By Steve Murigi
The recent House of Commons International Development Committee’s report on Racism in the Aid Sector is encouraging. But more needs to be done to shift the power.
There was much to reflect upon in the findings of the recently published report from the House of Commons International Development Committee on Racism in the Aid Sector. In drawing on my experience as a person of colour and actor within the international development sector (one based in the Global North), I’m encouraged by the Committee’s focus on working with partners in-country and ‘shifting the power’.
The report notes how the Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to shifting operating models whereby aid organisations had to rely more heavily on local partners and that this shift has triggered conversations about locally led development. Although, according to the Committee, it’s too early to tell if these conversations have prompted a long-term shift in decision making power or increased direct funding to local actors. In my view, however, we shouldn’t wait to see the impact of these conversations but should instead advocate for such conversations—asking the difficult, self-reflective questions—to take place more often, and explicitly.
At the heart of localisation is a seismic shift in the balance of power. Localisation manifests as locally led ideas and interventions, locally led applications for funding, locally led monitoring systems, local and contextual implementers and actors, and locally led definitions of impact and success. All of which are not limited to Global South vs Global North.
Who is defining the parameters for what localisation is and does this matter?
Indeed, the International Development Committee report notes that ‘across the global aid sector, racism manifests in decisions around whose expertise we value’ adding that evidence put forward to the Committee suggests that ‘institutions in high income countries like the UK assume they have the knowledge and best practice to assist people in low- and middle-income countries’. Definitions, and the origins of those definitions, do, therefore, matter.
When the conversation of localisation is led by mainly Global North voices, and those with the most power and resources, there is a risk that the actions arising from those conversations are reactive and performative, when what’s needed is an overhaul of the existing system.
Why localisation and why it should be important to donors
Put simply, localisation is the right thing to do – it’s ethical, it’s more effective and it has more sustainable impact. It encourages organisations to be more inclusive and, as a sector, live out our highest ideals.
Localisation will enable the international aid sector to start to dismantle colonial legacies, instead of perpetuating them, and correct the mistakes of our past. It will allow us to democratise ideas and learnings and make way for home-grown solutions and interventions, encouraging greater local participation and engagement and more sustainable impact and ownership.
Localisation also strengthens collaboration because interventions become more driven by need and less so by donors.
Finally, it’s important to remember that donors too are changing. They are more connected and expect higher levels of accountability. They want their support to feel more purposeful and align with their own views of the world – and their world views, just as much as ours, are also changing as they, and we, become more informed. These newer audiences-turned-donors want more accurate representation, more nuance, and more context. They are more concerned with how development work intersects with race and politics. In short: they are also pushing for a change to redress the power imbalance.
Racist attitudes also play out in the narrative that local organisations are 'high risk' and need 'capacity building'.
In its report, the International Development Committee quite rightly reflected that ‘racist attitudes also play out in the narrative that local organisations are ‘high risk’ and need ‘capacity building’. What if, as the Committee’s report recommends, donors instead ‘recognise racism in the sector’ and in response look to address the structural practices that contribute to a biased and outdated system?
Funding Models and Mechanisms - redefining the outdated
Many NGOs based in the Global South will not have bountiful or flexible resources to compete in the funding market, and a base move by bigger charities to the South will only exacerbate the problem by drowning out growing, locally led organisations. Many organisations invest significant time and resources participating in what are very competitive bidding processes and those costs are typically not covered when the grant is received and worse still, are not recouped when the grant is unsuccessful. Localisation can only be successfully implemented when small local and locally led organisations are no longer forced to incur unreasonable costs when applying for funding.
Additionally, payment by result frameworks that depend on an organisation’s ability to prefinance activities create a barrier to entry and relegate less-resourced organisations to perpetual sub-grantee status. The implication is that the organisation with the most resources gains even more resources, and so the cycle continues.
In simplifying the funding mechanisms and the processes by which local or locally led organisations can apply for funding and account for the money that they receive, a shift in the balance of power will naturally, and quite rightly occur.
Charities must better (read: confidently) articulate their value and the true cost of applying for funds just as they do for running programmes. This confidence, I believe, comes with being able to turn down less than viable grants and hence charity boards and leaders must give up defining their success solely on how much they raise. One must ask, what type of funding is it? What does it allow us to do? And how much time is the organisation spending managing and reporting on the grant. This is the true cost!
We should not continue to passively accept archaic processes as measures of accountability – accountability, after all, does not have to equal complexity. Likewise, demonstrating value for money should not mean running less than viable programmes where reporting is the most consuming part of the work.
Decision Making: what makes on an expert?
There is, undoubtedly, and as the Committee’s report notes, a need to create space for more local actors to actively participate, and lead, decision-making processes. To do this, we need to redress the power imbalance of expertise by overturning how we as a sector attribute value to experience. The current skewed sense of expertism sees many INGOs with a presence in the Global South fly in expert personnel who often command decision-making positions and who then draw in local actors, as needed, for learning or validation. Consequently, these local actors only contribute to decision making when their contribution, based on their expertise, could be considerably more.
Organisations need to go beyond tokenistic gestures of inviting local actors to the table as temporary participants and observers, which only serves to maintain a power imbalance that influences discussions and outcomes, and instead make room for local actors to become the decision makers by sitting on boards and occupying leadership positions.
Furthermore, eradicating concepts such as ‘international experts’ and bringing in paid expatriates to oversee or play advisory roles is fundamental to the localisation agenda as this postulation of hierarchy, and often disparity of pay, helps perpetuate an imbalance of power. Instead, there needs to be a redefinition of lived experience in which experience is not considered a soft attribute but is instead assigned credential and value.
Language – rebalancing the narrative
If we are to truly represent locally led ideas, interventions, and progress then we must, without contest, refrain from using ‘saviour’ language that disempowers local communities, and which as the Committee recognises in its report ‘undermines the possibility of equitable partnerships and strips individuals of their identity and agency’. Such language robs communities of their agency and dignity and paints an incomplete picture of the landscape and of the issues. Moreover, it cloaks colonial attitudes by normalising undignifying language.
To legitimately transform international aid so that localisation is truly at the heart of what we do, much needs to change. Language, attitudes, systems, and the sectoral culture all need to evolve. The International Development Committee’s report suggests that a shift in perspective is beginning to emerge through a changing donor landscape which is more self-reflective of structural issues around funding, and through anti-racism and decolonisation processes being undertaken by INGOs, but this alone will not be enough. We need a whole-sector approach which creates the space for us to ask the uncomfortable questions of ourselves and others, and to take action, because only by doing so can we have truly open, honest reflection that leads to change and puts the power back into the hands of communities.
(Image Credits: Watanda Ambrose; Jeroen Van Loon; Humberto Tan).
Head of Programmes and Strategic Partnerships