The Road from Joburg to Bogotá: A Global Journey Toward Decolonization

By Degan Ali, Executive Director of Adeso

Posted on 4 December 2023


In December 2016 – seven years ago – I participated in the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg, which brought together 400 people from 70 countries, representing civil society, philanthropy, and the international aid ecosystem. The call to action for that meeting — and its resultant hashtag — was #ShiftThePower, succinctly encapsulating the frustration that had been long burgeoning about the concentration of power, privilege, and decision-making in the “Global North” at the expense of the world’s majority population the “Global South.”

Degan Ali (right) speaking at the first #ShiftThePower Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a panel with (from left to right): Danny Sriskandarajah, former Secretary General of CIVICUS; Eugenie Harvey, The Funding Network (UK); Janet Mawiyoo, former CEO of the Kenya Community Development Foundation and Lucia Dellagnelo, one of the founders of ICom, Community Foundation in Florianopolis, Brazil.


This week, that community, which is greater still at 700 strong from 76 countries, will reconvene at the Shift The Power Summit in Bogotá where an ongoing global conversation will continue to unfold about how to put communities squarely at the center of their own destinies, and how to continue to overhaul the aid architecture so that it is locally-owned and locally-led.

In short, how do we create a world where everyone is decolonized, not just financially but mentally as well?


Decolonization Starts at Home

At Adeso, we believe in a world where people thrive through their own resourcefulness and tenacity. And with every action we take, we are working towards a future where communities everywhere are free from a dependency on international aid.

We are starting by decolonizing ourselves. In 2018, we decided to stop accepting funding from bilateral or multilateral funders. We know firsthand that bigger is not always better. The heavy restrictions of international aid not only stymied our ability to innovate and experiment, it also created an unhealthy power dynamic between us and our funders. We were not treated as equal partners nor were we recognized as the experts that we are in our own growth and evolution.

At the moment, we are powered by philanthropic capital. Relatively, it is more nimble, less restrictive, and more risk-tolerant. It has allowed us the freedom to think more creatively and critically. And it has enabled us to devise a suite of solutions for donors and doers alike that will help break down the barriers toward locally-led development.

Philanthropy is also moving us towards our own mental and financial freedom. Adeso is on a path to becoming a social enterprise that is self-sustainable and commercially viable with its own cash reserves and endowment.  For instance, our Durdur Water Enterprise is providing affordable, clean water to rural communities in Puntland, Somalia. As I write this, the team is digging trenches and laying pipes so that thousands of families will – for the very first time – turn on taps in their homes to get clean water. This is something that many thought was an impossibility. But we know it isn’t. Not if you know the community, and you aren’t limited by crushing funding restrictions. When we can take risks, we can imagine a new way. We can completely disrupt the current dysfunctional system. For Durdur this mean providing better quality water directly piped into homes at a more affordable price than before. The revenue then goes back into the enterprise to scale and do the same in other water-scarce communities and also provides revenue back to Adeso to do other community-driven work.

A Different World

2016 seems like a lifetime ago —  a world before Covid, George Floyd, TikTok, and ChatGPT. Yet, this week’s Shift The Power Summit has allowed me to reflect on the progress that has been made over the last seven years.

December 2016  was the end of a particularly productive year. In July 2016, we had just launched the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, Turkey. NEAR arose from years of consultations with hundreds of locally-led civil society organizations all over the world. It is now a vibrant movement of hundreds of local and national CSOs from the Global South that are working to create a fair, equitable, and dignified aid system. NEAR is a critical voice on the global stage that is uplifting local agendas and actors everywhere in the world. It continues to grow and flourish, and this week, NEAR has a full delegation of 17 representatives at the Shift the Power Summit.

Working with NEAR and other partners, we began to realize that true decolonization would not happen without the participation of the largest international NGOs. For that reason, we launched the Pledge for Change in 2022, which is working to re-imagine the role of INGOs in the global humanitarian aid and development system.

Eleven bold INGOs have chosen to build a stronger aid ecosystem based on the principles of solidarity, humility, self-determination, and equality by focusing on three core changes: 1) Equitable Partnerships; 2) Authentic Storytelling; and 3) Influencing Wider Change.

The signatories include: CARE International, Christian Aid, Cordaid, FHI 360, Mercy Corps, Oxfam​, Plan International, Save the Children International, SOS Children’s Villages Norway​, The International Rescue Committee​, and Women for Women International​. We commend the genuine integrity and conviction of the leadership of these organizations, and we have already begun to see the efforts bear fruit on the ground. We urge all INGOs to take similar steps and commitments to change. The pledge is designed to sunset by 2030 and get the INGO signatories on the journey to make a significant internal shift in the 3 commitment areas.


A Dose of Hope Amongst a Rubble of Cynicism

I see the forward movement toward decolonization and liberation as a positive virus that is spreading worldwide. Philanthropists, for instance, are beginning to tell me about their internal targets toward locally-led action. Eighteen governments and 16 foundations have signed onto the  Donor Statement on Supporting Locally Led Development expressing their commitment to:

  1. Shift and share power to ensure local actors have ownership over and can meaningfully and equitably engage in development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding programs.
  2. Work to channel high-quality funding as directly as possible to local actors.
  3. Publicly advocate for locally-led development.


I am not naïve. I know that we still have a very long way to go before my Global South counterparts and I are treated as true equals. But it is truly heartening to see people and organizations finally beginning to listen to the urgent pleas for dignity and respect we have been making for decades.

While all of these are important and tangible indications of hope for local organizations, we will never get where we need to be if we continue to evade, or sanitize, the political and historical realities of the actual “power” that we trying to shift. It is imperative that we directly confront the intersection of aid and politics, and a good place to start is a re-examination the entire aid architecture and global governance system.

We cannot just talk about moving resources to Palestinian organizations while evading a frank discussion about the political roots — and complicity of aid — in the tragedy of Palestine in the first place. Humanitarian aid, without addressing the root cause of the injustice, serves only to perpetuate that injustice and to prolong a dependence on aid that insidiously keeps people subjugated and colonized. Will giving more resources to local Palestinian actors in Gaza have a meaningful impact on those communities if they have been ethnically cleansed? Are we even really listening to impacted communities – in this case, those in Gaza– if they are asking us not to raise money but to stop a genocide? Let’s be brave enough to answer these tough questions.

International humanitarian law had taken a beating in the past 15 years but it, and the credibility of the UN, have died in the rubble of Gaza.  The last 58 days have reinforced for me that the real call to action is decolonization – not just “localization.” It is only by having these rough, uncomfortable conversations that we will ever truly free ourselves from the mental and financial shackles that the international aid system has imposed upon us and then have the courage to boldly call for a more just and equal global governance system.

Right now, all of us are compromised as long as our actions are dictated by fear of losing funding or desire to raise more funding. A decolonized world is not only where the Palestinian people are free but also where global south civil society and countries are not dependent but are truly sovereign and independent politically and financially.