Written by María Wong, Senior Strategic Partnerships Advisor
Each year in Canada, September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This day honours the Indigenous children who never returned home from residential schools, survivors of the residential school system, their families and communities. As a feminist organization based in Canada and engaged with feminist movements and activists around the world, the violent legacy of colonialism requires us to critically engage with and challenge our histories, recognize the historical and ongoing harm that is the legacy of colonial violence and oppression, and continue to support efforts to uncover the truth. All of this is critical for healing and reimagined futures characterized by equity and justice.
This month’s What We’re Reading focuses on decolonization. Spurred by Idle No More’s Indigenous-led, grassroots mobilization and activism that began in 2012 in Canada and the murder of George Floyd which brought the global movement for Black Lives Matter, founded in response to the 2013 murder of Trayvon Martin in the United States to the forefront, the word ‘decolonization’ has become increasingly common amongst those seeking to redress colonial harms, including those working in the global feminist, development, and philanthropy sectors.
But what exactly does it mean to decolonize?
In Decolonizing International Relations and Development Studies (2023), Maïka Sondarjee and Nathan Andrews write that decolonization is often under-defined, is often broadly and erroneously associated with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives, and urge us to “avoid whitening and depoliticizing the expression ‘to decolonize’ by using it as a buzzword.” They rightly criticize the trendiness of decolonization: “It appears everyone has jumped onto the ‘decolonial bandwagon’ or adopted the ‘decolonial hype’ without having a clear sense of what decolonizing means.” Instead, NGOs, private foundations, and public institutions “are co-opting the term from activist circles and Global South intellectuals and rendering it into something much less political than originally intended.”
The authors remind us that decolonization is not a metaphor, but a political project and includes:
- Abolishing racial hierarchies within the hetero-patriarchal and capitalist world order;
- Dismantling the geopolitics of knowledge production; and
- Rehumanizing our relationships with others and nature (including the repatriation of Indigenous lands).
Lastly, those seeking to integrate a decolonial lens and practice must do so through an intersectional approach: “One must address the workings of power through race, but also its deep entanglement with the dehumanizing and gendering processes of colonization, how Indigenous women, non-binary, and queer people lost power due to colonization.
Anti-Racism and Decolonising: A Framework for Organizations (BOND, 2023) is a tool for NGOs to tackle and dismantle racism and decolonize their institutions, which is defined here as “seeking restorative justice through cultural, psychological and economic freedom. Decolonisation is the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies regarding the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches, moving away from the ‘white gaze.” This is particularly important for those working in the development sector, which, as the below mentioned GADN briefing notes, has historical roots based on an oppressive system of racial and gendered hierarchies and exploitation.
For deep-rooted, systemic, and power-shifting change to happen, this work must include everyone within an organization and so the framework includes important questions for discussion and consideration across teams and departments such as:
- How diverse is your senior management team?
- Does the Board have a standing agenda that reviews anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion?
- Have you explored the positionality, power and privilege you hold and what it means for the advocacy and influencing you do?
- What are you doing today to create and sustain an anti-racist workplace?
Although an intersectional lens bringing in gender, sexual orientation, etc. is missing from this toolkit and would greatly benefit from such, their earlier (2021) report, Racism, Power and Truth: Experiences of People of Colour in Development (which we highlighted in a previous What We Are Reading), does explicitly note the gendered barriers that Black women and women of colour face in the workplace. Because of this important complementarity, we recommend reading both pieces together.
In Reparations as a Pathway to Decolonization (2023), Gender & Development Network (GADN) writes that “[r]eparations approaches to decolonisation could provide an essential step towards creating a more just and equitable world.”. Echoing Sondarjee and Andrews, GADN emphasizes that reparations are not just about financial compensation but “also about ending the ways in which global economic and political structures perpetuate the legacies of inequality. Colonialism continues to shape and devastate the Global South through undemocratic global economic governance including international trade and investment rules. Challenging these undemocratic systems so former colonisers cede power to those who were colonised could be part of reparations approaches that work towards delivering decolonisation.” As such, a reparations approach would include:
- Countries that were former enslavers and colonizers acknowledging past and continuing harm and accepting responsibility for remedy and repair;
- Financial redress;
- The ‘repair’ of the global political and economic systems that perpetuate the unjust legacies of slavery and colonialism and the need for alternative visions for a future world.
As with Sondarjee and Andrews, GADN cautions about the depoliticization of “decolonization:” “When a concept that challenges the status quo finally makes it into accepted discourse, the response of those with power is often, either consciously or subconsciously, to co-opt the term, turning it into something less disruptive.” Instead, decolonization requires those “who have benefited from colonialism to relinquish power to those who have been harmed and those who continue to be harmed, so that solutions are based on the demands and visions of those exploited by the current structure.”
Importantly, this brief also draws on the UN’s internationally agreed principles and framework on reparations, demonstrating how the concept, although imperfectly, is recognized in international law and has been or is currently being implemented by Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Finally, it challenges “[t]hose of us working in Global North-based international development organizations [to] support the creation of political space to discuss and consider reparations approaches [driven by the demands of those who have been and continue to be harmed] as part of decolonisation efforts.”
In their earlier (2021) brief, Decolonizing Aid, GADN demonstrates how the modern aid system is an extension of colonialism, how racial hierarchies developed during European colonial expansion justified “white superiority,” which in turn is used to justify “white saviourism.” GADN urges readers to think of colonialism not only as distant in time and place but as something that continues to shape our modern world today.
It defines decolonization as “recognizing, making visible and working to address the legacies that colonialism, empire, racism, and patriarchy continue to have’ in our day-to-day lives. Decolonisation entails acknowledging colonial legacies of harm in order to support efforts to build more equal societies” and it is only with an understanding of this history and power dynamics can the aid sector move forward.
GADN notes that INGOs frequently view localization as an alternative to traditional, colonial ways of working. However, this is not enough because it does not “acknowledge the way in which aid actually reinforces and underpins economic advantage for the donors, whether through conditionality or tied aid.” Rather than challenging power imbalances, which decolonization aims to do, localization “merely invisibilises them, leaving colonial logics and power structures largely intact.” GADN argues that this means a fundamental re-framing of aid is necessary and suggests that aid become reparations for historical and continuing injustice.
Lastly, GADN provides recommendations for the UK government and INGOs to build a reimagined aid sector, which includes a strong commitment to decolonizing relations between the UK and the Global South and INGOs reframing their work “towards an understanding of the need for reparations for the historical damage done to millions of BIPOC, both domestically and internationally, and the material benefit that colonization brought (and continues to bring) to the UK.”