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Decolonising International Partnerships in the UK

  • Published

    31 July 2023
  • Written by

    Raaval Bains

Earlier this year, we held an online event, Decolonising UK International Partnerships. On the panel, I was lucky enough to speak alongside Peace Direct’s CEO, Dylan Mathews, as well as MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and two of our partners: Landry Nintereste from, and Adam Dicko from AJCAD in Mali.

During this event, we discussed the different ways that oppressive systems show up in the UK’s international partnerships. Bell opened with a comment on her experiences working in and with the UK aid sector and the way the sector was operating:

“I found that a lot of the local NGOs were often the ones doing the most, whereas the larger NGOs, who were making a lot of huge pleas where it came to their advertisements, were not actually there on the ground as much as you thought they were.”

Looking at how organisations in the humanitarian and development sectors were first established, Bell highlighted a foundational problem:

“What humanitarian organisations and aid sectors risk is becoming a permanent fixture of geopolitics and that’s what it was never intended to be. It was always meant to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. […] On a larger scale, the problem with the aid sector is that it was established in the context of colonialism. Development took place through the prism of colonialism.”

“The aid industry being set up in this way means it continues to have a very Eurocentric, white-saviour approach towards aid, hindering its ability to properly support those who are receiving said aid. Much of the sector operates in the Global North. […] The typical attitude is one of ‘we know best’ and ‘we know how best to help you’. But in many cases – if not all cases – this is just not true. Those who know the best way to support their community through the crisis are often the people within the communities themselves.”

Dylan built on Bell’s argument, and talked about the implications of these issues for Peace Direct’s efforts to shift its own approach, and share its findings with other organisations and leaders in the sector:

“We should be doing ourselves out of a job. That is our purpose. But what’s been very interesting for us is that these arguments have pretty much fallen on deaf ears until very recently.”

“It was only really in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, that we started to reflect ourselves and ask: was there a problem of structural racism that we and the sector weren’t talking about? That’s the reason why we decided to hold our first global consultation”

“What we were hearing [from the global consultation] was that structural racism is hard baked into the system. It is part and parcel of the way the system has evolved since it was first established.”

Despite this, Dylan shared some observations about how Global North organisations are responding to our research findings:

“We’ve noticed that there’s a creeping paralysis within the system. You could say that’s because it’s about self-preservation: INGOs and donors just have to say these things, but they don't want to transform. Others say to me: actually, we want to transform, we just don't know how to. They don't know how to remodel themselves or the sector.”

Landry spoke about how international interventions might change to better support local partners, specifically in relation to timescale, languages, and tools:

International interventions should prioritise long-term interventions instead of rapid response interventions. Long-term investment contributes to local ownership of projects and contributes to building the capacity of local actors for stronger decision-making.”

“English is the main communication vehicle, but we need to encourage the diversity of languages being used on the ground, so English isn’t a barrier to communities, practitioners or actors where it’s not the main language. Also, allowing other languages, local languages like Hausa or Swahili have to be promoted because they contribute to the decolonization of the sector.”

“There are differences to how things are done in London to the local context, so the capacities are not the same. So making the tools, documentation and reporting methods complicated tends to be a barrier for meaningful contribution of local partners. Really simplifying these tools could enhance the participation and contribution of local actors.”

Adam highlighted some important ways that intermediary organisations like INGOs and donors can reduce harm on local organisations in terms of language, funding approaches, and project design:

“What hurts us at the local level is the terminologies… the word AID itself is an issue as its comprehension is translated to the comfort of paternalism. I feel we need to use ‘International Solidarity.”

“The same organisations that are working to fight against inequality are the same organisations that are creating and perpetuating the same inequalities because they use images of children who are suffering to raise funding and then 85% of this money will be used for administrative purposes.”

“The community needs to be the ones themselves to define their problems and relay this to international organisations. Intermediary organisations should collaborate with local organisations not only in funding… but to understand the means at the local level.”

Finally, I outlined several of the key findings from our online global consultation on partnerships, conducted on Platform 4 Dialogue:

“The foundations of a partnership are built on 4 key values: Trust, humility, respect, and mutuality/reciprocity. In turn, partnerships can be mutually accountable, have clear and respectful communication and a shared long-term vision.”  

“Local actors continue to see partnerships with Global North actors as desirable, but participants emphasised that partnerships cannot continue as they are currently conceived. Instead, they need to be reimagined and transformed.”

There were many more excellent points raised throughout the event. I encourage you to watch the recording of the event, not only to hear from our speakers in full but also to get a true sense of the passion, bravery and warmth that shaped this discussion. I’d like to echo a point from Dylan:

“We are edging towards a tipping point, but we need more voices. We need this to become something that’s practical. And I hope today we can start to shift from rhetoric to practice.”

Our joint efforts to decolonise our international partnerships, here in the UK, could have a significant positive impact on peacebuilding the world over. As we build our body of evidence, this much is clear: that investing in partnerships based on trust does have a transformative, positive impact on peacebuilding. And it requires all of us to do our bit. Not only local peacebuilders like Landry and Dicko, but also members of governments and Global North NGO workers – from junior staff all the way to leadership. You have a part to play. We invite you to stand with us.

Watch the full event recording: 

Our forthcoming report, Transforming Partnerships in International Cooperation is due for publication this autumn. To be notified about the launch of this operational guide for developing equitable and decolonised partnerships, be sure to subscribe to the peacebuilder.

Raaval Bains is a Research Officer at Peace Direct, and co-author of our upcoming report on partnerships.


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