COVID, colonialism and a call for a change of power

The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath – a global calculation around racism – helped bring the issue of aid to decolonization to the fore. There is growing awareness that aid recipient countries have too often found themselves victims of condescending attitudes and policies, to the detriment of those suffering from humanitarian disasters. In other words, people in countries that once ruled the world are reluctant to share power and resources with the rest of us, and this interferes with the ability of local frontline actors like my organization to manage. humanitarian emergencies with the speed and skill that you are capable of. We have known this for a long time; now, thanks to the Movement for Black Lives, we can tell it for what it is, and there are signs that people are ready to listen.

The question is, how long will it take for awareness to translate into new policies? Five years before calls for racial justice took center stage, the global humanitarian community appeared to endorse a shift in power by engaging in localization, giving local actors our due in terms of funding and support. ‘affecting. (I use the term “local” to mean “local and national” or “non-international.”) At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, many organizations, UN agencies, governments and donors pledged to honor and promote local humanitarian leadership. (LHL) through the Good deal and Charter for change.

But here we are in 2021, and organizations like mine – Community Empowerment for Rural Development, or CEFORD– we find ourselves fighting the same old fights.

  • The power imbalances between local and international humanitarian actors remain enormous.
  • While organizations like ours better understand the local context, we don’t sit at the tables where the big decisions are made.
  • The grants we receive do not adequately fund our overhead costs.
  • Short-term funding means that often when we have trained new employees, we have to let them go.
  • International organizations attract our staff with higher salaries than we can afford.
  • While we do most of the work on the ground, when it comes to reporting, our INGO partners sometimes leave us on the sidelines.
  • When funds from international actors are slow to reach us in an emergency, we must make impossible choices: delay the response or spend money we don’t have.

There are also new fights. Some international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) use the “localization” rationale to establish national organizations that then compete for funds with less powerful NGOs. It undermines rather than promotes the LHL. And some, always under the guise of localization, form consortia with local NGOs that give international groups access to funding that would not be accessible to them without local partners – but sometimes they then dominate this space and claim more than their share of the money. ‘silver.

Some donors did not want to be flexible in their expectations and deadlines, despite the pandemic, which forced local groups to take unnecessary risks. For people working safely from home, the health risks may seem abstract, but for those of us in communities – unable to get vaccinated and without access to adequate medical care – they could not. be more real: we watch our peers and colleagues die and wonder if we’ll be next.

What does the status quo mean to us on a daily basis? Because most donors only want to fund project expenses, we are understaffed. The salary we offer is low and our services are poor; for example, our medical insurance does not cover our families. Therefore, attracting and retaining qualified staff is a constant challenge, especially when INGOs are ready to hire people under our leadership. When it comes to equipment, we can’t afford laptops for everyone so some staff have to share. And we cannot afford to own all the vehicles we need to do our jobs. These limits are holding us back.

But there have certainly been improvements over the past five years. Broad acceptance of the LHL principle means that international actors are seeking local voices and perspectives more than ever before. Local actors are now more likely to be visible and credited in the publications and websites of our international partners. International donors are paying more attention to the need for the participation and leadership of local organizations, and more and more INGO partners are sending us funding opportunities. And the continued work with our INGO partners to create more equitable relationships is bearing fruit.

Over the past year, the pandemic has forced international actors to cede power and resources to local actors: many international staff have returned home, and this has had consequences. And the need for remote communications has enabled wider participation in important decision-making meetings.

Hopefully this momentum continues.

But we can’t afford to wait. In Uganda, we need to think about how to mobilize resources within the country to reduce our dependence on external sources that are unable to provide what we need when needed. CEFORD will likely pay new attention to fundraising from the Ugandan private sector and individuals and, although we are currently lacking the necessary capital, we are exploring the idea of ​​establishing student hostels and training facilities. and conference to generate income. We have not given up on our international partners, but we cannot count on all to move resolutely and quickly in the right direction.

Honoring, strengthening and funding LHL offers a way out of the wasteland of racism and colonialism in the aid sector. During the pandemic – the biggest humanitarian crisis in modern history – most responses fell on the willing shoulders of local organizations. It is time for international actors to honor their commitments by recognizing our contributions and our leadership, and loosening their grip on the reins of power.

Oxfam is committed to promoting local humanitarian leadership around the world. He is an active signatory of the Grand Bargain and the Charter for Change – global initiatives to support a transition to a more local humanitarian system – and he has supported multi-year leadership programs like ELNHA in Uganda and Bangladesh, where partner organizations were able to develop and implement capacity building plans, build networks of local humanitarian actors and access emergency response funds. (CEFORD was a major partner in the ELNHA project.) Learn more about Oxfam’s work at local humanitarian leadership.


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About John McTaggart

John McTaggart

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