Episode 16: Disrupting the Development Sector from the Global South. Priyanthi Fernando interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Priyanthi Fernando (IWRAW Asia Pacific) tells us about her ‘disruptive’ approach to the development sector by continuously asserting Global South perspectives to the work being carried out.
We discuss the embedded double standards when activists and practitioners from the Global South get invited to attend events organised by elites from the Global North – but how practitioners from the Global North very rarely attend events organised and hosted in the Global South.

She tells us about IWRAW’s Global South Women’s Forum, which centred the voices of women from the Global South and provided an open space for them to talk about their needs without donor constraints.

Priyanthi reflects on what it means to ‘listen’ in order to design interventions which respond to real needs. She also highlights the lack of accessibility of international forums, as Brown and Black people from marginalised communities are impacted by border controls and connectivity issues.

Priyanthi highlights the importance of IWRAW’s global agenda which is not only anti-racist and decolonial, but also anti-patriarchal and anti-neoliberal.

Relevant organisations & events:

Episode 16: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 16

Disrupting the development sector from the Global South. Priyanthi Fernando interviewed.

Priyanthi: [00:00:00] So I think the colonial project together with patriarchy and neo-liberalism has its tentacles everywhere, and there are many structures that need to be dismantled. And what IWRAW does in a very small way, is to mobilise women to challenge these structures through our programs and through our advocacy at CEDAW and at a lesser extent, advocacy on other platforms, and we’re doing this not by ourselves, but also with allies. 

Kate: Hello, welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonizing Development. I’d like to give a quick introduction to this episode with Priyanthi Fernando. Priyanthi is the outgoing executive director of IWRAW-AP. 

In this episode, Priyanthi outlines a radical agenda and highlights the interlinkages between dismantling the colonial project, patriarchy and neoliberalism. She [00:01:00] highlights that we all need to be aware of how we’ve internalized colonialism, patriarchy, and neoliberalism, and how we are all as individuals part of the problem.

And we need to think about how we can identify what we can do as individuals to disrupt ourselves. She highlights personal experiences of the racist and patronizing attitudes of white development workers she’s worked alongside.

She also highlights the danger of transferring ideas developed in and for the Global North to the Global South. She talks about the benefits of privilege and in her case, identifies these as being wealth, class and education. She talks through the inclusive and carefully considered approach that IWRAW AP takes to gathering women’s testimonies on rights violations and feeding them into not only South-South learning, but South-North influencing and how she [00:02:00] has sought to feed these messages into the UN and other global fora.

She talks about how some critical global spaces are only selectively open to civil society. And while global panels are no longer completely white or completely male, thought leaders and senior people in key international organizations will often only attend events hosted by and held in the Global South if they’re given a speaking slot.

So these people in organizations haven’t yet shifted their mindset to listen in silence to the voices of Black and Brown people. Priyanthi also talks about how important human rights are as a starting point for international development and also in decolonizing development, and says that without centering human rights, these two beneficial goals cannot take place. Thank you and listen on for more.

Charmaine: [00:00:00] Hi everyone. Welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire, change, and identify tools for practical action. Hi, I’m Charmaine McCaulay, a body psychotherapist. Director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program called Racism in Real Time, and my co-host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub.

As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we’re using our own lived experience and professional skills to frame the way that we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks Charmaine. So today, we’re talking to Priyanthi Fernando, who is the outgoing executive director of the International Women’s Right Action Watch Asia Pacific.

IWRAW AP is a feminist organisation based in Kuala Lumpur. [00:01:00] It’s initiated and led by women from the Global South and work towards the protection and fulfillment of the human rights of all women everywhere. Before joining IWRAW a little over seven years ago, Priyanthi has led several other organisations, the Center for Poverty Analysis and Independence, a Sri Lankan think tank, International Forum for Rural Transport and Development, a specialist global network focusing on access mobility for disadvantaged and poor communities, and the Sri Lanka Country Program of Intermediate Technology Development Group now called Practical Action. For more on Priyanthi and IWRAW AP, click on the show notes below this episode, and I’m going to pass back now to Charmaine for our first question.

Over to you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine: Thank you and welcome, welcome, welcome, Priyanthi, I hope I’m saying your name okay. So I have a question for you, Priyanthi. You described yourself as passionate about social justice and about fighting structural [00:02:00] inequalities relating to gender, access to technologies, and the framing of knowledge.

Your work over three decades in sharply contrasting countries, context and engaging with donors, INGOsgroups has aimed to disrupt the structure, systems, and institutions that continue to perpetrate inequality and discrimination. Can you describe how you apply this disruptive approach to thinking about anti-racism and decolonisation in the development sector?

Sorry, it’s a little bit wordy but there, but I hope you got the gist. 

Priyanthi: Thank you, Charmaine. Anti-racism has been around for a long time, and I guess the conversation about decolonisation in some ways more recent, right? So to say that the organisations that I was working for in the past were racist would’ve been I think, really to put the cat among the pigeons, as they say, and would’ve been also considered very rude and very aggressive.

But [00:03:00] I was always conscious that there were these inequalities, right? The discrimination and also the patronising attitudes of even the most well-meaning colleagues in the Global North. The disruptions that I talked about were therefore a lot more indirect. They were more about continuously asserting that we had a different perspective, that our perspectives from the Global South were as important and probably even more valid to the context we were working in.

I can give you a few examples if you’ve got the time. 

Charmaine: Yeah, maybe one would be lovely. 

Priyanthi: Ok. So I’ll give you just very quickly two, right. So one very early example, which is when I was working in my first ever development job, I was 20 something years old, and a USAID consultant, Barbara, and I were waiting in an empty classroom during the school holidays of a rural school waiting for [00:04:00] the women in our project who belonged to the local women’s organisation to come for a meeting to discuss what was then women’s entrepreneurship. The women were of course more than 15 minutes late.

It was Sri Lanka in a very rural setting. So an irritated Barbara writes on the blackboard, time is money. And even at that age, I was thinking, time is money for whom? These are women currently in unpaid care work and unpaid work in family enterprise.

The concept actually makes absolutely no sense. So I had to have that out with her. Yeah, I think that’s really an example of how differently development practitioners from the Global North think about development in the Global South, bringing the same concepts and the same ideas that apply in their context to us.

[00:05:00] And I think now working with IWRAW Asia Pacific using a human rights framework, I feel a lot easier with that because I think it’s the more equalising and the most non-discriminatory way to approach development, and somehow I wish that I had had that knowledge at that point when I started.

Charmaine: Okay. Thank you for that. When I was listening to you on the pre-interview with Kate, one of the things that really popped up, I like words, and one of the words that popped up several times was, Kate used the word disruptive and you used the word disruptive. So given that I am a body psychotherapist, I want to know, of course, can you share with us an experience or an event or your lifelong world or an episode where your internal sense of self was disrupted. What was disrupted and how has this influenced your position to support women’s human rights? 

Priyanthi: It’s a bit of a hard one, [00:06:00] right. I come from a privileged elite family in Sri Lanka, right?

But it is to the credit of my parents who they did not deny me any of the benefits of that privilege, but they also made me very aware that I was privileged. So this was heightened when I went away from home to university in Sri Lanka but out of the city, and realised the hardship that most of my batchmates had faced to avail themselves of Sri Lanka’s free higher education.

I was very privileged. I didn’t have to carry water or feed the kids or whatever, or sweep the yard before I went into my studies. If I was studying, I was studying and that was my privilege. And so I think I was always, from that point, from very young, I was always uncomfortable with what I felt was the unfairness of it all.

And my [00:07:00] family also had very strong women in it, right? So two aunts who had professional jobs in those days, one as a qualified social worker and the other as Sri Lanka’s first woman in the foreign service. And my mother, who had been kept from going to university by my granddad, even though she was really quite smart. She started volunteering with the National Women’s Organisation that I went to work on for later. So there were these women who were completely challenging the stereotypes and they were a generation before me. So being in the university reinforced the unfairness of my privilege and the inequalities in society, in general.

Because when I started working, I realised that these rural women were no less smarter than me. They just hadn’t had the opportunities that I had had. So it all, it was this kind of self-consciousness of privilege, I think that has led me to do what I [00:08:00] do and to, and to combat the unfairness or the injustice of it all.

Charmaine: Yeah. Well, thank you. I think that’s a wonderful answer because for me it does feel that as you leave your own home and you go out into the community, that external force is a disruption to the way your life was. So I really appreciate the way you answered it and also how your mother and the women in your family in a way were going against civil society. I think that’s a disruption too, and how you took that in. So thank you for that. My last question is, for me personally, what sets your organisation apart from others working on global human rights organisation events?

Is that when you organised the Global Tribunal for women workers, where you had 73 women giving personal testimonies from 23 different countries and 12 labor sectors. You provided which still blows me away, you provided [00:09:00] online counselors to offer support. I read this, I thought, wow, this woman, I just really like her.

Can you share with us the impact of actually having online counselors had on the participants, and how this strategy links with your aim to empower women’s human rights? 

Priyanthi: Okay. I’m glad you like me, but it wasn’t just me, right? It was the whole team that worked this out and realised that we needed to have these consultants, counselors. Because the testimonies provided by the workers were actually very intense. And we were all listening to these stories of the violation of women’s human rights over and over again. Right? So it was really hard for the people giving the testimonies, but it was also hard for the people who were participating, some of whom were also included workers who had similar experiences.

So the whole thing was a very tense experience. I think there was just one incident, that a [00:10:00] worker giving her testimony actually broke down online and then we had to make a separate breakout room where she could talk with the counselor. But that only happened once, even though the counselors were there for all the time.

I’m not even sure whether she did eventually talk to her in a break and when she came back, she was grateful and a lot stronger in the way she handled giving her testimony. But that incident at that point when she broke down, had an impact on everyone else. And so the counselors were able to take us through some online calming exercises, right?

So we did some breathing exercises and all of those things that help you gather yourself together, try to cope with this, what you’ve just seen, so that when we resume the sessions, not only the person giving the testimony, but we were all in a better place. All the workers who [00:11:00] gave testimonies could actually listen because we had this online interpretation in 13 languages. So not only they could speak in their own language and be understood, but they could also listen in their own language to the kind of testimonies that other people were saying.

So the whole process showed that we as organisers were making an effort to create a very safe space for them, to share their experiences, a space that had their wellbeing at the center. Right. And I think that was what gave them the confidence to share as they did. And that is what it has led to.

Like when can we have the next tribunal? My team goes, no, we need five years rest before we organise another tribunal. But yeah, so I think it was that, and you asked the question, how does it link to our aim to empower women’s human rights? I think it’s about creating safe spaces, spaces where women are comfortable [00:12:00] and to be able to articulate their demands for their rights.

Charmaine: Well, thank you. Thank you. Over to you, Kate. Thank you so much for that answer. I appreciated that. 

Kate: Yeah. Thank you, Priyanthi. I mean, I think one of the things that I take from what you’ve just said is how respectful you are of the people who are contributing their stories and how strongly you recognise the impact that retelling your story can have.

So I think that’s very powerful actually. And I think it’s also, it’s not just respectful, it’s also compassionate and human. And it’s recognising that the people are sharing something very personal with you, and there’s a cost to that sharing process, it’s not cost free.

So I really like that because it’s not just extracting a story that you can use as an organisation and you can make yourselves look good as an organisation that you are well connected and you’ve got all these [00:13:00] grassroots activists. And I see that quite often with organisations that they actually puff themselves up by gathering the stories of real people.

 So Priyanthi, you’ve described in a separate conversation how activists and practitioners from the Global South get invited to attend events organised by people from elites from the Global North, and decision makers from the Global North.

But how these elites very rarely attend the events that you organise in the Global South, that you organise and host. Why does this matter to you and what does it symbolise?

Priyanthi: I think it kind of relates to your idea of respect and respect for the voices of people, or the experiences of people. And I think in some ways, donors and development agencies and other actors in the Global North have [00:14:00] now cottoned onto the need for representation. So there is increased awareness to invite speakers or participant groups from margins to attend, participate in the global forums.

So there are some critical global spaces that are only selectively open to civil societies. So for example, the COPs or the high level political forum of the SDGs, right? They don’t have spaces for civil society participation in any major way. And global panels are not completely white or completely male anymore, right?

I guess all of that is completely a step in the right direction. So at IWRAW we organise, and the tribunal was one of those, annually, the Global South Women’s Forum. So initially convened around the agenda for sustainable development and held in Cambodia, Rwanda and Kuala Lumpur.

And since the pandemic, since 2020, we have taken it online. And [00:15:00] interestingly taking it online has facilitated greater participation of women from the Global South, especially for women’s rights organisations and marginalised communities that include gender and sexual minorities, ethnic racial minorities, women and girls living with disabilities.

All these people are now able to participate in this because if it had happened physically or in person for many reasons, firstly it would’ve been unaffordable for IWRAW, to do something in that scale. But secondly and more importantly, I think there would’ve been many restrictions for participants to attend.

So whether you got leave of absence from workplaces or you had care responsibilities or really the indignity of getting visas. We should not underestimate the negative impact of border controls on the ability of Brown and Black people from marginalised communities to participate in international forums and [00:16:00] even with the online forums that we did, there are groups that we cannot reach because there is no internet connectivity.

And even though we give connectivity allowances, not everybody can make it to these forums. So this year just heads up, we are organising a forum for all those women who are impacted by borders. So refugees and stateless and people like that. But to answer your question, because I realise I digressed a bit there…

So when we organised these events, particularly the Global South Women’s Forum, few Global North participants from international institutions, as you say, the transnational corporations, even NGOs, even though we invite them, they don’t come to these events. Most often, they come only if we give them a speaking slot. The principle is that this is a Global South women’s event, so we are not giving you a speaking slot, but we would like you to come and listen. And they don’t just come to listen. [00:17:00] That’s not something they do. And this is quite sad because listening to Global South voices, when these voices are able to talk quite freely and comfortably without the constraints of a donor evaluation where you need to please the donor or whatever, right?

Whatever those restrictions, that’s when you hear the real stories. So if you don’t come for these, you don’t hear them, and if you don’t hear them, you can’t design your interventions in the way that responds to the real needs. So that’s why I guess it’s no surprise that there’s so many inappropriate development institutions, um, interventions and maybe inappropriate development institutions also. But what I meant to say was so many inappropriate development inventions, interventions. 

Kate: Yeah. Thank [00:18:00] you for that, Priyanthi, and something that springs to mind when you say that people from the Global North will only attend if they have a speaking slot. I think that’s quite telling and I think there’s a reluctance to listen and learn rather than telling and controlling the agenda.

So there’s a kind of arrogance there and there’s something in that around hierarchies of power and control. And hierarchies around setting agendas and controlling the narrative. And obviously communication is based on listening very much more than talking. And it’s quite indicative that people from the Global North, experts from the Global North are reluctant to listen.

So I think that’s quite a powerful critique that organisations based in the Global North are alert to the fact that they need [00:19:00] to create spaces for Brown and Black people on the podium, but they haven’t yet shifted their mindset enough to put themselves in the audience and listen to the voices of Brown and Black people respectfully. So I think that’s quite a powerful critique. Thank you. Moving on to my next question. Could you describe how your organisation rooted in the Global South seeks to influence the global rights and feminist agenda around the world? And linked to that, what needs to open up in terms of space to shift power to the Global South so that what you are doing becomes the norm?

Priyanthi: So, this is probably going be a bit of a long answer, but IWRAW Asia Pacific roots all its work in the human rights system, as I said. And our main platform for advocacy is the human rights treaty bodies space, especially [00:20:00] CEDAW which is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

And we’ve been around for 30 years and in those 30 years from the beginning, we tried to bring Global South women to Geneva, earlier New York, to engage with the CEDAW committee, which itself is a committee of 23 women from different regions of the world, including Asia, Africa, Latin America.

So 189 countries have signed up to CEDAW and the countries are reviewed every four years. So this creates a space , ideally, it doesn’t always happen every four years, but this in theory, creates a space for civil society organisations to hold their states accountable, especially when their governments themselves are constraining human rights at the national level.

So more and more Global South women from the margins are using this space. Sex workers, women with disabilities, indigenous women. But there’s [00:21:00] also a huge backlash that is coming from the anti-rights movements that are discriminatory towards gender, minorities, or sex work, sex worker rights, for example.

These movements are unfortunately well funded, possibly via the more conservative elements in the Global North. And this is a challenge because they are beginning to capture even some of the institutions of the United Nations. So shifting the power is simply not as simple as saying there should be a shift from the Global North to the Global South, because in some ways there is a Global North in the Global South, so national, political and economic elites who have the same mindset, as much as there is also a Global South in the Global North.

So you get the homeless, the sex workers, the Roma communities. But I think what we need to have is a shift towards a more equal world system and what happened around the vaccines for Covid [00:22:00] 19 shows how bad the inequalities can be and how it can affect not just people in the Global South, but also marginalised communities in the Global South and North.

So we are working, for instance, with DAWN which is, I think called Development Alternatives for Women in a New Economy [Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era], I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s women’s economic rights oriented feminist network. And the Third World Network on a campaign which we are calling Feminists for a People’s Vaccine, which is challenging the whole big pharma control over not just vaccines, but actually more equitable distribution of medicines.

So I think the colonial project together with patriarchy and neo-liberalism has its tentacles everywhere, and there are many structures that need to be dismantled: border controls, so that [00:23:00] mobility is unrestricted, a market that respects people and their rights over profit, which means that you’d have to change the worldview of transnational corporations and national businesses. We need states that look at growth and wellbeing of all citizens as a benchmark of development, not just economic growth. So all of these things are necessary. 

And what IWRAW does in a very small way, is to mobilise women to challenge these structures through our programs and through our advocacy at CEDAW and so at a lesser extent, advocacy on other platforms, and we’re doing this not by ourselves, but also with allies. So I mentioned DAWN and I mentioned TWN, but there’s also AWID, the Association for Women’s Rights and Development. There is SRI, Sexual Rights [00:24:00] Initiative and many others.

Kate: Thank you Priyanthi. So you are actually outlining there a very radical agenda in which, as you say, you’re not just looking at race and coloniality, you’re not just looking at gender, but you’re actually looking at markets and neoliberalism and seeking to support greater social equity and rights for people in the Global North as well as in the Global South.

So that’s a very ambitious agenda and I can see it’s very much a global agenda rather than just an agenda that’s focused on the Global South. So thank you for that and thank you for sharing your insights more broadly. And I wonder if you were to think about one thing that our listeners and viewers could do, one practical thing that they could do to support progressive change and anti-racism and decolonisation, what would you pick, what would you advise people to start with? [00:25:00] 

Priyanthi: So before I go to answering that, I just want to comment on what you said a little earlier, right? Which is that, this is not just an anti-racism and anti-colonial agenda.

It’s much more. What IWRAW has is a much wider agenda, and I think that really needs to be thought about like that because you can’t just dismantle racism or coloniality or colonialism, whatever the noun is for that, you can’t actually disrupt those without actually having other disruptions as well.

You can’t just do it by just being anti-racial, for example. That’s not enough. You have to be anti-racial at the same time, you have to smash the patriarchy, you have to dismantle neoliberalism. You have to do all of that together because they feed into each other and I think we haven’t really unentangled those links between these very oppressive systems. 

So to come to your final question, [00:26:00] I hope, I think if we truly want to decolonise, we need to disrupt ourselves. And this goes back to Charmaine’s question to me, because like it or not, we are all part of the problem.

So we have to disrupt ourselves. And I think that’s really important for people who are working in development. You need to see how much you are part of the problem, and you need to come out of that box, which is white and racist and patriarchal and all of that, and actually see what is it that you can do to disrupt yourself?

How is it that you can act as quickly? And I think in some ways the tool that I wish I had had from the start of my work 30 years ago was the human rights framework. I mean, I knew it existed. I didn’t work with it so closely. And I think it’s a very [00:27:00] powerful framework because if you achieve human rights for all, you will achieve development. Doesn’t necessarily happen the other way.

Kate: Yeah. Thank you very much, Priyanthi. And I would encourage our listeners and viewers to have a look at the show notes for this episode, and to find out more about the work that you and your organisation have done with your global tribunal and your contributions to CEDAW, so thank you very much for telling us about your work and providing this radical agenda for supporting social equity and human rights, and thank you very much.

Priyanthi: Thank you for hosting me on this. Thank you. Look forward to seeing what the other episodes will be like too in the future. 

Kate: Thank you.

This weeks guest:

Priyanthi Fernando is the outgoing Executive Director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP)

IWRAW AP is a feminist organisation based in Kuala Lumpur, initiated and led by women from the Global South, and working towards the protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all women everywhere.  Before joining IWRAW AP a little over seven (7) years ago, Priyanthi has led several organisations: the Centre for Poverty Analysis, an independent Sri Lankan think tank; the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development, a specialist global network focusing on access and mobility for disadvantaged and poor communities and the Sri Lanka country programme of Intermediate Technology Development Group (now called Practical Action), the Sri Lankan arm of an international NGO, that promoted affordable and accessible technological options for poor people.   Her journey in development began with working for the Lanka Mahila Samiti, a grassroots women’s organisation in Sri Lanka.  

Priyanthi has always been passionate about issues of social justice and about fighting structural inequalities relating to gender, access to technologies, and the framing of knowledge.  In over three decades of working in countries as diverse as Bangladesh or Yemen, and engaging with the bilateral, multilateral and INGOs as well as with community groups, Priyanthi has continued to aim at disrupting those structures, systems and institutions that continue to perpetuate inequality and discrimination.

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