COVID-19 has shown us how to decolonize international development

COVID-19 has shown us how to decolonize international development

We recently passed the year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of us to retreat to our homes. In that time, those of us working in international development, aid and peacebuilding have been confronted with a number of hard truths about ourselves.

Melanie Pinet and Carmen Leon- Himmelstine’s article, published almost exactly a year ago, is one such examination of the flaws in our current system. It laid bare how the realities of the pandemic might be the catalyst to meaningful change in the system –  change they referred to as decolonization.  

Since that article’s publication, there has been a growing consensus that as a sector, our approaches were fundamentally flawed and rooted in the remnants of colonial power structures and beliefs. As Pinet and Leon-Himmelstine highlighted, this realization is not a new one in the development world. That said, in recent months there has been an unprecedented number of organizations based in the Global North that have started explicitly naming racism and stating their intentions to examine and reform their relationship with those based in the Global South.  

We recently released a report in May 2021, which called on international aid organizations to decolonize aid and tackle structural racism head-on. The report outlined steps needed to transform power relations towards greater equality.

As our field collaborates to imagine and create a decolonial and anti-racist approach to international development, mask mandates are lifting, lockdowns are ending, and the possibility of international travel looms. As we readjust to the ‘new normal’, and reacquaint ourselves with activities that once felt commonplace, the question persists: how can our field honor our commitments to relinquish privilege and shift power rather than reverting to the way things were? Though the answer is complex, a first step is to demystify what we mean by decolonizing international philanthropy.

As we readjust to the ‘new normal’, and reacquaint ourselves with activities that once felt commonplace, the question persists: how can our field honor our commitments to relinquish privilege and shift power rather than reverting to the way things were? 

Pinet and Leon-Himmelstine laid out some of the ways the current research cycle isn’t working. Now, with the benefit of a year of discussions, research, and learning under our belts, we can begin adopting new practices. Many of the reflections below are echoed in ‘Time to Decolonise Aid’, the recent report from peacebuilding charity Peace Direct.  

Proposal design and selection of in-country partners: 

Instead of having researchers based in the Global North leading, consider a participatory approach to proposal design. Participatory design requires collaborating with the intended focus group of the funding and ensures that the project is responsible to the stated needs and wants of the community, rather than the interests of foreign organizations.  

Design of Theories of Change (ToC), Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) systems from a Western perspective:

A significant impediment to decolonizing development is the use of Western indicators, systems and frameworks. This is a manifestation of the ‘White gaze of development’, whereby the Western perspective is assumed to be neutral and therefore universally applicable, and appropriate. This couldn’t be further from the truth. M&E systems and the common overemphasis on generalized evidence-making fails to capture the realities and nuances of a context. Involving local community members in the design process helps ensure that indigenous ways of thinking are included, and that ToCs are culturally-relevant. Allowing local communities to determine their own markers of success would address the inability of most existing M&E systems to truly engage with a context as it is currently, and would reduce the likelihood of M&E systems reshaping non-Western contexts to fit preconceived ideas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of programs have started to adopt locally-relevant forms of M&E, a shift that has allowed for the collection of more locally meaningful data.  

Colonial practices through data collection: 

COVID-19 created an unexpected opportunity for researchers based in their communities to lead data collection efforts, given the impossibility of travel for many Global North researchers. A survey found that 77% of respondents agreed that that a reduced international presence had created the opportunity for local communities to strengthen their own response and programming. The insistence by many in the sector on research being led by a non-local is demonstrably paternalistic and rooted in colonial beliefs of Western superiority. As local leadership has increased, that same study found that more local people were in leadership and decision-making positions compared to previous responses and programs. Ironically, the colonial mindset affects not only practitioners from the Global North: a number of those surveyed mentioned worrying that they still had to lead using Western models.  

Dissemination of results: 

Though the pandemic has created the necessity to turn to local communities to collect data, there is still a tendency to entrust the writing and dissemination of reports to researchers in the Global North. In addition to the ethical concerns raised by Pinet and Leon-Himmelstine in their article, this continued privileging of Western researchers seems especially insulting considering the North’s dependence on local researchers for that same data. This reluctance to completely shift responsibility to local researchers has numerous likely causes, one of which being the woefully misguided belief by some that Western researchers are somehow more ‘neutral’ than a local researcher would be. This obscures the global-local power dynamics and overlooks how the positionality of non-local researchers makes neutrality impossible.  

Though the pandemic has created the necessity to turn to local communities to collect data, there is still a tendency to entrust the writing and dissemination of reports to researchers in the Global North

Access, management and protection of data: 

Returning to research participants is a fundamental step if attempts to decolonize international development are to be genuine. It acknowledges how crucial their contributions were, and, ensures that they understand how their contributions are being used. Finally, it allows them to have access to and ownership of the knowledge and learnings generated from their work.  

 

COVID-19: A year in, what have we learned? 

Locally-led research and programs are vital: 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many opportunities for development practitioners in the Global North to recognize that our relationship with those based in the South is a key determiner of the success of any research or program. Part of decolonizing international development requires an understanding that  those in the Global South are not passively awaiting support from the international community. The COVID-19 pandemic created a dependency on those based in the Global South and to facilitate these changed global-local relationships, a number of organizations have made new commitments to better collaborate and support local researchers and practitioners. 

Support requires trust and strong relationships: 

That support, especially when remote, cannot happen if there is no trust. To develop that, international practitioners must be willing to develop their cultural competency, while remaining open to being educated and challenged. In a similar vein, trust is also built when relationships between international practitioners and local communities are long-term and flexible in nature 

Western practitioners are not neutral: 

Denying the effects of our own positionalities serves only to presume that we have little-to-no impact on a context’s dynamics or biases. It blinds us to our own perspectives. The notion of Western neutrality in international development is rooted in a racist framework that positions all the world through the ‘the White gaze of development.’ Only when we learn to recognize when we are rooting our actions and beliefs through this framework, will we begin to truly co-create innovative and bold approaches to the challenges facing many communities.

The notion of Western neutrality in international development is rooted in a racist framework that positions all the world through the ‘the White gaze of development.’ 

Structural racism is real and present: 

As articulated in ‘Time to Decolonise Aid’, the international development community needs to acknowledge the existence and prevalence of structural racism. Through the ‘White gaze of development,’ research and programs are often rooted in unexamined, normalized colonial beliefs about racialized communities based in the Global South. While acknowledgment of structural racism is only the first step, being aware of it can help us identify those established racist norms, beliefs, and phrases both in the wider sector and within ourselves. The way we talk, the way we fund, and the way we fundraise all need to change – yet this can only happen if we acknowledge the problem exists.  

We cannot return to normal: 

The COVID-19 pandemic allowed many local actors to take up leadership roles. As they lead, sometimes with remote support from the international community, there are many who do not want a return to normal. If we are to decolonize international development, the interests of local communities need to hold more significance than those of non-local entities. Therefore, that might require a permanent shift away from the pre-pandemic approach to in-person research and program implementation by non-locals. As people are vaccinated and some countries ease their travel restrictions, the possibility of easy travel may soon again be a reality. We need to question whether that should once again be part of the international development community’s approach. 

If we are to decolonize international development, the interests of local communities need to hold more significance than those of non-local entities

Though international development has much further to go in its process of decolonizing its ideologies, practices, and norms, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided inalienable evidence of the ability of local practitioners to lead. As that truth has long been established, more interestingly, COVID-19 has forced the entire international community to adapt to be more flexible and responsive to local interests. We know we can change. The question is how to ensure that the lessons learned, and new approaches are not lost in a rush to return to life as usual. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many things to light, from the wider aid system’s colonial legacy and structural racism to the unsustainability of previous funding models. It is our collective responsibility to make the changes our field so urgently needs.  

We know we can change. The question is how to ensure that the lessons learned, and new approaches are not lost in a rush to return to life as usual

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