Contribution L.R | NGOs: The Embellished Form of Colonialism

Radja Benmansour is an Advisor of Employability and Entrepreneurship at GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). She is a Fulbright Scholar and a Lehigh University Graduate in the field of Globalization and Education Change.

International agencies and NGOs, these agencies are often driven by good intentions to provide support and help to other countries, yet their approach to development and the implications of their work remain questionable. As Straubhaar (2015) states, “Westerners have the unique power to uplift, edify and strengthen”, stigmatizing along the way countries that differ from theirs as Developing, Underdeveloped, or Third World. The trend adopted by Western countries towardss African ones after the colonial period is focused on reconstructing and “fixing the mess” caused by centuries of occupation in various countries. The goal is to move beyond the past (and the pre-colonial history) to catch up with the “developed” world, as Fanon (1963) says; Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today. Developing countries now need to rise to the top and meet Western standards – most recently articulated in terms of the sustainable development goals – to deserve the title of a “developed” country.

An extension of colonialism, international agencies, continue to overlook developing countries as part of their responsibilities to uplift, setting the terms and definitions of development. These agencies perceive “‘development’ as simply spreading a ‘culturally superior’ Eurocentric understanding of enlightenment” (Leckey, 2014)

There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co- existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion (Said, 1977). Easterly in The White Man’s Burden also states, “Soon was born the development expert, the heir to the missionary and the colonial officer”. Development agencies are composed of individuals who, by their extreme commitment in alleviating populations in other countries and do “good” to them, inherently believe in those populations’ incapacity to bring about any sort of positive change on their own. These “Experts” lack a significant amount of trust in the intellectual and entrepreneurial ability of people that have different experiences and cultural backgrounds. The discourse employed by international agencies referring to “Poor” and “Needy” populations, is a blunt discourse of cultural superiority and possessors of the “savoir-faire”. Freire’s argument stipulates the relationship that is tied between the oppressor, in this case international agencies, and even Western countries’ governments, and the oppressed in this case recipient’s populations of aid, developing countries, he says:

They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

The westerner in his superman’s cape flying to save the poor and the needy, the hungry and the weak, give women and girls equality, wants actually to fulfill his own heroic fantasies as Cole (2012) says, in regard to Africa:

Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference’.

Moreover, where people experience turmoil, international agencies see opportunities. They implement projects, observer people’s responses to the projects, write reports to outline the need of the people, and applaud their own investments. This, also, refers to the Freire’s theory of the oppressed (1970) when he says: “the oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time – everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal”.

“The creation and use of knowledge itself is political, and can serve to propagate and reinforce the social marginalization and oppression of those who do not conform to the norms of the dominant discourse.” (Hiddelston, 2009). International agencies create the narrative to describe situations that target  populations’ lives and experiences, thus assigning the power dynamic and keeping the concerned people on the margins. He adds in the same stance that “the colonialist creates his position of mastery and dominance over that other by claiming to define, categorize and know its difference from the self” International agencies react as an embellished form of colonialism, they also refer to the population’s identity as categorically different from the donor’s, and put them in the compartment of the helpless other.

The representation of the individual in international agencies discourse places him or her as a powerless entity. Unable to progress and develop on its own, this discourse is considered harmful to the development and perception of the self as Foucault 1980 explains that “the individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces”.

Privilege is transparent to those who live in it, as much as it is transparent to those who have no understanding of it. This creates and justifies “unequal placement within social hierarchies” and sends “messages that can make our social positionalities seem natural, or even deserved” (Straubhaar, 2015). The idea of privilege can take another position to embed patronizing attitudes in the donor’s way of dealing and behaving with the recipient, keeping one at the top and the other at its mercy.

Written by: Radja Benmansour

1 Comment

  1. We’ve been under attack in unprecedented ways. Recounting the journies of Imperialism, Colonialism and now Neo-Colonialism. These are the Same concepts from different historical periods. Only the time and form of oppression has changed. The oppressor has become more sophisticated and we are so blinded to see. Neocolonialism for example is the most redoubtable form of oppression carefully orchestrated in disguise and deceit.

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