Decolonizing Aid

Decolonizing Aid

By Devin Hibbard

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and its disparate impact on communities of color worldwide, have forced a global reckoning around racial justice. More and more people are beginning to ask questions about the ways our systems function, how they came to be, and who they really serve. This dialogue has extended to the global development community, and frankly it’s about time. 

There is no getting around it: The history of foreign development aid is a history of colonialism, and that legacy shapes the space to this day. As Raj Kumar, the editor-in-chief of Devex, a media platform for the global development community, put it during a Web event in September, the foundational reality of which countries are rich and which are poor, who holds power and who doesn’t, reflects our violent history of colonialism and subjugation. 

We’ll never know what the world would have looked like without the colonial period — how cultures, economies and societies would have shaped themselves were it not for the intervention of brutal colonizers. While we can’t go back and change the past, what we as the global development community can do now is take responsibility. We have further entrenched those same racist and colonialist systems for far too long, and in this moment we have an opportunity to do better. 

Who holds the power? 

Globally, more than 99 percent of humanitarian and philanthropic funding goes to international NGOs that are mostly led by white people. In 2017, the Segal Family Foundation analyzed its more than 200 NGO partners working in sub-Saharan Africa and found that organizations led by Africans had the same level of positive impact, if not more, compared to those led by white expatriates, but revenue at the white-led groups grew twice as fast. 

Overall, only 5.2 percent of U.S. foundation giving to Africa goes to African-led organizations. Similar patterns can be seen around the world. From Asia and the Middle East to South America and the Caribbean, the local leaders who are most invested in the prosperity of their communities are asked to hold their hands out for a meager share of funding from international NGOs. The rest comes and goes without their input, directed by mostly white leaders, often from the very countries that pushed their ancestors into subjugation and slavery. The same dynamic holds true in the U.S.  Nonprofits led by Black and Latino executive directors have consistently lower revenues and less unrestricted assets compared to those with white leaders, according to a 2020 report from Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group.

In response to what they found in their analysis, the Segal Family Foundation created the African Visionary Fellowship, intended to “shift power and agency closer to the beneficiaries of development work” by lifting up local NGO leaders from across the continent, Andy Bryant, executive director of the Foundation, wrote in the Huffington Post in 2017. That effort later catalyzed the African Visionary Fund, a pooled fund launched last year and seeded by a group of U.S. foundations to “drive millions of dollars in unrestricted funding to African-led organizations.”

The Fund is on its way to raising $10 million by 2023 and, in a move that’s all too rare, a majority-African board will drive decisions about how the funds are used. 

Of course, $10 million is a small fraction of the billions in development aid circulated annually, but steps like these are concrete and meaningful. And along with the direct impact it will have, the Fund serves as a high-profile proving ground to further dispel the colonialist notion that wealthy, majority-white countries know better about how to deliver impactful solutions in emerging markets than local leaders do. 

“We have a unique opportunity, in this moment, to chart a more equitable future globally,” Dedo Baranshamaje of the Segal Family Foundation (and member of SBS’ Advisory Committee) and Katie Bunten-Wamaru of the African Visionary Fund wrote in the Guardian in January. “Anti-racism work is a long game — philanthropy is not going to change overnight. But this is the time to start.”

Who’s making the choices? 

This conversation around decolonizing aid is not only about how dollars flow, but also how communities get to choose what’s right for them. Local leaders are rallying their neighbors to create meaningful change in virtually every community around the world, and are the leading experts on what will work and what won’t. 

Rather than resource and uplift the great work that’s already happening, the vast majority of NGOs look to expand their reach through self-replication. They open a new office, build a new staff, probably hire some locals into leadership positions, but the top-down decisions are still made in faraway places by people with little understanding of what’s happening in the communities they supposedly serve. 

In March of last year, 146 African organizations penned an open letter to international NGOs critiquing this model. It stemmed from conversations in a WhatsApp group called  #ShiftThePower, in which several leaders said they were approached by international NGOs looking to “learn” from them in ways they felt were extractive. 

“You have (rightly) been facing a number of critiques in recent years — around your legitimacy, your ‘whiteness’ or the fact that far more aid money ultimately ends up in the pockets of northern organizations’ headquarters than it does in the Global South,” the groups wrote. “We see that you’re trying to respond to these critiques by ‘localizing,’ as we’ve been asked to meet with your highly paid consultants on numerous occasions…

“… Do you need to exist in every country with your brand? No. There are often local organizations, like ourselves, who work effectively on the ground, with better connections to the local community. And many of us also have the skills and capacity to represent our issues on the world stage.”

Street Business School had a similar conversation when we first looked to expand our entrepreneurial training programs for women living in poverty from Uganda to other countries around the world. We did an analysis of what it would take to open new country offices and found it was not only highly expensive but also slow and ineffective in terms of delivering impact. Our work in Uganda was honed over more than 15 years, and replicating that would take time that we, as a global community, simply don’t have if we hope to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Further, the local leaders already working in these countries know more about their communities than we ever will. 

This dialogue cemented our decision to scale through a social franchise strategy, in which local leaders are trained to deliver our programs in a way that makes sense for the people in their communities. We have solid metrics behind our entrepreneurial training model — in Uganda, women who receive SBS training are able to increase their incomes by an average of 211 percent by starting their own businesses — but we also recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution to poverty. Something that works in Uganda will not necessarily work in Cambodia or Nigeria if it’s delivered in exactly the same way. By offering our program to local partners as a way to amplify their own impact, the leaders who already know their communities deeply are able to customize our program and make it work for them.  

As of September 2020, SBS has certified 287 “Lead Coaches” to adapt and implement this entrepreneurial training program in 25 countries. If we were self-replicating, our annual operating budget would increase by more than $3.3 million, but more importantly, we’d miss out on the local insights that allow our model to actually work in different regions around the world. We believe it’s our job to amplify their impact, shine a light on their accomplishments and be the best partners we can. We did just that in May when we raised and distributed $50,000 to our partners for SBS implementation, in response to their feedback that communities needed business training, but their fundraising efforts had been hurt by COVID-19. 

This work is only beginning 

Monumental shifts are happening across the development community. In my role on the board of directors at InterAction, the largest alliance of international NGOs and partners in the United States, I’ve seen an awakening begin to unfold in real-time. 

SBS International Board of AdvisorsThe racial justice sessions in our board meetings have helped leaders to understand global development as a system and how their own organizations fit within it. People spoke openly about what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. Older more seasoned leaders discussed stepping aside in order to allow a new generation of leaders to rise up, and how we make sure that generation of leaders is more representative of the diversity of the global community. I’m proud that half of SBS’ Board members are non-white and non-American, but recognize we have much more work to do. 

These are difficult conversions to have, and the best way to start having them is to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. As independent researcher Themrise Khan recently observed on the media platform OpenDemocracy, the term “decolonization” doesn’t even exist in many languages — from her native Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, to Arabic and Spanish — meaning the very conversation around decolonizing aid is one that in many ways still centers white colonizers. So, to put it mildly, we all have a long road ahead. 

Still, the conversations happening today couldn’t have happened even five years ago. We all have a role to play in ensuring this remains a movement, not a moment, and that starts by opening our ears to listen and working to improve every single day. 


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