How we can better decolonise and shift power in our sector
This guest blog post was written for NPC, as follow up to their online seminar for trustees on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in evaluation. The seminar, at which I was a panelist, explored what ‘good evidence’ looks like, what the barriers in our existing evaluation practices are likely to be, and practical changes that can be made to them.
Since decolonising our industry is central to restorative justice, I wanted to share reflections on how we can do better, specifically within planning, measurement, evaluation and learning (PMEL). This begins with understanding the horrors of colonisation, how this past still influences power and privilege, and how those manifest in the ways our sector works. By first understanding and then undoing what’s broken, we can move forward with equitable approaches to our work.
The history of the ‘international aid’ sector in the UK for example, began during colonisation when colonial officers took posts in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This toxic legacy is evident in everything from language to national aid budgets. We must understand how deeply embedded this history is and sit with discomfort. This includes examining the sector and organisations’ roles and histories in Britain.
Language reinforces power dynamics
Beginning with language, for example, it is still called the ‘charity’ sector in the UK. This language reinforces the power dynamic of those ‘with’ giving their generosity and benevolence to those ‘without’. This is a neocolonial way of splitting our diverse and fascinating world in two and leads to the group with power exaggerating their importance in the global world order. Phrases such as ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ have the same result.
Language is not just about the words we use. It forms the beliefs at the heart of our ‘development’ sector—the way we perceive our roles, the problems we are working to solve and the strategies to address them, and who assists us in this and our relationships with them. Crucially, this informs whose perspective counts, to paraphrase Robert Chambers. Whose experiences are we really prioritising, and how do we know that these are the right strategies to solve them?
(For further reading, I highly recommend Peace Direct’s report Time to Decolonise Aid. The recent International Development Committee report, Racism in the aid sector, also discusses the role of language, though please be advised of the inherent biases likely in a parliamentary report).
These saviours are often the traditional colonial powers in Western Europe and the UK. The language we use and its resulting framework have given us the paternalistic assumption that rich, White countries must step in to save the rest of the world. The irony is that they are ‘saving’ us from the destruction that their colonisation created.
We’ve been seeing a neocolonial and cultural imperialism version of this over the past few decades through the Americanisation of philanthropy and foreign aid. Visualise the groups who hold power, the groups whose interests are prioritised and valued in international aid—you’re likely to see a monolith of whose perspectives really count. It’s often the same groups—those with language, class, cultural, racial, and gender privilege—who govern governments’ aid programmes and control the largest philanthropies in the world. See the Instagram account @barbiesavior for a satirical take on this neocolonial perspective.
In her book A Radical History of Development Studies, Uma Kothari writes: ‘Consequently, dichotomies of, for example, the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ and the ‘West’ and the ‘rest’ are embedded within development discourse, and this reassertion of colonial classifications of difference is often invoked to justify development interventions. The representation of peoples in and of the ‘Third World’ as ‘backward’, ‘traditional’ and incapable of self-government further embeds global distinctions developed during the colonial period.’
Redressing power imbalances starts at the organisation level
In the 21st century, we now understand that successful, impactful, and sustainable change cannot happen by simply writing a cheque. We no longer just give money to build wells and schools, though these are important elements of humanitarian work. Our roles in social change have evolved—including those involved in the change.
We now partner with donors, grassroots organisations, communities, intermediaries, community leaders, and youth groups, to name a few. We redistribute resources, advocate for better and more inclusive policies, hold governments to account, and engage with more creative strategies. But despite all this progress in how we work, we are still stuck in these antiquated ideas at our roots.
Redressing power imbalances starts at the organisation level, reconciling with Britain’s violent and exploitative history and making reparations through restorative justice. There are dozens of foundations, philanthropies, INGOs, faith-based organisations, and other organisations whose roots go back to Britain’s colonial past or stretch back long enough to have colonial links.
Examine your organisation’s history, its establishment, and its purpose. Who was your first target audience, and why? How has your work evolved since then, and why?
If the ways you work do not align with the current world order, if they are not contributing to equitable, restorative, sustainable, and inclusive change, think about what you can do to amend that. Whose perspectives are at the heart of your work—your board members and decision-makers? Or the perspectives and experiences of the communities in which you work?
Look within your sphere of control for the most impactful solutions
At the coordinator or associate level, you’re a crucial part of the day-to-day implementation of your projects. Within your team, you likely work most closely with your partners. Use that space to discuss your project’s day-to-day management with them, solve problems together, build relationships of trust and respect, and get regular feedback from them and your communities. Use that to help you create an evidence base of what is and isn’t working, so the next time you co-design a project in that area, you’ve got a lot of knowledge about how you can best serve your community.
If you are a programme manager or officer, you have some control over your programme’s planning. In that case, I highly recommend commissioning an external researcher to conduct a scoping study of your area/s of focus—one per district or country. Ask them to identify the most impactful and meaningful strategies over the past few years, plus what has not worked and why. Ask them to find new actors to involve as partners, new grantees to fund, and new organisations and communities to work with.
Crucially, the researchers should come from the communities they are researching and should have the cultural and linguistic knowledge necessary. Remove all UK visa requirements from the job advertisement and make it explicit that you want to learn about your context, and you will adapt your strategies and work plan according to what they uncover. This will open up the ways you work and help to restore some balance and equity. If your organisation has a history of exploitation or colonisation, this inclusion will go even further to change that.
Reshaping measurement and evaluation practices
We can also reshape our own measurement and evaluation (M&E), learning, and research practices, embedding participatory and inclusive approaches and helping to undo the extractive nature of traditional M&E and research. Traditional research as we know it also started in rich European countries around the time of colonisation so it’s no wonder there are common roots in the way it perceives the researcher and the researched—the former an unbiased observer and the latter put under a microscope. When designing your M&E strategy, consider where your community’s voice is present. Who has built your strategy, and what biases are those groups bringing to it?
For example, if it’s written by someone who does not look and sound like the people you are working with, think about how that affects how you see the change pathway. What assumptions are you making about the work and its success? What feedback have you received from the communities on your approach? Opening up this space when designing your M&E strategy for a programme, region, or project ensures that your work is based on peoples’ realities and that your solutions are more likely to be successful. Get your peoples’ perspectives on what should be done and how and where your role should be in helping them make the change.
It may seem small, but taking an active step away from the power you automatically have, as someone reading this, opens space for others to play a more active role in their lives, rather than being seen as passive recipients of ‘aid’.
Cover image credit: Kenzo Hamazaki