NEW YORK, 8 March 2023 (Devex) | This International Women’s Day, we must recognize that colonial dynamics and ideologies remain entrenched in modern international NGO practices, including how we design their interventions, distribution of resources, communications, fundraising, and organizational structures.
Discussions about unequal power dynamics in the international aid system have entered the mainstream in recent years, prompting some international NGOs — especially in high-income nations — to recognize and acknowledge how their colonial legacies continue to frame operations and exacerbate power imbalances.
Language and imagery — often with a view to fundraise — regularly others the human beings depicted and positions the viewer as a savior. This ultimately defines marginalized communities by trauma and reinforces negative stereotypes, ultimately removing their agency and any understanding of the complex realities they face. More importantly, it stunts our ability to transform the contexts in which members of these communities live so they can achieve their potential — and stalls progress on so many pressing global issues.
Take, for instance, the current prevailing programming and language around the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights, or SRHR, and the climate crisis.
On the programming side, the concentration of decision-making power mimics the flow of aid, from former colonial powers to their former colonies. Authority is with those who hold the purse strings in high-income nations, even though they are often far removed from the realities on the ground, ignoring that girls, women, and their communities are the experts in their own lives and should be setting the SRHR and climate agendas.
When it comes to language, the historically colonial climate narrative centered on “overpopulation” in low- and middle-income countries as the main contributor to climate change. This inaccurate and frankly racist narrative placed the blame for the climate crisis on the bodies of women and girls in LMICs, rather than where it truly lies: overconsumption of natural resources and a reliance on fossil fuels in high-income countries.
While many have stopped making this argument explicitly, the implicit narrative is still very much in play. A case in point is those who present girls’ education as a solution to climate change, based on the argument that increased education improves bodily integrity, which results in reduced fertility. The Brookings Institute and Project Drawdown estimate that ensuring secondary education for girls could result in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions — up to 68.90 gigatons in 30 years.
The more recent focus on “net-zero” carbon emissions is equally problematic. Decarbonization in itself does not change the consumption habits of higher-income countries, which consume resources as a lifestyle rather than a lifeline. In this way, net-zero deflects from cutting emissions at the source, allows high-income countries to pay to offset emissions via trading schemes without any real accountability, and makes little difference for the girls and women who bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Additionally, there is a significant overlap between populations with an increased vulnerability to climate crises and populations who face barriers to SRHR. A net-zero framework ultimately fails women and girls because it does not directly address this overlap and does not include SRHR as a core element of climate action.
Our focus must shift away from reducing carbon emissions as a singular goal to equitable and sustainable consumption as a general framework for the global climate change agenda. Only then will we achieve real progress on climate action that results in lasting change and reduces the burdens felt primarily by the world’s most vulnerable women and girls, particularly on their access to SRHR.
So, what’s the way forward for INGOs like Women Deliver focused on gender equality and its intersection with issues such as climate justice? We need to rethink our roles and reevaluate where our support can make the most change for gender justice. We need to update and evolve our objectives and our language, and carefully think through measurement — what we are measuring and how — and the associated value judgments. And we need to address our own consumption of resources and how we hold ourselves, our peers, and our own governments accountable.
Women Deliver and other INGOs especially need to engage with partner organizations in LMICs in shaping new co-created agendas and governance structures that incorporate diverse voices and shifts decision-making power away from INGOs headquartered in high-income nations and into local contexts.
Decentralizing an organization, being intentional about moving development events from traditional locations in high-income countries, and hiring from around the world, especially from LMICs, help to ease the barriers and problems associated with working out of headquarters in a high-income nation.
When solutions are crafted by people who have lived experiences that while they may not be exactly the same as the vulnerable populations, are still proximate, they are less likely to stereotype. It also improves partnerships with local individuals and organizations that are crucial to allow co-creation with those on the ground.
When planning for our upcoming gender equality conference in Kigali, Rwanda, we aim to do just that. For instance, we intentionally shifted decision-making power over all youth-related aspects of the conference to the Youth Planning Committee, whose experience and expertise will help ensure that we challenge colonial legacies and co-create sustainable, effective solutions to compounding issues impacting girls and women — from SRHR to climate change, gender-based violence, and unpaid care work.
The need has never been more urgent to radically challenge the status quo, support decolonization, and address the real and perceived binaries — between the “global north” and “global south,” for example — that continue to stifle progress on gender equality and the collective impact within the global development sector.