• The Gender Security Project

Decolonizing Foreign Aid

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Image: ©EU/ECHO/Jean-Pierre Mustin/Flickr

The international development sector has always suffered from the white gaze and has persistently had the white saviour and white supremacist problem. This manifests patently in the yardstick with which development and modernity are measured: they are implicitly or explicitly tied to western, white, European, cis-het conceptualisations. Colonisation “refers to the idea that Western researchers and practitioners impose their ideas on countries with low resources, without involving people from those places and while controlling key resources such as money”. [1] This is especially the case in post-colonial countries that receive conditional loans from the rich, ‘developed’ and often ex-coloniser countries. Foreign aid has been seen by some, such as anthropologist Arturo Escobar and professor Uma Kothari, as an extension of colonialism. This recognition has paved the way for calls from activists, scholars, and practitioners, especially in the global South, to decolonise foreign aid.

The Problems

At the end of World War II, the US took the lead on financial and economic reconstruction programs including the Marshall Plan (1948 onwards) and structural adjustment programs (1980s onwards) through international organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (“the Bretton Woods institutions”). Scholars such as Bebbington et al (2005) and Polanyi (2001) have highlighted how Western economies used loan conditionalities, that is, the provision of monetary aid if states adopted neoliberal economic policies, and sovereign debts to ensure that their own interests were protected in beneficiary regions, especially Africa, and to obtain resources as collaterals for these unpaid loans. Advocates from the Global South called for the dismantling and reconstruction of the Bretton Woods institutions that serve to carry on the economic and political hegemony of the US and former colonisers. [2]

Independent humanitarian consultant Paul Currion argued that “international aid workers are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic.” He also argued that even the aid workers who do not fall within this bracket still end up working under WEIRD supervisors or humanitarian organisations. [3] Beginning from the proposal and research stage, it is usually humanitarian workers from the Global North who are project-leads, whereas local aid workers and community leaders are relegated to the side-lines or employed as assistant leads. The former even provide ‘training’ to the latter as Northern researchers and donors are considered de-facto experts in the field. [2] These practices shape the beneficiaries to resemble the donor country or organisations’ methods, thus leaving out culturally and locally appropriate solutions. Further, they may also create language barriers wherein researchers with a good grasp of a colonial language (such as English or French) are given priority. [4] Moving these communities from ‘passive recipients of aid to equal partners’ requires moving away from these failed systems which presuppose the intellectual, empirical and epistemic superiority of the western world. [2]

Aid and monetary resources, more often than not, flow from former colonial powers to post-colonial societies, mapping soft power relationships that are unequal - reinforcing systems they purport to change and transform. Whether the aid is provided by governments, non-profits or any humanitarian agency, it can perpetuate paternalistic relationships, enabling a superiority complex in its purveyors. Capacity-building, an important component of aid, can be seen as a form of ‘neo-colonial education’ in that practitioners from the donor end often impose their western methods without giving proper agency to the recipients or acknowledging local/indigenous knowledge and expertise. [4] The foreign aid industry, thus, has all the characteristics of being a new form of imperialism in that it is a “direct descendant of the old European empires”. [3]

Potential Solutions

Post-colonial thinkers and global South practitioners in the field have long called for the decolonisation of the humanitarian aid sector and have proposed ways to do so. While most of the discourse for change in the sector centres around removing excessive cumbersome bureaucracy and intermediaries to ensure that the aid reaches those who need it directly, without addressing the underlying structural sources of economic and political inequality, such efforts will be futile in the long run. Hence, the need of the hour is to move away from the white saviour rhetoric that portrays beneficiaries in the Global South as passive and, indeed, in need of aid from their former oppressors. Dismantling this charity mindset also involves removing the plethora of ‘poverty porn’ that depicts recipient countries as helpless, generating nothing more than elaborate and largescale fundraising programs that end up being tokenistic. This will also avoid overshadowing the fact that the bulk of the humanitarian and development work actually takes place at the grassroots. [2]

Activist and professor Robtel Neajai Pailey took this post-colonial framework of aid one step further and proposed that it is vital, at this juncture, to rework the very lexicon that is used in the development world. It is high time that we do away with racist and colonial binaries such as global North and global South, developed country and developing country as this implies that development is absolute and limited to objective definitions. Moreover, context should drive aid policy as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieve socioeconomic change. Taking this even further, she also proposed getting rid of the concept of foreign aid itself, instead advocating for addressing and healing the underlying structural causes of inequalities in countries in the global South through reparative justice. Such measures would include “cancelling debt (no strings attached) for countries that suffered from misguided structural adjustment policies,” “compensating formerly colonised people, places and spaces for the pillage and devastating losses incurred due to colonial extraction and neoliberalism”, and even “doing away with aid in favour of equitable trade rules”. [5]

Feminist foreign aid

With the advent of feminist foreign policies in several Northern countries such as Canada and France and considering the former’s history of indigenous oppression and the latter’s history as a colonising power, post-colonial feminists call into question how their feminist international assistance programs address the legacies of white supremacy. Consider, for example, that Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Programme (CFIAP) is largely devoted to funding projects aimed at gender equality in the developing world. It has stuck to a heavily binarized conceptualisation of gender and has treated women as victims, mothers or mothers of victims. Within the ambit of aid, they are regarded as recipients of assistance or beneficiaries but not as veritable agents of change. The CFIAP report repeatedly makes statements like “this means giving women more opportunities to succeed…” and “women and girls are particularly at risk…” with embedded colonial insinuations that ‘invoke stereotypes of women of colour as poor, passive and helpless victims in need of charity from the benevolent Western donor’. [6]

A feminist approach to aid would have the long-term goal of ending the need for aid itself and would prioritise devolving power, money, resources and decision-making authority to local voices and communities. A feminist foreign aid program grounded in a critique of colonial and neo-colonial systems, above all, would seek to question and dismantle the structural elements that perpetuate such gargantuan inequality between the global North and South, in the first place. It would recognise that loan conditionality, sovereign debt, and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies only further neo-colonial cycles of extraction of profit and resources, while plundering local communities. Therefore, feminist foreign aid policies need to acknowledge that the harm that neoliberal capitalism has brought about in newly decolonised states and inherently challenge the idea that it is the primary driver of economic growth and, in turn, development. [7]


1. Devex Editor, (2020, September 14), The Future of Humanitarian Action: Decolonizing humanitarian aid, Devex, https://www.devex.com/news/the-future-of-humanitarian-action-decolonizing-humanitarian-aid-98077

2. D. Ali and M.R. Murphy, (2020, July 19), Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs, OpenDemocracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/black-lives-matter-also-reckoning-foreign-aid-and-international-ngos/

3. P. Currion, (2020, July 13), Decolonising aid, again, The New Humanitarian, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2020/07/13/decolonisation-aid-humanitarian-development-racism-black-lives-matter

4. C. Leon-Himmelstine & M. Pinet, (2020, June 4), How can Covid-19 be the catalyst to decolonise development research?, Oxfam Blogs, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/how-can-covid-19-be-the-catalyst-to-decolonise-development-research/

5. Overseas development institute, (2020, October 15), Webinar - ODI Bites: decolonising international development, https://www.odi.org/events/17431-odi-bites-decolonising-international-development

6. D. Lee, (2018), What is Feminist Foreign Policy? Analysis of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, Master’s Thesis for University of Ottawa, https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/37379/1/Lee_Danielle_2018_thesis.pdf

7. A. Ridge et al., (2019, May), Feminist Foreign Policy Key Principles & Accountability Mechanisms, International Women’s Development Agency, https://iwda.org.au/assets/files/Feminist-Foreign-Policy-Discussion-Summary-IWDA-ICRW-NYU.pdf

Further Watching/Reading

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAf3tHuZdSA&feature=youtu.be

2. https://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2020/08/24/emancipating-the-humanitarian-system-in-africa-a-conversation-with-degan-ali/

3. https://medium.com/@juliensueres/is-aid-a-contemporary-manifestation-of-colonialism-ec362f4d7fc4

21 views0 comments

© 2020 by The Gender Security Project