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How to decolonize aid?

Development aid and decolonization. One might expect that these fields would naturally go hand in hand. The reality, unfortunately, is somewhat more complex, but it brings exciting debates and promotes learning and growth. This was the experience of our national coordinator Tayson Mudakiri from Zimbabwe during the ten years he has been working for terre des hommes. 

Buzzwords like "decolonization," "critique of racism" or "gender debate" sound like a trend. But they are not. Decolonization, for example, has been a recurring theme since colonial times. Again and again, but always different and further. While "decolonization" during the colonial era described the liberation of countries and their inhabitants from colonial status, the term today stands for the liberation from the influence of colonial, mostly European, structures on our current thought patterns, values and structures. Development cooperation (DC) has changed and evolved a lot in the last 100 years. In colonial times, what we generally call DC today was closely associated with missionary work. Looking back to the 1960s, and also to the history of terre des hommes switzerland, DC was understood as a kind of charity work that was limited to distributing alms without addressing structural causes of poverty. Over the decades, the understanding and thus also the implementation of DC have changed for the better, also because decolonization debates have been conducted again and again.  

Support local structures  

This is because every generation asks and answers the question of decolonization anew. The work of terre des hommes switzerland, like that of many other reputable Swiss NGOs, has long benefited from the know-how of local staff. I, for example, was born in the countryside of Zimbabwe and know the cultural peculiarities of the country, the ways of thinking and working of my compatriots, their needs but also their approaches to solutions. As employees, we want to support local structures and therefore work with local organizations and authorities. This, too, is the result of decolonizing DC. Like many of the projects supported by terre des hommes switzerland, the sustainability of the projects is based on two aspects. One aspect is the empowerment and enabling of beneficiaries at different levels so that they become independent agents of change. This allows them to define local institutions and key stakeholders that can support them. A second aspect is advocacy work, which can be used to make policies and structures more youth-friendly in the long term and to achieve sustainable systemic change. In addition to financial support, terre des hommes schweiz invests in local staff* so that they can build their capacities.  

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Youth are empowered and enabled to become independent agents of change. Photo Hafid Derbal

An open and critical exchange  

Talent Jumo, director of the women's rights organization Katswe Sistahood in Zimbabwe, evaluates our work as follows: "The terre des hommes switzerland approach is not prescriptive or judgmental, so we find it encouraging. It allows grassroots partners to design relevant initiatives and implement them in a way that empowers communities. The partnership with terre des hommes switzerland supports youth-led processes and community-based monitoring of learning. It enables young people to define what success means and how it is measured. This requires a huge investment in terms of time and resources." This work at eye level is important to us, without ignoring power dynamics. This shows us that we are doing our work well. For example, I know of partners who are treated quite dominantly by donors. Project visits are announced at short notice - without regard to deadlines and coordination efforts for the local partners. To get rid of this attitude is also decolonization of DC, as well as the consideration for partners, their needs and the respect for their work and the recognition for their achievements. This also applies to the declaration of consent for a picture before publication or for the dignified presentation of our young people to the outside world. The recruitment of experts, photographers and researchers for external assignments is now also done in the countries themselves, so that no one has to be flown in from Europe.  

The courage to debate  

But much remains to be done and many questions still need to be answered. Is a headquarters in Basel still appropriate today, or would it not be better to decentralize such structures? What internal know-how can already be positioned in the countries today? How can we ensure that the voices of young people, local partners and staff are given the weight they deserve in strategic and programmatic decisions? There are no easy answers to any of these questions. But it's important not to be afraid to ask them and answer them together. That's what I really appreciate about my work at terre des hommes switzerland. I can really say that we have the courage to have such debates again and again. Not only because it is part of our responsibility to lead the way as a DC actor, but also because as a learning organization we have the self-image to question our role, our structures and ways of thinking again and again together and to grow together. This is how EZA is decolonized.  

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Responsible communication

We also want to convey respect for the dignity and universal rights of all people through our communication. Whenever possible, we let the people and our partners in the South speak for themselves. We show them as actors who take their future into their own hands and positively influence their political, economic and social environment. Manifesto for responsible communication of international cooperation, which was created in September 2020. 

Von Tayson Mudarikiri, National Coordinator in Harare, Simbab  

Translated by Hafid Derbal, Program Coordinator for Zimbabwe and South Africa, Switzerland 

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