While many of us will want to write off last year as yet another year of Covid, one of the most important conversations in our sector started to gain momentum: “Decolonising Aid”.
At Peace Direct, our journey began in the summer of 2020 when we made the decision to organise a global online consultation on the subject of structural racism in the sector. That led to the publication, in May 2021, of “Time to Decolonise Aid” – our summary of an incredibly rich, challenging and inspiring conversation with over 150 activists worldwide.
What took us by surprise was how receptive organisations across the sector have been to the report. By the end of 2021, 30,000 people had downloaded our report and we’ve now translated it into 13 languages. We’ve had conversations with close to 1,000 people who asked us to share the key findings with them and their staff. This is what we learned from those conversations.
There appears to be a genuine desire among some INGOs and institutions to talk about structural racism in their work. However, it remains to be seen how much of this will translate into commitments to challenge organisational culture, structures and strategy in order to effect long term change. Most organisations we’ve spoken to appear to be discussing these issues internally but are yet to say anything publicly.
Few organisations know how to start the process of decolonising their work, and fewer know how to do it well. Some organisations are paralysed by fear of making the first step. Others are paralysed by fear of making a misstep. Meanwhile, a few are taking multiple steps in different directions, hoping to demonstrate to themselves and their supporters that they are doing something; anything.
Certain words are being overused and conflated. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), for example, are being conflated with the Decolonising agenda, and the term “Decolonising” itself is in danger of becoming a catch-all term for any change initiative, robbing it of any power it has to be truly transformative. Some of my colleagues believe that this has already happened.
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Most of the discussions appear to be taking place in the offices of INGOs and organisations based in the “Global North”. Meanwhile many actors in the “Global South” are still not openly discussing this even though – based on the discussions we’ve had with them – they want to.
So what can we take away from these insights? The first is that changes to routine practice will only be partially successful in the absence of changes to an organisation’s culture. If we don’t change the culture of our organisations and the deep-rooted assumptions on which our organisational culture is based, then we are just tinkering at the edges of a problem. The second is that we mustn’t let fear of getting things wrong paralyse us from taking the first or any step.
This obviously doesn’t mean jumping in headfirst and blindly. But it does mean being brave enough to start the journey, and humble enough to admit to your colleagues and to yourself that you might not get things right first time. Third, the lack of public acknowledgement of the problem deprives the discussion of much needed oxygen. We need to openly discuss issues of structural and overt racism and make public our commitment to challenging it wherever we see it. Fourth, we need to avoid conflating terms such as Decolonising and DEI. Like circles in a Venn diagram, there is an overlap, but they mean different things.
While DEI is vitally important for our sector, it is not a substitute for Decolonising our work, which requires a deep and uncomfortable look at the colonial roots of our work and how some current assumptions we hold have the same roots. Finally, we need to help rebalance the conversation so that those most impacted by it have the space to discuss the issues from their perspective – otherwise there is a danger that the Decolonising discourse will end up being dominated by the very folks who perpetuate the problem.
After a year of noise and energy we could be edging towards a tipping point where the sector will irrevocably change, I believe for the better. Or it could all dissipate. No doubt some organisations will be hoping that talk of decolonising the sector will just fade away, so that they can continue their work untroubled by discussions about structural racism and power. We mustn’t let this happen.
Decolonising our sector is now at a crossroads and we all have a choice to make. Either we choose to be brave enough to take the road less travelled, recognising that it will be difficult, but that it will transform our sector. Or we choose business as usual, which will be an act of wilful negligence that will harm our sector and the communities we purport to serve. Or perhaps we’ll be content with tinkering at the edges, afraid to make any structural changes, but will do just enough to prove to everyone else that we are doing something. I hope, for the sake of the communities that we serve, we all make the right choice.