Development or Neocolonialism? Questioning our position as development workers in the Global North

Teba Al-Samarai
7 min readMay 28, 2021

By Jara Bakx & Teba Al-Samarai

Source: Obando & Faciolince, 2021
Source: Obando & Faciolince, 2021

Development agencies and organizations rarely acknowledge the colonial roots of development. Though colonialism might not have repeated itself in the traditional sense of the word, it has reinvented itself through development — ‘zombie colonialism’ as Dr. Olivia Rutazibwa describes it. Decolonizing development starts by contextualizing and creating awareness on neocolonial development and continues through remaining aware and critical of development cooperation and your position in it. This blog follows that same structure: after explaining neocolonialism in development cooperation, we will present a roadmap with guiding questions to decolonize development.

The word development implies a stage of transition: an action performed to ‘catch up’ backward areas. Development work finds its roots in the European colonial project, and the notions of development are still clearly wrapped neatly in a package of concepts and theories that enforce the Global North techniques of exerting power on institutions in the South. The optimists among us consider development to be a series of interventions with the goal of facilitating economic growth beneficial to all. Societies may need to endure the pain of widening inequalities first, but eventually all will benefit, and lives will improve. No pain, no gain. The pessimists among us, however, consider development as an organizing principle to promote global capitalist expansion with the geopolitical goal of securing resources and markets for Northern powers. Its main target is merely to open markets that will allow us to obtain the raw materials from the resource-rich but economically-poor countries.

However, reality is much more complex. The remains of the colonial relations between the Northern givers and Southern receivers can be found in every niche of the development world.

Neocolonialism and Aid

For instance, unequal power dynamics still prevail in the international aid system. Documentary Poverty Inc. neatly challenges the institutional mechanisms at the base of today’s foreign aid system, kicking off with a quote from Niccolò Machiavelli: “the reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power, and the people that stand to gain from change have none of the power.”

Lending countries are still benefiting the most from foreign aid, since it is our products that get sold, our contractors that get paid, and our NGOs that stay in business. And while many multinationals pillage the continent of Africa from its natural resources without paying taxes, development workers continue to tell the population how to better manage their money.

The image of the African with no money, no skills nor agency persists as a justification to continue flooding its markets with donations and government-subsidized products that completely disrupt local economies. It is through this model that the Global North is not empowering nations, but rather, it is enslaving them to the foreign aid machine. Peace Direct’s 2021 report titled Time to Decolonize Aid therefore states that: “If policymakers, donors, practitioners, academics and activists do not begin to address structural racism and what it means to decolonize aid, the system may never be able to transform itself in ways that truly shift power and resources to local actors.”

Such transformation requires a diversification of the narrative of Africa. In her 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares this danger of a single story:

“[My roommate from the US] had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me as an African was a kind of patronizing well-meaning pity. She had a single story of Africa, a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa was from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

The issue remains that in areas that are deemed to be economically poor, little to no advance is noticed after foreign aid interventions. On the contrary, poverty, inequality and human suffering often continue after the white jeeps leave and the development projects end. In recent years, the paternalistic approach of the Global North has increasingly been questioned as nations in Africa suffer from stifled growth. Instead, a growing number of scholars and practitioners — particularly from the Global South — have called for a rollback of aid interventions and instead plead for the creation of a level playing field that breaks with the ‘white savior’ mentality of foreign aid. This would have to start with the creation of organizational strategies identifying milestones for transferring power and resources to local organizations.

Neocolonialism and Conservation

Another example is the fact that in many environmental programs of development agencies, the belief that land occupied by indigenous people is no one’s land and therefore free to enclose for natural restoration and regeneration purposes (also referred to as ‘green grabbing’) still prevails. The act of establishing conservation parks finds its roots in the 19th and 20th century when Native Americans were displaced from their land as they were seen as a threat to nature, often sparked by the racist notions of keeping Native Americans away from white settlers. Kenyan ecologist Dr. Mordecai Ogada states that racism is still at the base of many conservation practices: “African conservation practices have pandered to prejudices cultivated by the romantic notions about African nature and wildlife, in which the black African is considered an insidious impurity that sometimes leaks into the final product but should ideally be absent.”

In the past few decades, however, the declaration of a protected area is increasingly seen as a development intervention: by protecting ecosystem services, nearby communities will, on the long term, benefit socially and economically. However, in reality, the very people that benefit the most from healthy ecosystems have been left at the sidelines. Indigenous communities are recognized as the best protectors of nature but have been excluded from the design and implementation of many conservation programs and have often been forcefully and violently removed from their land for the sake of letting nature grow. In 2008, journalist John Vidal already said that “conservation could now be about to get even bigger still, exerting more control over local communities than traditional colonialists ever did.” Even though attention has been growing for the injustices done to traditional and indigenous communities, many development policies remain in direct conflict with their rights: a 2016 UN report concludes that the conservation of protected areas is undermined worldwide by state-backed industry and infrastructure projects while indigenous communities in the same places were being displaced.

Now what?

Presumably, this is not the first time you have come across the concept of decolonizing development. Perhaps the familiar sense of powerlessness and gloom encompasses you and you think “now what?” You probably started your journey in international development with a genuine desire to tackle global injustice, poverty, and climate change, and instead, you now feel trapped in a system that is too big for you to change.

However, as a cog in the wheel of development cooperation, you do have an impact on this system, whether you are a student, researcher, or practitioner. In fact, it is your responsibility to create awareness and make a change. Luckily, development workers before you have helped in formulating some useful guiding questions to take with you in your decolonizing journey.

The individual roadmap to decolonize development:

Guiding questions for development workers

1. Whose interests are you serving?

Gaining awareness about the system and your role in it is the first step. So, ask yourself critically: who is reaping the benefits from your work?

2. Are you creating a surrounding that not only accepts but encourages dissent?

You must not only become aware but stay aware. Are you following activists and/or knowledge institutes (from the Global South) that challenge your narrative? If so, are you actually listening to their message and applying it to your work?

3. Consequently, are you vocalizing and concretizing your dissent?

Do you actively speak out when you come across institutional or practical colonial thinking? Did you use or think along the lines of neocolonial narratives (e.g., where the Global North society is considered the golden end-goal) without questioning this? Who designed the program you are working on and who set the agenda? Are you analyzing the level of engagement from partners from the Global South?

4. Does your position add value?

Now, here comes the hard part: it is not only crucial to critically evaluate the system, but also your own position in this system. This can be confronting because most likely you will find that you have become personally and professionally invested in maintaining the status quo. This is (part of) your identity; a manifest of your interests; it pays the bills and for your ‘international’ lifestyle; it is your (professional) network and perhaps your self-worth. It is crucial to remain critical of your own position and not succumb to comfort and inertia.

Ask yourself at the end of every day: did I do something to challenge or to decolonize development, or that supported the current system? Is my position needed or can this be done by someone from the Global South? And if my position is needed, am I at least working closely with partners in the Global South and sharing my knowledge in a meaningful way? In sum: did I do something to make my work and position a little bit more redundant?

As workers in the Global North in the development sector, we need to find a balance between staying true to our values and acknowledging our selfishness in helping others. During this process, it is important to view the current system as our problem, not merely that of the Global South. It is our responsibility to challenge the status quo and decolonize development. As we are the ones in power, we are the ones that can change it.