Coloniality and the ‘aid bubble’: Can language be a driver for change?

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Colonialism and its legacy are increasingly debated by policy makers and public opinion in former colonial powers. Germany has so far been the only one willing to discuss reparation. In May 2021 it reached a reparation agreement with the Namibian government for the genocide of the Herero and Nama. However, the process was criticised by many, because it was conducted without involving direct descendants, and because the compensation offered by the Germans was considered insufficient by their counterpart.

In other words, while decoloniality was clear in the intended outcome, the process was still dwelling in coloniality. Power relations replicated old colonial patterns and top–down decisions were made without the involvement of those directly affected, creating the perception of ‘reparations without reparation’.

Addressing the problem

Coloniality within the international social justice movement is indeed an uncomfortable truth, and an increasing number of actors are looking at ways to address and change colonial practices and patterns, including by shifting power and resources. In 2021, the Belgian Development Cooperation Agency funded a number of research projects with the aim of collecting insight and guidance towards just such a decolonial turn.

As a humanitarian, I joined this reflection, inspired particularly by the World Humanitarian Summit, and started to question both my personal motivation and organisational practices around me.

The 2021 Time to Decolonise Aid report was a breakthrough for me and many in my field because a constellation of practitioners had worked together to unveil coloniality in practices, habits, relations, and procedures. It also triggered a new wave of reflections, policies, and action plans. The most recent and visible move in this direction is the Pledge for Change, initiated by Degan Ali, Executive Director of the African non-governmental organisations (NGO) Adeso, with support from the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Originally signed by five major NGOs – CARE International, Christian Aid, Plan International, Save the Children International and Oxfam International – the pledge today has over twice that number of signatories. Ali has become one of the most influential voices to raise awareness of decoloniality and “ultimately dismantle discriminatory practices and policies in foreign aid.” The Pledge identifies three streams of change: equitable partnership, authentic storytelling, and influencing wider change.

Coloniality outlives colonialism, as many have said. It is embedded in power relations, in knowledge, in the way humans perceive themselves and in the relations among them. We live steeped in coloniality, and for this reason increasing attention is being given to the tool that most represents the human mode of communication: language.

The talk and the walk

I have written about the unwitting use and the abuse of colonial language by aid practitioners. My reflection stems from the many conversations taking place in our offices in the so-called field (one more word echoing our colonial heritage), or during the long trips that bring us to visit project sites, or while waiting for an interpreter to engage in the impossible task of reasonably translating what we do, for the benefit of a visiting delegate of a donor agency. Those conversations often reinforce the realisation that a decolonial turn for language in aid needs to take place.

Oxfam International recently issued an ambitious tool, a 92-page language guide that aims to be a “contribution … to the work of decolonisation” and something that “prompts thoughts when using language”, thus positioning itself as a new glossary for policy making and practice in the sector. The guide’s introduction also stresses how it was built through a long and inclusive process aimed at engaging those who are the real subjects of aid.

The tool is an inspiring start considering the colonial legacy hidden in language. Some of the terms it proposes are debatable – for example, it reinforces the use of the binary Global South/Global North. Other ambitious semantic prescriptions have already triggered debates in the bubble. Use of the phrase “forced marriage” as an alternative to both “child marriage” and “early marriage” has failed to gather support, as many say we still need to differentiate between an adult obliged to contract marriage, and a child doing so. “Social justice movement” instead of “aid sector” seems to many a needed step towards decoloniality; however, insufficient changes in practice must not be allowed to hide behind a change of phrase.

How to do better

The greatest concern, however, relates to the process: Although Oxfam acknowledges the participation of many activists in the creation of the guide, we see no mention of any name. Conversations with other NGOs were not apparently part of the process – not even those NGOs engaged in the Pledge for Change. Traces of coloniality emerge also through the fact that the document is published under Oxfam’s copyright, raising suspicion of a certain knowledge extractivism.

Did the research include any mechanism of reciprocity with those who contributed? Where are the names of those people? Are they satisfied with the fact that the only name appearing in this guide is Oxfam’s? A further step towards decoloniality could have been to act as a real catalyser and amplifier, providing broad access to the language guide through Oxfam’s excellent global platforms, without the need for logos, names or stickers.

Other organisations rooted in countries traditionally receiving aid have chosen to produce more modest tools, presented as internal reflection on the use of language. An example is Kuûmã, a resource issued by ISDAO (Initiative Sankofa de l’Afrique de l’Ouest) in 2022. This is a striking and readable document. Rather than proposing solutions and telling us what to do and what not to do, it shares concerns, reflections, and doubts through stories of how organisations fighting for social justice cope with coloniality in language, seeking their own decolonial turn.

As a decolonial turn is essentially the creation of something new and unexplored, the aid sector would benefit from more tools like the resource from ISDAO, tools that ask new questions, and provide new points of view for inspiration.


Carla Vitantonio is a humanitarian professional, author and policy advisor, with expertise on humanitarian response in communist and post-communist contexts. As a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance, she is focusing on intersectional feminism and the relation between neo-colonialism and the aid industry.