1. Home
  2. Global

Rethinking Humanitarianism | Is ‘decolonised aid’ an oxymoron?

‘There has to be a true reimagining of the entire global governance system, particularly trade and financing by the IMF and the World Bank.’

Related stories

When The New Humanitarian hosted a private convening on decolonising aid earlier this year, the conversation in the room revealed a chasm within the humanitarian aid community. 

There are two very different schools of thoughts on decolonising aid. Some in the room defined decolonisation as a call to reform an otherwise worthy endeavour. Others saw it as a call to end aid altogether.

Are these two approaches mutually exclusive, or can they co-exist? Is decolonised aid even achievable within our current global governance system? 

On the latest episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism, host Heba Aly discusses these tensions with one of the leaders of the movement to decolonise aid, Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso.

Subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

TRANSCRIPT: Is “decolonised aid” an oxymoron?

“[The term ‘decolonisation’] takes the bull by the horn; we cannot afford to wash over the issue.”

“It’s not about how to do [international aid] better, but do you need to do it? And do we [in the Global South] want you to do it?”

“This is about making sure we can address the humanitarian needs in the world, while recognising that we are living in a neo-colonial era with all these power imbalances.”

“As a country with a colonial history, using this term has more impact and clearly refers to power imbalances, racism and western approaches.”

“Your priority is the flow of money. For us, it’s not [just that]. It’s about having the autonomy to decide for ourselves.”

Earlier this year, The New Humanitarian hosted a private convening on decolonising aid. We brought together, on the one hand, civil society leaders, local humanitarians and racial justice activists, and on the other, donors and policymakers in international aid.

That conversation revealed a chasm within the humanitarian aid community. There are two very different schools of thoughts on decolonising aid.

Some in the room defined decolonisation as a call to reform an otherwise worthy endeavour, by engaging in fairer relationships with local partners, centering communities who are most directly affected, and supporting local agency.

But others saw it as a call to end aid altogether, often describing humanitarian assistance as doing more harm than good.

“In Africa, we are still a source of extraction – and that is by design. Our countries would not need aid if we could trade at the same level as Switzerland or Holland.”

“The world I would love to see in the future is that international NGOs don’t exist. The fact that we exist is a by-product of systemic problems.”

Some of the foundations, governments and UN agencies in the room found this very hard to hear.

“I am a little bit uncomfortable about the blanket refusal that I hear – that aid is inherently bad.”

“Philanthropy is the desire to promote the welfare of others – that is an important thing.”

So is the infamous buzz-term “decolonising aid” about improving the technical delivery of humanitarian assistance to be more inclusive and empowering? Or is it about much more fundamental changes to the global architecture?

I’m Heba Aly and this is Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Humanitarian reform has long been a topic of discussion in the aid sector, and, of course. the focus of this podcast.

But does that miss the point? If the goal of reform has been to help people in need in more equitable and less colonial ways, is that even achievable within the current global governance system?

Or do you have to change the system altogether?

Can you do both at once?

In other words, are these two approaches to decolonising aid mutually exclusive or can they co-exist? Is there such a thing as decolonised aid, or is it an oxymoron?

Our guest today has been grappling with these questions for a very long time.

Degan Ali is the Executive Director of Adeso, a Kenya-based NGO trying to change the way aid is provided. She also runs a consultancy that advises NGOs and others on how to decolonise their work.

Degan has come to be the face of the movement to decolonise aid – and ultimately to end aid altogether. But at the same time, she is spending a lot effort improving the system she wants to demolish. So gear up for a complex conversation full of contradictions!

Degan, Welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Degan Ali

Thank you, Heba, for having me.

Heba Aly

You have argued in the past that your ability to help your own communities is directly affected by what you call a failed global governance and international finance system. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Degan Ali

At the most micro level, as a Somali diaspora who came to Somalia trying to help my own people, I have witnessed firsthand how just completely disconnected the aid architecture is. And when I say global governance systems, the thing that we interact [with] the most in Somalia is the UN system. [The] UN system is part of that global governance system and leads humanitarian response. To this day, I don't think it's the desire of the humanitarian system, the architecture, the UN, to have a strong counterpart that they sit across the table from, that says to them, “No, we don't need this. We need agriculture, we need industrialization, we need factories, we don't need this little aid program” and all of that. And watching the aspiration for development and lifting people's poverty, and the humanitarian “imperative”, and these projects that are designed somewhere else outside of the communities, outside of any kind of government involvement, is a huge contradiction constantly that I've been witnessing for over 20 years. And I think that's at the most micro level that has made me really become very pessimistic about the architecture. And I would go as far as to say that, I would love, as a Somali citizen, I would love the entire aid system to leave Somalia tomorrow. People say “Oh, famine… Isn't that harsh? Isn't that inhumane?” Frankly, after 20 years of witnessing crisis after crisis every few years come and go, and billions of dollars being raised to save lives, people still die. We saw what happened in the famine of 2011. And then we have another quote-unquote famine that is not being predicted potentially. Nothing has been done between 2011 and now to prevent another famine. There has been no real investment in lifting people out of poverty and giving infrastructure to the communities for trade, getting their products to the market, making them more resilient with water systems. There's been no investment. We keep investing in the same little projects for, you know, water trucking, or for drilling one borehole here, or cash transfers that, in my opinion, have been corrupted by communities. So, I would go as far as to say that we have not been helpful, and maybe what we need to be doing is leaving people to their own devices and letting Somalis figure out what's their solution to their problem and getting out of the way. And maybe there'll be some chaos in the beginning, but I think eventually they'll figure it out.

Heba Aly

But, when you talk about that being the result of a failed system of global governance, what would you have liked to see from a successful global governance system that would have allowed you to be able to help your communities better?

Degan Ali

I think there is massive lack of accountability to the UN system. And when there is lack of accountability, then people suffering is a source of income and legitimacy and growth. Removing suffering, I'm sorry to say, while it's in the documents, in the papers and all of that, is not how things on the ground actually work. We are not trying to really find long-term solutions to move people out of poverty so that there is no more UNICEF or WFP programs left in Somalia. We just want to sustain our existence.

Heba Aly

And when you say “we”, here, who is “we”?

Degan Ali

The UN International aid system, the donors who are complicit and part of this problem, all of it, including ourselves as Adeso.

So, what would have been different if we had a different architecture in Somalia would have been the bilateral donors who fund the UN system, primarily the Europeans and Americans, the OECD member countries, would have come in for a legitimate political solution led by Somalis not led by them – that's number one. Number two, Europe after World War 2 didn't just develop from nowhere. There was a massive concentrated effort by the US, primarily, to develop Europe post World War Two. It was called the Marshall Plan. Now, why is it that we can't come up with a Marshall Plan for Somalia? Why can't we come up with a Marshall Plan for South Sudan? Post-conflict, why can't we repair these countries and put in the roads, put in the infrastructure, put in the airports, put in the trade policies? Why can we do that? If we have done that successfully for Europe, for Germany, for all of these other countries, it begs the question, are we really serious about real development and really relieving people from poverty and lifting them out of poverty? There wasn't significant difference postwar Germany, the population and what they were suffering to and what many Global South countries are suffering now. But the intent and the desire was very different. That's what I'm talking about. And this is where issues of racism, and the continuation of this extractive postcolonial model is part of the aid architecture. There is no real intent and desire to lift people out of poverty in the Global South and make these countries sovereign, independent, equal members of the global trade system, and that's trading just like everybody else, that is, has a very robust economic system. That's not the intention and desire of the aid system. The intention that the aid architecture is to continue that these former colonies are still dependent on you. And that's what aid is about.

Heba Aly

Okay, so here’s you’re talking about a failure of the UN to solve the kind of broader development problems, but you kind of go further than that, in hearing you speak on several occasions about this, in saying that these global inequities exist by design and not by accident. So it's not just a failure to respond to them, but it's also their creation in the first place. So walk me through that thinking.

Degan Ali

Pre-independence, through the Bretton Woods institutions, you know, we established the United Nations. We said, “Oh, this is a way to ensure that we don't have another conflict and we have a global governance system that basically polices the world and ensures that we don't have another genocide”. Okay. We had, of course, Rwanda and Bosnia, and after that, and we still continue, we're having somewhat of a genocide right now as we speak in Yemen, and nobody's really talking about it. We had Syria for 10 years. So that's been a massive failure. And why has that been a massive failure? It's the things that I just described as one part of it, but because of the veto power. All the former are the farm or colonizers continue to have veto power, while in the Global South, the only country that has veto power is China. So there is huge inequities. We preach to the [Global] South about democracy and good governance, every single day. We have spent billions and billions and billions of dollars talking about how to create good governance in the South. At the same time, the global governance institutions that were created in this Bretton Woods Conference are all about ensuring that governance and power and decision-making lies in the hands of few. So veto power in the hands of five — not one country, not one vote, but in the hands of five. The IMF, the World Bank, voting power is based on and defined by the founders of the World Bank, and the IMF, and who puts most money into these institutions. Again, it's not “You're a member of the World Bank, you have equal vote and equal level to the decision making.” So there's massive hypocrisy in what we preach and the rhetoric. It's not even rhetoric, it's beyond rhetoric. It's a stick that has been used against the South all of these years, postcolonialism, to ensure hegemony of [a] few. So, there is a huge contradiction and massive hypocrisy.

Heba Aly

Last week, we talked about alternatives to the UN Security Council and some of the problems you've just laid out around the veto. What other changes, then, do you feel are needed in the global architecture to address what you’re laying out here?

Degan Ali

I think there has to be a true reimagining of the entire global governance system, particularly trade and financing by [the] IMF and the World Bank. So on the humanitarian side, the veto power should be removed, every member of the UN should have equal voting power. That's easy enough to say, but it's almost impossible to get it. But the IMF or the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. So one of the things I give as an example is that, we talk about these countries in the South as being corrupt and being weak, needing capacity building and all of this stuff. But what we don't talk about is how it is actually, in the interest of the Global North to keep these countries as a source of raw material. So I'll give you a good example. Why is it that the largest producers of cocoa in the world are in Africa, but at the same time, tell me when was the last time anybody ate a chocolate bar from Ghana? I've never had a chocolate bar from Ghana. I've never seen a chocolate bar from Ghana being sold in the US or Europe. But the cocoa is taken, extracted from West Africa, taken to Europe, and rebranded as Swiss chocolate, or Dutch chocolate, or whatever. And they are the ones who have this reputation of having premiere chocolate, the best chocolate in the world. So, this is an example of how the trade policies through the arm of the IMF and the World Bank, in terms of financing, is inhibiting the growth of these countries. So, we need to move from a situation of extracting rubber from Africa and allowing Africans to actually produce tires, and having factories that produce tires. That is what's going to lift people out of poverty. China has not been successful in lifting millions and millions and millions of people out of poverty in the past 25 years through a UNICEF or UNDP project. They have lifted people out of poverty through industrialization. But the opportunity to industrialize and trade fairly has not been given to Africa, and that's what is the key thing, for me, in the next evolution of this process.

Heba Aly

But many would argue that what you're talking about here is a long way away from humanitarian response. So if we're talking about lifting people out of poverty, and industrialization, etc, that that's a different goal than what humanitarian aid aims to do. So what tangible impact would these changes to trade, etc, have on humanitarian crises on the ground?

Degan Ali

Oh, massive. I think the future will [be] – should be – where we have global solidarity. That it shouldn't be “aid recipient countries” and “aid-giving countries”. It should be a system where everybody is a developed country. Everybody is meeting the needs of their citizens – they're meeting the health needs, the education needs, giving people a decent paying wage and a job to pay for the basic needs of their children. That's what everybody wants. Let’s get everybody to the same level through this restructuring of the global governance systems, and then if a crisis happens in Florida, or New Orleans, maybe there will be solidarity shown by, you know, Indonesian civil society responding there. Maybe there will be a response to flooding in the UK from South African NGOs or Ghanaian NGOs. That's what I would like to see, rather than this current paradigm where we are just– we're at the tail end of a problem. The aid architecture is basically a guilt… it's a way to remove the guilt of the North to act like they are… that they are really playing this game with integrity, when they're not. The example I always give is Malawi. You destroy their food systems, and then they have a drought. And then you come and say, “Oh, I'll give you Your UNICEF project for food security or malnutrition”, or :I'll give you a Save the Children project for agriculture”. Well, you destroyed, the IMF or the World Bank, have destroyed our ability to have a robust, sophisticated food system so that we don't need you. You have purposely destroyed that. These are the same countries where the donors will have all the voting power in the IMF and the World Bank, who have the veto power at the UN, who have all of this control. And then they say, “Oh, we'll give you humanitarian aid.” That's diabolical in some ways. And that is the contradiction that we walk every single day in the humanitarian system.

Ukraine right now, as we speak, NGOs are raising hundreds and millions of dollars responding to a crisis in Ukraine that could easily be prevented, and a potential nuclear holocaust that could happen, and people are just taking money without thinking and saying, “Wait a minute, why are we being complicit? Why are we allowing this a civil society, we need to say to the US government, hey, let's come to the table. And let's have a negotiated settlement with the Russians” and the Russian civil society doing the same and the Ukrainian civil society. But no, we're just saying, “Oh, let's get money. It's another crisis. Let's move and let's respond”. That's what the role of civil society is supposed to be. It's not supposed to be an implementing arm of a government that is purposefully creating a crisis out of something that could be resolved. We’ve become like vultures when a crisis happens. It's a great fundraising exercise is a great fundraising opportunity. And all we do is blindly implement, and just implement these projects without really thinking through, are we complicit in the political machinations of our governments? And are we really allowing this to happen and why? We say “Oh, the humanitarian imperative.” I'm sorry, no. The humanitarian imperative is used as an excuse to get out of real questioning and real soul searching of your complicity.

Heba Aly

So let's unpack that a bit, because it is reminiscent to me of some of the tension, or the debate, that we heard during convening that we held that we mentioned at the beginning. Earlier this year, it was a private meeting between policymakers in government and in philanthropy, and people like yourself, who were questioning the whole endeavor. And a lot of the pushback was, in the face of of these voices saying aid is colonial in nature, that it is inherently harmful, basically, in the way that you've just laid out, many of those who see themselves as fundamentally doing good in the world were really aghast by that point of view and saying, “Hold on, hold on, humanitarianism is fundamentally a good thing and you have to recognize the good that it's doing around the world.” How do you react to that view?

Degan Ali

I think human beings are humanitarians by nature. Everybody wants to help other people. It's by design how God has created us. It's very difficult for most average human beings to see somebody suffering and just walking by and just ignoring that. It's not very easy. It's a very difficult thing. So I don't question the intent and the desire of most people in the architecture really genuinely wanting to help people. That's not what I'm questioning. What I'm questioning is how people, human beings, have allowed themselves to participate in that architecture without real reflection on whether the architecture should even exist, and if it's doing more harm than good. Everybody's a philanthropist. It's not only Ford Foundation or Hilton that’s a philanthropist. Everybody. The biggest philanthropists are the poor. They give, in comparison to their annual income or what comes in, they give the most – and not just in cash. They give the most in terms of their time. But we never think about them when we use the word philanthropy. We only think about the big guys. We only think about the MacKenzie Scotts, and the Ford Foundation, and the Hilton foundations, we don't think about how the poorest of the poor are really the biggest philanthropists out there. And so, I'm not questioning the intent and the desire to help people. What I'm questioning is how the machinery has been created, and how it functions.

Heba Aly

But I think there are two arguments that would be made as to why humanitarians are not engaging that wider reflection about being complicit in an architecture that is ultimately harmful. I think the first is that they see their role as separate from politics. And we heard it during that meeting, actually, where they say, we're not coming at this with an aggrieved moral point of view, we're coming at this from a technical point of view of saying: we have this money to spend, and if we don't spend it, people are going to die, and our job is on the tail end of the problem, as you put it. Our job is not to resolve the original issues, that's someone else's job, and that humanitarians are there as a last resort when everything else fails.

Degan Ali

Yeah, I think that's a convenient way to remove yourself and your guilt from being part of the system. I accept that I have been complicit in this system. But I also accept that I, Degan Ali, simultaneously recognizes my complicity, recognizes all the faults, recognizes all of these things, and doing the little I can, the small little parts I can to fix it. But I don't agree with that rationale. I really don’t agree with that rationale. Let's talk about policies, when you are UK Aid, and you have merged your humanitarian funding with your foreign policy. That's an explicit, intentional way of saying, “I recognize that my humanitarian aid is a soft power for me to do what I need to do in terms of foreign policy”. That's not a new concept. That's well-known. Everybody knows that. This is why many people, the communities in the Global South don't trust aid actors. This is why many governments don't trust aid actors. Now I'm hearing about things in Nigeria and the north, where the UN is complicit. I'm hearing about, we all know about the the Saddam Hussein and Pakistan and polio and what happened, you know, vaccines and all of that. These kinds of things actually happen all the time. So when communities say, “I'm sorry, I'm not going to participate in this because I don't trust you,” there is a history, there's legitimate reasons why we shouldn't be trusted. So I don't understand. On the one hand, you can say we're do gooders, we have a budget, we want to save lives and blah, blah, blah, and another hand, you're okay with recognizing that there's soft power, and you admit that privately or publicly sometimes.

Heba Aly

I think a lot of humanitarians would say that’s happening at a political level. They, within their civil service, are trying as hard as they can to maintain some independence from those pressures from government to use humanitarianism as a political tool. And there are many governments that don't have those, those teams merged. And actually, that the more that they engage in the kind of pushing for change that you're talking about, the less they can actually do their job of humanitarian response, because their neutrality is put into question, because they start to enter into a realm that is inherently political. I mean, I think nobody would argue that aid isn't getting mixed up in foreign policy, but I think humanitarians as a profession are trying to push back against that, and that that the kind of changes that you're advocating for start blurring the lines.

Degan Ali

I think we need to come to an underlying assumption that all of these things are political. And I think to somehow say that they're not political… Yeah, I think we're purposefully fooling ourselves.

Heba Aly

When you say all of the things you mean, including humanitarian aid?

Degan Ali

Yes, yes. Yeah. I mean, like, okay, for instance, I'll just... the whole idea of neutrality that you mentioned: it's one of the things I have had serious problems with. I think that idea of this, these principles are very important, you know, theoretically. But the reality on the ground? That's not how it works. And we know every single day that we're not being neutral. Every single day, we're not being neutral. And to somehow fool ourselves into thinking that we are, when we participate in Assad's government's restrictions and say, “We cannot provide a humanitarian assistance to besieged areas by the government”, aAnd we allow ourselves to do that, what are we doing? We're not being neutral. When we work in Al Shabaab areas, and then we say, you know, we're being neutral, but we don't work in these other areas. I mean, like, these kinds of decisions are happening every single day on the ground. So neutrality, and all of these things, I think, doesn't really exist. I think it's all very political, and we need to just accept it. And we need to figure out how we are honest with ourselves, but also how we maneuver through that political landmine in a way that we keep some level of integrity.

Heba Aly

I think that opens up a whole other can of worms. So, let's park that for a minute. But coming back to the broader question of global governance. Even where there is sympathy, I think, for that argument that the change needs to be at the more foundational level than what humanitarian aid currently does, I think part of the reason there is so little headway is that many people get lost when you start talking about a new world order. And it just feels too big, and too far away, and too unchangeable. And so, where do you even start? And you might as well work on what you can control, which is improving humanitarian aid within the current systems.

Degan Ali

I agree with that. I think that it's very difficult for most people to figure out how to do the kinds of changes that we're talking about. You have to start small, and that's one of the things that I have come to terms with. I think 10 years ago, whatever, when you first met me, I was probably a lot more idealistic and naive thinking that change could happen immediately, but it can't. So you have to pick your battles, and you have to figure out within your sphere of influence, what little changes you can do. And so, I have personally chosen the path of figuring out okay, I can't change the UN architecture, but let me influence the INGOs and see how they can become allies in this process. And I know that's a long process. It's not going to be overnight. Just a year and a half that we've done this Pledge for Change with the CEOs of five INGOs.

Heba Aly

The Pledge for Change being this group that you've convened to help international NGO CEOs kind of move along their thinking around how to decolonize?

Degan Ali

Yes. It's been a year and a half of, I think, slow process of education, slow process of getting them to be much more thinking about their systems, thinking about the global system, thinking about their own institution and how it works within the global architecture. So, I would love to see these INGOs funding more political movements that are working on these issues: food sovereignty movements in Malawi or in India. That's what they could do. That's what they can control. They can take on trade issues and climate change issues and ensure that Africa doesn't get screwed in new negotiations. Oxfam does amazing campaigns on fair trade. But let's do it for the governments., you know. Let's do these campaigns in a different way to support these governments. So that's the kind of thing that I feel like we need to think about is like, Okay, you're an NGO? What can I do in my in the area that I have control as Oxfam or CARE? What can I do better? As well as how do I show up on the ground, in my partnerships with communities, in my partnership with local partners, in my partnerships with governments? That's what's in their control. Then I'm like, Okay, so as Adeso, what more can we do beyond INGOs? Which other groups can we influence? So now we're trying to influence philanthropy, and trying to do some work with philanthropy. Then we said, okay, the donors identify barriers, and they say, “We don't know who's out there”. So, how can I help them find better local organizations to partner with? So we come up with infrastructure like KujaLink – an online platform where local organizations can be found and searched, and their profiles are up there. Then, okay, Samantha Power and the Grand Bargain target of 25% [of humanitarian funding allocated to local and national responders] and everybody's trying to work towards these targets… How do we help these local organizations meet the compliance rules and regulations that are just extremely daunting for an American NGO, let alone for a local NGO. So, that's when we come up with another piece of the infrastructur,e such as Core – a private company where they can outsource their back end, their finances, their HR, their company, their procurement, all the things that make them “non compliant” and ”risky” to work with. I’m a pragmatist, as well as an activist. We have to figure out how do we make changes in the system with areas and things that we can do, but at the same time, it doesn't mean that I'm gonna stop talking about these issues. That's why I'm being purposeful and using terms like decolonization, because for me, decolonization recognizes the political, foundational underpinnings of this entire architecture that has been done on purpose by design, not by accident. And that's why I use the term decolonization and not localization of locally-led development. But recognizing that doesn't mean that we can't do some practical work as well.

Heba Aly

But that practical work that you've just described, falls to me not in the camp of decolonization, but in the camp of localization, which if we follow the argument that you've been making, kind of misses the point because you're improving the ability to work within the existing system, you're not changing the underlying architecture. So how can you on one hand be kind of advocating for these foundational changes, but then spending your time developing tools that are working within the system as it currently exists?

Degan Ali

No, that's a very good question. I would say that would probably appear as a contradiction to an average person [or an] outsider. It's a contradiction I struggle with, and I've said this publicly before. I feel like sometimes I'm a hypocrite in that. But I also understand change processes are very slow. And I also understand, and more and more as I get older, and more and more as I dive into understanding the back end of a massive INGO federation through this Pledge for Change process, I've understood how being one CEO is extremely progressive who wants to make change happen, how he or she is hampered by this massive federation of others CEOs who disagree, and how the process of convincing and evangelizing and getting all these people on board takes time. So it's not gonna happen overnight, and I recognize that, but I'm hoping – my goal is that – if we get more funding and more resources to poloticall movements and activists on the ground, that they are the ones who are going to push for change in their countries. That's my priority. The political side, the activism side, is … I know I'm not going to change it, but how do I get resources to the 20 year old person sitting in Senegal who wants to challenge what the French have done with their currencies and how they're keeping their money? How do we get resources to those guys? How do we get resources to the Malawians who are food activists? How do we get resources to the Indian food activist? Those are the people that I'm thinking about, who then can create movements in their countries, can work with their governments. That's where I feel like I can contribute to some long term change of the situation.

Heba Aly

But you’ve also argued that the Global South should stop taking money from the [Global] North, or at least certain donors in the [Global] North. And I want to play for you a clip from an event that The New Humanitarian hosted a few years ago in which you suggest that.

“We need to unshackle ourselves from this idea that if we get more money, somehow we're going to resolve the problems of our people, and we’re not. And once we do that and take the stage as real civil society, then that means that we might have the opportunity to create solidarity for the Global North and Global South and do what these courageous young people are doing and start making demands on the system, saying ‘We want UN Security Council reform. We want you, the G77, our national governments to stop taking IMF and World Bank loans’.”

Again, I'm not trying to suggest that the world isn't full of contradictions, but how do you navigate that tension that, on the one hand, you're saying let's stop needing the [Global] North and build our own movements, and on the other hand, those movements kind of depend on support, financial support, from the [Global] North to be able to make these changes?

Degan Ali

First of all, I do think that there's a lot of resources in the [Global] South that we haven't capitalized on in our own countries that we haven't thought through how to use. That quote, I think what I was referring to really was how a lot of local organizations including myself [in] 2003, when I first joined Adeso, my role models were INGOs, and my metrics of success was about growth and growth and growth. And to repeat the INGO model and become bigger, more countries, more locations, more staff, more income. And we grew. At the height of Adeso, we were 27 million, but then I realized that [with] growth comes problems and challenges. One of them being that I personally felt less connected to the communities that we were working in, I wasn't traveling as much to the communities. I was more servicing the donor. I also realized that, managing due diligence and rules and regulations of bilateral donors was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my career. And it was hampering us. It was becoming really difficult. And so that's when we made a shift, a massive shift. And what I see with a lot of local organizations is that they're following that trajectory. They thought I was crazy when I said we don't want any more bilateral funding in 2016. Many of my colleagues in the space were like, are you crazy? And they thought Adeso was a role model for them of a successful local organization that had grown. I made that decision because I felt like, ethically, value wise, where we were heading was of a huge contradiction. Like, USAID invited us to South Sudan and said to us, “Help us to bring cash to South Sudan, because you guys are cash experts and [in] South Sudan there's not much good cash programming happening and all of that”. And we did, and we tried to do it through local traders instead of because there was no delivery mechanism. There was no Hawal like in Somalia, money transfer companies, there was no M PESA at that time, anything like that. But, I later realized, what are we doing in South Sudan? We're becoming an INGO. South Sudan is for South Sudanese civil society. As a Somali, I shouldn't be sitting in South [Sudan]. What do I know about South Sudan and all the complexities of tribal issues and all of that? I don't know nothing. So I was just like, “No, this is wrong”. So we left South Sudan. And so, I was living a contradiction at that time between the values that I espoused, and the reality and the temptation that money is. Money is really, it's true, it's the root of all evils. That growth metrics of income, and more, and more, and more… People are just so greedy, and they – it's never enough being $100 million organization, once you're 100 million, you're a $50 million organization and your prize is becoming $100 million [and] doubling your income. Once you get to $100 million, you're not happy, you still want more. Now, you want to become a half a billion dollar organization, once you get to half a billion, you're still not happy. Now you want to be a billion dollar organization. That's what I was talking about in that quote. And I think we have a lot of work to do with our local organizations, Global South organization leaders, to get them out of that train and create a new path for themselves. So, I definitely, I still believe that, that we do need to have different ways of financing for ourselves, trying to become financially independent and resilient, and Global South to South giving, Global South to South exchanges and learning. We definitely need more. And that's one of the things I'm really happy that NEAR is also working on some of those solutions to that.

Heba Aly

And so if part of the answer, to your mind, is for donors to put – with all of the contradictions we've just looked at – to put more money into movements in many of these countries that are pushing for these kind of bigger changes, what do you think, is a reimagined role for the international NGO in this landscape in which you think that the real work to be done is in changing, you know, the global governance systems and not in providing humanitarian aid to communities? What would a new role for an international NGO look like?

Degan Ali

One of the things that a lot of international NGOs should be doing is extracting themselves or being service deliverers for their governments. It's one of the things I actually respect Oxfam America [for], they don't take US government funding. And I think that because they don't take US government funding, they're one of the few American NGOs that can go toe to toe with USAID and the US government on many things, and I truly respect them for that. I would love to see more and more INGOs working like that, honestly. That's an impossibility, probably many of them will say that. But that's what I would love to see is that they become real, our real allies in changing the architecture, and you can’t be allies, true allies, and working solidarity to change the architecture, if you're still dependent on that donor. You can't bite the hand that feeds you. I know that for a fact as a recipient in the past of USAID and other funding. So it's really, really difficult to have that level of integrity. I see them, that they really need to do that hard work and assess their future, what allyship really looks like, what solidarity really looks like, and really think about that and that will come to head with income and these questions of metrics of success and all of that and growth. And are they going to contract that they're going to become smaller, are they going to merge? They're going to have to really, really struggle and reimagine their role. And I would I would like to see is their role really being more about facilitators and allies rather than direct implementers. Where they come to the political movements and say, what do you need? How do I get you the resources that you need? How do I get you any technical support you need? How do I give you access to the US Congress? How do I give you access to the parliament in the UK? How do I give you access to that? That's what they should be really doing.

Heba Aly

Which also then opens up more space in the service delivery area for local community led organizations to be designing the projects and leading the projects in line with the whole localization agenda.

Degan Ali

I don't believe, actually, that local organizations should be service deliverers. I would like us to get out of the business of being service deliverers. The future that I imagine is that the government's provide the services like they do in Europe and the US. Why can't we have a system where the government takes care of the health and education needs and if there's a flood or a tornado, that they take care of the response rather than it being led by civil society, the UN, or anybody else. That's their responsibility. They're the duty bearers. Our job as civil society is to hold the government, the private sector, the international architecture accountable. Our job is not to provide education services, or humanitarian response in any given country.

Heba Aly

Until all of that happens, there are still people on the ground who who are in need. And you said people are gonna die regardless of whether there's an aid system or not. But while you advocate for all these longer term changes, that like life goes on, and these are things that are going to take so long that you know, as you have said, you might not see them in your lifetime. So I can see the vision. But I think it's a little bit difficult to translate that into the day to day when there are still people dying of famine in Somalia.

Degan Ali

So I have a lot of pressure right now, as I speak to you, from people asking me as a Somali, as a very religious practicing Muslim. And these are my people I was around during the 2011 famine, I've been around for a long time. And so, to witness the suffering of my people, and there is a lot of pressure internationally from allies and people was like, What can we do for Somalia? What can we do, and my staff who want us to go back into the old Adeso of doing massive cash transfers, of coming in and doing massive water trucking and, coming in and doing and fundraising and getting into this cycle, that we extracted ourselves very painfully from [in] 2016 and 2017. It's not easy, it's not easy. And, we are just one organization. If I was a bilateral donor, I would have been investing in that ministries capacity, the infrastructure and all of that, helping them to have massive data systems, information management systems, and all I'm giving them the technocrats by now, if that had been done in 2016, 2017, now we would have a very robust, strong ministry, but it hasn't been done. The investment has gone to the UN agencies in the INGOs. It hasn't gone to that ministry.

Heba Aly

The frustration is always visible in your voice. And you have said a lot that there's a lot of talk and very little action in this space, and that you're exhausted from having this conversation over and over. What keeps you motivated, when it can sometimes feel like you're just screaming into the void?

Degan Ali

Yeah, you asked me why I was smiling in New York City.

Heba Aly

Yes. And you said that you were more hopeful than you've been in a long time. So what what gives you hope these days?

Degan Ali

Honestly, my faith and my age, my faith being the rock bed. I mean, I think that in the end, I do what I can. And in the end, God is the best of planners, and whatever He wills will happen. And so I don't have control over this. So I just accept that. And secondly, I think my age. I think I've become wiser and I've realized that it's a long haul. It's something generational. It's not something that's going to happen overnight. And I've accepted that. And you know, with age, I think you have wisdom, but you also have patience. Honestly, honestly, I will tell you, the thing that depresses me the most is working with the UN. I've tried to extract myself from the UN system. I can't personally anymore go to any more coordination meetings in my country or anywhere else. I just can't sit there. And I feel like I've gone back in time, and we're talking about the same things for the past 20 years, talking about these communities as if they’re numbers. People sitting in Nairobi, or sitting in Mogadishu in this really nice, isolated airport that has they have not actually had dinner with anybody in the community to have not visited a village they have no friends who are Somalis, no friends, no relationships, no real tangible you'd have never eaten in a Somali person's home. They've never seen the children of their colleagues. I just can't, I can't sit there. And I think by extracting myself out of that system as much as possible, I think that is what really revived my soul honestly, and given me mental health. I have to be very frank with you and say that.

Heba Aly

Where have you seen, if at all, positive movements?

Degan Ali

I think the CEOs of the Pledge for Change have really surprised me. There have been many frustrations along the way, but they've stuck to it. They've been very patient. They've been very giving of their time. They've given me hope, I think, and they've energized me. And they've been very giving. I really didn't expect them to give that much of their time, and they have. The work with philanthropy, now I see donors that we can influence. That in some ways, you know, the opportunities even better, because they have flexibility, and risk tolerance that the bilaterals don't have. They can move millions and billions very, very easily and quickly with very little restrictions. So trying to influence them to do more of that work with funding movements, and, and leaning into the politics of aid and try to help these movements and change and the civil society. And last thing I would say, and the most important thing, probably for me personally, is, I have now the vision of leaving Adesso with an endowment and the MacKenzie Scott grant that we received in 2021 is for the first time allowing me as a leader of an organization to breathe, to actually like, be hopeful that, you know, we're not in this vicious cycle of being resource-dependent, hungry. My mother calls us professional beggars, she says, that's what we are, and finally getting out of that professional beggar syndrome and having an endowment. So my goal is to leave Adeso with a $50 million endowment. And then I can go to a foundation or a donor and say, I have money, I have $1 million dollars, $2 million dollars to put into a pot to design something really interesting and cool that we believe in, and do you want to come in? You know, rather than me saying, I have a great idea, can you fund us. It's a very, very different power dynamics. We talk about shifting power… you cannot shift power until you have money. Money gives you power. And we need to be having our own resources and funds so that we have power. And that's what gives me hope.

Heba Aly

Last question that maybe will help us pull together this this conversation? And it's one we'll be asking all of our guests this season? Which is: what is one practical starting point? For those who are hearing you say, Okay, we need to be focusing on the global governance and not just on improving the technical aspects of humanitarian response, what's the first thing they should try to do?

Degan Ali

Well, first and foremost, I would say that they need to educate themselves. It's funny, I have a bachelor's from an Ivy League school in the US and I have a Master's from a fairly well-known school in the UK, and my Bachelor's was in African Studies and my Master's was international development. And half of the things that I know about the architecture, I learned on my own was not through education. And I’m constantly being asked to talk to young people at Georgetown or George Washington [University] or these universities, and it just shocks me. These expensive universities are not teaching these kids – future civil servants of the US government or whoever – they're not teaching them of these kinds of things. So I would say, one of the things that they need to really do is educate themselves on the global architecture. And I need to do more reading, and I'm constantly trying to do the same. Second thing is, you have to figure out in your sphere of influence, what can you do. If you're in campaigning at Oxfam, work really, really hard to figure out: what is a campaign issue that will really be of monumental importance for the Global South, or for the architecture that you can take on? Is it trade? Is it food? Is it what? If you're in CARE, you know, and you're raising money for the Ukrainian response, you know, how do you really make sure, one, you do it in an ethical way, without all this poverty porn and all these things that go into it, and really do some strength based fundraising, but how do you really support the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian civil society, actually do more listening rather than dictating rather than designing? And if you're a philanthropist – I wouldn't say bilateral because I think the bilateral by design, it’s very, very difficult for them to do this – but if you're in philanthropy, fund courageously, fund generously, fund political movements, fund intentionally those movements are trying to change the architecture. That's what I would say. And if you're the UN, God help you.

Heba Aly

I'm gonna have to leave it there. Degan, thank you for not only engaging in this very mind crunching topic, but in being honest about some of the dilemmas, contradictions, whatever you want to call them that that face you and I'm sure many others in this work. I appreciate you coming on.

Degan Ali

Thank you for having me.

Heba Aly

That was Degan Ali, Executive Director of Adeso.

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected]. You listeners have gone quiet on me lately and we do want to hear your voices on the show, so please do get in touch.

Today, we’ll leave you with a very different perspective than what you’ve just heard from Degan. We’ve voiced over the words of a government representative speaking at our off-the-record gathering on decolonising aid earlier this year, and he pushes back against much of what Degan has just said.

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira

Original music by Whitney Patterson

Special thanks to Ciara Lee, Elise Campbell-Bates, Andrew Gully, Whitney Patterson, and Sara Cuevas for voicing over excerpts from the


I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

We're chasing smoke, on one level, trying to nail down this – and it's a very very difficult question. But, I'm nothing if not pragmatic. I mean I came to this conversation to understand how [my government] can deliver humanitarian aid in a better way.

Now if you ask that question, that's a different question to whether decolonizing aid is a good thing to do in its own right. Those two are slightly different questions, and they might give you slightly different answers ... but I think probably I'm looking for pragmatic ways through this is to say how can we be better at doing what we're doing. So that's one question I like to put out there....

It leads to the question then, on one level, which has been very eloquently put by a previous speaker about: why does aid exist?

Now, one interpretation of why is what is the purpose of aid? What's it aiming to do? And I think I'm a bit distressed, if I'm honest on a personal level, by the flat rejection of philanthropy by one or two of the previous speakers, because I don't think it is consistent with something that's fairly basic in human nature, which is the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with other members of the human race. And, of course, that talks to the humanity element of the humanitarian principle.

And while we’ve been talking, I looked up the definition of philanthropy and it's the desire to promote the welfare of others. Nobody so far has said that this is an important thing. ...I think that deserves mentioning. I'm not saying we get it right the whole time. And I'm not saying it's not distorted for national interests as has been mentioned by a previous speaker. And I'm not saying that it's not also a tool of repression, structural violence, still, but the fact that we've got this far into the conversation and nobody has said: 'this is about the golden rule, and basically doing unto others as you'd have done unto yourself is quite a fundamental, ethical and philosophical thing', that I'm surprised hasn't come to the surface. We don't always get it right, but that's the aspiration that certainly I would have.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.