The costs of our neutrality

The challenge of confronting racism and colonial legacies in the development sector

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

The harm in aiming for “no harm”

Can we arrive at a starting place of both/and ?

The complexity of addressing that which is “hidden” in plain sight

  • The ways we benchmark ‘development’ — of countries and people — against a largely Western, White, capitalist understanding of progress.
  • The way we divide up the world into developing and developed as though a neutral observation of a phenomenon that just is, and position countries from the Global North as developed simply because they can claim a higher GDP and greater capacity for consumption: as though development and progress lies in material measures.
  • The ways that even when we strive to be more holistic, we revert to definitions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘freedom’ in dominant human development paradigms that derive from specific worldviews yet continue treat them as universal. Or we co-opt ways of knowing and being that have long been practiced by many communities or traditions, treat them as novel, and fail to properly attribute their origins (or ascribe value and expertise only to those who have translated such knowledge into jargon, tools, and frameworks that conform to existing development norms).
  • The plethora of problematic terminology that enjoy central positions in our vocabulary, and in this, infiltrate our perceptions, relationship to other people and modes of operating— from ‘developing’ countries, ‘vulnerable populations,’ ‘beneficiaries,’ ‘the field,’ and ‘capacity building’ to the ways we apply concepts like ‘rationality’ and ‘effectiveness.’
  • The way we describe other people or countries as being ‘left behind’ on material dimensions of development as though this was by chance, or a result of inefficiencies or gaps in knowledge or technology: as though there are not deliberate architectures of power that were designed to exclude and disadvantage; as though these systems don’t still exist; as though we have no role in upholding them.
  • The ways we not only discount indigenous knowledge systems or impede the inclusion of a plurality of ways of knowing and experiencing the world within our development processes, but actively deny the role that epistemologies/worldviews/mindsets/relationships/intangible factors have on our processes and outcomes in the first place (thereby enabling us to continue treating the existing goals, practices, and ways of knowing in the development enterprise as a given, and everything else as alternative).
  • The way we invest little time, energy or resources into the kinds of practices and research that actually help to make our assumptions and logic models explicit and compel us to deconstruct and work with the many drivers of power in any systemic issue.
  • The paternalistic ways we (well-funded development institutions) often work with ‘local’ organizations or communities, and in many cases apply an understanding and rhetoric of ‘local’ or ‘community’ that in itself reinforces the otherization of those at the forefront of development efforts.
  • The hierarchies of humanness that are manifest and palpable at every turn: from who is present in and expected to speak first in a meeting room; to who we regard as the experts or dignitaries even in a dialogue about equity; to the pay disparities we normalize between ‘national’ and ‘international’ staff that are often not justified by differences in levels of experience, specialization, or expertise; to the formal and informal mechanisms we use to assess professionalism, intelligence, and capability that are far from neutral/generally privilege those of a certain language, skin color, gender, class, etc.
  • The fact that we talk about aid instead of reparations; of empowering instead of giving back power.

Where we situate hope



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