Innovators to Follow: Humanitarian Aid and International Development

By Liz Hensler

In large part due to the rippling effects of the Black Lives Matter movement across industries, the humanitarian aid sector has brought long overdue conversations about racism, colonialism, North/South dichotomies, and disempowering funding dynamics to the forefront. While on a spectrum, there seems to be a few schools of thought – first, those that want to keep the status quo. Second, those that are seeking some adjustment, leaning into ideas like localization. Finally, there are those leaning into dismantling the system, rooting out colonial power structures and starting anew. If you are in humanitarian aid, or are interested in learning more, here is a (not comprehensive) list of innovators we’re listening to who are talking about decolonization of the sector.

Degan Ali: Social Justice Activist and Executive Director of Adeso Africa
Degan Ali Adeso

The aid system has been built on the principle of neutrality which places more value on our ability to deliver services than to save lives and act in solidarity. If we were aid workers during the Rwandan Genocide, for example, our role would have been to observe and negotiate access rather than doing everything possible to intervene and defend people from getting raped and killed. How is that principled?

Photo from Adeso Africa website.

Read: Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs
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Angela Bruce-Raeburn: Feminist Activist and Regional Advocacy Director, Africa for The Global Health Advocacy Incubator

“A reckoning in the nonprofit, aid, and development sector is long overdue. But it’s harder to root out in a world where good intentions, big fundraising “personalities”, and a commitment to the mission can give powerful protection to racist behaviour. The gap between rhetoric and reality is all the more infuriating.”

Photo from Angela Bruce-Raeburn’s Twitter

Read: Can a chief executive “apologise” for racism and stay?
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Jennifer Lentfer: Lecturer, Writer, Creator of How-Matters

“Words matter because they are our scaffolding of how we make sense of the world around us. Once I started listening for what is beneath the lexicon available to describe social impact within the English language, it was undeniable to me how it has evolved alongside colonizing forces – just like our charity and nonprofit sector. Beyond saviorism, it’s the language that represents the harshness of assuming we know what’s right for someone else (what Chu Hillman refers to as “relational f#$%ery”). With a focus on upholding “the rules,” the words used serve to disconnect us from ourselves and each other.”

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Norah Lester Murad: Author, Professor

“The movement for Black lives calls not merely for Black liberation, but for sustainable transformation of our communities. The movement is black-led, intersectional, multiracial and has mobilized people all over the world. On the local, state and national levels, actors as diverse as corporations, schools and even restaurants are making public statements against institutional racism, a topic that was taboo in mainstream media just months ago.”

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Read: Black Lives Matter: The Best Thing That’s Happened to Palestinians in a Very Long Time
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Arbie Baguios: Founder of Aid Re-Imagined

“Altruism is as old as humankind; but for aid to do the most good, it has to evolve for the better. This is possible. Firstly, by looking at the world with a new pair of eyes — one that sees our reality as characterised by complexity and mired by injustice. Second, by recognising that we have imperfect knowledge and control of the consequences of our actions, which requires choosing to act carefully. And finally by baking a balanced aid cake through robust analysis, relationality and adaptiveness, and radical accountability. Through a renewed model that urges for care and balance, we can re-imagine aid and usher its evolution towards effectiveness and justice.

Photo from Arbie Baguios’s Twitter

Read: Models shape how we understand the world — the aid sector needs a new one
Watch: Story in 5: Arbie Baguios | Decolonising project management in the aid sector
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Stephanie Kimou: Director of Programming, PopWorks Africa and Professor

“My journey of working in international development has been a rollercoaster of feeling empowered then disillusioned. I started working in international development when I was 19 or 20. I was so excited. I was working in South Africa with sex workers and the lawyers who represented them, and I was like, gosh, I’m doing important work. Then I lived in rural Tanzania for almost two years, supporting women refugees to turn their small co-operative into a global brand that could bring them wealth. I was immersed in the realities of African women and I could tell my work was making a difference because of that. I was living my best life.

Then I moved back the U.S. and it hit me that there were some major gaps in the ways large American NGOs were working with Black women. Black women were the main beneficiaries of all health and development interventions, but they had no say in how programmes were designed or implemented. It was the most uncomfortable reality for me.”

Photo from Stephanie Kimou’s Twitter

Read: My Professional is Deeply Personal
Watch: How May We Help You? A Conversation on Consent in Global Development
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Marie-Rose Romain Murphy: Founder & President, ESPWA

“The world tends to assume that philanthropy is the domain of the wealthy. The reality is that philanthropy is ancient and as old as humanity itself.  It really has always been about human beings helping others. In the philanthropy sector, we must develop more inclusive parameters for philanthropy to emphasize the fact that it is about human beings helping each other. It will be a shift if donors can connect at this basic level. When philanthropists can connect to the core humanity of giving and be humbled by the existential gifts that community leaders and givers make in their everyday life, our world will understand the true meaning of philanthropy and will be a better place for it.”

Photo from Marie-Rose Romain Murphy’s Twitter

Read: Who is a philanthropist? How do you define a “philanthropy champion?”
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Join the conversation on Twitter: #decolonizeaid

Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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