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The decolonisation of aid #1: Historical perspective

Dr. Arua Oko Omaka, historian at Alex Ekwueme Federal University, holds up an iconic black-and-white picture of a poor and hungry child suffering the consequences of the Biafran war. Omaka is the first keynote speaker for an online dialogue on the decolonization of aid. For him, the picture he is showing his audience clearly symbolises the two sides of humanitarianism: For decades, similar images, of people suffering in the most dire circumstances, have been calling upon our shared sense of humanity, demanding from the privileged to help those who are less fortunate. At the same time however, pictures like this – which continue to drive humanitarianism and are still used to mobilise funding for this cause – also make many, and especially those working in today’s humanitarian and development sectors, uncomfortable. Despite its inherent ‘goodness’ humanitarianism, and the mechanisms that underpin it, are tarnished.

28 mei 2021

Organised by Kuno, Partos and the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS), the first webinar in a series on ‘The Decolonisation of aid’ takes a historical perspective. Hosted by Dorothea Hilhorst, professor of Humanitarian studies at ISS, and Kiza Magendane, writer and knowledge broker at The Broker, this first session is part of the journey towards a better understanding of the ongoing debate on the decolonisation of the international aid system, exploring the controversies and finding common ground. Taking a historical perspective in this first seminar is vitally important, Thea Hilhorst underlined. “It can help humanitarian and development professionals better understand current beliefs and practices and critically reflect on those aspects that need rethinking.” Bertrand Taithe, professor of cultural history at The University of Manchester, and the second keynote speaker in this session shared this view. History, Taithe argued, helps us see the inherent complexities and contradictions within the humanitarian project. Not only does it enable us to take a critical look at the past, it also presents us with a mirror. And it is with this idea in mind, that exploring the historical roots of the humanitarian project will help us understand and critically reflect upon today’s humanitarianism, that this first session in the ‘Decolonisation of Aid’ series begins.

The article you have before you is a brief reflection of the first online dialogue in the series on ‘The Decolonisation of aid’. For the sake of brevity and clarity, it is not possible to include the entire wealth of the questions and nuanced reflections that characterised this first session. Rather, the following narrative presents the core message of the presentations by Arua Oko Omaka and Bertrand Taithe as well as the key takeaways of the conversation that followed.

The colonial roots of humanitarianism

When seeking out the beginnings of present-day global humanitarianism, it soon becomes apparent that its roots can be traced back to the colonial project and the abolishment of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As Oko Omaka explained in his presentation, many Europeans in the 19th century held the belief that they had to ‘liberate’ or ‘save’ the African continent. Its inhabitants were thought ‘savages’ that needed help developing and civilising. And who better to take this lofty mission upon themselves than those who spread the word of God? Thus, in tandem with the conquest of Africa, missionaries and church groups became the first to champion the cause of humanitarian activities, including the provision of Western education, medicine and Christianity.

By referring to Kipling’s famous poem  ‘The White man’s burden’, professor Taithe subscribes to Dr. Oko Omaka’s analysis. They both explained that The European colonial project and humanitarian interventions became intertwined at various levels. Humanitarian logic was (mis)used as a ground for the conquest of Africa; the infrastructure used in humanitarian missions were often first established for colonial purposes – as was the case for the humanitarian intervention during Nigeria’s Biafra war, and the colonial rule and an explicitly humanitarian message could, and often did, go hand in hand, resulting in a lasting overlap between the language of colonialism with the language of aid.

Given the complex interlinkages that have begun from the very conception of the two projects, it is a highly challenging undertaking to disentangle the colonial elements from the inherently good facets of humanitarianism – or, in other words, to ‘decolonise aid’. Doing so is a difficult endeavour for all sides, as it confronts us with our painful pasts and, especially, the ways in which we are the products of our histories.

Authors of this article: Yannicke Goris and Kiza Magendane from The Broker

  • Yannicke is managing knowledge broker, specialised in the field of civic action and social movements.
  • Kiza Magendane is knowledge broker with special interest in African politics, migration & identity.