How Women of Colour Are Fighting to ‘Decolonise’ Global Aid

Experts argue a number of the problems in the aid sector can be traced to the way organisations treat the people they are working to "develop."
November 26, 2020, 3:20pm
Port au Prince after the 2010 quake.
Port au Prince after the 2010 quake. Photo: Godong / Alamy Stock Photo

COVID-19 may have kept most of us grounded, but it hasn't stopped scandal hitting the development sector. Bullying allegations have hit UNICEF, WHO staff have been accused of a running sex-for-jobs scheme and the likes of Medair and the UN have been embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment.

Among the most vulnerable victims are women of colour, and much of the harm caused, professionals say, is rooted in colonialism, both as a root cause of global poverty and in the way development work done by the sector replicates the same systems: structures that place Europeans and Americans in authority over those they “develop”. As more women of colour find their power, however, they're using it to start breaking those colonial cycles.

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"I think the most disturbing thing about the aid sector is the amount of power it has over people's lives and the massive imbalance of power between the so-called beneficiary,” says Shaista Aziz, a former aid worker and journalist.​​

Aziz co-founded the platform NGO Safe Space with Alexia Pepper de Caires in the wake of the 2018 sexual misconduct scandals involving two of the UK’s biggest charities, Oxfam and Save the Children, and the emerging #AidToo movement where women came forward with their own experiences. A 2017 study found that 86 percent of aid workers had a colleague who suffered sexual abuse. 

Aziz set up to the NGO to expose "how the colonial aid sector is really hurting Black women and women of colour in the Global South and the racism and misogyny minority women who work in the sector face.”

Even though there have been two decades of advocacy work dealing with these issues, this is the first time it's taken place through an intersectional lens, Aziz adds.

It's conducted high-level advocacy, contributed evidence to inquiries led by the UK Parliament's Women's Equality Commission on sexual harassment in the workplace, and the International Development Committee on sexual exploitation in the Aid sector.

"It’s almost impossible to hold this sector to account – there is zero transparency of how power is weaponised in day-to-day operations,” Azis says.

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Sexual abuse takes place on a spectrum of harm, according to women working in the field. There are also everyday microaggressions, racism and lack of progression impacting BAME staff in international NGOs, and unequal pay and safety conditions.

Stephanie Kimou, originally from the Ivory Coast, focuses on family planning and reproductive health work in Francophone Africa. She founded the consultancy PopWorks that helps other actors implement interventions.

"Little did I know that the development sector is not about elevating Black people…It's very much about Black issues as an issue that needs to be solved. I decided I could do this work differently”.

In 2018, she created an all-Black space on social media –#blackwomenindev – for people who work in Africa, especially for people in the diaspora.

"Being a black woman is invaluable and places us in an interesting position where we should have more power because we are working within communities that reflect our own identities," she says. #Blackwomenindev, Kimou explains, is a place to vent, and exchange ideas, acting as a safe space with now 4,000 women in the group. 

Transforming the sector is not likely to come easy.

"There is an assumption that people working in the sector are inherently not part of the problem, which is a huge barrier to change," says Camille Barton, founder of the Europe-based Collective Liberation Project – an organisation that trains people on how to recognise and fight oppression in their communities.

"We've developed a theory of change that revolves around just looking at policy and where the money is going and not understanding relational ways of being, and what perpetuates these patterns of domination.”

To get past that, Barton says we have to "really look at ourselves and understand what our positionality is…rather just assuming, 'because I work at an [international NGO], of course, I'm not going to perpetuate oppression'”.

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Barton works with organisations to look at these issues using embodiment techniques that she says have been taken up in some international development organisations.

Experiential training models are being used more widely, such as Fearless Futures' work, founded by Hanna Naima McCloskey. Spurred by witnessing inequities in the UN system and wanting to educate on unconscious bias in more than a short-lived training video, McCloskey's approach is collaborative and arms organisations with tools to create sustainable change.

"What it means to listen to the testimony in a space of your colleagues whose experience you might never have heard before, but who at this moment, feels comfortable sharing it with the wider group – that's very hard for people to unlearn," she says.

Having informed white colleagues eases the burden on people of colour being the educator all the time. "You end up being the voice for all black and brown people when really, that shouldn't be something that's put on your shoulders,” says Bonolo Madibe, who got into the sector hoping to create social change.

Nearly all of the women VICE World News spoke to iterated the need for more buy-in and diversity among leadership to change power dynamics. 

There is still a lack of solidarity between white women who get to the top and women of colour trying to get there, says Leila Billing, a consultant who looks at the sector’s inequalities.

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That representation lacks in other fundamental positions too, including those overseeing projects on the ground, known as programme work.

Even people who speak a country’s local language, have experience working there, whose family and heritage is from there, and so are deeply aware of the culture, "still aren't selected for [sought after] programming jobs over other people who perhaps look more like management, of course, it has a racial dimension too”. 

As well as occupational segregation, Billing says the lack of engagement of young people is problematic, considering their demographic dominance.

"When you try and bring in young people of colour who are really politically conscious – they understand issues around concentrations of power, and have a strong understanding of colonisation, feminism and black feminist critical thoughts – there's a huge amount of defensiveness in these northern institutions to engage. There's this real fear, actually.”

Those who work on the decolonisation agenda say aid organisations in their current form can harm rather than improve the lives of the people they aim to serve.

The sexual abuse scandals demonstrate that, but everyday inequities can also be detrimental, although difficult to measure because they are mostly anecdotal. It's one of the challenges decolonising the sector, says Kimou, the PopWorks founder. Figuring out what data is needed to understand that at scale requires the buy-in and resources that aren't there yet. 

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However, part of PopWorks’ mission is to facilitate organisations to envisage doing development differently and dismantling some of the white supremacist paradigms in the sector through education on the impacts of colonisation, racism in international development, exploiting the trauma of Black people, and white saviourism.

Nafula Wafula helped form a pan-African grassroots gender justice network in Kenya to advocate for better funding models because they don't tend to reach community organisations and are often trend-orientated.

There are currently smart African-led solutions, Wafula says, highlighting the African Medical Research Foundation's anti-FGM work, which helped devise an alternative initiation for girls without circumcision that’s becoming a new cultural practice. 

Kimou also says the onus should be on donors to push international NGOs to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion; otherwise, there is no moral imperative to change.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in some ways, has been a game-changer, as restrictions on movement and urgency have helped mobilise money more quickly to communities in need rather than to European or American NGOs via bureaucratic methods.

"That's what we always wanted," says Kimou, "The question is how to make that the new normal."