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Right here, not just over there: Universal equity in international development

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

In March of this year, I was delighted to publish an article in Gender & Development – and in very good company indeed. The editors invited us to share our vision for how to collectively reimagine international development, primarily from a practitioner perspective. Times have changed radically since I wrote the article, and I’m highly aware that many people now have limited time to read longer-form content. So, in this blog I highlight my key points in what I hope is a more digestible format.

In the article, I make the case that the concept of ‘equity’ in international development is most often used in global development frameworks to describe something done to the global South by the global North. This happens through assessments of whether a particular development intervention (say administering vaccines or providing educational services) is equitably implemented. Crucial, of course. But this neglects the equally important issue of creating systems that foster equity between the South and North, particularly within the context of entrenched power imbalances resulting from complex histories of colonialism and current-day neo-colonial practices.

I argue for a much broader definition of ‘universal equity’ that a) acknowledges the root causes of inequalities and b) encompasses other key dimensions such as racial and gender equity between the South and North. Creating greater equity, therefore, is a process of ‘levelling the global playing field’ through reformed global policies, a fairer distribution of global resources, renewed organisational practices, and the creation of more equitable partnerships.

We can’t talk about equity without talking about race

To quote Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic and activist: “In its crudest form, development has traditionally been about dissecting the political, socio-economic and cultural processes of black, brown and other subjects of colour in the so-called global South and finding them regressive, particularly in comparison to the so-called progressive global North.” As such, we cannot conceptualise universal equity without addressing racial inequities in the system.

The intersection between race and gender in a South/North setting is also important, as made clear by philosopher and feminist theorist Serene J. Khader. She writes: "Postcolonial feminists have argued that Westerners are invested in an idea of themselves as 'modern': in other words, morally advanced and distanced from tradition... If tradition causes hierarchy, and Western cultures have transcended tradition, then sexism primarily exists in other 'backward' cultures. Yet these assumptions are clearly false. Add a near-complete silence on the global economy to images of development programs helping women, and we get a picture of Northern involvement that is uniformly positive. One where we are lifting poor women up, and their cultures and families are tearing them down."

It is clearly impossible to do this subject justice in one article, let alone one blog post. But racial and gender equity from a South/ North perspective must clearly be the foundation of any comprehensive approach to universal equity.

Four dimensions of equity in international development

Bearing the above in mind, I argue for universal equity to be framed as a way of working, or a culture of practice, within the development sector that centres agency, respect and dignity. I highlight four key dimensions (which are clearly not exhaustive).

  1. Equity in language: the way in which language is used in the global North can reinforce existing power dynamics and hierarchies, further entrenching the idea that equity is something that happens ‘over there’ rather than as a concept and process with universal application. As a few concrete examples, I personally do not use the terms ‘developed/developing,’ the ‘field,’ ‘beneficiaries,’ ‘expatriate’ (as opposed to international) or ‘local’ (apart from in specific circumstances) given their inequitable connotations. It is up to each of us to critically examine the terminology we use and make adjustments based on our own backgrounds and experiences.

  2. Equity in knowledge production: Northern actors operate a monopoly on knowledge production in development, while also being in the privileged position of being able to determine what types of knowledge are valued above others. I have personally witnessed how the presumption of Northern superiority affects what research is commissioned, who designs and implements the research, and how it is used to inform decision-making. Until this paradigm is inverted severe inequities, especially in the research space, will remain.

  3. Equity in funding: I see two main dimensions to the question of funding inequity: first, a failure to recognise the inherently extractive nature and origin of Northern wealth. As argued by Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, the “idea of aid overrides any suggestion that Western powers are in any way complicit in the suffering of the South. Indeed, aid stands as irrefutable proof of Western benevolence.” And second, the paucity of funding that goes directly to Southern organisations, including NGOs and CSOs. This is being called out more and more strongly by the South. These are fundamentally inequitable funding structures that consolidate power in the global North.

  4. Equity in partnerships: The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ has been used in a variety of contexts by different groups to essentially express what an inequitable partnership feels like. Decisions are made from the outside, in a top-down manner, without involving the very people whose lives will be affected most. Instead of true partnership, we have a development ‘dance’ in which it is presumed that the South will follow the lead of the North. Truly equitable partnerships should be Southern-led, not imposed, not based on assumptions of what the South needs, respectful of the right to say ‘no’ to an intervention, and consistently aware of historical power imbalances.

I don’t consider myself an expert in any of these areas. But I do believe that achieving greater equity will require much more than surface-level adjustments: we need a wholesale mindset and cultural shift across multiple dimensions. Ultimately, creating greater equity at all levels would mean that many actors (predominantly Northern ones) will have to shift or give up some or all of their power. This will necessarily be a painful process (that could be accelerated as a result of Covid-19) but also one that enables us to strive for genuine global solidarity.

This is a whistle-stop tour of the key points, so do dive into the article for more detail. Above all, I want to hear from you. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Get in touch.

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