Structural racism embedded in the international aid system that benefits organisations in the global north has left some in the global south trying to “play” an unequal system, according to a new report.
Published by international aid charity Peace Direct, Time to Decolonise Aid: Insights and Lessons from a Global Consultation assesses the colonial legacy of the aid system.
The charity held a three-day online consultation in November with 158 activists, decision-makers, academics, journalists and practitioners across the globe alongside Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security.
The consultation found that most organisations and donors in the global north were reluctant to acknowledge that practices and attitudes in the aid system were derived from the colonial era.
In addition to the prevalence of certain modern practices and norms that reinforce colonial dynamics and beliefs such as the “white saviour” ideology, the survey revealed that the influence of structural racism was so deeply embedded in the everyday culture and working practice of those in the sector that it had affected the way local staff regarded their own communities and how they engaged with INGOs.
Some of the language used in the aid system reinforces discriminatory and racist perceptions of non-white populations, said researchers.
The phrase “capacity building” was cited as one example that suggests local communities and organisations lacked skills, while other terms, such as “field expert”, perpetuated images of the global south as “uncivilised”.
Local knowledge was devalued, said researchers, because programme and research design were rooted in western values and knowledge systems, creating a standard based on the west that communities in the global south were required to meet.
The report highlights how challenges faced by individual practitioners of colour were amplified if they belonged to other marginalised groups, including women, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled community and the non-English-speaking community.
It makes recommendations to improve the inclusion of marginalised communities, including encouraging conversations about power, investing in indigenous knowledge, and making changes in recruitment, fundraising, communications and research.
The peacebuilding charity is calling on international aid organisations to decolonise aid and tackle structural racism head-on, and take the steps needed to transform power relations toward greater equality.
Dylan Mathews, chief executive of Peace Direct, said: “We believe that local communities are key to preventing, resolving and healing conflicts, but in order for them to play their vital role, the sector that funds, facilitates and empowers their work needs to decolonise.
“Only when this happens, through greater equality, will we start to see the global change needed to achieve conflict resolution.”