Opinion: Dear global north, please stop calling the rest of us poor

“What funding cuts in any northern donor’s aid program can do ... is create an opportunity for traditionally aid-dependent nations to be forced to develop alternatives.” Photo by: Joey Kyber from Pexels

In 2012, the then-Conservative government of Canada made drastic cuts to its foreign aid assistance budget, leaving many within the Canadian development sector and its recipients abroad scrambling to save their programs. The Canadian development community bemoaned the cuts, saying that Canada must continue to “advocate on behalf of the poorest of the poor” and that “investing now in the resilience and prosperity of poor communities will ... save lives … by helping reduce the risk of conflict, disease and despair."

Similar sentiments were echoed by Gayle Smith, former chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, saying that “people around the world … think maybe America isn't there for us anymore,” when President Donald Trump threatened to slash the department’s foreign aid budget. He later backtracked.

Recently, the cuts to the United Kingdom’s foreign aid commitments amid COVID-19 have also elicited much backlash over breaking promises to the poorest people in the world and depriving millions of lifesaving assistance.

It is concerning that all these narratives in northern donor countries have been generated by the northern supporters of aid, not its detractors — narratives claiming that without aid, the world’s poor will likely not survive through the night.

This needs to end.

Donor countries have all the right to decide their political priorities. But recipient countries have equal right to critically examine how such decisions will affect them.

Many aid-recipient countries, mine included, undoubtedly struggle with poverty, corruption, and conflict, among many, many other maladies. But to constantly refer to us as “poor,” “in need,” and “in despair” isn’t useful for anyone, especially us. Such language is also insulting to the constant struggles and risks we face in our own countries every day and the efforts we make to face these — with or without aid.

Invoking poverty and desperation to support the cause of aid only heightens the colonial “white savior complex” that many are now beginning to openly question. This also reflects more the politics of the control of aid than it does its human priorities, as is also reflected by the widely used term “soft power,” which identifies an imbalanced relationship between donor and recipient simply with the word “power.”

Such narratives do not help aid recipients to become more independent but instead view them as those in perpetual need of help. And this is particularly a gray area, since one of the biggest challenges of the global aid system is that aid is often evaluated by the donors rather than the recipients; we have been unable to account for its success or failure by ourselves, for ourselves. This continues to perpetuate the narrative of need.

What funding cuts in any northern donor’s aid program can do — as will the fallout of COVID-19 — is create an opportunity for traditionally aid-dependent nations to be forced to develop alternatives. This will be harder to do for those that get much larger amounts of development aid or for those that struggle with excessive elite capture. But it is not impossible. And it is about time we do so.

A gap in funding otherwise filled by foreign aid can be sealed if we start to think of national forms of financial support, such as reallocating public spending, diaspora contributions, the use of taxation, and even a more effective use of local philanthropy — all major challenges in our countries, so no easy task.

But again, this is not impossible. It’s just that we ourselves haven’t tried hard enough yet to mobilize these resources. It will also allow us to further develop our own ways of working with those who are unable to access resources equally and fairly — what many volunteer-based or charitable and philanthropic organizations in our countries have been doing for decades. Recipient governments have much they can learn from these, their own existing organizations and their efforts. They must start doing so.

More importantly, we must lobby our own governments to do better by their citizens, not by others.

Opinion: The hustle — white saviors and hashtag activism

Aid organizations: You are on notice. Your black staff can see your complicity and hear your hypocrisy loud and clear, writes Angela Bruce-Raeburn, Africa regional advocacy director at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, in this guest commentary.

Our development organizations must leave behind the mentality that the only way to improve our countries is to rely on foreign aid. In my decades working as an aid practitioner in Pakistan, I have personally witnessed countless NGOs resort to using only development aid to survive, thus limiting national accountability. Because of this, recipient countries have been equally responsible for perpetuating constant poverty, because we also choose to believe that this is true.

Aid has shown some successes over the years. But for it to be equitable, it has to work both ways. Donor countries have all the right to decide their political priorities. But recipient countries have equal right to critically examine how such decisions will affect them and, instead of falling into line as we usually do, should start listening to their own citizens to devise policies that better reflect our realities and ways to support them.

For any form of aid to truly succeed, it must not be given, or received, as charity. Those who support aid and development in the global north are not helping the cause of aid for either donor or recipient by constantly invoking the poor — or even worse, the poorest of the poor. It’s time these harmful narratives were shelved and we are all seen as equal partners in making the world a better place.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Themrise Khan

    Themrise Khan is an independent development professional and researcher with over 25 years of practitioner and policy-based experience in international development, aid effectiveness, gender, and global migration. She has worked with a vast spectrum of multilateral and bilateral organizations, INGOs, and civil society organizations in Pakistan, South Asia, and globally. She lives and works in Pakistan and blogs informally at www.lamehdood.wordpress.com.