Repairing the damage of our colonial legacy - Saranel Benjamin

Remember May 2020? George Floyd’s murder in the US ignited a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement globally. On social media, people posted black squares to show their outrage and countless organisations committed to being “anti-racist”, a term many were using for the first time.

It is only in the last two years, that international development organisations, like Oxfam, have truly begun to confront racism in the sector after reports – including by the UK’s International Development Committee – revealed institutionalised racism. At the same time, civil society organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East have called out the behaviours and practices of “northern based” international non-governmental organisations as “colonial” and “racist”.

Fast forward, and a new paper by the SNP at Westminster critiquing the UK Government’s approach to international development, says an independent Scotland would recognise “Scotland’s colonial crimes” as part of efforts to “decolonise development”. Parallel commitments to increase development spend, and to focus it on tackling poverty not the “national interest”, are very positive. However, the paper would be strengthened by explicit recognition of the deep overlaps between colonialism and present-day racial injustice. We cannot end poverty without confronting this reality.

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Doing so has raised huge discomfort amongst UK-based international development and humanitarian organisations. After all, weren’t these charities set up to do good and to serve?

Protesters gather in support of the Black Lives Matter and Black Voices Matter movements in central Leeds on June 14, 2020 in the aftermath of the death of unarmed black man George Floyd in police custody in the US. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The default response has been to tackle racism or colonialism but rarely both. Emphasis has been placed on tackling racism internally – through diversity, equality and inclusion efforts – or shifting power to civil society organisations in the “Global South”, often blind to the colonial systems and practices, including the transference of risk, still embedded within it.

But we must understand that while international development and humanitarian organisations have saved countless lives and often worked with communities to eradicate poverty, such assistance was born from the legacy of colonialism. This was a period marked by the slave trade which accounted for 11 percent of Britain’s GDP in the 19th century through the enslavement of 12 million Black people, including by Scottish colonisers. The enduring legacy of colonialism can be seen today in many post-colonial countries through extractive industry and exploitative labour practices.

As countries began to achieve their independence from the 1940s, colonial powers offered international aid assistance. As a prominent historian noted, the goal was to “make Africans healthier and better educated, incorporated into more effective governmental institutions". This problematic foundation not only centred the ‘white gaze’ but it was also an attempt to recreate Africa in the image of Britain, enabling it to become yet another institutionalised form of colonial and racist power over the former colonies.

Today, anti-Black racism, racism against indigenous people and people of colour, remain inextricably linked to the UK’s economic and political status in the global space. Across every sector, it is therefore impossible to eradicate racial injustice without tackling colonial legacy, and vice versa.

As Oxfam prepares to mark its 80 years of existence, we continue to reconcile that our own past is bound up in colonial legacy. We have been spurred by the findings of an independent commission to dismantle and disrupt colonial power as it shows up in the way we work. We recognise that it has enabled us to exercise control over civil society organisations in the Global South, and prioritise northern and white skills, expertise and knowledge.

By explicitly linking decolonisation with racial justice, we are embedding proactive and preventive measures to support equitable opportunities and outcomes for people of all races. We are prepared to repair the harm caused by not repeating it, being intentionally aware of our power and being held to account for how we use it.

After all, we – and others – have a duty to change.

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Saranel Benjamin, Head of Partnerships, Oxfam GB


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