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Spotlight: Decolonizing Development

June 30, 2021

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Jenna Thoretz

Senior Manager, Global Initiatives, US

Over the past year and a half, the world has been shaken by the devastation of COVID-19 and global racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd. Although this unrest and upheaval has been a challenge to navigate, it has also pushed the humanitarian and development sectors to consider long overdue issues of racism, inequity, and colonial legacies in our work.

In recent months, there has been a growing call to decolonize development and humanitarian assistance. In May 2021, Peace Direct published a report calling on organizations to ‘Decolonize Aid’. The report shares insights from development practitioners in the Global South and provides recommendations on practical steps to begin the process. In June 2021, Humentum CEO Dr. Christine Sow moderated a panel with the Center for Global Development discussing the decolonization of governance in the sector. Discussions like these yield important insights and opportunities for action.

To begin, we must first acknowledge that their existence is rooted in colonialism, that structural racism is woven into the sector, and that there are massive power imbalances. To shift those power imbalances, we should critically examine the language we use. While this may seem small or even inconsequential, the way we discuss our work profoundly changes the way we view our work and partners. A small shift in language from “beneficiaries” to “grantees” or “constituents” can alter power dynamics. By changing this language, the sector asserts that individuals in the Global South have agency and should be included and prioritized in all aspects of program planning and implementation.

Of course, simply changing our language is not enough to bring about systemic change. Humentum contributes to a sectoral shift by addressing exclusionary government donor policies and by leading the work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within sector organizations. During the past quarter, we have advocated on behalf of our members to maintain and increase access to Office of Management and Budget (OMB)-extended flexibilities during the pandemic. These flexibilities are crucial to all organizations, especially smaller, local organizations operating in the Global South. We have also urged all agencies across the United States Government (USG) to ensure its implementing partners enjoy full cost recovery – an issue that often prevents non-US based, local organizations from accepting certain USG donor agency funding due to the inability to cover indirect costs. By keeping these roadblocks in place, the USG is ensuring that only international organizations with access to external funding and reserve funds can afford to access USG funding.

Internally and across the sector, we have also examined the role of diversity in development and humanitarian governance. The recent BRIDGE survey, led by a volunteer coalition including Humentum, found that only 27% of leadership teams and 10% of heads of organizations in our sector identify as BIPOC. Perhaps even more concerning, 58% of organizations do not have a DEI plan and have no plans to create one. Data like this is crucial to understanding the weak points in the sector and presents an opportunity for Humentum and other organizations to advocate for sector-wide change.

As Peace Direct and other organizations have acknowledged, none of this is easy work. It is difficult, complicated, and uncomfortable. However, we cannot ignore the realities of our sector any longer. If we truly want to see sustainable development, lasting peace, and global equity achieved, then organizations in the Global North must be prepared to cede power and transform the sector to be radically inclusive and justice oriented.

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