Who Represents Whom? A Conversation on Decolonizing Humanitarian Governance

July 26, 2021


Who Represents Whom?
June 22, 2021
10:00—11:30 AM Washington DC time

The Black Lives Matter movement, #AidToo, and the failure to support locally-led responses during COVID-19 have spotlighted power imbalances in the humanitarian sector. Whether between large NGOs and local organizations, or crisis-affected populations, there are limited ways for people to participate in decisions that affect them, particularly those on the frontline.

On 22 June 2021, the Center for Global Development partnered with Humentum to discuss what decolonization means for the humanitarian sector. Panelists shared experiences and lessons learned about why diversity and representation in governance matter and how to rebalance the unequal power dynamics that plague the sector.

The corporatization of NGOs

To understand who governs humanitarian nonprofits and the factors that have led to their current make-up, we must look to the corporatization of NGOs. As the sector developed new standards, it has prevented local communities from exerting control and oversight.

Degan Ali, Executive Director of Adeso, noted that corporate success is often measured in terms of income. Organizations assume that institutional growth correlates with increased impact.

But corporatization also requires us to examine how metrics such as value-for-money or results-oriented frameworks divert attention from whether local organizations can actually exert control and power, and their impact on business models and staffing structures.

For Dylan Matthews, CEO of Peace Direct and co-author with Ali of the report Time to Decolonize Aid, these issues also draw attention to the influence of governance structures such as sub-committees that have power over specific issues and often are dominated by white executives.

An analysis of diversity at the headquarter-level in US-based international NGOs carried out by a volunteer coalition including Humentum found that leadership is 84 percent white, while boards are 67 percent white.

Experiences of structural racism

In a recent survey, Lena Bheeroo, Engagement and Equity Manager at BOND UK, noted that 89 percent of staff in UK-based international NGOs felt their organizations weren’t truly committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Furthermore, 68 percent of staff had also experienced or witnessed an incident of racism.

Lingering colonialism is a significant factor in these experiences. Senator Ratna Omidvar said that it is deeply embedded in the Canadian context. For example, Canadian charities that collaborate with local groups must approve public statements, such as press releases, generated by the partner as the intellectual property of the charity’s headquarters.

The intended impact is the continued legacy of colonialism, and the presumption that local partners cannot be trusted with money, and a continued legacy of colonialism.

There are also circumstances in which young graduates with no experience are flown to supervise more experienced, older staff in-country “because you know he is Black and can never rise up in a position,” stated Ali. “If your board doesn’t have any real understanding and motivation to change these dynamics, nothing will change.”

Ingrained perspectives

Panelists challenged these ingrained perspectives. As the sector has corporatized and professionalized, Matthews said it has obscured its colonial roots.

The obscurity also extends to operations. For example, Ali noted that the organizations actually implementing humanitarian programs receive the least resources and compared the chain of resources to “legalized corruption.”

Although viewing beneficiaries of aid as constituents may be aspirational, Dr. Christine Sow, CEO of Humentum, believes it pulls us in the right direction.

What are the solutions?

Senator Omidvar posed the question: how do we move a conversation that masks distrust as accountability to a positive force that allows people to have their own voice? The humanitarian sector must avoid defaulting to tokenism, and donors must target dollars towards equity-seeking organizations. States should also mandate data collection on diversity and inclusion.

Sow agreed that to change behavior, donors must set expectations. Organizations should then think about how to leverage donors, to push them to change the way humanitarians work. Policy change can also have a significant impact on diversity and inclusion.

Matthews offered lessons learned from Peace Direct, which has begun to encourage partner organizations to hire personnel without degrees where they are unnecessary and promote local involvement. At the governance level, local practitioners also feed directly into organizational strategy through a new Global Advisory Council. They act as a “brains trust” or a parallel board to help guide the organization’s governance.

Bheeroo noted that BOND UK collaborates with directors of programs in UK-based NGOs to discuss the dynamics between organizations with UK-based headquarters and country offices, and to depoliticize the language and narrative of fundraising campaigns. The Charity Commission Code is also useful guidance for best practice.

While there are signs of progress in the humanitarian sector to improve representation, panelists agreed that continued dialogue and research is required alongside efforts to improve board transparency and diversity metrics.

Read more solutions in our paper: Shifting Power in Humanitarian Nonprofits: A Review of 15 NGO Governing Boards and blog: Decolonizing the Humanitarian Nonprofit Sector: Why Governing Boards Are Key.

Find out more about Humentum’s equity principles.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.