Decolonising international development, insights from the South

"One of the great pending issues of the international development community is the decolonisation of its practices. Is it so difficult to understand that we, the South, do not need to be "saved" by the North?"

by Damaris Ruiz

Nicaraguan feminist and Latin Americanist. A lifetime supporting women’s rights in her country first, then in Latin America. She has played global roles in developing the strategic plan of organizations such as Oxfam. She likes to innovate with strategies for change, she gives a lot of weight to narratives, changing imaginaries, and she believes that NGOs can do more for feminist agendas. She is part of the editorial board of Sherwood.

The concept of colonialism refers to forms of relationship where political, economic, social and cultural domination prevails, characterised by a totally unequal exercise of power. Colonialist practices impose an order and to subvert it requires critical analysis and collective action based on the agency of the societies that have been historically subjugated. 

We need to question the colonial heritage that continues to characterise the International Development Community (IDC) in its analyses, decisions and ways of working. In general, its work continues to condition its commitment to «development» and gender equality and equity based on belief systems and social norms, in which those of us who live in the South need to be saved by the North. This ends up creating an idea of superiority which determines what should be prioritised, where and how work should be done, who the subjects should be, and with whom the agendas should be pursued.

Views on the decolonisation of the IDC have been gaining ground for some years now, but it has not yet been mainstreamed internally and externally in the sector. It is a question of coherence not to keep postponing it. There is no doubt that this debate involves addressing and putting into practice models of power adopted by development institutions and NGDOs in the countries of the South. This is a model that undermines feminist perspectives that have been successful in influencing development agendas.

To continue this debate requires a narrative situated in what is called el Sur (»the South’’), which I will henceforth call los Sures (»the plural South’’), in order to recognise our diversity; a narrative that challenges the IDC, that helps to give it a new meaning in the roles that in fact correspond to it. I will try to draw on the approaches of decolonial feminists such as Ochy Curiel from the Dominican Republic, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui from Bolivia, and Rita Segato from Argentina, knowing that in order to delve deeper, it is necessary to go far beyond writing a short reflection.

IDC, necessary actors

International development agencies have a great responsibility in the construction of more just societies and, in contexts where states are no longer guarantors of rights, they are necessary allies. For this reason, their roles must be aligned with the human rights approach that is so often referred to in the sector. Hence, the sole purpose of questioning the colonial practices they still retain is to urge them to take serious steps in the transformative use of the power they hold.

Curiel’s critique of the ideological and economic dependence of the IDC and its impact on social, political, economic, cultural and environmental demands allows us to delve into specific practices that refer to an IDC that is not aligned with a rights-based approach. Let us look at some of these practices:

1. Misrepresentation of feminist concepts and proposals

It is clear that there is a pronounced appropriation of concepts that have emerged from feminist movements, such as: empowerment, transformational leadership, autonomy in all its dimensions, etc. The criticism comes from the fact that the political commitment is disrupted by an interpretation that differs from the revolutionary intention that coined them. 

For example, the way in which women’s empowerment has evolved since its original proposal, if we review how it has changed, we can see that the gap is very wide. It is used as a synonym to explain any activity, it is assumed that the IDC is the one who empowers, and communities are reached with decontextualised external elements. The de-politicisation of this process is achieved through the priorities that condition the possibility of accessing funds from calls for proposals from agencies with greater weight in the IDC.

Furthermore, there is a tendency to take for granted that the valid knowledge is that which is produced in the countries of the North, thereby imposing concepts and methodologies that have not been conceived in the South. This imposition leads to certain processes being perpetuated for the duration of the project, greatly diminishing the necessary political, economic and social sustainability of the initiatives.

2. Communication that victimises

The content and images used in the communication campaigns they promote in their countries of origin for fundraising reinforce an essentialist and instrumental imaginary, or an image of total violation. To correlate with what Segato points out, it can be said that the colonial construction of the residual value of the fate of the South is what needs to be dismantled and redirected from the images and messages used in communication.

3. Eligibility

Many governments are criminalising civil society organisations and using legal frameworks to hinder their work. It is frustrating when some institutions and aid agencies use these frameworks to define the eligibility of organisations, or urge them to acquire the corresponding legal status in order to «formalise» themselves and cease to be and act as social movements.

The calls for proposals from large agencies put national civil society organisations in competition with NGDOs, demanding counterparts that are difficult to obtain from the South. Furthermore, conditions of accountability are demanded which, in countries where there is a total closure of spaces, are impossible to fulfil or imply exposing rights-holders to greater risks.

4. Feminists in the IDC

Finally, without implying that the above exhausts colonial practices, the encounter and complicity between feminists working in the sector is crucial. Their roles should have an important place in strategic decision-making spaces. However, their performance often ends up being highly stigmatised, and putting themselves forward as feminists comes at a high personal cost.

Let’s decolonise the IDC

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