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Foreign Aid Is Having a Reckoning

Now “decolonizing development” has become a catchphrase in the aid sector. Devex, a media platform for the global development community, has held a series of sessions about it. An upcoming humanitarian leadership conference hosted by a center at Deakin University in Australia lists “decolonizing the humanitarian ecosystem” as a theme. It’s not just talk. Recently, a new group called the African Visionary Fund announced that it would be giving $1 million in flexible funding to African-led organizations. A group of predominantly U.S.-based foundations seeded the fund, but they handed over decision-making power to a majority-African board.

This recent push for change mirrors a trend taking place in philanthropy inside the United States: Leaders of American private foundations are increasingly willing to grapple publicly with the fact that organizations run by Black and brown people face far steeper hurdles to funding than white-run organizations do. Edgar Villanueva, the founder of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, which encourages philanthropists to give more money and power to grass-roots leaders, has gotten leaders in philanthropy to agree to participate in a panel called PhilanthropySoWhite later this month.

The push to reform foreign aid comes as the coronavirus pandemic has showcased the capabilities of local people who continued working long after their American and European bosses flew home to the relative safety of their own countries.

The effort to put more money and power over aid into the hands of the communities it is meant to benefit is not new. In 2010, USAID’s administrator, Raj Shah, committed to ramping up the amount of American aid that goes directly to local and national groups and local government entities, to 30 percent from about 10 percent. That target has never been met, partly because government funding comes with burdensome paperwork requirements that large American aid contractors are used to handling, but that tend to strangle smaller organizations.

Private foundations can be more nimble. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation used to make all its big decisions in Seattle. But in 2012, it began opening offices in Africa. Now an increasing number of decisions are made in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Abuja, according to Oumar Seydi, who leads the Gates Foundation’s work on the continent. He said that during his time at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector development arm of the World Bank, that institution also began to hand over more control to the staff in Africa after a survey showed that clients on the continent needed quicker responses.

Still, the changes in the sector remain too few and too slow. Too many aid groups continue to ignore the desires of the people they claim to serve. The Australian Red Cross stands out as an international organization that has shifted its own role to meet the moment. It has reduced its own staff to provide more funding to overseas partners and reoriented its activities around areas of added value. Other organizations should follow this example.

Aid is not all about saving those in need. Development assistance is one of the three D’s — alongside diplomacy and defense — considered crucial to cementing alliances and advancing donor countries’ interests around the world. That’s a big reason it might be resistant to reform. President Biden has issued an executive order mandating that every government agency review policies to identify barriers to racial inequity and issue a report within 200 days. Many people inside USAID hope the review will be an opportunity to improve the agency by making it more nimble and thoughtful, using lessons learned from the recent past.

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