The Institution of Structural Engineers has recently published guidance for engineers who wish to do aid work. It’s aimed at structural engineers, but is really applicable to any built environment design professionals. It is aimed at those who are thinking about volunteering in another country, working in emergency response, getting involved in a ‘development project’, or otherwise working in cultures and settings they are not so familiar with, but much of it is applicable to more conventional professional practice too.
I should disclose that I had a hand in writing the guidance. So clearly I agree with it. I’m sure there will be those who don’t. What the guidance says may well challenge people’s viewpoints of the world, of aidwork, and of their own role and identity in the work they do. I hope it really makes people think, and reflect. There should be no space for white saviour complex or white gaze in aid work, just as there should be no space for it in the design and construction of the built environment.
For anyone interested in reading further, and thinking more about the issues raised in the guidance, here is a collection of further articles and videos, including a number of highly relevant pieces that have been published since the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests that have resulted. Together, they present an accessible but powerful selection of testimony and insight which explains why the IStructE guidance says what it does, and lots of scope for further reading and investigation by those who wish to.
If there’s something relevant I’ve missed off the list – do let me know and I’ll add it.
- Q&A: Degan Ali on the systemic racism impacting humanitarian responses. Degan Ali is the Executive Director of Adeso and a leading advocate of decolonialising the aid sector.
- Western do-gooders need to resist the allure of ‘exotic problems’, by Courtney E Martin.
- Aid workers: It’s time to practise what you preach, by Thandie Mwape Villadsen, global humanitarian policy advisor. A powerful piece on what it can be like to be a Black African in the development sector.
- Doing good and being racist, by Corinne Gray, CEO of Uncomfortable Revolution and former UN Refugee Agency staff member. Thoughtful explanation of how doing good work does not automatically mean you can’t be racist or reinforce structurally racist systems.
- Black Lives Matter: The emotional toll of speaking up by Cynthia Keza Birikundavyi and Listen to the voice with your heart by Mo Ali with different and thoughtful takes on how exhausting it can be for People of Colour to seek to have their voices heard and to seek positive change.
- The Humanitarian Global Colour Line by Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs & Political Science at George Washington University, on institutionalised racism in the sector and “how race is baked into their assumptions and biases about competence and who is superior and who is inferior“.
- How the West was Won: A Deconstruction of Politicised Colonial Engineering. An article by Stephen J. Eichhorn on the colonial nature of engineering and how it could be changed.
- An interview with Olivia Rutazibwa, Belgian/Rwandan political scientist and Senior Lecturer in European and International (Development) Studies at the University of Portsmouth, who researches ways to decolonise international solidarity through ideas of reparation and ethical retreat and recovering and reconnecting philosophies and practices of dignity and self-determination in the postcolony. Read also her excellent short article What’s there to mourn? Decolonial reflections on (the end of) liberal humanitarianism, on the colonial nature of Eurocentric aid and development systems – with further relevant reading referenced in the article.
- Danger! Weird ways engineers think and talk about disasters in cities, a superb graphical blog by Kate Crawford on the patriarchal nature of the engineering response to the earthquake in Haiti.
- Is racism part of our reluctance to localise humanitarian action? by Hugo Slim. Previously Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy at the ICRC, Hugo Slim is now ELAC Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University. He has also written an excellent book, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster.
- ODI Report: From the ground up: It’s about time for local humanitarian action. This report from the UK’s pre-eminent thinktank on aid and development explains “that the barrier to greater local action is not a dearth of capacity, but instead the reluctance of international actors – donors, United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organisations – to cede power“.
- A Blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the Development Sector by Hannah Ryder, CEO of the first African Wholly Foreign Owned International Development Consultancy in China – Development Reimagined (DR).
- Aid may be inherently racist and colonial, but altruism is not — that’s a cause for hope, by Arbie Baguios from Aid Re-Imagined, on the contradictions in aid, and the possibilities of a better system.
- #ShiftThePower: A Manifesto for Change, and this letter from 146 local organisations highlighting the dangers of international development organisations whitewashing their operations by only making superficial changes in the name of decolonising their work.
To listen to:
- An excellent explanation of what white privilege is by John Amaechi for BBC Bitesize.
- What Can We Do about the White Savior Complex? A podcast about white saviours with contributions from Lydia Namubiru; Angela Bruce-Raeburn; Solomé Lemma; Jennifer Lentfer; and Teddy Ruge.
- Degan Ali on how Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs. In discussion with Dan Banik, Degan Ali candidly and clearly covers some of the systemic problems and structural racism in humanitarian systems.
- Rethinking humanitarianism in the midst of #BlackLivesMatter and COVID-19. Panel discussion organised by The New Humanitarian with Candace Rondeau; Uzodinma Iweala; Angela Bruce-Raeburn; Abby Maxman, President & CEO of Oxfam America; Patrick Gathara, cartoonist, writer and commentator on Kenya and international affairs; and Degan Ali, CEO of Adeso.
- How to be Anti-Racist in Aid. Panel discussion organised by Arbie Baguios from Aid Re-Imagined, with Stephanie Kimou, Marie-Rose Romain Mu, Co-Founder of ESPWA & the Haiti Community Foundation, and Naomi Tulay-Solanke, Founder and Executive Director of Community Health Initiative in Liberia. 99 minutes long, and well worth the time because of the sincere, blunt, insightful and informative discussion.
- A discussion between Amos Doornbos (World Vision) and Mo Ali from Aidworks on racism in the aid sector.
It is important to note that most (but not all) of the views and articles above come from those who are working in wealthy donor countries, or for large international organisations. The voices of those working in local community organisations, small NGOs, local government – the voices of those from the communities aid seeks to aid – are not widely published, and are not so easily heard, as strongly put in this piece, Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?, by Themrise Khan.