Is aid a form of colonialism?

Blog post #6, 30 November 2021

In my twenties, I worked as a peacebuilding consultant. International NGOs based in the ‘global North’ (rich, industrialized, mainly Western countries) hired me to travel to war-torn areas to evaluate peace projects they had carried out with, or through, their local partner organizations in the ‘global South’ (poor or developing countries). Since I would often visit these countries for the first time, local interpreters, assistants and drivers were crucial in helping me find my way. Not only that, but they helped me to understand the circumstances in which I found myself. Often, they were considerably older than me. Always, they were better networked and knew more about the context. Yet, they were assisting the young white lady, and not the other way around. 

This made me so uncomfortable that I decided to write my PhD about how local knowledge in the field of peacebuilding was valued in comparison to the knowledge of ‘internationals’. This also meant looking at how power informed the relations between Northern and Southern partners. Indeed, the aid system disempowered Southern actors, and still does today. 

To understand why, one has to follow the money. The aid chain starts with donors in the North: governments of rich countries, multilateral organizations, and private foundations. These donors develop funding frameworks in which they describe which types of projects they will fund. In addition, they set out extensive requirements for proposal writing and reporting. The lucky recipients are usually international (Northern) NGOs who are best placed to produce funding proposals that meet those requirements. They in turn pass part of the money onto partner organizations in the South, who implement the projects. 

Also passed on are burdensome administrative requirements for monitoring and reporting. Though this has good reasons, to do with the need to be accountable to taxpayers on how development money is spent, it has major consequences for the field. To be able to comply with accountability measures, civil society groups in the South must be well versed in the jargon and administrative tools of donors. In practice, this means that only large and ‘professional’ organizations can participate. 

Through ‘capacity building’, international NGOs assist local groups to develop the skills needed to function within the aid system. In this context, ‘professionalisation’ means that organizations become adept at using the catchwords and frameworks of that system. As my Southern interviewees said, what were called ‘professional’ skills were actually Western/Northern norms and ways of doing things. 

Such ‘capacity building’ can create a distance between organizations and their local constituencies. Moreover, it denies the capacities that local actors already possess: their knowledge of local circumstances, their experience with what works, their cultural skills, and their analysis of what needs to be done.

Since Southern organizations have to fit their activities into the frameworks of donors, they often develop projects that are different from what they really think is necessary. Their local knowledge thus holds less value in the international aid system than Northern norms and ideas. 

Though their Northern counterparts in international NGOs see these problems and sympathize, they often see little space for change because of the hierarchical nature of the aid system. Southern organizations are accountable to their Northern counterparts, upward in the aid chain, instead of to the people they are trying to help. 

Because of all this, many people working in the field of international development cooperation struggle with an uncomfortable conundrum. Even though they strive to reduce poverty and inequality, inadvertently their work reproduces ideas of Western/Northern superiority, as well as inequalities between North and South. This is not for a lack of good intentions. But perhaps that only makes it more painful.

If we look closely, we see that the whole concept of ‘development’ exhibits a white gaze. Countries in the global South are called ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’, because they have not yet ‘developed’ to be like ‘developed’ countries. In other words, they should become like us. Similarly, the term ‘modernity’ is often used to describe the supposed end state that rich countries have already achieved, and poor countries should strive for. In relation to that term, former Dutch development minister Jan Pronk notes that

”ten years ago, the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) provided an ideological basis for the Western concept of superiority by defining the development process as a ‘modernization … (as) … has been realized in the West since the nineteenth century.’ The caveat that this Western progress in the nineteenth century took place at the expense of many in the South was not made. The fact that growth in the West was at the expense of essentials such as climate, nature and biodiversity was ignored. The question of whether people in the South want to Westernize was not asked.”

In the sub-field of peacebuilding, a similar discussion has been taking place. Over the past decade, criticism has mounted of the model that interveners – military missions, diplomats, development workers – are trying to introduce to war-torn countries. Dubbed the ‘liberal peace’, this model is essentially a Western blueprint coupling democratic institutions with neoliberal economic policies. It is by now widely recognized that this effort has been largely unsuccessful because it has ignored local ways of doing things and has had unrealistic expectations of the extent of societal change that can be achieved by outside intervention. More than that, liberal peacebuilding has also been accused of being a conduit of Western interests by creating geopolitical allies and opening markets to Western trade. 

This latter point resonates with long-standing critiques of the practice of forcing neoliberal policies on developing countries, often though loans with reform conditions attached. Rich country policies and trade regulations in effect relegate poor countries to the role of natural resource exporters and make it hard for them to develop other sectors. In such a context, to take a cynical view, aid projects are little more than bandages to stop the bleeding from wounds inflicted by an unfair international system. 

For some, this makes aid complicit in the maintenance of that system: it gives the system a better image and silences criticism by taking the worst edges off its consequences. (Slavoj Žižek’s book Violence is one potent example of this line of reasoning.) And aid is sometimes also used to promote Northern interests more directly. In recent years, aid has often been linked to the promotion of export, not of developing countries, but by Western companies wanting to do business overseas. It is also used to stop migration and refugee flows by giving support to authoritarian regimes and funding border controls.

When critics call aid colonial, it is thus not only because the development system inadvertently operates from a ‘white saviour’ mentality that reminds aid recipients of colonial times. It is also because it is part of a wider international structure that is unequal and unjust. 

All this is not to say that there is no good aid, or that there have never been attempts to reform the global system towards more equality and justice. On the contrary, ever since the 1970s there have been serious attempts to create a fairer international trading system. In addition, for decades development organizations have attempted to empower, rather than aid, Southern people, and to find ways to put them in the driving seat. 

While these efforts have undoubtedly made a positive difference to people’s lives, so far they have not succeeded in changing the system. However, at the moment, we see a resurgence of interest in the issue. In part, this is fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement that has prompted many sectors, including the aid sector, to examine their own white gaze. For the first time, the term racism is being used to describe the unequal practices of the aid system. This has shaken things up to such an extent that a true movement is building for the decolonization of aid. What has this has led to, and can we expect it to yield real change? This I will discuss in my next blog post. Watch this space!

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