group, but if you have a name, and create a presence on social media, and by providing speakers for clubs and at events, you’ll have more influence and credibility.

Write letters.

Karma colonialism is largely carried out by people who feel good about their job. They try not to think about the negative impacts of their work. These downsides may seem obvious if you’re on the receiving end, but willful blindness can be strong. Imagine how they’ll feel if they get a letter explaining why you believe this is just a new form of colonialism. A single letter, from someone affected, makes it hard for that willful blindness to continue. As few as three or four letters could make it impossible.

Who should you write to? Consider several possibilities:

The aid organizations. You’ve got a good chance of connecting to a real person, at the head offices of smaller organizations. The big ones, such as U.N. agencies, World Vision, and Save the Children, will have a protective bureaucracy that’s hard to break through – although if you manage, it could make a big difference. You can write to their local offices as well as their foreign headquarters.

The donors. People, organizations, and businesses have many motivations when they donate for aid projects. They may truly want to help; or they want a quick feel-good; or they are burnishing their image; or perhaps a combination of all three. A letter explaining how their aid project hurt you, and asking “Why won’t you let us develop our own country?” will force them to rethink the first two motives. If you back it up with public statements, they’ll also re-think whether this is good for their image.

The media. Aid groups spoon-feed stories to the media, guiding reporters to handpicked sources and a feel-good photo op. Even the top media often lack the funding to dig deeper, and may not even know that they should. A letter pointing out what they missed, after a misleading story appears, may not lead to a correction, but it will encourage reporters to be more careful in the future.

Public officials. Some of us live in countries where public officials must pay at least a little attention to what their constituencies say. Some of us do not. You know which one you’re in.

Write once, send it many times. Invest time getting a strong letter that conveys the problem, and what you’d like the recipient to do. Then it won’t take much longer to send it to many people (perhaps with some personalizations). If you’re trying to get the attention of an organization or corporation, send a letter individually to each person on the board.

Paper is more effective than email. It stands out because it’s rare; and it doesn’t disappear so easily. Email is much better than nothing.

Meet with decision-makers.

Ask a local newspaper or radio station if you can meet with the editorial staff about how aid-industry issues are covered. Before you go, think about what points to make. Have they done stories you can compliment? Other stories where they bought the industry line too readily? What stories can you suggest? How are aid projects hurting your community, in ways that they may wish to cover? You’ll get farther if you have facts that will be of interest. For example, does Save the Children do work in your area? It has deceived donors, and communities where it works, about its track record. (See Save the Children tells donors half the story.) That’s an important story that the media ought to cover.

We’ve published several stories showing how U.N. agencies and large NGOs are making education worse in developing regions. (See Schooling and education are two different things.) Most education officials want better schools; they also like the various perks and payments they get from aid organizations. Would they be open to talking with you about this?

What about the aid offices in your town? Generally, they get funds and overall direction from abroad, but their staff – both local and foreign – may be open to hearing your concerns. Even if you don’t change their plans, you can plant some seeds.

Tell others about what you’ve done.

Have you made some progress? This doesn’t need to be a major change; those usually happen as a result of many small successes. If you’ve formed a small group, and met with someone in a position of influence who truly listened to you, you’ve helped shift things in the write direction. Don’t keep it a secret!

We invite you to write a story for this website (see our Submission guidelines). Post about it on social media. You will encourage others.

Add to this list.

Some of these suggestions probably won’t work in your circumstances. You may have other ideas that are better. Please add your comments below. This is only the start.