The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see to be endemic in the sector, but have also vowed to ‘change’ or even ‘end’ aid altogether. COVID-19 has further spurred analysis of how the sector may now change – or not – post pandemic.
But people of colour who are long-time aid workers have raised more penetrating criticisms. They have highlighted the hypocrisy of the sector’s ‘white saviours’ and aid expats who impose their own brand of hegemony over local counterparts in the countries they are posted to.
As a long-time aid practitioner from a developing country, I can vouch for these accusations. I have faced obnoxious white saviours more times than I care to count (some of them black and brown actually, but saviours nonetheless).
“Decisions about how aid should be ‘done’ in developing countries should be taken by those at the receiving end of this assistance”
Aid agencies and their staff view our countries – and our people – as ‘experiences’ to be savoured for a couple of years before they whisk themselves away to the next destination. We are left to pick up the pieces for their successors. And the cycle is repeated indefinitely.
But these criticisms and calls for change have two related problems. First – despite coming from both white and people of colour – they are still voices from the Global North or from those who work in institutions of, or are settled in the Global North. Second, the discussion excludes the ‘most important element of aid – the aid recipients’ in the Global South.
Decisions about how aid should be ‘done’ in developing countries, or whether aid stays or goes, should be taken by those at the receiving end of this assistance. In the sector, as currently constructed, power lies in the hands of the giver. And the giver is white. And elite. It is from this white elite that the (primarily Northern) aid community is calling to #shiftthepower.
But it is not just the white aid elites that need to do something. Their ‘something’ will always help them somehow to cling on to power. Even the talk about ‘decolonising’ development research, itself a Northern term, as we in the South rarely see ourselves as currently colonised, comes from Northern organisations prepared to question how they should do things ‘differently’ but not whether they should do these things at all. This is also what we saw in the Oxfam crisis in 2018.
That is why little real change will be driven by this discourse – and certainly no end to aid. Instead, we will at most see a diversification of funding towards, “anti-racism programming and training” in the sector. In fact, aid institutions of the Global North are already showing that they are not planning on going anywhere, such as through the recent creation of an equity index to measure and track equity in UK international development organisations.
That is why it is the aid ‘recipients’ who must push back against the white aid system. Both governments and civil society in Global South – the ones Northern donors like to describe as ‘the real change agents’.
“It is the aid ‘recipients’ who must push back against the white aid system”
Aid ‘recipients’ have never had any real leverage over decisions about aid allocations – who gets what and how much. Because aid has always been an inherently political tool. Its origins lie in the post-World War II efforts to stymie Communism and reign in the West’s foes. It has never been, nor does it presently, have any altruistic tendencies.
But most importantly, what the suddenly woke critics of aid ignore is that the sector has always had a problem with efficacy and impact. There is substantial evidence that the world’s largest aid institutions have largely failed to make the world, particularly developing countries, a better place. The former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently released his final report, which has presented damning evidence that global poverty is rising, directly contradicting mainstream development organisations’ claims that it is being reduced.
And COVID-19 has shown how decades of investments in health and social infrastructure did not prepare developing countries to confront the challenges the pandemic has brought.
But developing countries also continue to accept aid knowing that its impact is often minimal. They are trapped by past colonial transgressions and must tread today’s geopolitical tightropes, leaving them feeling they have little choice but to accept Northern domination of aid.
Southern development professionals also perpetuate the privilege of Northern aid assistance, as they rush to obtain a piece of the project pie. When aid agencies pit one ‘local’ organisation against the other in funding bids, these organisations happily play the game. Recipients do not want aid to end either and play an almost equal part in allowingthe sector to run riot with our countries’ social and economic resources.
Even when there are calls for the ‘localisation’ of parts of the development sector, the power imbalances are maintained. Because localisation never comes with a genuine commitment to letting go of the ‘internationalisation’ dimension of aid.
“It is not enough to be ‘anti-racist’, we must end racism – and perhaps even aid – altogether”
That is why – when the North’s do-gooders ask “how can we be anti-racist in aid?” – they perpetuate the myth that aid has been designed for the benefit of the poor. But, in fact, it has been, and still is, designed to further the interests of the white elite givers. And if its origins are inherently racist, it is not enough to be ‘anti-racist’, we must end racism – and perhaps even aid – altogether.
It is also why during this latest bruhaha over racism in aid, no-one has bothered to (officially) ask even one aid recipient – state or non-state, from any country – what they think about the sector and whether they truly think they benefit from it.
Northern donors and aid practitioners can reimagine aid assistance all they want. But aid professionals from the Global South must always be prepared to question their intentions, challenge the course they are taking, and doubt that they know best. And we must particularly ask our governments to do the same.
It is time for us ‘recipients’ in the Global South to not only take control of the conversation about racism in aid, but also of the objectives, utility, and control of aid objectives itself. Unless we do so, racism in aid will continue, as will the collateral damage it causes.