Part 1 of this Webinar Series started on a high note and left us in awe; without any doubt, there was an urge to recap and highlight powerful points from both the panelists and from the comments of our viewers.
The topic for the webinar; Decolonizing Aid, was organized in the phase of Black Lives Matter movements and protests around the world. It was also formed around the framework of the global Me Too movement that impacted the aid sector to form the Aid Too movement. The issues on humanitarianism and the neo-colonial legacy of aid have always been present; nothing new. There is always an unease environment when talking about these issues because it brings out the need to deconstruct so as to understand what it really means to be a humanitarian, impacting people and doing good. With that, there was a need to create a platform that would bring confidence and spark the attention to discuss about these issues and share possible solutions.
The panel held a team of 6 brilliant men and women who all have experience and expertise with humanitarian work. Shaista Aziz was the host of the webinar who did an amazing job with navigating the discussion. The rest of the panelist, who also did remarkable work, were:
- Degan Ali, Our Executive Director, Adeso.
- Jo Davies, Lecturer at University on Reading and Programme Director of BSc
- Stephanie Kimou, Founder and Director of Programming at Popworks Africa
- Rob Grace, Senior Associate at Harvard Program on Negotiation
- Hugo Slim, Senior Research Fellow ELAC
The Genesis of an eye-opening series
Stephanie Kimou opened the discussion by explaining what she understands by the term decolonizing international development. For her, it means understanding colonial history and trauma, dismantling racist development and humanitarian norms, honoring locally rooted expertise; not because of a public image or political correctness but genuinely. She suggested that the platform calls for opening up a space for the holistic, genuine elevation of indigenous ownership and leadership which should be a standard and not an exception.
Decolonization is also a radical “act of love”, where blacks and people of color, who have been silent in the space of actions and norms that perpetuates white supremacy come together to demand change.
Stephanie expressed frustration regarding neutrality, as she strongly felt that as an Ivorian/American black woman, she can never be neutral. Neutrality as it stands does not take into account intersectionality, solidarity and liberation that unites blacks and people of color.
The point on humanitarian neutrality was driven by Dr. Hugo Slim. He explained that it simply meant not taking sides; both materially and ideologically, and not using aid to give “definite advantage” to a party to conflict.
For him, neutrality, is a Swiss political ideology adopted into the humanitarian field as one of the key principles and has become the dominant colonizing model of humanitarian action.
He argues that neutrality is an important form of humanitarian action but is not a necessary form. Non-neutral humanitarians might be called “activist humanitarians” and they can do vital humanitarian work and there is a long tradition of non-neutral humanitarian aid. He explained two measures of neutrality: actual and perceived neutrality and how these two have an impact in humanitarian action using examples of access and negotiations. For example, he says actual neutrality can be easily de-neutralized by warring parties, governments, donors as seen in Syria and Yemen. It is extremely expensive and time-consuming. He does not agree with neutrality as an essential component of humanitarian action, he believes that one can take sides and still be humanitarian. He has a mixed view about the idea of neutrality being a vehicle to white supremacy; he agrees that it is a vehicle to white supremacy when it is faked and done deliberately by states who go to war-affected societies, rebuild them as liberal states, and change their regimes. He argues it is not a vehicle to white supremacy when it is genuinely pursued to meet the needs of both sides that are in conflict.
With his experience in humanitarian negotiations and humanitarian civil-military co-ordination, Rob Grace shared his perspective on the matter of decolonizing aid.
Quoting Howard Zinn “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”, he explains the idea of neutralism being between activism and access; stepping away from acting in order to gain access.
There’s a reluctance to embrace the role that profile plays in the process; what is missing from the discourse is the acknowledgment of the role identity plays in negotiation. Whether it is gender identity, religion, nationality, ethnicity, age, etc. all these places a crucial role on how to achieve access. For him, neutrality is a trade-off between activism and access. He says that neutrality at an organizational policy level is present however on the ground it is not. There is a decoupling between organizational policy and practice. He added that there is a need for self-reflection regarding access obstruction which is often seen as an externally imposed issue (security, weather, bureaucratic structures, etc), when in fact is an internal factor. The internal factors that manifest through lack of communication lines with affected communities and empowerment. There is a disconnection due to a lack of meaningful engagement. Aid is a replication of new colonial attributes from western countries.
How does neutrality translate practically at the community level? This question led Degan Ali to explain from her own experience in the aid field, how neutrality has been centered on the idea that a foreigner is neutral. Which places the insider (the member of that community) not to have the ability to be neutral and give services to everybody. And this is why it is linked to white supremacy because it gives the foreigner an excuse not to check themselves when they are being racist and not to be part of the discussion of development simply because they are neutral.
Neutrality is used to further the “white savior” mentality and further the idea of being special, that is why it is linked to white supremacy. She added that because of the exclusionary effect neutrality has, it takes away humanity, the ability to be human and serve all sides of the community.
The local has no ability to serve because of his/her local identity. Hence we see INGOs such as ICRC and MSF as flag-bearers of neutrality. Success in the negotiation process by locals is due to understanding local systems, context, identity-making reference to the Somali Alshabaab negotiations. It had nothing with ICRC’s ability but everything to do with local people understanding the context and networks. Further, she questions the transparency and integrity of the access negotiations of INGOs, what do they give up to get access, as it is known that negotiation are give and take, nothing is for free. Do INGOs give kickbacks, contracts, money, etc? Therefore neutrality is not there at a community level?
Being a Programme Director and a Lecturer in International Development, Dr. Jo Davies questions herself whether she is doing enough to bring changes or is she replicating failed power structures.
How do we decolonize the curriculum? It is by having a dialogue that is equal, where no one is talking over the other and there is equal platform for everyone to learn from each other.
The first steps to this is teaching development in a historical and political way. Giving an example of a seedling, it is definite what tree will grow from the seed. Development can be seen as “biological, inevitable, irreversible, uni-directional” and it is important that development studies teaching recognises this and challenges it.She says that development curriculum must not be a replica of what is wrong in the development/humanitarian sector. She made reference to her identity/position as a white woman from the Global North who is seen as someone who is supposedly has the power to validate and legitimize the curriculum in preparing students to go out in the Global South. Curriculum decolonization is long overdue; it must include key stakeholders such as black women. The academics should be opening up spaces that does not push out the local people out. The space should be as such that the Global North stays in the room and invite the Global south thus creating space for dialogue. Students should be taught and prepared to challenge what is wrong in the field.
The audience speaks
The panelists received an outstanding reaction of thoughts and views from the audience with many agreeing with what they all had to say, others challenging their thoughts and sharing solutions to these issues. One of the viewers commented, “Neutrality is a concept that sustains white supremacy and is used to drive the western agenda in a humanitarian crisis. It also serves to legitimate the domination of international NGOs and ex-pats in the humanitarian sector.” Another asked if this debate around aid shapes the existing imbalances in power relations? That’s food for thought.
More will be answered at Part 2 of the webinar series coming up soon!