Decolonisation is a comfortable buzzword for the aid sector
The Global South must end regional inequality on its own terms – not the North’s.
While preparing to speak at an online discussion on decolonising the aid sector, I searched Google Translate for a corresponding word for 'decolonisation’ in my native language of Urdu. I couldn’t find one. In many other languages, from Arabic to Spanish, only a loanword exists. It’s just one example of how the discussion on decolonisation rarely centres the colonised.
Decolonisation is fast becoming a buzzword for those who are critically examining the practices and objectives of the international aid industry along with many other sectors. It is seen as the way to “shift” the narratives of development aid from powerful aid agencies and international non-governmental organisations, to those they claim to work with in the Global South.
But the discussion around the decolonisation of aid practices is, in reality, extremely one-sided and Western-centric. It rarely includes the perspectives of those in the Global South. Many of us in the South do not agree with or relate to this terminology. In fact, we see it as a further imposition of a white saviour complex, with the powerful West once again deciding what is good for us and how this must be done.
Decolonisation was the disappointment of the imperial illusion of permanence.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
The origins of the word are Eurocentric, its earliest usage was by administrators and politicians who witnessed the end of British colonial rule around the world. For them, decolonisation was the disappointment of the imperial illusion of permanence – the end of empire. As scholar Raymond Betts has also argued, decolonisation was seen by the West as a political change, rather than the violent transfer of power that it actually was.
This is something many in the Global North prefer not to acknowledge: the process of decolonisation of nations was a violent affair. Scholars from the Global South have made this point for decades. Algerian writer Frantz Fanon wrote, in the opening of his seminal 1961 book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, that “decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon”.
The prominent Palestinian academic Edward Said used the term ‘exploitation’ in the same context, to point towards the negative connotations of underdevelopment as a result of the decolonisation process.
The partition of the Indian subcontinent – from which my own family fled as refugees – and the Algerian and Vietnam wars, to name a few, were not glorified edicts to independence. They were, in fact, a violent end to a violent occupation, which had to be fought for with equal violence by the occupied against the occupier. If left to the colonisers, they would have never acquiesced.
A misused term
The violence of colonisation and subsequent decolonisation is what led to the current wealth and social disparity between former colonisers and the colonised. But today, decolonisation is no longer understood in its historical context as a process of separation from one’s colonisers.
Proposals to “decolonise” aid are inaccurate and misleading: taken at face value, they leave open the implication that aid is a form of colonisation. But aid agencies see decolonisation not as a call to end the sector, but as a way of “course correcting” their own work and softening power imbalances. Decolonising the World Bank and IMF, as some have suggested, would actually mean ending their existence altogether. How many of us see that as a possibility?
Although rich Northern nations may continue to have a powerful hold over global financial and political systems, Southern nations are no longer colonies. They have their own sovereign hierarchies of power and wealth, which may be influenced by their colonial past, but which do not dictate their political present or future. But the North continues to insist upon the former by using the term decolonisation in relation to its relationship with the Global South.
Decolonisation is a comfortable word for those in the North, driven by the need to not give up power and remain relevant.
Decolonisation also ignores the vast swathes of migration from former colonies to the North, following their independence, which has led to post-colonial societies existing within the North. Why then should only the South be decolonised? Racial discrimination of non-whites in the North, then equally warrants the same attention based on the current Northern discourse.
It is these Euro-centric views which urgently require the creation of an alternate discourse from a Southern viewpoint. A pioneer of this was the Subaltern Studies Group, formed in 1982 by a group of Indian scholars, as a response to the Western liberal interpretations of postcolonial society in India and South Asia more broadly. Its members sought to create an independent voice for India beyond what they termed a “perceived history” of the nation by Europe.
Their purpose was to shift the focus of post-colonialism studies in South Asia onto the “subalterns” – the non-elite. It influenced similar movements in other parts of the South, including Latin America and the Middle East, and remains one of the most powerful responses to European discourse on post-colonial societies.
But these discourses have done nothing to influence the discussion on decolonisation when evoked by powerful Northern aid institutions. In the age of social media and heightened racial tensions, decolonisation is instead, a comfortable word for those in the North, driven by the need to not give up power and remain relevant. It is what some have termed, “fake decolonisation”, a focus on image-restoration by Northern nations against past grievances, rather than actually addressing those grievances directly and forcefully.
Aid institutions aren’t actually in the business of colonisation, though their agendas are political. We accept aid not because we are forced to, but because we have not worked towards strengthening our own post-colonial governance. It is time we dispense with the rhetoric of decolonisation and instead, balance the scales of power by creating our own aid alternatives and intellect in the South.
Get our weekly email