I came to Afghanistan in 2018 at the age of 26 to lead a team of 40 people and a $ 9 million scholarship. I did not speak the national language, had never been to Afghanistan and was young, but I had been trained to handle challenging scholarships and had a new Masters degree from a high-level school. It wasn’t long before I began to feel the discomfort of overseeing Afghan men and women who were much more experienced and knew the cultural context much better than I did. One of my supervisors told me he had reached the glass ceiling: years in the same position, excellent reviews, the ability to make smart decisions in an unstable environment … yet he would never become a manager because he couldn’t and didn’t write in English Understand Excel. I have made it my business to stand up for my team and invest as much as possible in their professional development.
Despite working with an organization that valued capacity building, changing the power dynamic felt like trying to move a mountain. As an American-born employee, I have had access to job opportunities, the privilege of speaking the same language as our funders, and the opportunity to travel to training and conferences around the world to fuel my professional growth. I knew I owed a large part of my professional success to my citizenship. When I saw my Afghan employees being denied visas and struggling to convey their expertise in a language that was not their own, I grappled with the reality of development and the power structures that have been sustained.
The international development sector entered a much-needed period of self-reflection following the death of George Floyd, recent human rights abuses and a host of bad press. Proponents of change have highlighted the unequal power dynamics and neo-colonialist tendencies in the development sector and called for decolonization. These changes are necessary, but little has been recognized of what it will require. While neocolonialism is certainly a result of white supremacy, it is specifically a result of one-sided cash flows, structural barriers to training and employment, poor capacity building and grant management that favors Western skills over local expertise. Addressing these nuanced challenges is more important than ever, and requires more time and resources than we may recognize.
Some industry leaders have begun efforts to decolonize and transform the power dynamic. Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), a major donor with over $ 58 billion in grants awarded in FY20, launched a transition-to-scale program that funds innovators from low- and middle-income countries to directly implement their global health ideas. GCC works with beneficiaries to provide technical assistance and to assist in monitoring and evaluation. This allows for careful scrutiny while leveraging the recipients’ natural talents and creative ideas. The SMART Africa project of the National Institute of Mental Health is a “transdisciplinary collaborative partnership involving stakeholders from academia, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local communities” to address health challenges in African countries. These projects are initiated by donors and build capacities for project management. At the same time, the unique benefits of local expertise and the contribution of partners that we (“the West”) cannot make are recognized.
USAID, one of the largest relief funders in the world, has also recently made efforts to work with local organizations. USAID uses its annual Civil Society Sustainability Index (CSOSI) to report on the “strength and viability of the civil society sector” in countries receiving aid, and this informs about partnership and funding decisions. However, locally-based agencies in conflict-affected or fragile environments such as Afghanistan are ranked lower and receive fewer funding. These are the areas where decolonization for development is most needed.
It can feel like a dichotomy to adhere to strict development standards while reflecting the white supremacy embedded in them. Is careful financial management, solid program evaluation, and foolproof safeguards and safeguards a necessity for the development or a by-product of racism? How do we combat racism within the aid sector while working with local partners to build project management skills that enable promotion, growth and relocation of tasks?
My experience in Afghanistan taught me that the process of decolonization is developing one “Yes andPhenomenon. YesThe cash flow from the global north to the global south is problematic and reminiscent of colonialism. YesIt is unfair for local employees and local partners to have to master English and Microsoft Office in order to manage grants when many in the Global North can grow up developing these skills and integrate them naturally. YesIt also feels unfair when the languages, cultural awareness and networks of local employees and partners are undervalued when these are key characteristics for the successful implementation of development programs. And, Currently, countries like Afghanistan are facing constant security threats with the impending withdrawal of US troops, millions of children out of school, and poorly resourced hospitals, and they still require significant amounts of help to provide services. Funding will continue to flow from the Global North to the Global South and therefore certain skills will continue to be critical to project management. The decolonization of development and the shift in power dynamics must require capacity-building efforts in a way that allows grant management and room for local partners to use their unique capabilities.
It is a noble endeavor to call for the decolonization of development work. It is a nobler endeavor to make unclear investments on a daily basis in order to build capacity, shift power, and extend credit when credit is due. The latter will likely feel like pressure against a mountain and possibly take significantly longer than the radical change we want, but it may be the only way the mountain of colonization will ever move.
Further reading on e-international relations