UK aid cuts make it vital to address anti-black bias in funding

The UK’s cut to its aid budget comes to about £4bn a year. Such a dramatic reduction is a blow to many, but most of all to the local organisations who perpetually find themselves last in line for funding.

New research by the Vodafone Foundation reveals that, too often, only a small proportion of philanthropic funding earmarked for African development reaches local, African-led civil society organisations. Instead, most development funding favours intermediaries in the global north and international organisations.

Funding that does reach Africa is typically distributed among locally registered international NGO counterparts and then allocated to African-led organisations on a project basis. This limits the scope and flexibility of activities on the ground and promotes aid reliance, instead of durable, transformative change.

It’s been a year since the racial reckoning that erupted after George Floyd’s murder. At the time, I wrote that calls for racial justice on the streets, in government offices and boardrooms must extend to the international development sector.

A year on, the report on funding is a sobering reminder that the racial bias and microaggressions I have experienced as an African leader and CEO are deeper, more pernicious and prevalent than even I, someone who lives this every day, understood.

To respond and rebuild, racial bias needs to be replaced with trust, redistribution of power, acknowledgment of a global anti-black bias, and flexible funding.

During Covid-19, we have seen the power of local actors to effectively respond to the pandemic and protect marginalised communities, where top-down institutions have failed. In some ways, Covid-19 has erased the boundaries between humanitarian aid, as it is traditionally known, and long-term development work.

For example, my organisation, Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), was found by independent researchers to be the most recognised responder to the pandemic in Kenya’s informal settlements in 2020. Despite the fact that Shofco is not a humanitarian agency, we had boots on the ground and worked with community leaders to mobilise a rapid response to Covid-19, reaching 2.4 million urban slum dwellers with health screenings, food relief, clean water, cash support and more. Perhaps the deep community trust that organisations like mine have built is the true enabler for long-term change. We need the sector to put real funding behind the idea that proximate leaders best understand problems and therefore the solutions.

During Covid, we are seeing the walls come down in the sector. Going forward, all development actors will be expected to know how to respond to crisis situations. For this reason, it has never been more important for development funders to loosen restrictions and increase flexible funding to local partners. It is imperative that we reshape the development sector, putting local actors at the centre, where they are best placed to respond. As my mother has always told me: “Those who wear the shoes, know where it pinches.”

As the pandemic rages on and deepens the wedge of inequality worldwide, local practitioners and marginalised communities on the ground have run out of patience for platitudes, debates or lengthy strategic planning processes.

We are also out of patience for empty promises to “do better” or “examine bias” without significant shifts in funding and donor accountability.

International donors and policymakers must make immediate and demonstrable efforts to shift power, resources, and decision-making to local organisations that are in tune with community-level realities and alliances, and are able to act in real-time, towards change that is community-driven.

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