pasos decolonizar ong

Four steps to decolonise NGOs without dying in the attempt

How can an NGO from the global North begin to decolonize its practices? Asier Hernando Malax-Echevarria analyzes and describes four steps that every NGO from the global North should take into account if they want to change their practices and work with the society of the global South.

By: Asier Hernando Malax-Echevarria

NGOs are taking very seriously the reflection on their decolonisation; it is a matter of discussion among their coordinators, management teams, assemblies, country teams together with donors. In the Anglo-Saxon world, this is going on for many years, with more experience and publications, while in the Spanish and French-speaking world the debate is more recent.

Larger NGOs are moving their headquarters to the global South. Management teams, once dominated by white European men, are now more diversified and are increasingly working with local organizations and the humanitarian world. Reflection on localization is leading to increasingly high-quality responses, but this is still the beginning of a journey that needs to continue and will require effort.

Unlike the previous questioning of NGOs, which came especially from the Global North, the questioning of decolonisation comes from the Global South: from the organizations and people who have been supported by aid and continue to need it, but who demand change. This is not yet a questioning of their existence, but we must consider that it could begin to be. The Sherwood Way, therefore, proposes four steps to advance the decolonisation of NGOs:

1. Changing the decision-making process

This starts from a first legitimate question: Why do you decide for me? It is such a simple question, but the answer to it has different implications that force NGOs to begin a process of profound transformation if they want to continue to be a relevant actor in development.

A classic answer used to be «they say so from headquarters», which fortunately is no longer used as much, but another equally pernicious one is used: «the donor decides». In the end, decisions about projects are still taken far from where they are implemented and even further away from their protagonists. Even if NGOs want to make decisions together with their partner organizations, as is often the case, dependence on donors makes this very difficult and therefore a complex process to solve. As long as NGOs do not regain their financial autonomy, there is no easy solution. The complexity of simple things.

2. Accountability to partner organizations

The second challenge of decolonisation is accountability. This was the first of the recent aid crises: abuses in the use of resources by a few NGOs led to a questioning of the sector and a lack of trust on the part of those who supported them. This led to greater demands for accountability and the need to increase the number of reports required from partner organizations. So far so understandable, although excessive bureaucratization is proving to be a suffocating problem for civil society in the global South.

The problem is that this accountability goes only in one direction, from South to North. There is practically no accountability from donors and NGOs to partner organisations. It is therefore far from being a horizontal relationship and this has to change if we really want to take decolonisation seriously, thereby changing the organizational culture of many NGOs. There are more and more good examples of this.

Even if NGOs want to make decisions together with their partner organizations, as is often the case, dependence on donors makes this very difficult and therefore a complex process to solve. As long as NGOs do not regain their financial autonomy, there is no easy solution. The complexity of simple things.

Asier Hernando Malax-Echevarria

3. Review expatriate policies.

Equal pay for equal work, full stop. NGOs must end their excessive use of expatriates and the false arguments used for this. Until not so long ago, it was often repeated that «there is no capacity», which is not true in most contexts and portrayed an organizational culture that was prejudiced towards the countries where they operated. In reality, what tends to prevail is the security that comes from having a staff of the same origin in management positions, with salaries and conditions that are often three times higher than those of national staff, generating difficult dynamics in the country offices.

The Guardian has just published a hard-hitting article on this issue. NGOs that are serious about decolonisation need to start dismantling this system, learning from others that have already done so. There is also a need to overcome unjustified fears of decapitalisation due to the lack of competitive salaries in leadership positions or cultural prejudices that still exist at the headquarters level. 

4. Decentralise specialist posts

NGO headquarters currently concentrate a large proportion of specialist posts, whether thematic or functional. Those responsible for governance, women’s rights, monitoring and evaluation or campaigning tend to be concentrated in the Global North. The same is true of many of the researchers. Moreover, many of the regional NGO leadership positions are also there. It is time to change this. The positions that generate the position and policies of NGOs need to be closer to where they do their work.

Again, this is not a simple and complex issue. It involves taking power away from headquarters and handing it over to the country teams where they work. Generating NGO positions is not so much based on public opinion in the North but in the global South, or at least balancing it. Deconcentrating power from headquarters in the global North is the essence of decolonisation.

To take NGO decolonisation seriously is to rethink resource-raising strategies, partnerships with national actors, organizational structures, language, knowledge generation, recruitment processes, decision-making, and accountability. In short, it is a transformation that touches on both organizational culture and ways of functioning. This is clear from Peace Direct’s recent consultation of over 150 people in the sector or other articles with practical advice.

NGOs cannot afford to empty the term decolonisation of its content so that everything remains the same. The calls are growing louder and louder, Themrise Khan is one of them, speaking of racism and white supremacy on the basis of cooperation itself was created and must be reinvented. In the same terms, Sérgio Calundungo does the same for the special issue we are publishing today on the decolonisation of cooperation in Africa.

Did you find the article interesting? Do you want to learn how other NGOs are doing it? Don’t hesitate to contact us and we will help you with whatever you need. We can recommend consultants or experiences that are proving to be successful and remember that this project is maintained thanks to the support of people like you, who help us to spread the word or make a financial contribution. Thank you

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