It has been a long time since I wrote a blog and it is quite nice to be back.
In the past 5 years I have been more and more absorbed in my job and I had literally no time nor brain space to write, learn or explore – at least not through this medium. I also developed a total allergy to using a computer outside of work!
But here I am. In 2019 I am taking a sabbatical, and spending time traveling, writing, reading, and possibly figuring out what it’s next for me in life and professionally.
I am really excited and happy about moving on. The world around us is today full of opportunities and new more difficult challenges, and I still believe that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
In my professional and personal life I have been working in more than 30 countries including South Sudan, CAR, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Myanmar, Niger. I have seen and worked in L3 emergencies, as well as in natural disasters and early recovery and development projects. For all these years I have seen amazing people doing amazing things, moved by the spirit of solidarity, a global one that really transcends boundaries and nationalities. But in these same years I have also seen the incestuous relationships development and aid actors have with donors, with what they call “beneficiaries” and with their own staff.
Trapped into a loop of “the system is broken, but I am doing something good”, I feel like everyone that starts working in the sector gets, slowly by slowly, used to a broken set of relationships, a broken set of ethical standards and a broken set of justifications. Surely, this makes it impossible along the line to understand that if the system is broken, it is partially because we are really not doing much to change it.
To be able to reach the point where we look at the power dynamics that govern the aid and development work, and the political implications of it, and fix them, we have to first reach a deep awareness of that fact that we are the system.
Unfortunately this step is painful and complicated and the only comparison I can find is with the awareness that is necessary for a white person to understand what white privilege really means. As in the concept of white privilege, for development and aid workers the definition of what the “system” really is, is a question that deeply touches on their identities, motivations and cultural values. As for white privilege, it is often “easier” to define the system as being created, nourished and protracted by someone else, not by us. Someone that looks like us, acts like us, but that’s not us.
The sad reality is that aid and development are a form of heavy cultural, political and economical colonization. No matter how good is the work that “we” personally do, by working within the system, we are de facto legitimizing and validating it and therefore making it much harder to change. It is not a matter of intention, but awareness: we need to better understand how our cultural values, political biases and economical status and impact, affect the overall result, and make sure we minimize it.
The issue here is not only about the fact that there are, that we like it or not, political implications and power struggles behind the funding that goes into these two sectors. The issue here is also that these political power dynamics are replicated in the structures that operate within the “system”, down to the level of the power dynamics in between national NGO staff recruited from the affected population, and affected population that does not work for NGOs.
If we dare to move away from the politics and, for example, only look at these systems as an economic one, we are not better off: the humanitarian sector is by definition a black hole of money, with still little incentive for anyone to find or look at meaningful investments in the sector, because of perceived risk associated with the sector. Development work, on the other side, seems to have it all figured out with initiatives like the famous Jeffrey Sachs “Millennium Villages” project (yes, I am being sarcastic).
The same happens if we look at development and aid as a social system. Too often behind what we call “Behavioral Cultural Change” we are in fact looking at proper “Social Engineering” (the same word I have seen used when talking about Facebook and what it is doing to our society). Too often the cultural bias of aid and development workers are not factored in, with situations where 26 years old girls are sent to discuss important matters with 60 years old Village Chiefs in refugee camps, with no understanding whatsoever of how disrespectful that must feel for an elder.
The human relationships formed inside this system, and the power dynamics that govern them, translate into the form of the sexual abuses towards beneficiaries, multiple cases of sexual harassment within aid workers and peacekeeping soldiers, abuses of power, etc.
Yes, “the system” is there, and I have yet to know a single humanitarian worker that will not admit that this system is not working properly and that the fixes needed are so many that one does not know where to start.
A great tentative to start from somewhere has been done by Christina Bennett, Paul Currion, Marc DuBois and Tahir Zaman at ODI, where they used Design Thinking to map the experiences of users of humanitarian aid. Their findings indeed highlight the main issue: they found a strong desire from within the humanitarian sector to remake itself as a more adaptable, accountable system that recognizes people affected by crisis as agents of change in their own lives – yet the same sector is not able to detach its own contribution to the fallacies of the system! (I do strongly suggest everyone interested in this to read the papers here).
So, there is work to be done. I have had enough of finding justifications for working within a colonialist, abusive, misogynist, and paternalistic system that does not reflect my own views.
… and if you are someone that works within the sector that is reading this and thinking “but my organization does not do that” or “I know there are also good things that the sector does” ..yes, possibly. But that is not a valid excuse to cover up for everything else that is not working. The sum of the good parts of this system do not counterbalance the sum of the negative effects in the long-run. The equation does not work.
So, this post is to say that since I feel the direction of my life is somehow changing, I have re-skinned my old blog, and the result is “The Unwilling Colonizer” (theunwillingcolonizer.com), where I hope to write and discuss these issues more in depth.
I think I have done now enough within this sector to start re-thinking it. We owe it to ourselves to be able to be better at this (and frankly, we owe it to the human beings we make decisions about).
Welcome to The Unwilling Colonizer blog.
Feedback and suggestions are welcome!