We need to talk about the D word


Zibran Choudhury


Earlier this month, WINGS hosted their 2023 Forum, and Alliance asked its readers what session they would like to hear about most in a poll. The winner was ‘Decolonising Philanthropy: A Global South Exploration’ – take a look at our conference report below.

‘Decolonisation is a term that’s in our minds almost every day, in Brazil. We can talk about colonisation or decolonisation in many dimensions’, started Cassio França of GIFE, and for me it immediately presented the North/South disparity in approaches to this topic. This ‘truth-sharing’ session explored the systemic imbalances in philanthropy and there still seems to be many more tough truths to be heard when it comes to reimagining the status quo.

This session was collaboratively moderated with practitioners from Brazil, Uganda, Ghana, and Mexico. The session started with definitions of the term ‘Decolonisation’ and theme of tough truths continued with Madonna Vicky Ainembabazi of CivSource Africa, stating ‘Change is not something that’s all floral and sweet, it can be a very difficult process’. This discomfort has at times been known to bring hope and, in some places, despair according to according to Ainembabazi, and it affects the way you join these conversations. It determines the many masks you wear – when you mask your power, mask true feelings about the system, mask your weaknesses by conformity and agreeing with the system as it stands.

The discussion was structured around defining decolonisation as a process to which we understand the manifestations of familiarity, and countering them. This starts with true introspection of our own experiences of the system and to question ourselves. We were encouraged to come this space freely and to be vulnerable, and I did, as I shared we’re a publication that prides itself on being global, but only publishes content in English. This was brought to the fore by a participant who mentioned, ‘We have more than a hundred languages in our country and they’re not dialects but actual languages, and if you’re looking at the grassroots community based organisations, they would have different ways of being able to convey communicate themselves and um the proposals will always have to be submitted in English.’

But countering does not need to be competitive, Madonna explained, it requires you to ‘pause the rat race of international development’ if you want to reimagine.

With this is mind we were asked to explore two questions:

  • What actions, practices of philanthropy do you see in the sector, in your country or in your region that could be considered colonial?
  • What strategies could be devised to move towards decolonising philanthropy?

The answers were poignant in the sense that a dated dynamic is still dominant, but reimagining needs repeated calls for action. Participants shared how many of the working and research papers on this topic, are still written by White authors and fundraising leads, even at African organisations, are White or Caucasian, creating unwanted hierarchies for decades. Perceptions of lack of expertise and funders (with  mostly White boards) still treating the continent as one country. But these difficult discussions weren’t just about White supremacy. The tough talks also need to be had with African collaborators who would like the status quo to remain as they may benefit from it, one participant shared to much agreement. ‘Who is willing to pay the price or bear the risk of decolonisation?’, they asked. ‘We must build the confidence of Africans, build trust and trust-based funding. Build the confidence of Africans in themselves that they can actually be able to give or do the work, as opposed to building capacity assessments, and having conversations amounts between donors and beneficiaries.’

Other agreed that there needs to be a severe mindset shift around funders and the Global North being looked up to as saviours, and the lack of understanding on the power and resources that they also have. The approach to development must move to being rooted in partnership and co-creation.

One comment noted that the direction of flow of aid is still North to South, but we also need to discuss the direction of extraction in the narrative. The narrative of philanthropy being associated with only one skin tone. Of how development looks – the photos of a Black woman carrying a Black child – a narrative that exacerbates the problem. ‘We see philanthropy in particular way, associated with a particular skin tone, and then the beneficiaries, (and I don’t like that word) look like me’ said one attendee. These power imbalances guarantee the endless hamster wheel of jumping through hoops.

The room was also challenged to explore what working Global South truly means? If the power is shifting and we are seeing granting in Africa why can’t the talent be based there? ‘Why must I move to California or Berlin?’ Localisation must be embraced and trust in local communities to deliver for the communities that they support. The role of intermediaries which is perceived to mitigate some of these issues, can actually perpetuate gatekeeping an add extra layers to burn through.

If transparency and accountability is being demanded, then it needs to be mutual. Concepts around outcomes and theories of change lead to specific way of thinking, which is a dominance theory of philosophy, one delegate argued.

Lornah Afoyomungu of CivSource Africa closed the discussion, where many were likely to leave these conversations with more questions. Lornah challenged the group to stay in the discomfort while considering the tensions and not to just do something cosmetic. Deconstruction vs Reconstruction? Bettering the status-quo vs Burning it all down? But rather than focusing just on specific institutions, Afoyomungu suggested that we start with what it means for us day to day, in our jobs, and for our careers. One of the key tracks of WINGSForum 2023 was to reflect on the how rather than the what of transformation, and this session provided funders with plenty on how to walk the talk when it come to transformation.

Zibran Choudhury is Communications, Partnerships & Membership Manager at Alliance magazine

  • For more on Decolonising philanthropy, read Alliance magazine’s special feature guest edited by Shonali Banerjee of the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy at Cambridge University and Urvi Shriram at the Indian School of Development Management.

Tagged in: #WINGSForum2023

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