Tuesday 8 March 2016 The Guardian
Words like ‘human-centred’ and ‘grassroots’ aren’t helping communities, they just make donors feel better about patronising neo-colonialist practices.
International development professionals love their buzzwords. Empowerment. Agency. Community-based. Human-centred. Equal partnership. Grassroots.
I work for an NGO in sub-Saharan Africa that uses all of these words on its beautifully designed website, full of high-resolution photos of smiling African babies. We are all about “empowering the community” with a battle cry of “Healthcare for everyone!” We take every chance we can find to let you know that we, like apparently no other humans on earth, believe that health is a human right.
When I was offered the chance to work here, all I knew about the organisation was what was written on its website. I was impressed. A small NGO with high quality graphics? Smiling babies? Empowerment? Sold. They spouted all the words I had learned about community-based development in class, so they had to be doing things correctly, right?
Wrong. Oh, so so wrong. Here’s what I have found.
We talk about empowerment, yet our patients and our staff members, many of whom are beneficiaries of the organisation themselves, have zero input into how decisions are made. In fact, many of our lowest-paid employees are expected to use their own salaries to pay for work-related costs, leaving them effectively with no salary at the end of the month.
We talk about agency, and yet our board of directors is 100% white. Not one person of colour or from the beneficiary country.
We talk about grassroots development, and yet many of our programmes are defined by the whims of American “experts” thousands of miles away.
We talk about equal partnership, yet the local government offers few to no resources to our health programmes. What motivation will they ever have to provide these necessary services to their own population when foreigners are continuing to provide it for them?
As a person of colour, I cannot help but see how my parents must have felt in the post-colonial country they grew up in. People who do not look like you, who do not come from your socioeconomic background, who do not share any of your life experiences are the same ones who are making decisions for your people. And it’s difficult to question these practices when you know you are receiving services that would otherwise be unavailable. I know I am part of the problem.
We Americans continue to make decisions, citing positive feedback and eternal gratefulness from African beneficiaries as justification for not involving them in the decision-making process. They’re happy having access to the healthcare we gave them, so why take the time to involve them in decisions that directly concern their lives?
Empowerment and agency and human-centricity have come to seem like euphemistic ways to get donors to feel like they are not engaging in neo-colonial practices by defining and determining the presence of healthcare for populations worlds away from their own.
To address this issue, we know we should be actively searching out local leaders in the community, hiring should be more diverse, and foreigners should be taking the role of support staff, not local. So why don’t foreign NGOs make these changes, when they know that they should? Crude pragmatism is the most often used excuse. “We’ll have an American in this role now, but eventually, we’ll hire local staff.” Or perhaps, “We’re doing our best, and it was just too difficult to find anyone else who could do this job.” Or, as all NGOs state, “We did not have enough funding.”
However, practices such as seeking out diversity and being intentional about the role of foreign staff often does not require additional resources. It does, however, require a commitment to critical reflection and to a constant, rigorous analysis of whether practice is truly reflecting the intention of the buzzword. And “doing our best” cannot be good enough when the future of communities and countries are at stake. Yes, perhaps it will take longer to train local staff to do the jobs young Americans can do with their fancy university degrees, but it is the responsibility of organisations who have taken on this work to do it correctly, or at the very least, in the way they say they are doing.
Sure, formalised colonialism is over. But now we have to make sure we aren’t implementing an even more insidious, neo-colonial system that gives white, rich people around the world the power to make decisions for countries that are not their own.
Do you have a secret aid worker story you’d like to tell? You can contact us confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org – please put “Secret aid worker” in the subject line. If you’d like to encrypt your email to us, here’s instructions on how to set up a PGP mail client and our public PGP key.