Posted on February 18, 2021

Foreign Aid Is Having a Reckoning

The Editorial Board, New York Times, February 13, 2021

Sending aid to Africa became popular in the 1980s, when a famine in Ethiopia prompted some of the most famous singers in the world to raise money for food aid with concerts and songs like “We Are the World.” {snip}

Today, a rising African middle class on a continent that is home to nearly two-dozen billionaires is challenging previous assumptions about foreign aid, from who donates money, to who should get paid to deliver aid, to whose metrics ought to be used to determine whether it was a success. A growing group of intellectuals, aid workers and civic leaders from Africa say the “white savior” mentality of the world’s foreign aid system can end up doing more harm than good.


Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, a Nairobi-based organization that works in Somalia and Kenya, is among the most outspoken African activists demanding an overhaul of the way foreign aid works. {snip}

For years, Ms. Ali decried a system of foreign aid that seemed to replicate the colonial hierarchies of the past and overshadow local efforts to respond to crises. Ms. Ali is a founder of NEAR, a network of organizations led by people from the Global South who are trying to reinvent foreign aid by shifting money and power closer to the communities that aid is meant to serve. Ms. Ali believes that if global institutions were more fair when it comes to lending money and removing barriers to trade, African countries wouldn’t need so much aid. She wants to make the top-down, foreigner-dominated system of handing out assistance a relic of the past.

“The first step is to immediately cease the marketing of people in the Global South as passive ‘beneficiaries’ of aid who need ‘white saviors,’” she wrote. International fund-raising “should be based on amplifying the dynamic work our communities themselves are engaged in.”

Ms. Ali’s demands at international meetings helped push donors and large aid organizations to commit in 2016 to sending 25 percent of humanitarian aid funding “as directly as possible” to local and national organizations by 2020, a promise known as the Grand Bargain. {snip}

{snip} In the protests that followed last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a flurry of private foundations and international humanitarian organizations put out statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That prompted calls from staff members inside those organizations to demand self-reflection. USAID, Britain’s aid agency and Doctors Without Borders all faced allegations of systemic racism in their ranks. Suddenly, more Americans seemed willing to listen to the critiques of people like Ms. Ali.

Now “decolonizing development” has become a catchphrase in the aid sector. Devex, a media platform for the global development community, has held a series of sessions about it. An upcoming humanitarian leadership conference hosted by a center at Deakin University in Australia lists “decolonizing the humanitarian ecosystem” as a theme. It’s not just talk. Recently, a new group called the African Visionary Fund announced that it would be giving $1 million in flexible funding to African-led organizations. A group of predominantly U.S.-based foundations seeded the fund, but they handed over decision-making power to a majority-African board.

This recent push for change mirrors a trend taking place in philanthropy inside the United States: Leaders of American private foundations are increasingly willing to grapple publicly with the fact that organizations run by Black and brown people face far steeper hurdles to funding than white-run organizations do. Edgar Villanueva, the founder of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, which encourages philanthropists to give more money and power to grass-roots leaders, has gotten leaders in philanthropy to agree to participate in a panel called PhilanthropySoWhite later this month.


{snip} President Biden has issued an executive order mandating that every government agency review policies to identify barriers to racial inequity and issue a report within 200 days. Many people inside USAID hope the review will be an opportunity to improve the agency by making it more nimble and thoughtful, using lessons learned from the recent past.