Since March 11 2020, our world has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existing and persistent inequalities of our systems are being painfully exposed. These inequalities also brought to the forefront the issue of systemic racism of people of colour and the power imbalances between Western societies and the Global South. As Amruta Byatnal, an Associate Editor at Devex mentions in her article on health and COVID-19, “Who controls the levers of development? It’s really people in the so-called global north. While global domination and structural inequality is inbuilt as constituted by economic power, it is reinforced and justified by racial power”
Recently, and as someone from Guyana, one of the countries in the Global South, I have had several conversations on how to be an ally and the need to highlight and amplify voices from the Global South. This, of course, require ongoing conversations on the current dynamics and how, when and where we create the space for this conversation to occur.
Unfortunately, international development organizations, among others, are still entrenched in the culture and practice of geographical biases which perceived those from the Global North as ‘experts’ whilst others outside of this region are portrayed as ‘only beneficiaries’. As Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, founder of the Voices of Developing Countries blog, often says “Who wins and who loses is highly dependent upon who writes and who is able to influence the rule-making”.
Given the current discourse, I’ve outlined some suggestions and actions that organizations and individuals could potentially take to ensure more balance perspectives. These are based on my experience and personal reflections.
- Ensure that all webinar/panel discussion, etc, are balanced in terms of number of persons from the Global South. Lately, with the pandemic, the world has moved more online. Therefore, accessing persons with expertise from the Global South is easier than ever. Although recognising that internet access is still limited in some areas, there are various ways of safeguarding Global South voices in these discussions.
- Ensure that women and marginalized groups such as refugees and differently-abled, are consistently and number-wise represented, and we are actively taking the time and effort to secure such engagements. For example, I managed an event on providing insights into the refugee situation worldwide. I invited and ensured that (former) refugees were provided the space to share the reality of their situation and in their own words. This is particularly important as we often make erroneous assumptions of others’ experiences.
- Any ‘seat at the table’ for Global South representation should not be tokenistic (i.e. actions that result in pretending to give advantage to certain groups in society who are often treated unfairly, in order to give the appearance of fairness but lacking in substance). Representatives of the Global South need foremost to be recognised for their worth, and their voice and perspective amplified in these discussions and continued. It’s important to ask the question of what comes after these forums/panel discussion and how can we continue the support? Further, how many from the Global South are part of the decision-making process – both on projects and on panels? Their involvement is often limited to participation and even during these sessions they are often drowned out by consistent talking/justifications from the North without truly listening and understanding.
- There have been numerous encounters, experienced by myself and others from the Global South, of the controlling, and usually limiting of access to information, also known as Gatekeeping. This results in having to constantly ask to be involved in meetings/forums, etc, and to access information. This limits the effectiveness one can be in their job or role. Gatekeeping of information is VERY real, intentional or unconscious, and it is oftentimes tiring. How are systems in your office set-up to ensure that those who require information are given it, without having to consistently ‘beg’ and dehumanize themselves for such information?
- We need to leverage Global North voices as collaborators, and partners, and not as the perceived ‘controller’. This ensures that our Global South colleagues’ voices are included in these conversations, not just between national and country offices but also at the donor level.
- Self-reflection is also required within every office: how do we actively and consistently engage, encourage and support persons from the Global South to feel comfortable and have the necessary space for interaction and decision-making? It also falls on us, individually as well as collectively, to review our unconscious bias of our daily interactions with those from the Global South – do we listen to understand their perspective and ideas or do we listen to respond? Do we give their thoughts and opinions active reflection, discount or minimise their suggestions or experiences, or dismiss it because it doesn’t follow a traditional pattern of Western thinking?
- A recognition of accessibility is also essential (e.g. access to funding and education). There is unconscious bias when it comes to the level of education and how individuals are often treated. There are assumptions that those with higher degrees are experts, oftentimes dismissing the hands-on, experience-based expertise of Global South colleagues, including those from indigenous communities.
- Ensure that Global South colleagues are recognized for their work. Oftentimes, the work of Global South persons are dismissed as “team-effort” or someone else takes credit for it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of actions or reflections. Inclusion of diverse people and thinking within organizations that have held and continues to hold geographical biases is a complex issue and the value of actively and consistently ensuring inclusion cannot be understated.
About the Author: Melina Kalamandeen is an International Development Practitioner, currently working for a global health non-governmental organization. She has over 12 years’ experience managing programs in Guyana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and Indonesia. She has a strong focus on developing innovative shared value partnerships with government, INGO and private sectors, and plays a key role in overseeing, monitoring and reporting on donor-funded grants, partnerships and collaborations. Melina is a skilled facilitator and communicator with experience of working with both international and community-based organisations to strengthen organisational effectiveness and impact. Her twitter is @melinakdeen.