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Shifting Power in the International Aid System


When you think about Africa, what images pop up in your head? Is it a campaign that asks you to join a sponsorship for a poor, starving, and uneducated African child? Or do you think of volunteers going to Africa to help in orphanages or build houses? Did you ever question these advertisements? Is this really the reality for all Africans or is this just stereotyping? Are those volunteers maybe just helping themselves feel better? Who defines what development means?  

Ever since 1949, the year of which then US-president Harry Truman shares his vision of the first world aiding the third world to grow their economies, modernise their countries, improve their livelihoods and achieve independency, a substantial amount of money has been transferred in the name of ‘development’ aid. However, 74 years later, the gap between rich and poor is rising globally and development aid has largely failed in eradicating poverty. Therefore, for value creator journey, we asked ourselves: Why, after decades of development aid, does poverty continue to exist?  

We approached this question through a neocolonial lens, meaning that to us, colonialism is not over and that in continues to exist in the form of neocolonialism. Like colonialism is connected to the economic growth of the West, neocolonialism is doing the same under the veil of development aid. The true idea behind development is the maintenance of the capitalistic system and Western dominance. This can be explained historically: With increasing demands for independence of African colonies and some African nations seeking socialism as the basis of their economic system in the 1960ies, the West feared a spread of communism which denounces individualism and economic freedom, so they interfered with what we call neocolonial mechanisms.  

Development aid is one of those neocolonial mechanisms. A good example of this is loans from big institutions like the IMF that come with exploitative conditionalities. With these exploitative trade relations big international cooperations rose to the top and the capitalistic economic system dominates the globe, causes deathly environmental destruction and increases inequality. In this relation, some people speak about three waves of colonialism which could sound like: First you come to colonise, then to develop us and now you are telling us how we need to live sustainably, while it was you who robbed us of our land, our ancestors, and our cultural identity. While it is your economic system that forces some of us to act unsustainably to survive”.  


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With this in mind, we went into sensing the system to identify what was needed for a systemic change and how we can create value in this system. We had many insightful conversations with incredible people form all over the world, most insightful conversations with Fred Mweetwa and Victoria Phiri from Zambia. We also talked with academics from both the ‘Global North’ and ‘South’, like Gertjan van Stam who has lived 21 years in Africa, now working at Windesheim and challenged our views until the very end of our journey and beyond. Furthermore, we talk to someone from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people who have left the aid sector, aid organisations and other related NGOs as well as aid ‘receivers’. In the end, we identified some main learnings. The most important one being that the aid system is dysfunctional and (neo)colonial, with large power disparities between ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ actors. 

While the aid sector is supposed to be fully aimed at serving the ‘development’ needs of the ‘Global South’, the way the system is set up does not promote this. ‘Global North actors who provide the funds for aid often hold large influence over the agenda of projects and prioritise their own interests, often not even consulting their partners who are supposed to execute the projects. After project completion, evaluation of its success is measured with isolated indicators, often with a heavy Northern bias. As a result great successes are proclaimed while in reality their partners or not truly helped. Furthermore, aid often comes with conditions that damage the cultural integrity of those it proclaims to help. These learnings showed us that the system needed some serious recalibrating, in particular by closing the gap in power differences and centring ‘Southern’ people and their interests. 

Besides identifying how strong the power imbalances were in the sector, we also found that the topic was very prominent in the sector and that many organisations were actively working on tackling the issue. However, common narratives of change were repetitive and actions were often ineffective at creating transformative change. ‘Decolonisation’ and ‘locally led development’, for instance, have become buzzwords in the sector, while our journey showed that actions are not going far enough in shifting power towards Southern-led development. Additionally, many organisations were still stuck in old paradigms, which inhibited change. This is very evident in the language used by actors in the sector (developed vs. developing and Global South vs. Global North), which conceptualise one as superior, assisting the other in what they define to be development and ignoring neocolonial mechanisms that perpetuate inequality in the first place. We understood that for truly transformative change, we would need to see a shift on multiple levels, including the individual-paradigmatic, intra-organisational and systemic levels. 

Having identified these needs, we quickly discovered that one organisation in our network, Partos, was already working on these issues, assuming a pioneering role within the sector. They had formed an international research alliance called ‘Academics Researching Power Imbalances‘ (ARPI) working on the first-ever study to provide a comprehensive analysis of concrete actions taken to shift power between Northern and Southern NGOs in the aid sector. Drawing on more than 450 survey respondents and 53 interviews in the Global North and South, the report highlights sources of power imbalances, who does what to change it, limitations, barriers and priorities. It concludes with the need to go beyond actions within programmes and individual organisations and to revise the broader framework in which aid actors operate. Partos offered to connect us with them and we recognized that our efforts would be best spent in supporting this research alliance instead of reinventing the wheel and creating something on our own, which would probably have been less impactful. 

Our task was to lead the process of creating an animated video that creatively communicates the key findings and recommendations of their policy report, leaving actors of the aid sector as the target group understanding its key message and being called to action. More specifically, the target group consists of policymakers in governments, donors and Northern and Southern NGOs who ideally are intrigued to read the full policy brief and/or report after having watched the animation, but also share it with their network. ARPI needed someone external to support them as their time capacities with finishing the last details before publication were very tight.  

Soon we got to work with Gijs van Selm, an alumni of our study program Global Project and Change Management, being our main contact person of ARPI. We started off exploring the animation market, created a portfolio and realistically communicated the price range per video quality. With the policy report as basis we started brainstorming visuals and writing up a storyboard. We went through iterative cycles of consultations with our partners to make sure that with the visuals and text we communicate the research findings to the point. In the end, we created a four-minute video together with the talented animator Loredana Dumitru. The link to the full video can be found here.  


Additionally, the researchers were looking further for other ways to spread the message and increase the reach of their research and indicated that they were not familiar with this field, asking us once again to step in. We, in turn, produced a collection of time-tested but also more creative ideas on how to do this. Examples include being a guest on relevant podcasts, promotion through relevant Linked-in influencers, but also guest lectures and so-called "lunch-and-learns". 

We want to thank Loredana for the wonderful cooperation. Especially since we were working with a tight schedule, it was her dedication and hard work that enabled us to kick of the research launch event hosted by Partos on January 11th with the animated video. The plan is to continue to show the video in more conferences and specifically use it to invite people to read the policy brief.  

Overall, we are grateful for our journey. We had insightful conversations with our network and are more than happy with the animation as our collaborative end product. We hope that by spreading this research actors of the aid sector understand that they are not doing enough, discovering their true room for transformative action by critically examining their (neo)colonial behaviour and attitude and that it is time for taking responsibility for fighting for an equitable system and equitable relationships is now.  

But we do not want to end this blogpost without a critical reflection. The language we have used here is the a Western one and must be challenged. Words like aid ‘receivers’ undermine the agency of the people it refers to. ‘Development’ refers to an colonial idea of modernity, which, as we know comes with its own problems. ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’, even ‘Global Majority’ and ‘Global Minority’, artificial splits our global community. We want to highly encourage each and everyone, including us, to start to challenge our colonial mindsets, start asking us questions like “What can Africa do for Europe?” and understand that, especially in a globalized world we are all interconnected and we should take responsibility for our global community, but also non-human actors such as biodiversity. If we do not, we will we very unlikely reach the systemic change we wish to see in the world. 

We want to thank our Value Creators coach, Shweta Srivastav, for her support, Alexander Medik from Partos for seeing our potential and Gijs van Selm, Margit van Wessel, Lau Schulpen, Badru Bukenya as well as the rest of the research team for collaborating with us. By working closely together, we were able to create a meaningful and impactful product with purpose. If you are interested in this topic or our process, we provide some interesting readings below and encourage you to get in contact with us via LinkedIn.  


Worthwhile reads:  

Contact us:  




PS: Our learning journey and value creation is not over. We are supporting another Value Creators team, which will be hosting one day at the Windesheim SDG event this summer. This day is set to look at sustainable development through a decolonial lens. We will use our network, knowledge and video to support their endeavor. The date and program will be determined over the coming months. So stay tuned and connect with us on LinkedIn to not miss it.  

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