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Series of dialogues: the decolonisation of aid

Partos, KUNO and The Institute of Social Studies (ISS) presented a series of dialogues on the decolonisation of aid. We approached this matter in a series of talks. Step by step, we highlighted an aspect of this debate. Every session, we asked experts to engage in a conversation with one another to explore the controversies and perhaps find some common grounds.

True decolonisation

Over the past years, the ideal of true decolonisation of aid has been given increasing attention throughout and beyond the humanitarian and development sectors. To foster an open dialogue and contribute to this endeavour, Partos, KUNO and the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) initiated a series of online sessions. In the discussions, decolonisation of aid has been treated as something good, as a moral obligation of the sector. The various sessions served to make this moral dimension of the undertaking more explicit and discuss the ethical frameworks and principles that can guide the journey towards true decolonisation.

“Systems and institutions don’t change because it’s the right thing to do. [They] change because there is a viable alternative model that they can change into.” – Aarathi Krishnan

To affect change, what is needed is for us to make explicit and penetrate the roots of these patterns; roots that go back into our colonial past. It is for this reason, explained, that we initiated this series: To facilitate an open dialogue to understand how our colonial past still affects us, our mindsets and our relationships. This understanding is a vital precondition for realising effective change.

Some of the lessons

  • Given the complex interlinkages between our colonial past and the humanitarian and development sectors from the very conception of these two projects, it is a highly challenging and risky undertaking to disentangle them. In this exercise, we run the risk of losing all that is good within our humanitarian and development work. We should not throw away the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
  • True decolonisation means we should not understand ‘the West’ as the epicentre of humanitarianism. ‘Shifting the power’ and transforming our sector into a more equitable one, implies that we change our perspective and make sure that the views and voices of the global South define our agendas. “Listen to and follow the lead of local communities”.
  • Colonialism has resulted in various levels of power and disempowerment that still define the development system; not only in the relations between countries in the Global North and Global South but also within countries of the Global South. Organisations that operate within, are shaped by and perpetuate the colonial system, which makes the transformation of this system all the more difficult. However, making explicit existing power imbalances and taking action to change them should be the core business of development organisations.
  • Decolonisation will only be meaningful if it is also extended to our funding mechanisms and resources allocation. The resources for humanitarian and development interventions are not our own. It is this perception that keeps the Northern organisations and donors in positions of power. This funding does not belong to us, is not ours to give away. Resources for humanitarian and development cooperation are a public good with a social purpose.
  • Transforming the humanitarian and development system demands a critical reflection on all our behaviours, relationships and assumptions underpinning our actions. One such assumption, whether it is held on a conscious or subconscious level, is the idea that ‘we’ (i.e. actors of the global North) know what is better for the recovery and/or development of other (i.e. communities in the global South). Decolonisation means letting go entirely of the paternalism that is central to and still defines our current modes of working and organisation.

The recaps of the various sessions

The perspectives we addressed in the series of dialogues were:

Speakers that contributed 

  • Arua Oko Omaka, fellow at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Nigeria.
  • Bertrand Taithe, professor History of Humanitarian Aid Manchester University.
  • Lydia Zigomo, global Programmes Director at Oxfam International.
  • Tulika Srivastava, director Women’s Fund Asia.
  • Tammam Aloudat, senior Strategic Advisor, MSF Access Campaign.
  • Nanette Antequisa, director ECOWEB and active member of A4EP.
  • Aarathi Krishnan, strategic Foresight Advisor at UNDP.
  • Dr Hugo Slim, senior Research Fellow at University of Oxford.
  • Dirk-Jan Koch, professor Trade & Aid, Radboud University
  • Smutri Patel, director Global Mentoring Initiative

The set-up of the series

The conversations were in the format of webinars (ZOOM). Participants in the webinar could participate via the chat and Q&A box. In the second half of the conversation, a selection of the comments and questions were discussed by the speakers. The audience consisted of the constituencies of KUNO, Partos, ISS and our partner organisations: humanitarian professionals (practitioners, policymakers, academics) and development workers. The members of KUNO and Partos are Dutch NGOs, but we certainly invited people from all over the world to participate.

Partners

KUNO, the Platform for Humanitarian Knowledge exchange in the Netherlands, facilitates training, public debate and refection. KUNO is supported by 11 humanitarian NGOs, 7 knowledge institutes and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands.

Institute of Social Studies: Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of Humanitarian Aid at the Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam), and chair of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA).

All dialogues in this series were moderated by Kiza Magendane, The Broker, knowledge broker, essayist and writer, and Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor Humanitarian Aid at the International Institute of Social Studies.