Decolonization cannot be cosmetic: Moving the development industry beyond rhetoric
by Twasiima P. Bigirwa
There is a renewed wave within development spaces where terms such as “decolonization” and “challenging the status quo” are present in ongoing negotiations around aid and development work. The idea, while welcome in theory, is still held in suspicion by others like me from the Global South who live with the daily realties of what that means. You see, dear reader, this conversation is one that is still being held and centered by largely Western voices, in Western universities, led in “African and otherwise study programs” taught by those who have not experienced these realities and can therefore not be the best-placed to articulate the solutions. The result is that we are in an endless loop, with promises unkept and systems of power unchallenged. It is prudent to return to the very root of this conversation as a reminder that decolonization cannot be cosmetic and will necessitate far beyond what we are currently doing to truly actualize.
It is in understanding the shaping of our societies that allows us to appreciate the industry of aid and development and why it is structured as it is. Appreciating this interconnectedness between where we were and where we are now makes us more likely to get to a decolonial future. For this, we return to how the haves and have-nots came to be. This forces us to once again reckon with colonialism, imperialism, and their lasting legacies. While this is the seemingly easier conversation to have, the missing and yet critical link is how these hangovers continue to shape our present-day reality and, even so, how this industry directly benefits and perpetuates the lasting horrors from it.
There are some threads of thinking that argue that these are questions of the past. Such arguments, of course, can only be made by those whose histories do not continue to shape their present. At the heart of colonial histories lies the foundation of export capital and developments that have resulted into a group of those who have more to give and those who barely have enough. The violent appropriation of land, people, and resources resulted in global hierarchies that present in socio-economic, legal, and political hierarchies today. This is what currently links global interests to exploitations. In turn, this system of domination perpetually situates Western and Global North economies as aiding the rest of the world. These economic and social orders lie at the heart of all development aid and work.
The frameworks for aid and development work are premised on the ideas that there are continents and places in the world that are poor and in perpetual need of saving. Such places are seen as incapable of self-governance, their cultures and ways of knowing primitive. These ideologies have guided and justified the way in which this industry has been been structured. The manifestations have been evidenced and reported through who has access to funding, whose voice is deemed legitimate, what is defined as impact, who the experts are considered to be, organisational hierarchies, and on and on. Decolonizing in praxis therefore can only begin by recognizing these paternalistic patterns of understandings.
Simply put, the beliefs that have been mediated and agreed upon must be restructured. This would mean that we begin to move beyond Eurocentric knowledge and symbolic gestures of inclusion that were never designed to grant real freedom. This would require that we stop ignoring the direct and indirect drivers of Global North economies and how that continues to trickle down and hinder any real or sustainable locally-led growth. This system of kleptocracy continues today in overt and sinister ways, like huge losses imposed by multinational organizations, backed by imposed agreements that further deepen economic debt. It is forced privatization of essential services such as healthcare and education that reconfigure the way of life of societies and have long-lasting effects still. Recently, it is vaccine inequality that stretches to entrenching racist immigration policies, the climate crisis whose mainstream discussions omit that the structural causes of this crisis have been fueled by Western countries. It is in the overt racism perpetuated by Western media, as seen with the differentiated ways in which countries respond to refugees, what crises are deemed to deserve global attention and why, and so on. The web of coloniality is maintained through geopolitical happenings all around the world, and it is dishonest at best to ignore these while claiming to be in service of those whose lives are directly affected by these dealings.
Decolonization can therefore only be reached through a reconstruction of power and a reimagining of the world. For those doing development work of any kind, this means acknowledging and working towards releasing the stronghold of economic power, access, resources, and space. And while it is true that this cannot cover for the moral, socio-economic, and political debts owed, perhaps it can begin to work towards some sort of remedy.
The work of re-imagining—and by extension, reclaiming—that which was taken from us will be equally laborious. This demands a reclaiming of indigenous ways of knowing and being as well as non-Western knowledge production beyond that which is taught and spoken at present. The creation of hegemonies of knowledge which has resulted into a construction of systems that center one concept of reality, needs, and concerns manifests regularly within development circles with what is termed as relevant, how impact is measured, and, by extension, who attains access to resources and is legitimized.
The approaches we take, if truly we are interested in decolonization, must free ourselves from the cognitive trap we’ve been in for far too long that influences how we speak about, engage with, and serve the communities we have defined as “in need of helping.”
Beyond rhetoric, this will begin by changing the narrative and language we use. It means critiquing what we define as important, impactful, and necessary, and—perhaps even more so—paying attention to who sets this narrative. We can no longer afford to impose our own ideas, however well-intentioned we assume them to be, at the expense of people’s lived realities. The Global North must realize that there cannot be dictated universal truths on governance, democracy, poverty eradication, or development priorities. The continued insistence on universality, erasing the appreciation of relevant contexts, unique challenges, and opportunities, is steeped primarily in the same kind of logic that allowed for the colonisation of people under the guise of spreading a singular kind of civilization. Because we acknowledge the role played by these impositions in destabilizing age-old systems, we must demand that we be the narrators and shapers of our own societies’ futures and collective and individual destinies.
Decolonization means putting resources directly into the hands of those from the Global South who know their communities best.
It requires that organizations invested in this work pay attention to how these pre-conceived hierarchies play out internally in big and small ways, from who has decision-making power and why, to the variations of how staff, partners, and communities are treated. Concepts such as “Africa market value” that seek to infantilize and perpetuate organizational injustices should be challenged.
Decolonization work also requires that those with power and access hold each other accountable, challenging the systemic way power continues to be wielded and often weaponized against the same communities intended to serve. Commitment to this cause means that all involved must be ready for a fundamental shift in power dynamics. The ways and methods to this can be endless, if we dare to invest in them. Ultimately, the goal of decolonizing development work has to be such that communities and individuals in the Global South need not rely on philanthropy or charity indefinitely.
There can be no band-aid solutions to reversing the insidious and perverse nature of coloniality. For those of us in the Global South, decolonization is a reassertion of self-determination and agency. It is redistribution of wealth and capital, access, and space for Global North actors.