Talking about racism is not enough. We can’t afford another 50 years of apathy in the international system.
Marie-Rose Romain Murphy
The recent wave of citizen-led uprisings in support of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has meant that as Black women with over 50 years of combined experience in the humanitarian and development sectors, we can finally breathe. Our experiences of racism – both individualized and systemic – have been brought into the spotlight. But how can we ensure that the response to this watershed moment ignites a reckoning for our sector, rather than becoming yet another technocratic exercise with more ineffective, top-down monitoring?
Say good riddance to ‘neutrality
A reckoning first means letting go of long-held assumptions about humanitarian aid. The aid system has been built on the principle of neutrality which places more value on our ability to deliver services than to save lives and act in solidarity. If we were aid workers during the Rwandan Genocide, for example, our role would have been to observe and negotiate access rather than doing everything possible to intervene and defend people from getting raped and killed. How is that principled?
It’s no coincidence that António Guterres recently forbade UN workers from joining Black Lives Matter protests. Neutrality can no longer justify inaction or grave human rights abuses. As the protests have made clear, silence is agreement. Institutional inaction equates to structural oppression.
Dismantle our failed global governance system
A reckoning also requires us to settle the history of the foundation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions – the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization – that maintain the economic and political hegemony of the US empire and former colonizers. The ultimate barriers to moving our communities from passive ‘recipients’ of aid to equal partners are rooted in failed systems that we need to break down and reconstruct.
Our ability to help our communities is directly impacted by this failed system of global governance and international finance. Humanitarian and development aid cannot be divorced from the politics and power relations of this system, and until we tackle these things we’ll be treading water. Financial, monetary and trade policies among these institutions have entrenched poor countries further into debt, destroyed economies, promoted social unrest and fomented civil war.
Since the founding of the UN, we have been indoctrinated to believe it plays an essential and benevolent role in ensuring global peace, security, and saving lives in communities affected by crisis. But the make-up of the UN, especially the Security Council, is inherently unequal in its structure.
Crimes against humanity go unpunished if the alleged perpetrator has a veto-wielding member’s support (as in Israel and Syria). Sanctions are applied at the behest of the veto powers, devastating the lives of the poorest but yielding no meaningful positive change (as in Iran and Venezuela). UN military interventions represent the interests of the organisation’s founding countries.
Calls to reform institutions that are founded on, and perpetuate, unequal and violent global structures is futile. We should learn from the BLM movement that abolition is not abandonment. Instead, defunding and dissolving these institutions is the most effective step towards building a new system that is truly based on equity and justice. The countries of the Global South can help to create alternative institutions that are based on solidarity, and that benefit all.
Turn International NGOs (INGOs) on their heads
To enact notions of solidarity and truly shift power to local communities, a reckoning requires new board leadership and senior management that represent the communities that INGOs and other aid organizations claim to serve. Funding must be prioritized and disbursed much more widely to those on the frontlines of social justice and movement building.
If the goal of aid is about ending aid, then INGOs should have an exit plan and develop new metrics of success for their organizations that are centered around devolving power, money and voice to local communities, organizations and movements. Are they transferring knowledge and connections to these forces? Are they helping them to reinforce their capacity rather than taking funding, credit and human resources away from them? Are they ceding ‘market share’ to others as opposed to increasing it through the establishment of national entities in middle-income countries of the Global South purely as a fundraising strategy?
The aid system is exceptionally good at monopolizing the spotlight that’s generated by crises and overshadowing the bulk of humanitarian and development action that’s undertaken by the communities and grassroots groups that are ‘affected.’ Relationships based on mutual respect with local communities and organizations are essential.
The first step is to immediately cease the marketing of people in the Global South as passive ’beneficiaries’ of aid who need ‘white saviors.’ This narrative is harmful and misleading since it continually feeds and supports a flawed and grossly imbalanced global framework of power and relationships. Reductive and romanticizing imagery must stop. Instead, INGOs’ fundraising should be based on amplifying the dynamic work our communities themselves are engaged in.
The BLM movement encourages the naming of Black victims to counter the erasure of their humanity and their obliteration from collective memory. Names matter because they bring personal recognition.
At the professional level and in the context of the aid industry, recognition of local organisations and communities’ leadership is critical since it is part of a core socio-economic valuation process that shapes global perceptions, investment decisions and resource allocation. INGOs must name local organisations as part of a new narrative of cooperation. The power, commitment and resourcefulness of communities and leaders in the Global South should be spotlighted, not hidden in plain sight.
Don’t let money silence us
With even more scrutiny being placed on us as leaders of Global South organisations, a reckoning means interrogating how we maintain our integrity.
Thus far demands for change have centered around ensuring more aid dollars reach local communities and organizations directly, without the many layers of intermediaries. While this is an important issue, the situation of our communities will not improve dramatically without addressing the structural sources of economic and political inequalities.
Every person in the aid and development sector must start by questioning our own complicity in unjust systems that lack accountability to communities. As Arundhati Roy states, “Charity douses anger with pity…Charity keeps the structures in place.” We must ensure that our voices are not silenced by money. We cannot be armchair activists and support those on the streets while leading our own, separate, comfortable lives. Accountability to the communities we serve starts with questioning our own complicity in poverty, injustice and disempowerment.
Abandon hollow reforms
A reckoning requires civil society to turn away from bureaucracy and undertake a revolution in our demands and approaches. Imagine building a movement of solidarity in which NGOs and other civil society groups from the Global North and South used their power to wage strikes against the top policy-makers, donors and international agencies until serious reforms were implemented?
Imagine if we came together to organize a million-person march in New York and across capitals throughout the world during the next UN General Assembly, demanding permanent UN Security Council restructuring including the removal of veto power? Imagine if our silos and parallel movements at last found their common ground in fighting for justice and equality, and jointly fought for structural change that shifted control to communities?
We already have the skeletons of too many global initiatives mounting up in the closet of the international system – from the Millennium Development Goals and the Sendai Framework to the Transformative Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Grand Bargain. They serve to remind us of past, failed efforts at light reform. We don’t have the time or patience for agendas that are little more than fundraising tools.
Talking about racism is not enough. Issuing a statement on how you support BLM is not enough. Half-hearted attempts at localization are not enough. We can’t afford another 50 years of apathy towards the oppression that’s perpetuated by the aid system.
We need the courage to ensure that this moment of pandemic and uprising becomes a reckoning that moves our communities from passive ‘recipients’ of aid to full and equal actors in movements that can drive the changes that are required for universal justice and shared survival.
Degan Ali is the Executive Director of Adeso and founding member/host of the NEAR network. Her work focuses on creating solidarity between global civil society and developing solutions to support a new aid ecosystem.
Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, a lifelong advocate for community-led transformational change, is the Co-Founder and President of ESPWA, Inc. and the Haiti Community Foundation, Haiti’s first community foundation.