Grasping things at the root: walking the talk on decolonisation and anti-racism

19 August 2020 Susana Klien Grasping things at the root: walking the talk on decolonisation and anti-racism

World Humanitarian Day arrives as the world continues to fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), grappling with its immediate consequences and starting to plan for its long-term impact. This day also arrives at a critical juncture in time, with two overlapping events that have tested the foundations of the aid system, writes Susana Klien, Saferworld’s Director of International Programmes.

COVID-19 has highlighted the world’s interconnectedness, but also its profound levels of inequality, poverty and systematic racism and misogyny; and the Black Lives Matter movement has (again) turned our attention to racism embedded in institutions and societies, and catalysed anger and collective action against racial injustice.

It would be a huge missed opportunity if during this crucial time, we fail to reflect on these events and how this shapes our personal and organisational journeys. At an organisational level it is important to acknowledge how our organisations and institutions are part of an aid system which has roots in colonialism, power imbalances, privileges, and white supremacy, and understand how this shapes our work. This is not easy, because we consider ourselves ‘progressive’, reflective, committed to ‘helping’ others – and we abhor racism and injustice. It is therefore difficult to think that many of our assumptions about the world, and the behaviours we display, may be influenced or could be supporting such a system (by action or inaction).

It’s even more difficult to accept that racism and white supremacy may spread across all areas of our work: our vision as an organisation, what we consider our added value is, how we conceptualise our work, what we value the most, where knowledge production sits, what we consider ‘expertise’, what power we hold and what power we recognise (and welcome) in our partners, who leads the work, who takes the decisions, and – very importantly – how resources are spent.

But despite this not being an easy task, there are some areas we could focus on (which have been highlighted by many people before):

Our staff composition is a start, because our people shape organisational systems and culture –although we are shaped by systems and culture too. Diversity and inclusion at all levels is fundamental – ensuring we do not use the words in a tokenistic way to avoid discussing structural power and privilege, and the ability of individuals to set and shape agendas.

We need to place attention on our leadership teams. Although having people with ‘lived experiences of the work’, or who are representative of communities we aim to serve, at Board and Senior Management levels is not a panacea, representation matters and it shifts conversations. Leadership can shape how we handle reflections on being actively anti-racist and gender transformative, and how to bring about organisational change. Leadership and staff can push organisations to open spaces for ongoing reflection on our assumptions about the world, to question how the system shapes us – sometimes inadvertently – because “you don’t have to be a racist to support a white supremacy system”, and take action. 

We also need to deeply consider how this is impacting the partners, civil society organisations, initiatives, networks and communities we work with, and our country offices if we have those. Many will be more radical in their thinking and actions than us, while others may feel removed from discussions around privilege and racism in the sector.

Although some may focus on addressing how systemic racism in international NGOs and institutions permeates recruitment, promotion and treatment of staff, the conversation does not end there. It also includes how racism and white supremacy are embedded in the aid system and how they shape our organisations’ funding, programme design, partner ‘assessments’, policy positions and so on.

We need to go back to the basic questions of what it means to work in solidarity with others, the need to stop being spectators of a world unfolding to which we don’t feel we belong, and how we can share the struggles of others. Let’s not forget that discussions around power, racism and colonialism (or neo-colonialism) are not new, and have been raised endless times by communities and local organisations – as currently constructed, power lies in the hands of the giver. So, we can build on experiences, evidence, work and voices of those who have already raised challenges and solutions – or want to raise them.

Lastly, but most importantly, and central to re-imagining the system, is putting people and communities at the centre of the work and decisions about us and our future as an organisation. Some argue that change doesn’t only happen because of values and motivation, but also because of practical needs (particularly financial and operational).

The aid system faced unprecedented challenges in recent months, from travel restrictions and difficulties in deploying international personnel, to the repatriation of international staff and closure of offices. Among these challenges, the COVID-19 crisis provided plenty of evidence that people in places affected by crises are always the first, and often the only, responders. They regularly lack resources and often work with only a handful of paid staff or networks of volunteers. Despite the opportunity this provided and the need to accelerate localisation commitments, there has been little change and the same barriers show up on many fronts, including within donors and our organisations. Meanwhile, local organisations and communities in places like Yemen, South Sudan or Somalia continued adapting priorities to respond to the pandemic and bridge across humanitarian, development and peacebuilding work.

I want to believe that change is here to stay. I want to believe that if this period has not pushed us beyond solidarity statements into having deep and uncomfortable reflections in terms of power, racism and colonialism; and on how this manifests in our organisations and the way we work, then we haven’t done our work properly. If this is not making us rethink the internal work we need to do and how we should challenge the system and donors, our reflections and discussions need to go deeper.

This is a unique time for bold action on our path to a decolonised and anti-racist aid sector which would accelerate power changing hands and true localisation. We need ‘humility in our understanding and acknowledgement that none of us know for certain the perfect approach, but that this will not prevent us from seeking answers and working with others to create a better world.’

Finally, discussions on race, gender, oppression, colonialism and power are emotional and exhausting, particularly for people who experience discrimination on a daily basis in overt and subtle ways. They are also difficult because so much of our organisational identity is at stake and linked to what we think we are good at, or what we thought our added value was. As Audre Lorde said: “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Despite a slow and challenging journey, we must remain committed to walk this road because another world is possible.


Photo: Protesting the Murder of George Floyd, Washington, DC, USA. Credit: Ted Eytan.

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