Adama Coulibaly Oxfam

A way to bridge the power imbalance between the Global North and South

An interview with Adama Coulibaly, Global Programs Director of Oxfam International

Adama Coulibaly, aka Coul, was born in a small remote village in Mali during the Sahel Great Famine. He survived through aid provided at that time. This childhood experience will later inspire him to devote his life to social justice and social impact. Coul is the Global Programs Director of Oxfam International. He has nearly 30 years of experience in international development and humanitarian, including 20 years in senior leadership positions in INGOs and the United Nations. He is a self-described lifelong learner who seeks to use his skills to empower other people. Coul is a values-based, feminist leader who is deeply committed to promoting human rights and advancing social justice.

The Sherwood Way: We would like to ask you, well, you are a manager of one of the most influential international NGO, but you are also leading Positive Minds that is a platform with optimistic and inspiring histories of NGOs. So, we would like to know where does that interest come from in your case to contribute with this positive stories and Positive Minds of international NGOs and the world that is playing?

Adama Coulibaly (A.C.): Thanks a lot, I’m really pleased to have this opportunity to chat with you as part of the Sherwood initiative. I mean, it is a very exciting initiative and I’m really happy and privileged to be able to contribute to actually that broader discussion that connects all of us around the world.

I describe myself as a born optimist and a chronic positive thinker. Why? Simply because I think I always try to actually see the positive in everything and always also try to approach things with a positive mind. That is what have brought me to actually create that space of Positive Minds, which I started as a blog. And also, there’s a newsletter on this LinkedIn, and it’s all about actually spreading positivity and using that positivity to actually tackle and address some of the challenges we are facing in this world, including around the inequalities, around some of the conversation like the decolonization and things like that.

I want to actually bring positivity and positive thinking into those discussion because they can quickly become polarized. Once the conversation is polarized, then actually you miss the big picture and the whole discussion and debate becomes about who is wrong, who is right. This is not a conversation coming to actually the conversation about the colonization and those kinds of things. It’s not a debate about who is wrong, who’s right. It’s not about a winner takes all. It’s not also a zero-sum game. To me, it’s actually about bringing as close as possible the Global North and the Global South to work together and address some of the biggest challenge this world is facing. And you cannot do that if the power, the influence and the resources are sitting in one part of the world.

And therefore, the other part of the world tends to have actually no power, no space and influence. I think we need to bridge that gap and bring those two parts closer to have a conversation so that, if I can say it, the whole will be bigger than the sum of the part.

I think this is about it. That’s why I’m approaching this whole conversation of the decolonization with a positive spirit, a positive mind that actually bridge the divide, the gap, the polarization for all of us to come together to find the solution to the challenge the world is facing. Because in the end, it’s about that.

TSW: What does the decolonization mean for you?

A.C.: What means for me, decolonization? That’s an interesting question. As I said in many of my writings, the word decolonization itself is not a word I kind of connect well with, but I connect very strongly in mind and heart with the spirit behind the words. That will bring me to why it means to me.

I don’t like the word decolonization, because if you look at the word decolonization, you can actually split it between the “de” and then “colonization”. To me, as someone coming from a continent that has gone through, slavery, slave treat, colonization for nearly half a century the moment you use the prefix “de” and you use “colonization”, I don’t like this word. The decolonization sounds in my mind like an attempt to actually undo something that is not undoable. That’s why I don’t like the word decolonization, even if it’s applied to our sector, international development and humanitarian.

However, the spirit behind it, meaning trying to balance what I will call the asymmetric of power between the Global North and the Global South. But at the same time also trying to address the same asymmetry of power within the Global South because the reality we have to understand that the power imbalance is just not about the Global North and the Global South. It’s actually also about how things also operate in the Global South itself because you cannot address one part of that global imbalance in term of power and not addressing the other part. Otherwise, you get things wrong.

In that way, decolonization to me simply mean creating space, platform, whatever you call it, to bridge the power imbalance between the global… As we said, the power imbalance in, let’s say, the international development and humanitarian sector. It’s about that. I don’t necessarily see it as simply a bridge, Global North, Global South, but also within the system itself. So, to me, it’s about that. It’s really addressing the power asymmetry within the system, whether that power is given through money, knowledge, influence, bridging that and balancing those relationships so that everyone, particularly those who are affected by poverty, injustice, inequality, have a space and platform for them to actually express themselves on an equal footing, if I can put it like that.

The reality we have to understand that the power imbalance is just not about the Global North and the Global South, it’s actually also about how things also operate in the Global South itself

– Adama Coulibaly

That’s how somehow it means to me. That’s why I’m so determined to be part of this fight because I think it’s to me also a way of actually fixing what has not worked  when we, particularly in this part of the world, become independent. I think we got the independency somehow wrong. Even after the independency, the power imbalance and asymmetry between the colonial power and the countries that were colonized like my own, that power imbalance has persisted until now. I think here we have an opportunity to look at things differently to kind of rebalance field so that we can all contribute, as I said, to addressing some of the big challenge the human is facing today.

TSW: How is happening this debate in international NGOs and in the sector? Where did you see more interest and less interest? Was the role that is playing, for example, from donors? The debates that are happening at the headquarters level and in the country offices is the same? Are you seeing differences between that? How the debate is happening in international news at this moment?

Adama Coulibaly: Let me start maybe from the political will, for shifting power, talk about decolonization and understanding that and working together to kind of balance the power relationship, that political will. I think is there both in the Global North and in the Global South, including, for the case of Oxfam, from Northern at least, that strong political will, is there. Because I think everyone has come to realize that the way the system has been constructed, and influenced by colonial thinking, is no longer fit for purpose, and it’s not the future.

So, either you take deliberate steps to kind of address that, and change that system or you will have at least down the road, you will find yourself in a burning platform, and then either you are forced to do it, or you just die. So, as an organization, I think that’s everyone is aware of that. And there’s that strong political will in both sides.

Now, where the challenge is actually how fast we go about it and how far we go. That’s where the challenge is, if you speak to leaders in the organization in the Global South, leaders in the Global South like myself, there is a perception that we are not moving fast enough and we are not going far enough when it’s come to the whole agenda for decolonization. If you speak to leaders and organization, not all of them, but some of them in the Global North, there is a feeling that hang on, this is going too fast and too far.

So, I think we got to find a way of reconciling that dichotomy. One side thinking that is good, not too far enough, and is too slow, and another segment that is going too fast, and it’s going too far. Then that’s bring to how do you kind of bridge that gap? I think it goes back to the what I was saying before that this shouldn’t be presented as a zero-sum game.

I think there was many years back the same conversation about gender equality. And until now that question persists that many men see gender equality as a zero-sum game, that means that take you from men and give it to women. But it’s not about that. It’s actually that nothing has been taken from men. In the gender equality conversation, it’s just about rebalancing and kind of lift up more women so that they can be on kind of more or less at same level in terms of rights and opportunities as men. This is, and I think they did hold decolonization and shifting power conversation should also reinforce that. That’s how bit of the challenge with some of the terminology used, because this is not about removing power from the Global North enough and giving that power to the Global South. It’s about giving more power to the Global South to kind of address the power imbalance.

We got to find a way of reconciling that dichotomy, one side thinking that is good, not too far enough, and is too slow, and another segment that is going too fast, and it’s going too far. Then that’s bring to how do you kind of bridge that gap?

-Adama Coulibaly

So, I think the conversation should clearly be around that so that at least the goodwill from both the Global North and Global South will be leverage and translated into a conversation. That will not be a zero-sum game, but that will be the sum of the whole is bigger than me the whole is bigger than the sum of the whole. I mean, that’s really how I see it.

Unfortunately, right now, I think, there is a lot of conversation because people are approaching this with gladly, so we find activists less, and therefore, you even hear people that saying that you got to take the power or it’s not going to be given to you, but this will create resistance in the Global North, including from donor sides. And therefore, what we are trying to achieve, in the end, we will not achieve that and everyone will end up losing. So, in a nutshell, this is what I can say, it has to be kind of everyone will win, if we actually go to this road.

TSW: What changes did you see and how do you see the international NGO sector in five years? In an ideal way, what’s your gun off international NGO in five years, and in 10 years?

A.C.: To me in five years time, at least my aspiration would be to see a large INGOs, because in the end, the movement has to be created, maintained and sustained somehow by large INGOs. I think the pledge for change in that regard, which has been spearheaded by Oxfam and other large INGOs, is a good step in that direction. So, to me in five years from now, my aspiration will actually be to see more and more INGOs in both the South and in the North, join in the pledge of change, because the reality is that the charter of change, and then the grand bargain, all of them had that kind of agenda.

In this way, I think the pledge for change, provide a new opportunity, and I guess a last opportunity to sector to actually come together to make a reality, this whole discussion about decolonization. So if you asked me in five years, my aspiration is to see first a kind of Critical Mass of organization, both from the South and the North, joining the pledge of change, which has clearly three key pledge in terms of for equitable and equal partnership, in terms of positive and storytelling that are kind of share and recognizing the space and the contribution of organization from the South, including also people who are helping, but in terms of also working together on changing the systems of the aid system, the system itself.

To me, how many organizations had that Critical Mass, I think that will have to be determined, but in five years, that Critical Mass has to be committed to those three pledges and then in 10 years to make those pledges reality. And I think if we reach there, and we really able, as a sector, to mobilize enough organization to be part of that and deliver on those three pledges, honestly, in 10 years would have gone a long, long way. I know the ambition is by 2030, which is less than 10 years. But I think still if it’s done in 10 years, is it good enough. I mean, this is this is what I will say, because that is in place and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s you just have to find a way to make that one work, because the reality is that all other initiatives for one way or another way, have miserably failed, that’s what I would say in terms of five years.

My aspiration will actually be to see more and more INGOs in both the South and in the North, join in the pledge of change, because the reality is that the charter of change, and then the grand bargain, all of them had that kind of agenda.

-Adama Coulibaly

TSW: As The Sherwood Way we are working so close to the social movements, first in America, but we would like to work closer with a social movement also in different regions and as Oxfam International Program Director, we want to ask you to, if you want to send any message to the community, globally.

A.C.: I mean, working for Oxfam, and looking at what we stand for, as an organization I think it’s right to say that, even if it’s right to say that, as an organization, we have a very strong stand when it’s come to social movement and then we describe ourselves as a social movement builder, and enablers. That’s the right stress and the right stand as an organization, because when I take for the case of Africa, if you look around, many changes, some of them with blood and sweat, but many changes in many parts of the continent, have come through a really social movement, some of them will structure and organize. And some of them that are actually spontaneous, particularly from young people, including online social movement.

So, if I have a message, I think I would have probably two messages for them. The first message and strong one would be that they can count on Oxfam as a partner, as an equal partner that will kind of leverage the knowledge, the network and the resources we can tap into, to actually support those who serve movement in the fight against inequality to end poverty and injustice. So that’s the first key message I want to say. And the second key message is that we, myself personally, but also as a Oxfam global program, but also Oxfam as an organization, we strongly believe that social movement is, let’s say, the most effective pathways to achieve lasting change, to address inequality everywhere in the world.

And I think, it’s about the power of people and movement is actually leveraging the power of people. And no single organization, including Oxfam can be powerful, effortless and enough to actually equal a very strong social movement and we have seen cases in the recent past, like Me too, like Black Lives Matters and many other social movements.

I’ve seen that the kind of profound changes, draws social movement are kind of bringing through not only a specific country, but to the world to every country globally. And that’s the kind of see thing we want to see and we believe in them. And I think, yes, I will just tell them that keep fighting for the right cause. And then you can count on Oxfam as a confederation to support your fight.

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