What might ‘Healing’ the International Development Sector look like?

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Last year I interviewed 30 women working in international development and humanitarian work. Without fail each woman I spoke with expressed great passion for the work she does. Many linked their passion to a strong sense of commitment to the day to day aspects of their work and the fact that they tend ‘go the extra mile’ including work harder than they otherwise might and making significant personal sacrifices in the name of the work that they believe in.

Each one of them was also keenly aware of the injustice in the world and wanted to work to overturn it. That’s why each of them had chosen this type of work even if they also expressed a level of disillusionment and struggle with the way they saw the sector and their work in it now.

Very often their passion and commitment resulted in them operating from the sense that their work was more important than their wellbeing. They expected a lot of themselves and a lot was also expected of them within their organisations. There wasn’t much time to think, reflect or replenish themselves. Resourcing issues exacerbated this and contributed to the sense that many of these women were ‘sacrificing’ themselves to their organisations, their work and the causes that they believed in.

For the most part organisational cultures both expected and appeared to reward this dynamic, contributing to women working very hard and struggling to balance family and other commitments in their lives with the work they want to do. Regular travel compounded this. For a sector supposedly committed to mother and child health and women’s rights our approach to how women manage their work and their family life often feels shockingly inadequate.

Last year I founded Jijaze. It started with this idea that many of us are exhausted and overwhelmed by the work for change we are doing in the world. I believed that there was a better way and Jijaze was my way of exploring and sharing that. Initially we launched an online community for women who want to make a difference in the world. The internal shift we were inviting in our community is for women to move away from a culture in which they have to ‘do-it-all’ to one in which paying some conscious attention to their own needs and wellbeing instead supports their change making work.

As our work at Jijaze has developed my conviction of the political nature of this work has grown. I now see much more clearly the extent to which our ‘overwork’ is a function of the expectations of our wider culture as well as the personal choices we make in our own lives. This rings particularly true for women who disproportionately carry the burden of care whilst being paid less and living with the constant and often unspoken (but keenly felt) expectation that we should be ‘of service’

I have also begun to join the dots between these issues and the power imbalances in the international development sector which have troubled me for the past two decades. INGOs are full of women who are overworked and under-supported. Now, as our #AidToo moment continues to unfold, it is more obvious that our organisations are places in which our basic principles and values are being routinely violated. Places in which, women are not only disrespected but also can be abused and violated.

Since this news started to emerge publicly I have been writing about the need, to not only address policy and practice as it pertains to sexual abuse and the way in which INGOs deal with it, but also to look at to do the internal work of dismantling injustice and power dynamics within both our organisations and ourselves. In doing so I believe we will need to remake and re-envision this thing we call ‘international development’.

One of the things this will take is the humility to look beyond our standard models and practices and learn from what others beyond the aid sector are doing.

In the months before the recent #AidToo scandals became high profile I began listening to the Healing Justice Podcast. The podcast, hosted by Kate Werning, includes conversations with a number of individuals and groups who have been active on ‘the intersection between healing and social justice’ in the United States.

In it I have heard some of the patterns I had been noticing and beginning to name, being discussed. Learning that others have been giving voice to and exploring these ideas has helped me realise that the work we are doing at Jijaze isn’t just me having some useful ideas that a few people might be interested in. I discovered that there are existing bodies of work in this space to learn from and that momentum in this direction is building in other places.

Listening to these conversations over recent months a new clarity has been invited in me. The conversations in the podcast explore ‘Healing Justice’ a concept articulated by a number of black, indigenous and people of colour individuals, groups and social movements in the United States including: ‘Cara Page the KINDRED southern healing justice collective; the Black Lives Matter Network; and the work of Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, and disabled leaders at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit, Faith Matters Network; Ayni Institute;’ (this list is quotes directly from the Healing Justice Podcast website. For more information and access to a full list and the episodes check out their website).

In episode 18, Collective Healing members of the Healing By Choice collective in Detroit, who offer healing spaces and practices, map out some of the key features of what a Healing Justice perspective offers. The quotes in the paragraphs below come directly from the show.

Firstly Healing Justice asks us to pay attention ‘historical trauma including what our ancestors endured and to take steps to heal that’. What would that call us to in International Development spaces? I think it would invite us to ask how our ancestors and also organisations played a part in creating the injustice we see in the world today? This would mean us much more explicitly acknowledging our privilege and colonial histories and grieving their impact. It would invite us also to move from our reflections to practices that invite us to actively engage in taking steps to heal what has passed from a place of acknowledging the culpableness of our cultures and ourselves in causing harm. This will mean us finding ways to be much more present to both racism and power in our setups.

Healing Justice also invites us to ‘heal the trauma in our own lives caused either by us or by other people’. This invites us in to personal healing work and towards asking some of the following questions. Where are we holding ourselves back and not fully engaging with and connected to the passion that brought us here? Where are we not allowing, or not being allowed to express our feelings in our work? In what ways are we sabotaging ourselves and maintaining a status quo that violates our values? Participating in healing practices and spaces can help shift these things in our own lives and help us to show up differently in our work for change.

Healing Justice also invites us to be cognisant of the trauma inflicted upon us. By the structures of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy that, even as we are complicit in them also impact us too. Healing Justice invites us to heal our ‘institutions and isms’. This means asking ourselves how Racism, Colonialism, Sexism, Homophobia, Ableism, (all the ‘isms’) impacting and sabotaging our movements for change? How can we heal that? What is needed of us to do that authentically at this time? I could write a whole article about our relationship to each of these. For now I will just say that in my judgement there is much we need to shift in relation to each of the ‘isms’.

This approach also asks us to work on ‘the impact of our decisions on those coming after us’. In short a Healing Justice perspective asks us to look at ‘the whole entity of our being in the context of our community’.

So what about the communities and people we work with internationally in our work? How can we take this approach in to the work we do programmatically? I think the answer is that we will only be able to invite this if we practice it ourselves. In the practice of healing ourselves, our spaces and our organisations, we will begin to figure out what it means to be doing this kind of work in global solidarity.

Making the changes needed in our societies at this moment requires of us something different from the ways we have worked in the past. When we work in ways that invite us to over-stretch and exhaust ourselves we quite literally find ourselves, within organisations and our sectors more widely, replicating the very capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal structures that we are, in theory, passionate about dismantling.

We end up leading and working in organisations where, instead of the wellness of all humanity being valued and upheld, we sacrifice ourselves to a narrative of change in which we — as organisations and individuals working to change the world — are positioned as ‘saviours’. And in which the public and many donors ‘invest in us’ because we make bold, un-substantiatable claims about our ‘saving powers’.

In doing so we replicate the imbalances of power we are so committed to dismantling. And so it is little surprise that we find within our organisations the replication (and even magnification) of the abuse we find in our wider culture including, the overwork and underpay of women, sexual abuse, a failure to take responsibility for mistakes, an inflation of ‘our role’ and a minimisation of the role of others. Indeed I think that the way in which international development organisations have been taking the credit for work done by partners, people and communities across the world is an appropriation of agency and power which we need to do much much more to resist.

Now more than ever we need a new way.

In order to pull apart the structures which dehumanise both us and the communities and individuals that we serve we need the integration which I think that a healing justice perspective offers.

What does this mean? It means refusing to neglect ourselves, it means placing some attention on our own care and healing, it means figuring out what collective care looks like when we are working internationally and developing new approaches to international development rooted in global solidarity.

A solidarity that says: We are in this together.

From this place, the place of valuing both ourselves and others, and committing to tending to the needs of both, we can begin to tackle the central injustice which our sector has been complicit in upholding and which remains rife in so many ways in our world.

Many of us have longed for a sector that looks different for a long time now. In this moment we have an opportunity.

Let’s start creating the spaces our sector needs to heal, not as a self-obsessed action that makes everything remain about us, but as a means to both give due care to and de-centre ourselves. The one supports the other. When we are well in ourselves we can re-direct our passion in a way that supports our values and our visions and move towards offering genuine solidarity when it is requested.

When we give ourselves adequate attention. When we are full and self-reflective. When every action we take is truly predicated on seeing those we work with as equals. Then we will be in the messy, expansive, future facing place of being able to work in solidarity towards justice.

We will need new models for this. Our current funding and decision making structures will not do. Our current ways of describing our work to those outside it will not do. The resistance within our organisations to standing up for injustice and committing absolutely to cultures in which women are safe from abuse will need to fall away.

To do this I think we would do well to learn from Healing Justice Practitioners and Groups. But I want to be crystal clear. I am not advocating for us appropriating the idea of ‘Healing Justice’ and setting up little projects where we ‘do’ it whilst carrying on with the rest of our activities largely as before. These ideas and explorations need to live within our organisations and evolve and grow in the fertile grounds within them.

They may challenge the very heart of who we thought we were and what we do. But the challenge before us now is clearer than ever before. We cannot continue in the same old ways.

To build our resilience and face the challenges of this moment we need metaphorically, to ‘fall apart’ and re-make ourselves. And it is my absolute conviction that attention to the questions of power and agency cannot be achieved on a purely theoretical level.

Yes robust analysis will support us. But we need to be conscious of our feelings, our struggles and our weaknesses too. And we can find the strength for this in self-care practices, in reflective time, in taking actions individually and collectively which support our healing and promote our wellness as both individuals and organisations.

Our needs matter because it is our fundamental conviction that every human beings’ needs matter. Awareness of our privilege is not the same thing as negating and surpassing our needs and our own inner journey. To show up in our individual fullness for the important issues of our time, we need organisations in which we are invited to be well, to meet ourselves and heal ourselves and to use the strength we gather from doing so, to take appropriate action to both transform our organisations and work in solidarity to press for change in our world.

There are many brave and articulate women raising their voices right now. Let’s use what we are learning to support them and ourselves. Let’s develop infrastructure for a new ‘movement’ to replace the broken paternalistic model of what the international development sector is. There is a whole chorus of voices we need in this moment, within organisations pushing for change, outside them challenging their very existence and independently asking what the future could look like as well. Let’s welcome them.

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Here, as an Appendix, is an intentionally non-exhaustive list of some practices that I think will serve us well in this moment, and those that follow:

  • Creating spaces to come together to share our stories and experiences without an agenda in a space that is specifically held for that purpose
  • Allowing ourselves to feel and express our feelings, including our shame grief and anger, and working with practitioners who have the skills to help us express these feelings in confidence in a non-consequential space
  • Reflective journaling and learning practices
  • Inviting physical movement and healing practices into our workspaces. Our bodies are the site of oppression & have wisdom for us
  • Caring for ourselves. Our depletion will not serve the change we want to create in our world
  • Acknowledging how privilege and power manifest in us and our organisations. Creating spaces to reflect honestly on this. Facilitating conversations about how to dismantle it
  • Seeking new models of funding, solidarity and working together across national boundaries. Asking how do we model the equity we want to see in the world in ALL our relationships? And using the observations we gather to take actions that are rooted in integrity.
  • Inviting our passions and joy back and supporting each other to follow them. Asking what bold dreams we have for the world? And holding them together as we take steps towards making them a reality.

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Mary Ann is the Director of Jijaze which is focused on recognising that taking care of and healing yourself is a core component of creating lasting change. We are passionate about working with organisations and individuals to facilitate and hold space for the types of practice described in this article. Find out more at www.jijaze.com.