By Elizabeth Njambi

Foreign aid has helped save millions of lives. But the whole system is facing a huge reckoning.

As the New York Times’ Editorial Board wrote recently, “A growing group of intellectuals, aid workers and civic leaders from Africa say the “white savior” mentality of the world’s foreign aid system can end up doing more harm than good.

We’re asking: Does aid work? Is aid really so colonial that it needs to end? How must the whole system change? And is it time to move to talk about reparations?

Nadia and Nabil have a truly fascinating conversation with Degan Ali – a trailblazer in the movement to decolonize development aid and rethink humanitarianism, and the Executive Director of Adeso, a Nairobi-based organization that works in Somalia and Kenya. Her website is Please do share the episode on your social media.

“My beef with the aid sector”

[00:04:43] Nabil: … It’s been really interesting looking at your work over the years. … What’s your beef with the aid sector?

[00:04:54] Degan: My beef with the aid sector is multi-fold. I think the first one is that we have aid altogether. We shouldn’t be having aid. We should be having mechanisms for true development of global south countries, especially former colonies.

And we need to recognize how the aid architecture is part and parcel of the design of a neo-colonial and racist structure to perpetuate economic and political hegemony of the empires. After independence, many of these countries needed a Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan of Germany and many of the other countries was predicated on a sense of equality. ‘You and I are the same’. That’s not what happened to Africa and Asia and Latin America. What happened was, “How do we design the architecture of the IMF, the World Bank, the UN veto power, the World Trade Organization to ensure our economic hegemony and that we continue to extract riches from these countries, but we give them the semblance of being independent? We give them the idea that they’re really independent, but they’re not“. So, that’s what I have a problem with.

Aid should not be there. And it’s not a source of real development and, source of sovereignty for the Global South.

“But aid has helped so many people?”

[00:06:13] Nabil: Degan, that’s a very powerful challenge and a powerful way to start this interview, but first challenge back is to say that while understanding those global dynamics, we see aid helping lift families out of poverty. We see it funding girls to be able to go to school. We see it funding civil society groups. Is aid really so colonial that it needs to end?

[00:06:36] Degan: (Aid) is not what lifted millions and millions of people out of poverty in China, South Korea and many of those “Asian tiger countries” that have developed since the 70s and 80s. What lifted those countries out of poverty and millions out of poverty is industrialization and the ability to produce products that they can trade in the global market as equals. And trade policies that benefit those countries. They’ve been given the privilege of having that because of their political power and all of that. That’s not how Africa has been treated.

Africa is still a source of raw materials. It’s not a producer of chocolates, even though Ghana is trying to change that. And I commend them for the policies of Ghana, but the major exporters of cocoa are still a source of cocoa, not high-quality chocolate, that’s traded in the global market. Same thing with tyres. … They’re a source of rubber and not producers of tyres. …

So, … I think what we are doing is we are just fooling ourselves into thinking that maybe some changes at the household level for a few thousands of people here and there is really lifting people out of poverty, but it’s not. I’ve seen in my country of Somalia that aid has created more dependency and has encouraged people to leave productive sectors like farming to come to the cities to take out cash handouts. … And … we’re complicit, including Adeso. And this is why we have tried to get off of this aid track and try to get more into the advocacy track to change the system. …

How aid is designed

[00:09:08] Nadia: Powerful, very vivid. I can just picture a lot of what you were talking about and it made me sort of think, at a very basic level: Is there something racist or perhaps colonial about the aid sector itself by design or is that too harsh a criticism?

[00:09:27] Degan: I don’t think that’s harsh at all. I have experienced it personally. Imagine a bunch of Ghanaians go and fly to respond to hurricane Katrina. They speak in their local language. They run … their coordination meetings in local language. They completely marginalize and have meetings without the local … community organizations operating in New Orleans. They don’t respect FEMA. They don’t really work in coordination with FEMA. They basically decide for you what kind of assistance you need. That seems preposterous, right? (Nadia: Yeah) But that’s the kind of scenario that happens to us every single day in the Global South. And we are supposed to accept that. And we’re supposed to be not only accepting it, but feel privileged, grateful, thankful for that level of assistance. …Yeah, It is racist by design.

Perceived Fraud

[00:11:07] Nabil: … Now, I want to ask a challenge that you must get… Some people will say, “well, if we give to local communities, if we give to local civil society groups, then how are we going to meet the standards? How are we going to meet the transparency?” Or in fact, they’ll say, “how will those groups on the ground… be impartial in the way that we are?” What do you say to that?

[00:11:46] Degan: So, this idea, this narrative, that fraud and risks only reside in the domain of local NGOs is a racist narrative … So let me ask you then. Is it neutral to work in one clan area for 20 years in Somalia as an INGO? Is it neutral that you hire one clan in Puntland or in Mogadishu and that clan dominates your entire agency? It happens in Kenya. It happens with Somalia. Is that neutral?

Secondly, the issue of neutrality automatically assumes that I, as a person living in my own country, have no capacity to be human. That I cannot work in and work with people all across the country and that you, as the white person, as a third party, as an outsider, have the ability to work with all clan groups. And that I don’t… which is I’m sorry, frankly, just again, another racist kind of trope. … And so, I’m very, very offended by that. …

When you say I’ve been working in these communities for 30 years with these partners in Turkana or in Puntland, I find that problematic. You shouldn’t be working with the same partners for 20 or 30 years and be proud of it. You should be helping those partners to be independent of you, graduate from you and not need you anymore. And you should exit. That’s your role. We keep talking about exit strategy, but actually what we are designed, what’s the core DNA of INGOs and UN agencies is income and growth and staying as long as possible. It’s not about exit. …

Decolonizing Aid 101

[00:14:09] Nadia: … How do we practically change to get the sector right? How do we practically decolonize it?

[00:14:24] Degan: I think first and foremost, we need to understand our own complicity and accept that. …

Decolonizing aid leads to a conversation about, should we be even having aid? What is the alternative model for it? What does that look like?

And that looks like to me, direct budget support to governments. … Now, if we are saying, we’re going to give more budget support to the governments, but the governments are corrupt, well, I’m sorry. You know, we are part of the problem.

The IMF and the World Bank and these governments – north OECD donor governments – contribute to … corruption. People should read the book, The Economic Hitman. It’s well-documented events that happen all the time, where these governments contribute to corruption in the global south.

But anyways, we need to give direct budget support. But if we’re saying these countries are going to be corrupt or we’re worried about how they’re spending money, then invest in strong civil society that holds the government accountable. That turns the civil society that we have right now from direct implementers NGOs of services that should be done by the government, into advocates. And that transition needs to happen. And that transition requires investment. And it requires multi-year funding; core funding; unrestricted funding to these NGOs. So that they become real advocates for system change for holding their governments accountable. And that’s their role.

Their role is not to run a healthcare facility. Their role is not to run a school. Their role should not be to distribute cash or food. That’s not their role. That’s the government’s role to do that. Direct service delivery needs to be transitioned to the government as much as possible, where possible.

… Nepal, earthquake, come on. There’s no justification for the kind of no man’s land kind of reaction to the earthquake where everybody just parachuted in and did whatever they want. The Nepalese government has learned from that. They won’t allow that next time. I hope they don’t have another earthquake, but if they do, …that kind of response is not going to happen. Indonesia has learned from the tsunami. The Philippines has learned.

Those are the kinds of, I would like to see level of sovereignty and independence being exercised by governments more and more in Africa. I would like to see Africa following the path of Asia and saying enough is enough. We are the government. We are in charge. You do what we want, and you don’t dictate to us what needs to be done.

And then third, we have to have a conversation about solidarity with global north civil society. … You’ve turned us into, ‘mini-me’s of INGOs that we have become in the global south. Are you just implementers of projects and RFPs for your global north donors or are you real civil society? If you’re real civil society, then you are going to confront the inequities and the colonial architecture. You’re going to start confronting world trade organizations to allow equal trade policies and support negotiations, processes, and civil society representation in these negotiations that take place.

Are Southern governments playing their role?

[00:17:59] Nabil: … Are we pressurizing and pushing those Southern governments to play their role enough?

[00:18:17] Degan: I think they’re doing what they can, where they have capacity and where they can resist that. It’s very hard to do that, … if you’re a weak government. … In these post-conflict countries. … And so I think we, as global south civil society need to be doing much more. [Some are focusing on now to say] how can we have a global south movement to push the G77 in this direction? … So, I think that’s the kind of things that we can do more and more.

But I think we also need the support of global north civil society to do their part as well. And they’re not doing anything. They’re not doing any heavy lifting right now in this area and the issues that I’m talking about. Very few and maybe Oxfam would probably be one of the few that tries to address some of these issues. But other than that, … it’s few and far between.

[00:19:31] Nabil: I appreciate that, Degan, by the way. That’ll help me go to work tomorrow, knowing that you think that.


[00:19:38] Nadia: But I have to say generally it does sound quite bleak, but I think you must have hope and optimism to some extent, if you keep fighting this good fight. So, what shifts do you think are happening that do give you that hope that things can change for the better in the sector?

[00:19:55] Degan: I have very low expectations because in 2019, I was interviewed by Devex. And I talked about my experiences with racism in the sector in Somalia and I didn’t name names of organizations or agencies or donors … and that article basically turned into ammunition to blacklist me and a decile by donors and to just… (Nabil: Really?) Yeah. And then almost less than a year later, now in early 2020, we’re having this whole conversation about racism, DI[EN1]  and colonialism and aid. So, things change very, very quickly in the sector.

[00:19:55] Degan: I have very low expectations because in 2019, I was interviewed by Devex. And I talked about my experiences with racism in the sector in Somalia and I didn’t name names of organizations or agencies or donors … and that article basically turned into ammunition to blacklist me and a decile by donors and to just… (Nabil: Really?) Yeah. And then almost less than a year later, now in early 2020, we’re having this whole conversation about racism, DI and colonialism and aid. So, things change very, very quickly in the sector.

And I realized that, you know, we have to have other business models as an organization. We have to work on our financial independence. We have to become an organization that invests in other income streams so that we can continue to speak to truth to power. And that’s one of the things that most local NGOs don’t have. We don’t have unrestricted funding. We don’t have anything. We don’t have reserves. … These are the kinds of real day-to-day crisis that most leaders of local NGOs are experiencing every single day. …

The second thing is to say that the thing that gives me hope is conversations that I’m having with CEOs of INGOs, who are having this kind of internal reckoning. Last year, I decided to start my own consultancy company and I’m trying to work from within INGOs and I’m trying to be sympathetic and recognizing the obstacles that if you’re a CEO who wants to make some of these changes happen that you have …

So we started a process called the ‘Pledge for Change’ with CEOs of major INGOs, including Oxfam Care, MSF, Save the Children UK, Plan International , Mercy Corps and Christian Aid and Action Aid. So, we’re going through this process where we meet with the CEOs once a month. And then we started working groups on certain like low-hanging fruits, things that we can all agree on, need changing.

So one is on partnerships: equal partnerships. And one is on decriminalizing images, which is like poverty porn. And one is on lexicon.

I’m hoping for more courageous, ambitious kind of commitments with, real milestones and real-life targets that we can hold them accountable to. And then hopefully they can now present it to the sector wide and say, “We as leaders of the sector have come up with this. Are you going to come on board as bond members, as interaction members, as ICVA? So, that’s the thing that gives me a little bit of hope. I hope that they do come up with some courageous and ambitious commitments by next year. That’s what I’m really, really praying for Inshallah.

[00:23:42] Nabil: Inshallah.

Thank you so much. Solidarity with you. And I feel we’ve gone from the real kind of mega challenges of global development and the geopolitics there, to really practical stuff. And also, whilst a very challenging interview. You also give us and many people within this broad sector, something to work towards.

We know we all have to play our role, uh, to decolonize and to do right by the values that we believe in. So, thank you very much.

[00:24:12] Degan: Thank you for having me.

Aid as Reparations

[00:26:30] Nabil: Look, this is an important issue. And we asked one of our previous guests to chime in on this. Crystal Simeoni. She was a guest of our last episode, and it has got a particular relevance to Africa. We asked her, “Crystal, do you think Africa needs aid more than ever? Or do you think aid is so colonial that it shouldn’t exist?” And this was her answer.

[00:26:51] Crystal: I think Africa needs reparations. I’ll quote you from Jason Hickel. And he wrote in a number of articles. Europe and North American colonies alone extracted an estimated 222 million hours of forced labor from African slaves between the years of 1619 and 1865. Valued at the US minimum wage with very modest interest, that’s equivalent to $97 trillion. And that’s more than the entire globe’s GDP. That just begins to paint a picture of the inequality that we see now as a manifestation of our historical extractive nature of how the world was organized. Or how, you know, select few organize the world.

So, before we start talking about aid, I think we need to centre the conversation on reparations and what that looks like and how that can be done in a fair way. So, yes, to answer your question, I think it is a colonial construct. …

The same constructs of extractivism exist in world trade agreements. As we can see through vaccine equity and us not being able to produce our own vaccines because we don’t have a waiver on the TRIPS Agreement. And so, I think we have to go back in time. And I think we have to be honest about where we are and why we are where we are. And have a real honest conversation about reparations and decolonizing, the idea of development and what needs to finance development.

[00:28:23] Nadia: Brilliant. And there we have it. Aid as reparations. It sounds like a new campaign slogan to me. You think we’re there yet?

[00:28:29] Nabil: I think it’s a brilliant campaign slogan, Nadia. And it’s where we need to go. And language is a massive part of this. And for me, the language of aid, it’s the language of charity, but the language of reparations, that’s the language of justice.

If you’re joining us on EQUALS for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with the award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, Zambian music artist PilAto on the power of music, thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.

Degan will be launching her podcast, “Imagine If” soon, so look out for that as well!

Elizabeth Njambi is the Producer of the EQUALS Podcast. She also manages the EQUALS Blog. She’s a Kenyan Advocate passionate about access to justice: Founder and CEO of Wakili.sha Initiative and Co-host of the Wakili.sha Podcast.