August 10, 2021

Why The Development Sector Needs A Reckoning

Decolonising The Humanitarian Sector and Why The Development Sector Needs A Reckoning by Amjad Mohamed Saleem 

Exactly one year, as a result of the horrific murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests, the humanitarian and development sector has also paused to reflect on the ugly truth that there is still not a level playing field in the world we live in, and that power and privilege has as much to do with wealth and nationality as it has to do with the colour of one’s skin.  

Yet whilst there have been attempts by the sector to address this from the more tokenistic to more deep rooted organisational cultural change perspectives, there has been one topic which seems to be not high on the agenda and that is a change in the whole system in place that the sector subscribes to, live in and work with, which  are oppressive to people who are Black, Indigenous or a Person of Colour (BIPOC) and from what is called the Global South, itself a disputed term. Anecdotes recorded from the humanitarian and development sector point out that there are overt experiences of racial discrimination, everyday micro-aggressions and unsafe workplace cultures. There are stories about how the dominant policies, practices and cultures have marginalised people of colour and minorities.  

Whilst there has been much made of the ‘localisation’ agenda, pushing for more agency from local actors, to become primary implementers and decision makers, there has been little open discussion of the ways, the power system and the heritage of the humanitarian aid, development and peace-building sector that impact the modern-day approach to projects and local actors. Thus much is focused on reforming the process to get support to local partners within the existing framework without interrogating whether the system itself needs a significant rehaul from its conceptual basis.  

To focus on the existing system is to disregard the lingering remnants of colonialism visible in aid flows, through humanitarian systems shaped exclusively by Western / Christian values seeking to change the social, political and economic structures of countries in the Global South with little input from affected communities. For many multilateral and international organisations, it has been convenient to focus on discussions of racism and discriminations as opposed to looking at the deeper systemic problem of asymmetric power that comes for a pedagogy that the brown and black subjects are not ready to take control of their destiny.

To focus on tinkering within the existing system is to forget that the global aid industry is the grandchild of the colonial missionaries and is a result of the hangover of colonialism.

This colonial legacy has been reformed in the systems and structures that ‘civilising missions’ and humanitarian agencies from the colonial powers still perpetuate. Much of contemporary laws, policies and actions instituted in and by humanitarian and development organisations often re-enforce the colonial power dynamics of people and institutions from the global North systemically oppressing and exercising domination over those from the global South. It is these legacies influencing humanitarian assistance and development activities that affected people often feel that the services provided for them are not programmed with them, with their input and according to their needs. It is these legacies that influence how affected people are treated and described essentialising a level of dependency and a lack of agency to them: ‘vulnerable’, ‘powerless’, ‘helpless’, ‘disempowered’, or ‘victim’.  

Thus we have to change the paradigm of the conversation. We have to start from the decolonial perspective. However, to start with, it is important to note that the co-option of racism, diversity and inclusion, social justice and social good, does not equate with a conversation on decolonisation. We need to understand the narrative of decolonisation, colonial, localisation and the intersection with diversity, equality, and inclusion. Yet they are not the same! Decolonisation debates did not start in 2020 but started when people in the global south began organising to counter the ideologies of the oppressors who sought to enforce power and seize land. It is about coming up with a new ‘paradigm’ of thinking and approach that interrogates the localisation agenda, provides agency to the ‘local’, that has a pedagogy of liberation and freedom that works in partnership with the affected community.   It is about disrupting the system and upending the structure according to and with local voices, cultures and traditions. It is about taking the risk and having the right actors at the table, to hear their voices. This is where the thinking and  discussion on decolonisation within the humanitarian and development sector has to start and be explored.

Crucial to this conversation within the humanitarian sector is the need to decolonise Eurocentric knowledge systems and their role in challenging the enduring effects of colonialism and power (and racism).

Breaking the ‘white gaze’ in international development and humanitarian action involves questioning whose expertise we value, who we listen to, who holds the levers of power and who gets a vote.

It also requires dismantling the ways we construct the communities we work in as “other”, i.e. places overseas with problems and needs, rather than places where solutions are generated and capabilities are in place. Most importantly, it involves transforming power structures so that those holding a seat of power start to look more like the communities where the work is taking place. We need to decolonise humanitarian and development aid by active engagement and leadership of people most affected by racism and colonialist attitudes in the debate towards the future vision of humanitarianism. We need to democratise humanitarianism by creating the fora and tools that allow the widest engagement of all humanitarian workers, mainly national staff in the project areas, in informing and guiding decisions.  We also need to realise the inherent complexities and contradictions of humanitarianism which also has at its centre showing solidarity with the other. So a challenge remains in how we balance the two.

This is where there are opportunities provided by the coronavirus pandemic, where the lockdowns and restrictions of movement have exposed the fallacies of the current system and the unsustainability of the aid relationship. It has provided a blueprint for true local, decolonised action where locals have agency and power to act according to their local challenges. What is needed is the financial resources to back that up. In providing that blueprint, a space can be provided for an equity-based understanding of humanitarian action which advocates for ‘adapting humanitarian work to each individual’s needs and background [to ensure] those affected are being treated equitably’. This means understanding that manifestations of oppression, such as racism, are rooted in power hierarchies that often do not operate alone. They intersect with gender, religion, socio-economic status, geography, sexual orientation, and numerous other social markers, creating layers of oppression that are inextricably intertwined. Thus, addressing one facet of inequity is not enough. Effective action requires an intersectional, operationally rooted approach to humanitarian action.

This is ultimately at the heart of a decolonised approach to disrupting the system of humanitarian and development aid. We need to do better; we need to be better, not because it is the good thing to do, but the right thing to do, to treat people with dignity, respect and humanity.  This is our moral responsibility.

Written by: Amjad Mohamed Saleem 

Twitter: @amjadmsaleem

About the author:

Amjad is a humanitarian and development practitioner with extensive knowledge on peace building, humanitarian affairs and development work.  Over the past few years he has started to focus his work on decolonisation, racism and DEI.   He has a particular interest in interfaith engagement and a focus on South Asia. 

Amjad sits on the board of  the Joint Learning Initiative for Faith and Communities, a board member of the Geneva Peace-building Platform and a trustee of Edu Spots (an education charity in Ghana that focuses on decolonised education). He was a thematic advisor for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2015, the vice chair for the NEAR Network and civil society advisor to the Commonwealth Foundation. He is a regular contributor to Fair Observer and Global Order, an alumni of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, an alumni of the US State Dept  International Visitors Leadership Program, a senior Fellow of the Global Peace Institute and a Hive Global Leaders Fellow.  He has published in a number of journals, chapters in several books and edited a book in 2008 entitled "Lessons from Aceh''.  Amjad has an M.Eng from Imperial College, London, an MBA from U21 Global Singapore and a PhD from Exeter University.