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The links between colonialism and Covid and the climate crisis
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The links between colonialism and Covid and the climate crisis

The links between colonialism, Covid and the climate crisis


Decolonisation – it’s a word we’ve been hearing quite a lot over the last couple of years. Former colonial powers, as well as their citizens, are reassessing what it means to have an empire and how it affects our policies and attitudes today.

This content was published at 15:15 on November 16, 2021.

The Geneva Humanitarian Community has joined the debate and asked if aid policies or our thought processes around humanitarian assistance need to change. Who decides which aid programs will be implemented and where? Who gets the advice? Who’s in charge of those programmes? What historical preconceptions and assumptions are influencing those decisions?

It’s an intense, sometimes difficult, debate, so we decided to tackle it on this week’s Inside Geneva podcast, where we talk to two people who have already written extensively on the topic.

Lata Nayanaswamy, associate Professor of the politics of international development at the University of Leeds, UK, believes that humanitarian aid should be viewed through a decolonization lens.

“The key is about embracing a more diversified way of understanding our world,” she tells Inside Geneva. “And that includes an engagement with our shared colonial past.”

And Tammam Aloudat, who spent many years with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and is now managing director of Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, has come to believe that that colonial past informs much humanitarian policy today.

“The behaviour and influence that has resulted from those 500 years of colonisation remains,” he says.

Covid imbalances

Tammam and Lata both point to the Covid-19 Pandemic as an example of how a colonial past still determines the global haves or have-nots. The two maps look almost identical if you overlay a map showing the British empire on a map showing the countries that have received the least vaccine doses.

The World Health Organization called for vaccine equity. But wealthy countries bought up millions of vaccines at market prices, leaving the poorer countries without. Now, Tammam suggests, those same rich countries want to look like “the good guys” by hiring planes to deliver their almost expired surplus vaccines to low-income countries who have been waiting a year.

Lata believes that COP26 could be another example. The disapproval directed at China and India for their demand to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal ignores the fact that the industrialised world’s wealth is built on centuries of burning fossil fuels with impunity. That’s not to say our podcast panellists argued for keeping coal – but they did suggest developing countries’ request for support to move away from fossil fuels while still growing their economies was legitimate.

Do you prefer gifts or payback?

This brings us to the core question of humanitarianism: What is it exactly? It is often referred to as a gift or donation. Lata Narayanaswamy believes we need to change the language we use and how we think about it. She argues that poor countries are often poor because rich countries have become richer at their expense.

Our approach to humanitarian and development work would be much improved, she argues, “if we were to think of aid as a form of reparation, as a form of social justice for continuing and historical harm”.

And that’s where it gets difficult, as our Inside Geneva analyst Daniel Warner points out: “You want me to pay reparations? I wasn’t born in the 19th century. My background is not in empire.”

It’s a question likely to be asked by many ordinary citizens of wealthy countries, some of whom suffered years of austerity following the financial crisis of 2008 and are now facing fresh economic uncertainty because of the pandemic.

Of course there are multiple valid arguments against the “it’s us or them” position, not least the fact that preventing or relieving humanitarian crises promotes global peace and stability.

What should be changed?

If humanitarian aid must continue, what should we do to change it? “What,” our analyst Daniel Warner asks, “do we need to do on Monday morning?”

In fact, despite Lata and Tammam’s calls for a radical approach to thinking about aid, what they argue should happen practically is what many aid agencies have been trying to do, with mixed results, for years: localise.

Tammam points to the fact that even if local actors are in charge, the purse strings and overall decision about whether to start or continue an aid program tend to stay at the headquarters of the aid agency, which is in expat hands.

He believes humanitarians should simply ask communities in crisis what they need, and then “do it”. Lata suggests applying the word “expert” not to the parachuted-in aid specialists but to locals on the ground. And, she adds, how about thinking of them not just as experts in their own community but as “global experts”? She believes that we could learn a lot.

Our panellists agreed that decolonizing assistance should not lead to dedicated young humanitarian workers from Europe, or the United States, quitting their jobs. They will always be needed for their ideals, and their skills. But they need to reevaluate how they use them every day.


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