The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the weaknesses of a neocolonial development sector and providing an opportunity to decolonise development and restore power to overshadowed local leaders, says Sabina Basi.
Why decolonise International Development?
The tidal wave of colonialism that washed over the African continent after the Berlin Conference in 1884 is receding.
Colonialism may have ended somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, when African nations gained their independence. However, the phenomena of white people (usually men) making decisions on behalf of black and brown people thousands of miles away, continues well into the modern day – albeit with the more digestible packaging of International Development.
I am a second generation British Indian woman, who has worked in International Development for 7 years. I have worked for Restless Development for almost the entirety of my career, as I believe our agency is committed to challenging these colonial power dynamics. However, there is always more work to be done. For example, I have only ever worked under the leadership of a white, male CEO during this tenure.
COVID-19 is challenging the myth of Western invincibility.
However, in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the white men are stumped at best and downright failing at worst.
Expats have gone home. Staff working for INGOs are quarantined in their homes. Neoliberalism is juddering to a halt. Western government aid departments are under threat. Western-style lockdowns are a laughably inappropriate ‘solution’ for the realities of densely populated, cyclone-ravished populations living in informal economies. Some of the most powerful and influential development actors in the INGO world have withdrawn from ‘developing’ countries due to loss of funding for their operations there.
All of this has created a momentary vacuum of power. A short stunned silence, an unexpected drop-the-mic moment, as everyone realises that the most powerful players in the development system are not infallible nor all-knowing after all.
Power is being restored to young leaders.
And yet. Despite it all, youth leadership is thriving. As the receding wave drags away the ‘logical frameworks’, the shiny UN vehicles and the capacity building workshops, it reveals an expanse of local people and community groups who have been submerged, and underfunded, under the mighty current of the Development Industry.
Young people have been the first to step into this power vacuum. We have already seen innovation, resilience and agility amongst young people at a scale – far beyond anything that is coming from the formal development system.
We all know how waves work. A prolonged tidal recession is a sign that something big and powerful is on its way. What will the next wave look like? Will it be white, male, European or American? Or will it be a homegrown, locally-led? Western governments will be more concerned with fixing their own economic, health and social problems in the aftermath of the pandemic crisis for at least another 12 months. Whilst they momentarily avert their white gaze, there is an opportunity to decolonise development and let talented Africans and Asians assert their identity, leadership and power.
Feature photo: From Craig Dean and Greig Robinson‘s Black and White series.
Read more about fighting racism in the development sector.
Sabina is an avid yoga, fitness and music fan who describes herself as an intersectional feminist with a passion for social justice. She attended a Girls Grammar School in Birmingham before studying a French & Spanish degree at the University of Bristol. After a year of travelling and working in South, Central and North America – including a job as a dance teacher in Buenos Aires and a waitress in Brooklyn – she moved to London to take up an Executive Assistant role at American Express. During this time she studied for a Masters degree in International Development at Birkbeck College in her spare time over 2 years. After a challenging 12 month period of failed job interviews, she finally joined Restless Development – a youth development charity – in 2013.
Sabina has worked at Restless Development for 7 years during which period she has held 3 roles and worked in London and Uganda. She is a programme development expert with extensive experience of cultivating partnerships, relationship-management, programme design, innovation, proposal development, programme management and monitoring and evaluation. She is a values-driven and authentic leader committed to inspiring and coaching people from diverse backgrounds to realise their full potential.
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