I’ve worked in International Development in a variety of roles for the past twenty years, including as Executive Director of AbleChildAfrica between 2004 and 2011. Since then, I have worked as a consultant offering support with grantmaking and learning and more recently as both a consultant and coach helping individuals and organisations build cultures of care. Over the years, I have felt increasingly frustrated by the inequity in our practice, and the way we treat ourselves and each other and have become convinced that the way we approach our work needs to shift radically.
In 2018 I initiated an online project called Healing Solidarity. It is rooted in the question of how we might re-imagine international development and try to solve some of the perplexing questions that have plagued this sector. Participants in online Healing Solidarity events have discussed how overly restrictive funding and complex bureaucracy impacts the effectiveness of work and leads us to focus on simplistic outputs rather than the complexity of long-term change.
They have also highlighted the racism inherent in the assumptions many in the sector make about what is risky and who has capacity, the lack of diversity in terms of who is hired, as well as the under-valuing of lived experience. Speakers have also explored how working cultures often become toxic, prioritising getting things done over building relationships that would better support long-term objectives.
The Healing Solidarity events have profiled people and organisations who are trying to address these problems, for example, participatory approaches to grant-making being practised by FRIDA, the young feminist fund, UHAI Eashri and the With and For Girls Fund. As well as those practising deliberate approaches to care and support for their people in their work like Raising Voices, an organisation based in Uganda working toward the prevention of violence against women and children. Healing Solidarity has also shared work being done by the Advocacy Team to challenge racism in the sector in the UK.
The events encourage people to think about what we might do differently and inspire us to consider that it might not be possible to re-imagine development without turning some attention to ourselves. We need to reflect on how we may be replicating, within our organisations and relationships with one another, some of the problems that we are theoretically working to transform. And then we need to transform our actual practices and habits.
When we work in ways that are out of sync with our own values, we can also easily become unaware of our own limits and find ourselves working in ways that are ultimately counter-productive.
I introduced Healing Solidarity to reflect on these issues with other people working in the sector. This reflective project has pointed towards what I have started to think of as ‘feminist informed solidarity’, inspired by AWID’s notion of Feminist Realities, which is about practising solidarity for a world in which oppression and the resulting poverty and injustice are no longer our central reality. In which we are deliberately and intentionally anti-racist and de-colonial, not just in vision, but also in practice. In which our solidarity is rooted in developing healthy ways of working alongside and with each other, and in no longer assuming that a uniform kind of ‘development’ is the goal.
I think we can envision a solidarity that involves people in decisions that affect their lives, including how they are resourced and distributed. It would be a solidarity in which we would seek to build and practice internal cultures between us, and within our organisations. We would prioritise care for each other, and the people we work with. We would reject and resist toxicity and the ‘do-it-all’ culture we are all so accustomed to. In this solidarity we would understand ourselves to be fallible activists who need one another’s support to make practising all of this possible. We wouldn’t ever think of ‘going it alone’ or need to hide what we think or feel. These are the things that I want to call other leaders in the sector to start thinking about. Re-imagining our sector demands more than a theory of ‘shifting power’ or ‘localisation’.
COVID-19 provides a new emphasis here. It’s becoming more immediately obvious how connected we all are as the pandemic spreads across the world and also the extent to which inequity exacerbates its impact.
The change we want to create can no longer be imagined as ‘out there’ in other parts of the world. It needs to happen between us and amongst us. As we build solidarity with others across the world, we do it in ways that demonstrate justice and, that practice ways of treating each other and supporting each other.
Part of this is focusing on the kind of resilience that we need to build to enable us to work in ways that support change. Ways that as Shawna Wakefield described in the second Healing Solidarity conference last November, are practically very different from the kinds of things we’ve been concerned with within the bureaucracies and restrictions of our current development system. Interestingly, COVID19 is already forcing funders to become more flexible with resources as they see for themselves how strict bureaucracy hampers our ability to respond to crisis as it happens. We need a flexibility that embraces human care above rigid process.
Our current system isn’t interested in our whole selves. It’s only interested in our output, be that the reports and the log frames we produce, the numbers we stuff into Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning systems. It’s not interested in how any of us feel wherever we are in the system. As a result, in our current system, we can be exhausted and unconsciously, practising racial bias and inequity that are deeply unjust. And we can still appear to be doing well. We can still get funded. We can still be celebrated as the biggest and the best. We need to change that.
It is time for us to grow up and focus on building the world we want to see. Our vision has to go beyond slogans that call for an ‘end to poverty’. Instead, we need to focus on describing the ways we would relate to one another and treat one another when that world comes to pass. Then our job is to move towards that future. To live it in the present and to call it into being. Yes, there will still be lots of different things we need to do, to act on. But if we can root what we do next in relational practices that call that transformed world into being, I believe have the potential to reimagine our sector into something more fit for the challenges of today.