The Role of Aid in Reparations for the Harm of Colonialism
By Tariq Ahmad, Sara Duvisac and Keny Navarrete
Viewing aid and development finance in light of the calls for reparations deserves serious (and long-overdue) consideration. Aid as a part of reparatory justice would not only change the reasons for ‘why’ traditional northern donors provide aid but would force important questions about how to reform ‘how’ aid is provided.
As a global organization that works to end the injustice of poverty as well as being an institutional player in the internal development sector, Oxfam seeks to better understand what these perspectives mean not only for our own work, but also for the types of reforms we call for through our advocacy, especially on aid and development finance. However, we recognize that we need to be humble and approach this journey by listening and acting on the leadership of our Southern partners. As a first step, we want to learn; to better understand what reparations mean, how they are defined, and how the radical calls for change would impact our work and policy agenda.
Movements demanding reparations for colonialism and the enslavement of Africans by European nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States are long-standing. However, it is only more recently that actors in the international development and aid sector have heeded these calls and begun to deal with the sector’s colonial legacy and its present-day manifestations. As Walter Rodney, the eminent Guyanese academic, argued, the language of development often obscures that former colonies were systematically underdeveloped through colonialism. From resource and labor extraction to cultural erasure to sociopolitical marginalization and violence, colonialism, as the UN Durban Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance states, has contributed to “lasting social and economic inequalities in many parts of the world.”
“If you recognise that colonization has been a source of massive crimes against humanity, then reparations are legitimate. If you refuse these reparations, then you deny the criminal nature of colonial crimes.”
Reparations, then, at the core, as CARICOM and other organizations argue, is a framework that argues that compensation, repair, and healing are rights and not a question of charity or benevolence.
Reparations, importantly, are not just about economic compensation; they also require acknowledgement of the harm committed, and efforts to correct and cease that harm.  N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) defines reparations “as a process of repairing, healing, and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments or corporations.” Specific reparatory acts can include official acknowledgement and/or apology for harm, public education and/or memorialization of the harm, compensation, and cessation of harm, which includes transforming institutions and systems that uphold or benefit from the harm in question. Importantly, reparations demand a holistic approach, not a piecemeal one.
Movement success around reparations in the context of European colonialism has been mixed. In 2013, a group of CARICOM member states sued the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands for reparations for colonialism; the case is still ongoing. The most successful cases around reparations in the context of European colonialism have been for specific instances of human rights violations perpetrated by colonial powers and for the return of looted artifacts.
What does this mean for the aid and development finance sector? Based on the perspective of the reparation movement, aid can be a part of reparatory justice but aid alone cannot be considered reparations. Better integrating views on reparations in global policy on aid and reparations will require a change to four important aspects of the traditional northern aid sector.
First, the reasons why traditional northern donors provide aid in the first place will require change. Oxfam has had a long-held policy position that aid should not be shared as an act of charity, rather, it should be shared as an effort to reduce inequality; to redistribute grotesquely unequal distribution of economic and political resources and power. Aid should not be considered an act of charity but a matter of justice.
Second, reparations highlight the need to build fairer and more equal societies grounded in sustainable productive models that ensure the well-being of people. In order to build resilient development processes, it is important to understand the needs of the people of a region with localized approaches. These processes should be based on endogenous development efforts, where localized visions of wellbeing are respected and promoted, which in general are based on the collective and conceive of natural resources as an integral part of the communities to achieve wellbeing.
The struggle for reparations in specific regions implies an important effort at the political and legal level in the international system. However, this effort must transcend and rethink how the economic system promotes extractivist dynamics that deepen inequality and the conditions of exclusion of the most vulnerable people. Likewise, it is essential to place people in vulnerable conditions such as indigenous communities, women, youth, girls and boys, LGBTQI+ people, among others, at the center of the discussion in order to promote appropriate mechanisms to ensure the full enjoyment of the rights of all people in a sustainable manner. Aid would need to become a better tool to support leaders, citizens, and governments to exercise their right to know, right to decide, right to implement, and right to challenge how development finance flows (especially public development finance from bilateral and multilateral providers) are invested. It’s hoped that with more southern led aid, leaders, citizens, and governments of low and middle-income countries will have the power to transform historically entrenched and present-day inequalities in political and economic power.
Third, as the work of activists and organizations from CARICOM to the African Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance to N’COBRA have pointed to compensation is only one component of reparations. Aid must be coupled with acknowledgement of the harm of colonialism and the cessation of harm that colonialism engenders. Some former colonial governments have been reluctant to offer formal apologies or term aid payments as reparations. For example, in 2021, Germany agreed to pay $1.1 billion for infrastructure development in acknowledgment of its role in colonial era genocide in Namibia and offered an apology. However, Germany refused to term this payment as reparations, much to the chagrin of Namibian activists who argued that Germany continued to sidestep its moral, legal, and financial obligations to the people of Namibia under the cover of aid.
Finally, aid is not enough to address existing systematic global power inequalities or broader challenges in development finance. For example, reparations activists call on policy makers in the global north to address the demands of debt cancelation (both domestic and foreign), technology transfers, right to development frameworks, and a commitment to uncovering the historical violence of colonialism. As Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, noted in response to the demands for loss and damage during the COP 26 (2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference), “finance is key to this not as an act of charity but as an act of reparation,” in calling on rich countries to pay their “debt” to middle and low-income countries.
Taking a reparatory approach to aid by acknowledging and apologizing for harm, can perhaps begin to transform the unequal distributions of power that remain central to global aid architecture.
Tariq Ahmad and Sara Duvisac are colleagues at Oxfam America. Tariq is the Senior Policy Manager – Aid and Development Finance, while Sara is Research and Policy Advisor and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. Keny Navarrete is Oxfam International’s Humanitarian and Resilience Regional Coordinator for Latin America.
- “Juneteenth reparations rally to demand reparations from the United States government” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0
 It is comprised of fifteen Member States and five Associate Members.
 The national Black Lives Matter movement in the United States defines reparations as “repair, restitution, and efforts to leverage power, influence, and resources to ensure cessation and non-repetition.”
 The African Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA)in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), defines reparations as “an acknowledgement between communities which share a common past with the aim to heal the wounds from past human rights violations…Reparations are the joint obligation to truth telling, to ensure the relevant historical facts are uncovered, discussed, and properly memorialized.”
 For example, CARICOM’s comprehensive 10-point plan for reparations that covers demands for: 1) formal apology; 2) repatriation; 3) Indigenous Peoples development program; 4) investments for cultural institutions; 5) investments for public health; 6) eradication of illiteracy; 7) African knowledge program; 8) psychological rehabilitation; 8) technology transfer; and 10) debt cancellation
 In addition, Germany’s extensive program of restitution and commemoration for the persecution of German Jews, the crimes of the Holocaust, and the use of East European slave labor is often held as a successful and meaningful (if in many cases belated) example of reparations.