Five questions you need to ask yourself if you (want to) work in international development

The British Empire in 1886, in the earlier days of its colonial expansion. ©Forgemind Active Media

How come so many who set out to tackle poverty and injustice through international aid end up feeling trapped in a system that doesn’t? And how do we undo its shackles? Researcher Olivia Rutazibwa suggests we begin by decolonising our minds.

Since launching The Good Jungle by sharing a piece about my troublesome experiences working in international development , an astonishing number people have been in touch to tell me their own stories of doubt, disillusion, and cognitive dissonance working in the industry. These stories came from people with various backgrounds, from both the global North and South. Yet they all seem to have two things in common: a genuine desire to tackle poverty and injustice, and a feeling of being trapped in a system that, for the most part, doesn’t. And with that, a frequent theme of isolation: I thought it was just me.

So, what’s going on here? How come so many who set out to do good through aid end up feeling trapped? And what is it they feel trapped in?

Zombie colonialism

If you ask Olivia Rutazibwa, it’s not all that mysterious. Last month, the political scientist hailing from Belgium with Rwandan roots gave a talk to a roomful of students and researchers at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, UK. One prominent culprit emerged: colonialism.

The colonial world order has never actually had the rupture it is believed to have had in the 1960s. It seems a bit like a zombie wrongly believed to be dead that continues to haunt the living world, including — and perhaps especially so — the world of international development.

So no wonder those engaged in aid experience a frustrating tension: They’re at once working in the place where ‘the best of intentions and ideas of solidarity are institutionalised’, and — consciously or not — complicit in a continued colonialism.

A quick intermission here if, like me, you grew up in the West and your history curriculum spared you the gory details: Contrary to popular (Western) belief, colonialism wasn’t some form of mild, benevolent transgression. As has been well documented by historian Bouda Etemad, it was more of a genocide, killing some 80–90 million people in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific who got in the way of the soldiers, infectious diseases and 60 million migrants escaping Europe during a period of explosive population growth and economic difficulty, and expanding its territories by a few million square kilometres. And these are just the direct casualties from war, oppression, disease and Transatlantic slave trade. They exclude all the other social, economic, cultural and environmental consequences of subjecting entire economies to a production system that fuelled unprecedented stability for Europe.

In Rutazibwa’s ‘most generous reading’, those working in development intend to mop up the consequences of this global rampage. But even so,

the aid industry is a system of ideologies, studies, institutions and practices that continue ‘a mindset of superiority [of the West] and inferiority [of the rest] whereby the betterment of peoples elsewhere or “other” people even close by cannot be thought of outside of a Western presence.’
Dr. Olivia Rutazibwa at the University of Portsmouth

Personal investments

The colonial and Eurocentric outlook, famously exposed by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism, sits deeply in the DNA of today’s aid industry. And that is why Rutazibwa advocates that international development as a field of study and work needs more than a bit of rearranging and tweaking: that, in its current format, it needs to go. That it needs to make way for reparations and solidarity, which require a fundamentally different institutional setup from the one so many of us are deeply invested in.

I would love to know what I would have made of her talk 10 years ago, fresh from an exciting internship in Namibia and well into my first term of a Master’s programme in, yes, Development Studies at IDS. I suppose I might not have been very receptive, having just invested a formidable sum of money and time into becoming a member of a professional community Dr. Rutazibwa proposes to dissolve.

In any case, it wouldn’t be long before I’d experience for myself how the colonial mindset shapes this community. How, for instance, it kept paving the way for my career.

I was one of an army of inexperienced youngsters who, by virtue of being white and Western educated, landed in positions of responsibility and power in international contexts that we would never have been given back home.

And that’s just one example. Rutazibwa’s list includes: The punishment and reward dynamic between donors and recipient countries. The arbitrary places the development agenda locates its origins, problems, solutions and expertise. The pervasive racism present even in something as inconspicuous as a travel insurance form, or in the word capacity-building.

Decolonise your mind: Five questions to get started

None of the above is big news to many working in aid. The big question everyone asks is: where do we go from here? And how do we get there?

Intent on avoiding a pitfall of colonial thinking, Rutazibwa isn’t all too keen on one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Instead, she points to de-colonising the way we think, as a starting point for each one of us to work out our own answers.

By ‘we’, by the way, she means ‘development educators, researchers, knowledge producers and other practitioners located in the global North’, who share a relatively hegemonic and privileged position. But judging by the conversations I’ve been having of late, there are many ways in which the power relationships within the global South, between elites and the so-called grassroots for example, mirror the global colonial spiel. In other words, these questions seem no less relevant to, say, a US educated Kenyan working for UNDP in Nairobi than a French intern in an NGO in Phnom Penh.

As an academic thinking about a research agenda, Rutazibwa anchors her de-colonial roadmap in the ontology, epistemiology and normativity of development. If these words make your head spin, don’t worry. I’ve turned some of of her ideas into these five questions:

1. What ‘point of origin’ underpins my work?

Our ‘point of origin’ is the place and time we locate the roots of the issue we are working to address. And this has implications for where we then locate responsibilities and solutions. Rutazibwa gives a macro-level example:

‘If you start the story about the need for development at the moment that the Western world woke up and said “Let’s be nice to other people!”, in a complete historical vacuum, it’s completely different than if you start the story from Transatlantic enslavement and colonialisation […] It somehow implicates us as Western actors in the stories from the beginning and becomes much more difficult to present us only as fire fighters and not the pyromaniacs or arsonists in the story.’

What would international development look like or be named even, who would be running the show and where would it take place if there was more focus on tackling the arsonists?

What would your work look like if you shifted its point of origin?

2. Whose interests is my work serving?

As development workers, most of the time, we have a well rehearsed answer to this question, which will likely involve beneficiaries, recipients, participants, and local partners. And almost invariably, there is another answer: One that is of more systemic nature, paints a fuller picture. An answer that says where the power lies, where the resources are going and not going, and whose interests really are front and centre.

3. How does my experience stack up against my level of responsibility, leverage and pay?

In your career, how has your level of experience correlated with your level of seniority, leverage and salary? And how has this compared compared to colleagues of different ethnicities, socioeconomic, regional or gender backgrounds? If there have been differences, how have these been justified?

4. How am I personally and professionally invested in the status quo?

If you’re feeling challenged, here’s a shortcut: What would you stand to lose if you woke up tomorrow, and the entire global South said to the North: “Thanks but you know what, we’ll take matters in our own hands now”? Or: What would you lose if you woke up tomorrow and found the world free from poverty, hunger, humanitarian disaster, and war? This was my list: My livelihood. My identity. My professional network. My jet-set lifestyle.

Of course, no-one would tell a doctor or nurse their career is all wrong just because their livelihood depends on people getting sick. But even looking at the healthcare sector, you can observe what happens when human suffering and economic interest are intertwined. Becoming more aware of vested interest can open our eyes to uncomfortable truths about what fuels our industry.

5. What can I do to act on my conclusions?

This is the question that makes many of us throw our hands up in the air in despair, stick our heads in the sand, or shrug in resignation. For many of us, the thought of speaking about, let alone acting on our observations feels like setting fire to our home. It triggers a sense of panic about mortgages, school fees, bills to pay, about burning professional bridges and losing respect by our peers and superiors. See question 4. Acting in line with our moral compass often becomes a luxury we feel we can’t afford.

And that feeling of powerlessness is what greases the machine. So ask yourself: What is one thing, however small, I can do today to throw a bit of sand in the eyes of the colonial zombie?

Then, get louder. Break the silence, name what no-one else around you is naming and give others the space and encouragement to do so, too.

Then, get bolder. Break the rules of this game that we all play so well.

I’m remembering Margaret Wheatley at the 2017 Meaning Conference, speaking to a room full of change makers about how to find courage when the mess we’re up against feels overwhelming. She quoted Thomas Merton:

‘You start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And […] gradually, you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.’

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Thanks to Katharina Auer and Tom Nixon.