Saranel Benjamin: "We can’t just say we’re ‘doing decolonisation’ and think we’ve done a good job"

Former anti-apartheid and anti-poverty campaigner Saranel Benjamin tells Rebecca Cooney why tackling the sector’s colonial history is the best kind of existential crisis for Oxfam

Just over a year ago, Saranel Benjamin sat in front of an interview panel at Oxfam GB and made an uncompromising declaration.

“If you’re serious about radical transformation, then I’m the person you want to have,” she told the interviewers.

“But if you’re not serious, don’t waste my time. I can go somewhere else.”

Benjamin was hired as co-director of gender justice and women’s rights, becoming the first woman of colour in Oxfam GB’s 70-year history to sit on its senior leadership team.

The charity’s recent history has been turbulent to say the least – it was at the epicentre of the safeguarding scandal that erupted in February 2018, after allegations of sexual misconduct by male Oxfam staff members during the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake were published in The Times newspaper.

The scandal went on to engulf much of the international development sector, and for Oxfam led to massive reputational damage, a fall in donations, a change of chief executive and about 100 jobs being lost.

“If someone had approached me five years ago to work at Oxfam I’d have said no,” Benjamin, who is now head of partnerships at the charity, says.

“Oxfam had a reputation among people of colour that it was not the best place, for particularly women of colour, to work in.”

But, she says, her appointment – and that of Danny Sriskandarajah as chief executive in the autumn of 2018 – demonstrates that the charity’s difficulties have created a genuine appetite for change.

At the heart of the vision Benjamin put forward when pitching for the job were the twin notions of decolonisation – moving away from the unequal power structures that reinforce the legacy of colonialism – and intersectional feminism – the political outlook that recognises that different types of privilege and discrimination, such as gender, race, class, sexuality and disability, intersect and interact with each other.

Intersectionality recognises that a white woman and a black woman, for example, may both encounter discrimination, but will still have markedly different experiences within that, and a holistic response is therefore required.

One eye on history

Benjamin’s own politics were shaped by her experiences growing up in a segregated township in KwaZulu-Natal, on the east coast of South Africa. She keeps one eye firmly on her history, describing herself as “the descendant of indentured labour” – her ancestors were shipped in from India under British rule to work South Africa’s sugar plantations.

She witnessed first-hand the discrimination and violence meted out by the racist apartheid regime – but also the ways in which the Indian community, although oppressed by apartheid, were still treated better than the black population. This strategy was deliberate, she says, using an Indian middle class “to create a division, a buffer, between black and white”.

“You could go through life in the Indian community in a segregated township without being active in the struggle against apartheid, in your own little preserve of conservatism,” she says.

But both of Benjamin’s parents were politically active members of the ANC, so politics, and the racism they experienced, were discussed all the time at home. As a teenager she went door-to-door campaigning against racist government policies.

“My whole life has been one big anti-racism struggle,” she says. “There has never been any moment in my 48 years of existence that I haven’t been an activist.”

She began studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1991 as part of its first desegregated cohort, and worked in the ANC’s Durban offices in the run up to the 1994 election, meeting Nelson Mandela on several occasions. “He remembered who I was and knew my name,” she says. “I always found that an incredible quality of his, [the ability] to make people feel special.”

But despite her admiration for Mandela, Benjamin herself remained politically independent, aligning herself with the Black Consciousness Movement advocated by Steve Biko rather than the ANC.

After the 1994 election, she says, “we had a brief period of about two years where we were basking in the afterglow of democracy”. But as it became clear that the economic policies of the new government would do little to alleviate the poverty of many in the country, particularly the black communities, new social movements began to emerge, using the skills activists had developed during the anti-apartheid struggle.

In the years that followed, Benjamin’s roles at a trade union and at the Centre for Civil Society involved working on programmes that were funding recipients of development organisations she would later work for in the UK.

The experience, she says, gave her a keen awareness of the power dynamics at play in the international development relationship. She found “hugely burdensome” reporting requirements were regularly “offloaded” by international organisations onto the local groups, often using templates that were designed without their input and were inappropriate for the local context.

Then there were the summer months, which Benjamin and her colleagues wryly nicknamed “the season”, when donors would come to visit the projects they had helped to fund.

“It’s almost like aid tourism,” she says. “You’d be pulling out all the stops, like a circus animal jumping through hoops, to make sure you’re giving them a good experience so you’re memorable enough for them to give you money again in the years to come.”

Most of the visitors, she noticed, were white men, a dynamic she would come to understand better when she moved to work in the international development sector full time.

Saranel Benjamin photographed at home by Colin Stout

When the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, a man who had previously faced allegations of sexual assault and corruption, won the 2009 election, Benjamin was “completely heartbroken”.

In a state of “absolute depression” and in need of a break, she moved to the UK, initially operating as a consultant as well as completing a PhD in development planning at University College London, before joining War on Want as an international programme officer.

“I didn’t imagine I would be here for 10 years,” she says. “But then I came here and realised – my God, the empire still lives on, there’s more racism to fight here; might as well stay and take that on as well.”

Working at the other end of international development, in the global north headquarters of organisations operating in the south, was like “getting a look behind the scenes at the shock and horror of it all”, Benjamin says.

The first thing she realised was that the reason her projects in South Africa had mostly been visited by white men was that they made up the majority of the workforce, so many key decisions were made with little input from people in the global south, or people of colour.

“I realised how north-centric it is – how very little space our voices in the global south actually had where those decisions are made about which programmes to fund, and how to do it,” she says.

Compliance and risk work was being triggered by institutional donors, then international development organisations shifted that burden further down the stream, Benjamin explains.

“Projects were being developed here in the north to cater to what the donors were giving to, rather than fully engaging with the political struggles and context of the global south,” she says.

In addition, she says, this had an impact on internal cultures. “I have experienced rabid racism in the international development organisations I have worked for – everything from tone policing, being stereotyped as the ‘angry, ranty, black woman’, being ignored in meetings where often I was the only person of colour, having my work, ideas, knowledge, stolen by white feminists and used by them publicly and shamelessly,” she says.

Racist systems within international development organisations have kept people of colour in lower-grade posts, while strategic roles remain dominated by white people, Benjamin argues – which allows “the colonial administration of grants” to continue. Her attempts to combat this in the past were met with accusations of “weaponising race”.

When asked whether she was surprised by the safeguarding scandal, she pauses.

“It was an absolutely horrific thing that happened; it should never have happened and my heart broke for all the women of colour who were on the receiving end of that,” she says.

But no, she was not surprised. “The whole sector is a legacy of colonialism – it still has its roots deeply, deeply embedded in a colonial legacy and it has engaged in a practice of silence,” she says.

“As a result there hasn’t been any conscious, active disruption of that dynamic, and that plays itself out in a variety of ways: what happened in Haiti was one example.”

But, she says, the scandal did serve as a wake-up call to international development charities – albeit one that many chose not to fully hear, instead focusing solely on safe­guarding rather than the wider gender, racial and colonial power dynamics that Benjamin argues were integral to the events in Haiti.

Decolonising development

There are those, like Alexia Pepper de Caires of the pressure group NGO Safe Space, who argue that separating the good work the international development sector does from its colonial past is fundamentally impossible, that decolonisation cannot be done.

But Benjamin is more optimistic. “I think we have to try – I don’t think we can sit back and not do it,” she says.

“Oxfam is one sliver in the supply chain of international development. If you’re going to decolonise development you have to do it across the whole supply chain from the donors all the way down.

“But you have to start somewhere, and I can’t think of anywhere better to start than the organisation that you are actually working in.”

In a way, the decolonisation process is an “existential crisis” for Oxfam, and international development as a whole, Benjamin says. “If we’re saying that we’re decolonising the model, and that power and resources need to shift to the global south, what then is our role?”

But, she says, this crisis is one that many in the organisation are welcoming. “People are excited by it, they are relieved by it,” she says. “The fatigue that had set in, the sense of feeling quite useless and in despair over it, has gone. The opportunity for change has reinvigorated people’s energies, and they want to get behind it and see it happen.”

Benjamin has led the creation of two Oxfam teams, one focusing on the external decolonisa­tion process – programming, campaigning, fund­raising and supporter engagement practices – and the other on Oxfam’s internal culture.

The charity is also examining which roles can be moved to the global south, and where that might genuinely help to shift power.

It has also created a full-time, paid role with a focus on racial justice, which she is pleased about: “Normally… people of colour have to do this kind of work on top of our day jobs.”

The jobholder will be responsible for leading the development of a racial justice framework, which, crucially, will include accountability mechanisms to ensure people of colour within Oxfam and the southern women’s rights, anti-racism and youth movements the charity works with can measure its progress.

“We can’t just say we’re doing decolonisation and think we’ve done a good job,” Benjamin says. But she acknowledges that turning around an organisation the size of Oxfam, let alone tackling the wider ecosystem in which it operates, is “a mammoth task” that will require a “lifetime commitment for the organisation” and the individuals within it.

“Sometimes it can be quite fatiguing being in the sector and trying to transform it when it’s not moving anywhere,” she says.

“I know for me, and a lot of colleagues and peers, this is a daily question you ask yourself – do I really want to do this every day for the rest of my life? Maybe I should just go and open a flower shop or a coffee shop or something.”

But if Benjamin’s outlook has one eye on history, then the other is fixed on the future.

“At the age I’m at, this is the last chance that I am going to get to bring about radical transformation in the sector. I’m not doing it for myself now – I’m doing it for future generations of black people, people of colour and women of colour who are going to come into the sector.

“They have a right to have something that is completely transformed and that is radical… this is my attempt to be a good ancestor to them.”

The fact that an organisation with the size and clout of Oxfam is starting to do this work is important, she says, as it will have a significant impact on the rest of the sector.

“We’ve started it and I’m excited about it,” she says. “That’s why I’m sticking around to see how this story ends.”

Saranel Benjamin: CV

Age: 48

Salary: £67,550

September 2019-present: Director of women’s rights and gender justice/director of partnerships, Oxfam

October 2018-August 2019: Interim head of research and programmes policy, ActionAid

2016 – 2018: Director of international programmes, War on Want

2013-2016: Senior international programme officer: informal economy, War on Want

2012-2016: Researcher PHD student, Development Planning Unit, UCL

2006-2014: Director, South Development Consultancy Services

2006-2009: Development consultant, Advocacy Research and Training Consultancy

2002-2005: Programme manager, Centre for Civil Society

1995 – 2001: Project co-ordinator, Workers College

Hobbies: Running, cooking and reading.

Influences: “My experiences have been given the power of expression because of the black women and women of colour who have spoken out about racism in development before me. These brave trailblazers have included Althea Rivas, Robtel Pailey, Everjoice Win, Pontso Mafethe and Bella Matambanadzo.”

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