Is it time to decolonise the humanitarian aid sector?

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are disrupting the status quo, and whilst doing so highlighting the paradoxical nature of the humanitarian aid sector. Organisations are queuing up to pledge their solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement on social media alongside the appropriate hashtags. However, as advocacy director Angela Bruce-Raeburn highlights, whilst making such pledges, aid organisations are complicit in playing the dual role of “white saviours abroad and patriotic champions of democracy at home”.

In response to this age of extreme vulnerability, the way we define humanitarian aid and the concepts that underpin modern philanthropy is being questioned, with opportunities for fundamental change in the sector arising. Many activists, aid workers, and analysts are calling for taking a sledgehammer to the system, moving away from the traditional humanitarian principle of neutrality to ‘decolonise’ the aid sector.

“it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism.”

– Uzodinma Iweala, CEO, Ventures Africa magazine

Re-defining the concept of a humanitarian crisis

With developed countries like the US reporting the highest COVID death rate in the world, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement stressing the systematic inequality imposed on black communities, the face of vulnerability is changing. President and CEO of Oxfam America, Abby Maxman, has commented that Oxfam is “now looking at the situation in the US as a human rights and humanitarian crisis”. Such a phrase is something that we in the West are comfortable and practiced in applying to countries far away, however, when being applied closer to home it suddenly becomes far more unsettling.

Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist and political commentator, highlights the resistance that is present in the West to accepting a change of role from aid givers to aid recipients by posing the question “can we imagine the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to the US?”. When considering the answer to this question, the entrenched nature of our perception of what a humanitarian crisis looks like becomes highly apparent. Bruce- Raeburn also highlights how both the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID pandemic have exposed the fundamental hypocrisy of the aid sector; white people traveling to Africa to offer aid whilst racial and social inequalities are rampant at home.

Black Lives Matter protest, Chicago, USA.

The legacy of colonialism in philanthropy

Uzodinma Iweala, an author and CEO of Ventures Africa magazine,  stated in his opening address at the ‘Rethinking Philanthropy’ conference that “it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism”. Iweala argues that, as currently practiced, philanthropy preserves existing power structures and dynamics that cause much of the suffering it seeks to eliminate. Iwaela unpacks his position by explaining how our modern-day interpretation of philanthropy has been fundamentally shaped by colonialism. He states that for Europeans to justify the extraction of resources from Africa, the concept of colonialism as a ‘civilising mission’ was thought up. Under colonialism, Europeans positioned themselves as custodians of Africa’s resources until Africans developed the ability to manage them themselves. “This is the root of modern-day philanthropy in Africa” states Iweala.

In a 2015 article in The Guardian titled ‘Enough about aid – let’s talk reparations’ Jason Hickel estimates that around $97 trillion in labour was extracted by Europeans from African slaves between 1619 and 1865. Keeping this figure in mind, the mainstream accepted narrative of developing countries being poor because of internal problems, and western countries being rich because of hard work and good values seems absurd. Hickel argues that instead of talking about ‘aid’ and ‘charity’ we should start talking about the debt that the West owes to the rest of the world. This argument mirrors Bruce-Raeburn who uses the metaphor of “a band-aid on a gunshot wound” to describe the current application of humanitarian aid. Fixing the immediate emergencies does not address the underlying issues that were caused by colonialism, nor does it pay back the suffering inflicted. Iweala argues “if philanthropy is really about the love of humanity and changing structural dynamics that prevent the full expression of that love, we cannot hope to change the structural dynamics between Africa and Europe without acknowledging and righting the wrongs of the past”.

Portugese slaver ship.

An opportunity for change

Bruce-Raeburn states that “this should be a watershed moment for development professionals and international do-gooders”. She, and many others, are urging international organisations to move beyond what she labels “the hashtag engagement with black people” and instead make tangible actions that show them to be real allies against racism and inequality. She suggests that addressing the language used by aid organisations is one step in the right direction, for example, the elimination of using words such as ‘resilient’ when describing people. These words perpetuate inequality by telling vulnerable people how strong they are, whilst changing nothing in their lives. She also emphasises the desperate need for diversity in aid organisations if they are to work effectively and successfully, stating “no international organisation should have all-white leadership”.

There have been some positive examples of aid organisation’s reimagining their role in the face of the current climate. Oxfam has announced a 10-year strategic plan that will phase out the organisation’s presence in 18 out of their 66 country offices. This decision was made in recognition of moving from a confederation where power is held by its northern members, to a global network of organisations and local partners, shifting power closer to those they exist to serve. Whilst it’s encouraging to see that this period of reflection is instigating recognition to some of the structural problems of the aid sector, many have voiced concerns that it will not ultimately lead to meaningful change without disruptive tactics. Garatha states “rather than trying to create change in a rubbish system, let’s take a sledgehammer to the whole thing”. Whether we agree with Garatha’s radical approach or not, acknowledgment of the colonial roots of philanthropy that underpins modern humanitarian aid is an uncomfortable but wholly necessary first step towards progress.

UNHRC convoy, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.