Heterotopias: On the decolonization of aid

Blog post #7, 20 December 2021

In my previous post, I talked about the colonial overtones of the development aid system. I am not the only one talking about that. Though the issue is by no means new, recent years have seen a surge of interest in it, and a host of initiatives have been launched to rectify the problem. What do these initiatives propose, what do they do, and will they make a difference?

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first category of initiatives attempts to reform the aid system from within. The main goal is to achieve a more equitable balance between Southern and Northern development actors. Initiatives in this category are numerous. It may even be true that most development organizations are working on this in one way or another. Larger projects trying to bring together these efforts include Time to Decolonise Aid by PeaceDirect and Re-Imagining the International NGO (INGO) – RINGO for short.

These initiatives propose to go a step further than the Grand Bargain of 2016, when humanitarian aid donors agreed to open their funding schemes up to Southern organizations. Although the Grand Bargain marked an important shift in the thinking about aid, in practice, it proved difficult for Southern organizations to gain direct access to such funds because of cumbersome criteria for proposal writing and project accounting.

Newer initiatives like RINGO strive to reform the hierarchical nature of the aid system and to find ways of putting local people in the driving seat of their own development. They emphasize that local expertise of Southern actors needs to be better valued. North-South collaborations should no longer be based on a top-down model wherein projects devised in the North are implemented by Southern ‘partners’. Instead, North-South development partnerships should be equal and reciprocal. They should also be complementary, with each partner bringing its own knowledge and networks to the table. Funding frameworks should be co-created: Northern actors need to involve Southern actors from the outset in jointly defining problems and suggesting solutions.

In this view, partnerships ought to move from being ‘transactional’ (based on delivering results and getting the best value for money), to being ‘relational’ (based on listening to each other and accompanying each other on a journey). There should be less focus on quick results and measurable outcomes, such as the number of trainings offered, or wells built – a practice referred to by some as ‘counting chickens’. Instead, the focus ought to be on the long-term process of societal transformation. The administrative burden for Southern organizations should be reduced: instead of forcing them to account for each ‘chicken’, donors should have more faith that they know what they are doing.

Whereas development funds are now often tied to a specific project or goals, ideally, they should be granted on the basis of trust and solidarity, helping recipient organizations to realize their goals. When things on the grounds change, these goals may be altered, requiring flexibility on the part of donors. Since development funding is currently organized to avoid risk as much as possible, this would also entail an attitude shift. 

In short, the first category of initiatives advocates a reorientation of the aid system towards the empowerment of actors in the South. Interestingly, it is pointed out that this may mean that INGOs in the global North will scale down and become smaller, allowing for their Southern colleagues to take the lead. 

You have probably noted the regular use of “should” and “needs to” in the description of these efforts to decolonize aid. Indeed, for the most part, these ideas are not yet being implemented. There is certainly willingness by all parties involved, but they see various institutional obstacles to achieving the desired change, including risk aversion, a reluctance to let go of decision-making power, and entrenched accountability practices. (For similar reasons, in peacebuilding, what academics call the “local turn” has yet to translate into meaningful changes for peacebuilding missions.) Northern aid workers have commented that “we are prisoners of our own making” and that “we are all trapped in this institutional monster”. Nevertheless, on a small scale, organizations are putting these ideas into practice. An organization such as Saferworld has found ways, for example, to make monitoring and evaluation a locally-driven endeavour. Another interesting innovation is the practice of offering cash assistance to communities, leaving it to them to decide how the money is spent. 

second category of initiatives still focuses on the aid system, but is more radical, pleading for a complete overhaul of the way development aid works. Initiatives in that category include Disrupt Development and Conducive Space for Peace. These actors view the existing development and peacebuilding structures as part of the problem, as inherently colonial, and as obstacles for change. For them, changing or ‘disrupting’ the system is an end in itself. In addition, initiatives in this second category seek alternative ways of achieving development and peacebuilding goals – outside of the aid system. For example, Southern organizations may look for alternative sources of funding, such as the local private sector, or reorganize themselves as social enterprises. In addition, transnational networks of activists are seen as a means to achieve global change without there necessarily being financial relations among the participants. Such networks are, of course, not new, but receive increasing recognition as a model for development and peacebuilding. 

Third, and finally, there are those who focus not on the development sector, but on more structural obstacles to progress, such as unfair international trade rules and the adverse effects of counterterrorism measures on civic space. If aid functions as a bandage to stop the bleeding caused by such structural issues, in some ways it may even be complicit in their maintenance. This is even more so when aid is used to promote Northern exports, stop refugee flows, or fight terrorism. Development aid thus operates within, and perpetuates, a broader colonial system. For that reason, it is argued that efforts at decolonization need to look beyond the aid sector towards activism for global justice, whether it aims to change trade rules, regulate arms trade, achieve a more human treatment of migrants, or draw attention to the effects of anti-terrorism measures on civic organizations and human rights.   

What can we conclude from all this? Decolonization of development is firmly on the agenda, but real change has not yet been achieved – at least not beyond a small scale. Most initiatives take place within the aid system, which is proving difficult to change. More radical initiatives, attempting either to overhaul the aid sector altogether or to change the bigger picture of which aid is a part, have so far received less attention, but are gaining traction. What remains to be seen is whether we Northerners are really ready to give up power. And whether we can truly let go of the idea that “developing” countries should become like us, “developed” countries. Can we open our minds to the possibility that instead of one utopia there may in fact be various heterotopias?

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