It’s Time to Decolonize Development

By: Nupur Savani

This summer, the police brutality against Black people sparked a global antiracism movement in response to centuries of systematic racism rooted in European colonization of the Americas, Africa and much of Asia. It is important for development actors to recognize their role within racialized systems of inequality – including what they do to sustain these systems. The “civilizing” mission that drove imperialism has in many ways carried into what is now called “development”. As a result, in some ways, development is still a tool for spreading western/white supremacy. Despite the good intentions of international development actors, the development field can reinforce a “top-down” hierarchy that sustains globalized systems of inequality and dependency on the west. Through this post, I hope to explore these questions:

What is the purpose of development?

What are the racialized underpinnings of development?

How do we decolonize development?

My intention through this post is not create a fluff piece that glorifies Lifeline. Rather, I want to analyze how Lifeline’s approach differs and/or maintains mainstream development models and, in doing so, understand what development actors must do better.

The reality is that their good intentions do not always result in positive impacts, however committing to the practice of continuous improvement is a step forward. The picture above from the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005) has been circulating on social media over the past few months. It highlights the ways in which people practice and reinforce white supremacy. I have circled the ways that I have recognized and witnessed in the international development field through my educational, personal, and professional experiences.

As an organization, Lifeline aspires to create truly equitable partnerships with communities, and this is not easy. Communities are not just receivers of aid, and Lifeline seeks to uphold this ideal through the co-creation of programs with community stakeholders. The voices of community members are integrated in Lifeline’s program design to take into account cultural context, gender norms, and other community dynamics and values.

It is important that development solutions and programs are contextualized to the communities with whom development actors work. This is important for multiple reasons: community investment will drive the success of the project; demand-driven development models ensure that they are prioritizing local knowledge and expertise; and, there must be space for the most vulnerable and marginalized to have their voices heard.

Product design

Lifeline has seen the international cookstove market largely dominated by products that are designed to the features and interests of primarily western donors and funders, which are often higher tech, more expensive, and not designed in partnership with stove users. In the creation of its EcoSmart wood stove model, Lifeline had a team conducting research and development in Uganda for 3-4 years alongside communities. This commitment to centering communities is maintained through Lifeline’s stove production methods; the raw materials are locally sourced and the stoves themselves are locally produced in Lira. This approach to design and manufacturing ensures the creation of sustainable opportunities that are tailored to community needs.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is an important part of development cycles because it can be used to demonstrate program impacts, which is key to securing future partnerships. However, without an intentional and community-focused design, M&E processes can hold implementors more accountable to their donors than to the people they are seeking to empower and uplift. More often than not, these donors are American and European development agencies. It is antithetical – or perhaps reflective of the underlying values and structure at work – that development implementors are more accountable to those who are funding the projects rather than those who deserve more equity and power. This demonstrates another power asymmetry between the west and the rest.

Lifeline’s program design, monitoring and evaluation processes need to holistically involve community members. One step Lifeline is making in this direction is defining success indicators and measurements in partnership with community members. Despite this, Lifeline should strengthen its mechanisms of accountability at a grassroots level to ensure that there are no barriers within its structures for receiving feedback throughout the project cycle. Specifically, Lifeline should strengthen its anonymous reporting line to make it more accessible. It is vital to ensure that all community members have a voice and that their recommendations are incorporated into program design and implementation.

Language

Narratives about the communities that development actors serve and the work that they do may seem like a minute detail; however, language is an important indicator of power dynamics and structures. A review of Lifeline’s website and other promotional materials reveals some subtle, yet meaningful, changes in how the organization talks about its work – for example moving away from the word “beneficiary” towards using language such as “community members”, and replacing “project” with “initiative” — as a first step in creating longer-term and more equal partnerships. The people development actors work with are not their subjects and they are not powerless, thus their language needs to reflect that equality.

Process matters

The intentions of development actors may be noble, but the outcome of their work should not be their only focus. They should conscientiously review their processes to see how they may be discriminatory and how they may perpetuate inequalities. Being intentional about including these ethics in every step of their work is extremely important to ensuring that they are truly integrating principles of “Do No Harm” and gender mainstreaming.

Lifeline is part of a Technical Advisory Group for a research project conducted by the Global Women’s Institute at The George Washington University. The latest results of this research highlights the need for development actors to treat the people they are working with as experts. It is quite shocking to me that most development organizations do not already do this. This can be achieved through integrating methods of “meaningful participation” such as providing safe spaces for feedback and input, and incorporating their recommendations and feedback in every step of the project cycle.

Conclusion

The development system and industry may not always be overtly racist, however it is a microcosm of the global system of inequalities. The wealth of western countries was,

and in many ways continues to be, built through the exploitation of Black and brown peoples, while that same wealth is used to continuously undermine global equity through the pursuit of “development” and “progress.” For a long time, the development industry has treated Black and brown peoples as powerless and inferior. In doing this, they have prioritized white voices, exceptionalized white heroes as humanitarians, and stripped Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) of their humanity. Decolonizing development models treat Black and brown peoples as humans with their own agency, and seek to empower them and treat them as experts of their own cultures and contexts. This entails focalizing the humanity of peoples, not reducing them to a number, and not treating them like a monolith. The antiracist work that we do as individuals does not stop when we are professionals. Antiracist work must permeate every aspect of our lives to create a more peaceful and equitable world.

For more reading and recommendations to decolonize development, see the following resources:

How Not to Write About African Women and Development–
Article about reframing how international development talks about women and girls

Radiaid.com— The goal with Radi-Aid is to challenge the perceptions around issues of poverty and development, to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and to break down dominating stereotypical representations.

The people in the pictures– Save the Children report on their process and for producing images, including reflections from those portrayed in the images.

No White Saviors //How to be an Advocate Without Perpetuating the White Savior ComplexProvides critical advocacy, analysis, and education on the exploitation and portrayal of community members (primarily in Kamapala but Sub-Saharan Africa more broadly) by largely white, global north individuals/organizations.

Barbie Savior— A satirical Instagram page highlighting harmful representation of community members in the Global South

Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries-Brief overview of ethical considerations and practices when photographing community members

Leaving “Poverty Porn” Behind: Changing the Development Narrative //Narrative Project ReportOverview of the Narrative Project, which is a framework to transform international development storytelling

Storytelling for Good— Storytelling for Good connects you to a suite of tools and a growing community that can help you leverage the power of narrative to increase reach, resources and impact for your social impact organization.

The Development Element // How Matters // Reimagining Nonprofit Communications in a Hyper-Connected WorldGuidelines on communicating about the end of global poverty by How Matters. How-matters.org explores the skills and knowledge needed by all international “do-gooders” (professional and amateur alike) to put real resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles.

Ethical Nonprofit Marketers Tell Stories with Empathy – This article nuances broad issues with nonprofit communications.

INGOs, public communications and the quest for legitimacy — This is a more “academic” article but brings in a bit more of the research behind images and storytelling in aid sector communication

NGO Storytelling  – This is a volunteer-run website by “humanitarian storytellers” who talk about ethical storytelling. They have several blogs, podcasts, and interviews under the “ethics” tag that debates topics such INGO pay for photographers, informed consent, and how colonization has influence images of Africa.  They also have a platform to submit photos and stories to the website.

Leah Goldmann contributed to this piece.