Radboud Centrum Sociale Wetenschappen

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We must confront the inequalities within development

During the AMID lectures on June 4 and 5, we came together to discuss working across differences and read into decolonizing development. While we did this, our phones burned with posts on Twitter, photos on Instagram and calls on Facebook to join in the global movement once again raising the discussion of deep-rooted racism not only in America – roused most recently by the killing of George Floyd by police – but in countries and systems around the world. This movement has called upon many to confront their own privilege, to recognize the ways they benefit from systemic racism and to speak and act out against this. We speak of ‘deep roots’ but a better phrasing would be ‘lasting wounds’: scars of a colonial past upon which their perpetrators – Western colonial powers – built the systems and institutions that shape our world today.

The development sector is no different. The status quo, including power in relations between ‘North- and Southern’ organizations, the mainstream actors and discourse, funding and evaluating mechanisms, all have been shaped by these same factors. Perhaps it is the irony of the situation that makes it so difficult. That it is this sector, which at its core aims to raise the quality of life for all, that is unable to address the inequalities within itself. A sector which so readily highlights inequalities elsewhere, but has not been able to do the uncomfortable work of dismantling those same inequalities within its own institutions, organizations, policies and discourse. A sector which might only offer short-term solutions for structural inequalities that are still in place; when looking at trade agreements, for example. It is clear that there is work to be done. While discussions of power and inequality within development have been diluted to broad statements at an international level, there remains the task of making practical commitments and having critical discussions within organizations, projects, and by the individuals involved.

Genuine effort needs to be put in on both an individual and institutional level. This can be difficult work, as it requires an open and critical dialogue between stakeholders who inherently hold different positions of power. It can be too easily put away by surface level discussions of diversity and inclusion; policies, commitments and assessments made as a box checking exercise by a sector that recognizes its internal inequalities, but has not put in the work to pull them apart where it counts. That’s not to say this work hasn’t been done – there have been many movements, coalitions and individuals that have sought to expose the racism, sexism and inaccessibility of a sector that has not yet come to terms with its colonial past. However, too many so-called ‘International,’ ‘Northern’ NGOs have not confronted themselves with these stories, their calls for change or even recognition of the problem. The work of confronting inequality within the development sector will be uncomfortable – but it is only from this discomfort that we can learn and seek to truly address the heart of our goals and bring about real change.

Based on our discussions we have listed some key questions that both individuals and organizations within the development sector should ask themselves in order to genuinely confront inequality in the development sector. This list is not exhaustive, but can help kick-start this process of confrontation.

If this exercise in confrontation triggers you, our final advise is to dig into it deeper. Research, read, start a dialogue; be open to broad sources of input and continue to confront yourself and others as you go. This is not something that can be addressed in one day, in one meeting, or even in one way. But it can start with one person, so let that person be you.

This blog was written by Amy Vis & Asma Hashi, on the lecture on Working effectively across differences by Jackie van der Kroft and Michiel Zeegers.