Event Notes: Decolonisation Workshop with Peace Direct
Maryam Mohsin, Bond
Dylan Mathews, Peace Direct
Rachel Erskine, Amref Health Africa
Natalie Fyle, Oxfam
The goal of Peace Direct as an organisation since its founding 20 years ago has been to amplify the voice of local peacebuilders and shift power and resources towards locally-led efforts. But even for them implementing the decolonisation agenda has been challenging and very much of a learning journey. Culture change takes time.
Dylan spoke about his Time to Decolonise Aid report which Peace Direct published 15 months ago. He emphasised a number of key points:
- The present system is dysfunctional and in need of radical reform.
- The key is a change in mindset to an understanding that local actors can be trusted rather than the traditional ‘INGOs know best’ attitude.
- Resistance to this mindset is the result of structural racism.
‘Decolonisation’ is a useful term for framing the conversation. There needs to be a deconstruction of neo colonial approaches and letting go of the instinctively-held opinion that western thought is superior.
Aid workers believe that they operate neutrally but when Peace Direct consulted its partners the consensus view was that they operate within a system that is the result of colonial attitudes – even INGO staff in country find themselves mimicking these attitudes. INGOs believe that they are there to fill a skill/resource gap. This deficit thinking approach needs to change as it means that local knowledge is consistently undervalued.
Language is key – it diminishes the agency of local populations. Terms like ‘capacity building’ and ‘beneficiaries’ and even ‘aid’ reinforce colonial attitudes and constant use of this language undermines local actors. Language should be inclusive and engaging and emphasise local agency.
INGOs want to expand and their strategies are predicated on growth which inevitably reduces the flow of resources to civil society. Partnerships are transational rather than genuine.
Comms. Fundraising messaging is deeply problematic. Comms need to be radically overhauled to emphasise local agency. But comms change cannot happen in isolation – you need buy in from SLT. It’s useful to have specific targets.
External audit. Peace Direct commissioned an external audit of their comms and the findings were revealing. They thought they were doing well but discover some problems – consent for use of images was not always properly given, content was usually collected by UK field staff or UK-based freelancers. They realised that they needed to invest in the ability of partners to collect content.
Talking to journalists – another challenging area. The way language is used is hardwired into us so it will take time for journalists to change and we need to work with them and give them time. We should also give them feedback after they publish so that we can share any critique with them and they can learn for the future. We need to nurture supportive journalists as ‘change makers’ within their organisations.
Steps forward – Dylan recommended some concrete steps for NGOs to take.
- Acknowledge structural racism
- Encourage conversations about power
- Be open to critique
- Change language
- Recruit differently
- Invest in indigenous knowledge and skills
- End ‘white gaze’ fundraising
- Adopt a transition mindset
- Avoid localisation spin
- As an individual, think about your own power and spin
- Be open to new ways of thinking
You can access Dylan’s presentation here.
Nadiya spoke to us about Oxfam GB’s experience. She emphasised that the UK public are ready to start hearing new stories and different perspectives in communications about Africa. Nadiya will also be writing a blog for us so look out for that.
Amref Health Africa UK
Rachel said that the change had started with comms as they felt they had a responsibility, as an African NGO, to tell more nuanced stories and go beyond the single story of Africa. They realised that they could not just change their comms in isolation – the whole organisation needed to change. They needed to show more unfiltered stories and give Africans more say in how their stories are told, and their images are used. This meant letting go of what the people in London think the story is and valuing local knowledge and talent. It takes time!
There was a wide-ranging discussion. Dylan said that often organisations wanted to change but felt paralysed. The important thing was to start the process of change and you will learn along the way. Mistakes will be made. New approaches can be tried and tested. Share with your colleagues – don’t silo the process of change. Produce practical guides to help colleagues to change. One of the challenges is enabling local organisations to become more adept at content gathering.