Words Matter: Ditching the Outdated and Patronising “Aid” Narrative

As Southern countries discover a bolder voice on the global stage, they are demanding more respectful relationships and less patronizing language to accompany the shifting sands of global power.

When I left school, no one had taught me anything at all about Britain’s recent history of subjugation and empire. William Wilberforce was a name that I knew, naturally, but I was told nothing about the hundreds of years of slavery before him, or the long period of subjugation of vast parts of the world long after his time.

Faced with people claiming that colonization was “ancient history”, I used to ask (this was in the early 1990s) when Britain’s final African colony gained its independence. No one knew, of course. They guessed it was in the 1960s. Actually, it was Zimbabwe in 1980, barely a decade previously.

I learned all I know about empire and racism from listening to reggae (I remember the mixtape my brother gave me when I was 13) and reading Martin Luther King. At university, I started to educate myself more formally, but could just as easily have ignored the whole subject, which I think is probably what most people do. (Sadly, I was too lazy to complete my dissertation, which was to be on “Rasta: the search for a black God” but that is a different story. My supervisor welcomed me into his room with the words, “Ah, rahster, all very interesting”).

White Britons need reeducating. We know next to nothing about our history of colonialism and the impact it still has today in so much of the world. Even the thousands of Brits working in our “aid” sector are pretty iffy on colonial history and the racism which continues to blight our work.

In most of my 20 years working in the aid sector, I can remember only a handful of discussions about racism and the lasting impact of colonization. This year, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has changed that, hopefully forever.

If you are British working in international development, you have to make a conscious effort to see things from the other side, from the South up, from “the underside of history”, as the liberation theologians would put it (this doesn’t sound very politically correct nowadays but you get their point).

Trying to understand international development without talking about racism and colonialism is like trying to understand Pompeii without noticing Vesuvius.

Spending on our global common welfare is not a question of charity that can be cut, as the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak would have us believe when the economy tightens, but of sensible and necessary investment in mutually beneficial objectives. Just like public sector spending at the national level, in fact, which is redistributive and public spirited but which we don’t describe as “charity”.

I am writing this in Abuja, capital of Africa’s most populous country. Nigerians understand how colonialism has shaped their daily reality, how decisions made decades ago continue to frame and constrain their possibilities. They know who Lord Lugard was. I didn’t.

Too many in the “aid” sector in the United Kingdom have never got to know the Global South, heard the realities of its people, or deeply observed that reality.

I will never forget a senior colleague at one INGO describing people who had fought in liberation struggles in their country as “crazies” because their analysis of what was required was significantly more radical than his own. What arrogance! A total failure to listen.

We cannot make meaningful change in our world without confronting ourselves and our roles in perpetuating the power dynamics in our sector.

And because that is hard, we tend to avoid the emotional and intellectual showdown for as long as possible. We prefer to persuade ourselves that the context is not right to “get radical” (the context will never be right), that our country is not ready (the country will never be ready), that our organization has more pressing priorities (it always will).

But the time for tip-toeing around racism and the fact that the aid sector still struggles to center Southern perspectives is over. It is time to turn the tables.

And we can start by ending, once and for all, the patronizing, embarrassing, post-colonial, neo-colonial, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, white savior complex, the 20th century, the 19th century, unconvincing, delusional half-truth of “overseas aid”.

In discussions with people in the Global South, whether governments or civil society, the importance of narrative and language is always recognized as fundamental. The idea of being treated as an equal at the table, rather than a beneficiary of someone else’s (faux) largess is liberational.

I have just published a book called The Future of Aid but I could equally well have called it The End of Aid. The commonly-used language of the aid sector is outdated. It is continued miseducation of the British public, and indeed the public in “recipient” countries. A new vision for what I call Global Public Investment must be accompanied by a narrative more appropriate to today’s reality.

Spending on our global common welfare is not a question of charity that can be cut, as the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak would have us believe when the economy tightens, but of sensible and necessary investment in mutually beneficial objectives. Just like public sector spending at the national level, in fact, which is redistributive and public-spirited but which we don’t describe as “charity”.

This book has drawn on consultations all over the world during the last eight years (yes, crazy long time to get it finished!). In discussions with people in the Global South, whether governments or civil society, the importance of narrative and language is always recognized as fundamental. The idea of being treated as an equal at the table, rather than a beneficiary of someone else’s (faux) largess is liberational. It is about dignity. This matters. Words matter. They can convey respect or condescension – and too often in the world of “aid” it is the latter.

But in the Global North, there is some reluctance to accept this. We are invested in the language of generosity, and we are so ignorant of our past that words like “reparations” provoke a response like, “well I haven’t personally done anything” and these are immediately tossed into the “radical and unrealistic” box in the corner.

As Southern countries discover a bolder voice on the global stage, they are demanding more respectful relationships and less patronizing language to accompany the shifting sands of global power.

So let’s end aid. But let’s keep and, in fact, substantially increase the largescale international redistribution and public spending we need to respond to the many challenges our world faces. How can we square that circle? Well it’s in the book…

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