Episode 18: Challenging structural racism in the peacebuilding and humanitarian sector. Dylan Mathews interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Dylan talks us through Peace Direct’s journey as a Global North-based peacebuilding organisation. He reflects on the pivotal moment in which Peace Direct spoke to local partners and began to actively question how structural racism is embedded into the sector.

Dylan contends that there is a need for both organisations and individuals in the Global North to acknowledge that they may have benefitted from the development sector and that they have “done harm in the process of trying to help”.

We discuss the fact that the majority of humanitarian funding (97%) goes to organisations in the Global North, and how this has consistently eroded the growth and capability of civil society organisations in the Global South.

Episode 18: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 18

Challenging structural racism in the peacebuilding and humanitarian sector. Dylan Mathews interviewed.

Dylan: [00:00:00] Why have we spent the last 15 years talking about the need to support local actors and trying to change the international policy making environment and funding environment? Why didn’t we once ask the question around structural racism? And overt racism. And I think that was a really painful realisation for all of us that actually took the murder of a man in the US to catalyze a global movement, which then forced our sector to ask questions that I think when we started to ask our partners around the world and other local organisations about, you know, have they experienced structural racism? how much of it is a problem? They said to us, “Of course, it’s a problem.” It’s hard baked into the system and they didn’t want to talk about it because they were afraid of losing the very small amounts of funding.

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird and I’d like to introduce this episode of the Power Shift: Decolonizing Development. Today we’re talking to Dylan Matthews, the CEO of Peace Direct, and in our interview, Dylan highlights the importance of humanitarian and development organizations in the Global North stepping back and making space for Global South organizations to speak truth to power. He talks about how prioritizing humanitarian imperatives, in other words, saving lives can lead to practices that erode the capabilities and agency of people in communities in the Global South and how these practices need to change. But he also says that we shouldn’t jump straight into changing practice. This must happen, but alongside the deep inner work on our own prejudices and assumptions. He says that we need to acknowledge the harm that we have done while trying to do good. Please listen on. 

Charmaine: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and act activists to [00:01:00] share ideas, inspire change, and identify tools for practical action. Hi, I’m Charmaine McCauley, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program, Racism in Real Time. And my co-host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub. Hi Kate. As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we’re using our own lived experience and professional skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks Charmaine. So today we’re talking to Dylan Matthews. He’s the CEO at Peace Direct. And having joined the organisation in 2015, his commitment to supporting local organisations in the Global South spans nearly 20 years, during which time he’s worked for a range of peace building, international development and humanitarian organisations. Dylan has written on the role of non-state actors in [00:02:00] war prevention and conflict resolution, and developed a practical toolkit for peacebuilders.

He’s also the chair of the Board of Civicus Alliance, one of the world’s largest alliances of civil society organisations. For more on Dylan and Peace Direct’s work on decolonising partnerships, please click on the show notes below this episode. Back to you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine: Thank you and welcome Dylan.

I’m so glad that you could make it. It’s lovely to see your smile. So, Dylan, my first question is to you. Dylan, you say that after nearly 15 years of Peace Direct’s existence, that they had a really very painful realisation that they were not asking the right questions and that they had misdiagnosed the issues that Peace Direct wanted to solve.

How did this epiphany impact you and the other members of Peace Direct? Can you share with us some of the painful truths that were revealed? 

Dylan: Thank you, Charmaine. And thank you for inviting me, Kate and Charmaine onto this podcast. So I’d like to start off by just telling you a little bit about [00:03:00] the sort of story of Peace Direct, why we were founded, and then that explains really that epiphany moment.

So we were set up about 20 years ago . We’re an INGO based in the Global North, based in London. But we always had this very strong sense that the system, the international peace building and humanitarian system was dysfunctional. And what we were trying to do was trying to support local people’s efforts to stop violence and build sustainable peace around the world.

So we don’t have country offices, we don’t have expat staff. All we do is we try and find ways to fund and support and provide whatever help we can to local people in their context, stopping violence. And so we’ve been trying over the last 20 years to do that, not only to try and support local organisations and lift up their voices, but also try to change the way the international system sees international development, humanitarian, and peace building efforts, which are very focused on top down and external efforts. But for the first 10 [00:04:00] years at least, for the first 10 or 15 years of Peace Direct’s life, we have been trying to engage with policymakers saying, “why don’t they fund local efforts more? Why don’t they invest in local efforts more?”

And they kept pushing us back saying, “well, local actors can’t be trusted. They don’t meet our strict compliance requirements. The risk of fraud is too great, et cetera, et cetera.” And we’ve tried to counter those arguments over the years by arguing that local peace builders are effective, they’re cost effective, there’s no greater risk of fraud, et cetera. So we’ve really tried hard to counter every single one of those arguments. And it wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement really sort of becoming a global movement and the murder, that terrible murder of George Floyd in the US that we stopped and started to ask ourselves, why aren’t we asking the painful question, the difficult question about racism.

Why have we spent the last 15 years talking about the need to support local actors and [00:05:00] trying to change the international policy making environment and funding environment? Why didn’t we once ask the question around structural racism? And overt racism. And I think that was a really painful realisation for all of us that actually took the murder of a man in the US to catalyze a global movement, which then forced our sector to ask questions that I think when we started to ask our partners around the world and other local organisations about, you know, have they experienced structural racism? how much of it is a problem? They said to us, “Of course, it’s a problem.” It’s hard baked into the system and they didn’t want to talk about it because they were afraid of losing the very small amounts of funding.

So I think for an organisation like Peace Direct, we consider ourselves quite progressive. We were really shocked that we had this huge blind spot. We’d used the wrong language, we were using the wrong framing, and we were asking the wrong questions because we, I think, self-censored, we didn’t want to ask the question [00:06:00] and we found it uncomfortable talking about racism and I think that is reflective of the whole sector.

None of us, as far as I’m aware, none of us were brave enough to ask those questions early enough, and it really did take only in the last three or four years for that question to be raised. Even though if you have a look at topics around decolonising, decoloniality, anti-racism, those have been discussed on the margins of the sector for decades, but they haven’t been part of the mainstream conversation. So, to answer your question, Charmaine, I think it was really, really painful for us because when we first realised that we hadn’t been asking that question, we talked to our partners and they asked us, “please, please raise this internationally. This is an issue.”

And yet within my own team, there was resistance. My own team struggled to act, acknowledge this and really come to terms with this because they felt they were ill-equipped. Some of them said, “we can’t talk about this. We’re ill-equipped to talk about racism.” Some of the members of my staff who are from Black and minority ethnic [00:07:00] backgrounds said, ” we feel instrumentalised. We don’t want to talk about this or represent the whole of the Global South. So we would rather not talk about this.” I had number of number of conversations internally that showed that even for a progressive organisation, we found this difficult. And if we were going to find this difficult, imagine organisations that aren’t even aware of this, you know, haven’t even started surfacing those questions.

So in 2020 when this all happened, we really had to push through to really get this as a conversation, both internally, but also we committed to having a conversation globally. We held our online conversation over three days with 160 participants from around 50 countries.

And that really opened up this incredible rich conversation about how deeply embedded structural racism is in the sector. Okay. Thank you. 

Charmaine: Thank you for sharing that, I can really hear how difficult that would’ve been. Number one, what I was thinking, I thought what guts, what courage, that Peace Direct could [00:08:00] even formulate that question because it means that they got something wrong and for them to know that they got something wrong and to admit it, I think for a lot of organisations, don’t even admit that. So I say kudos to you guys and kudos for actually sitting down and deciding to rework the original objective. I think that’s just great. So my next question is, you have previously identified the need for donors and partners affiliated with Peace Direct to become less top-down and more open to having risky conversations around race. Just exactly what you were saying around power and patriarchy and for these conversations to be safer, can you give examples of what needs to happen to make the objectives operational and what the possible fallout might have been or could have been from these changes, might be for the donor and the partner organisations?

Dylan: Sure. So just to sort of follow up on the last point I made about this conversation. So we had a [00:09:00] global conversation online with these activists and they gave us all of the guidance that we needed, we encouraged them to think about a manifesto for how the sector might decolonise and what that looks like.

And we produced a report based on their findings, their insights, their perspectives. And we called it Time to Decolonise Aid. And that came out in 2020. And the first recommendation that they shared with us was we’ve just got to acknowledge the problem right now. And even three years on, I think people are still talking about localisation.

They’re talking about very limited, almost technical tweaks to the system. Without acknowledging the root causes of some of the problems. So our neo-colonial attitudes, the fact that we have considered ourselves as self-appointed experts in other people’s lives, that we’ve really felt the whole of development, international development to humanitarian sectors and building have been based on this idea of Global North [00:10:00] expertise and that we are there to fill a gap, the skills gap, knowledge gaps elsewhere, and that that’s the role that we should play, the self-appointed experts. So the first recommendation was we’ve just got to acknowledge that we got it wrong.

That fundamentally the entire sector is based on a false premise. That the idea that these communities lack the skills and the agency to do what’s best for themselves. So recognising the problem is the first hurdle. And I think that three years into those conversations, I’m still having conversations with donors, policymakers, INGOs.

I think I’m still finding that many INGOs are struggling with that. That simple truth that the sector itself has been built on these problematic assumptions and this wrong set of principles. So what we would say is start with the basics. Start with acknowledging the problem, both as an organisation, so organisationally, acknowledge that there’s been a problem and that we’ve been part of that problem.

And also as an individual, acknowledge that we might have [00:11:00] benefited from that system. If we’re a development practitioner in the Global North, the chances are that we’ve benefited from that system. And that’s really hard, I think, for people to accept and internalise because we came into this sector to do good.

All of us, we came into this sector to help others and I am proud to be part of the sector. I’ve been in the sector since I left university. The only sector I’ve known, I care about it passionately, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t admit that we got it wrong. And that, in doing good, we’ve actually done harm.

So I think we have to acknowledge the tension there that we have done harm in the process of trying to help. And once we’ve acknowledged that, I think we can start to unlock the sort of structural and practice changes. What I am concerned about and what I see time and time again is that organisations want to jump to practice.

They want to say, “okay, let’s quickly fix this. Okay. We need to have a new diversity working group, or we need to do an implicit bias test. We need to do something quickly.” And actually what they are reluctant to [00:12:00] do is do the deep inner work, work on their own prejudice, work on their own assumptions, challenge whose knowledge matters and whose knowledge counts, challenge their own strategy, which might say that they still want to grow rather than doing less, and rather than doing themselves out of a job. So I think it’s been very hard for the sector, like I said, three years in, we’re still having the same conversations with the sector, which is you need to change and we need to acknowledge this. And I do think it’s hard because what it’s provoked is an existential crisis.

A crisis of confidence, self-confidence in the sector. You know, what are we here for? What are we supposed to be doing? But actually I think that’s inevitable. We have to ask that question because we haven’t asked that existential question for a long time. And I think right now through the decolonising conversation, through the conversation about tackling racism, we are now starting to hopefully reframe our roles and hopefully build a new type of sector.

Charmaine: And thank you for that. I really like what you’re saying and I think for anyone to make any [00:13:00] change, it has to come from the inner source, has to come from a personal change and then it grows into a collective. So I think you asking these donors and everybody else involved, it’s gonna be very difficult.

So I’m wondering, has there been any kind of pushback from what you’re asking people to do, because these changes can be very scary propositions for some of the individuals who have to make these changes. So have you seen any kind of pushback from what you would like to see happen? 

Dylan: I have seen pushback but it’s quite subtle. I think the thing is, once you start opening up the conversation about racism, and now it’s a sector-wide conversation, it’s difficult to ignore. And it’s difficult to admit that you might be on the wrong side of history. So actually we don’t see very visible pushback.

It’s much more subtle than that. For example, people may nod, agree, but not do anything. Now that you could argue, that’s because they don’t, they understand the problem, they don’t know how to operationalise it. That is possible. It’s also possible that they know that [00:14:00] they have to say something and engage, but they don’t want to make the meaningful changes.

And I’ll give you a good example. It’s been now three years, as I mentioned, that we’ve had these conversations. The whole sector’s been having these conversations for three years, plus most organisational strategies still, if you read them, they are predicated on the idea of growth, expansion, expanding the footprint, doing more. Now, again, you could argue that that’s a good thing.

They want to help more. They want to have greater impact. But actually underneath that, what we were hearing from practitioners around the world from the Global South was if you continue to grow, you are damaging the prospects of an indigenous society developing because you are taking money that would otherwise go to them.

And you’re still assuming that you have a role to play rather than stepping back from your role. And so when I look at organisational strategies, I still see most organisations are big INGOs growing, doing more, being bigger. And I think that’s a really good example of not necessarily a pushback, but a [00:15:00] “let’s continue as is, let’s continue to deliver the work without having to challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning that work” and that in itself, I think is a type of pushback, it shows that the organisations are not yet willing to embrace change and embrace a vision of a completely new type of sector and a role that they might play. 

Charmaine: Thank you for that, thank you. Kate? 

Kate: Yes, thank you, Dylan. So in this podcast series to date, we’ve talked to a number of different actors from development organisations, but you are the first representing kind of peace building and the humanitarian world.

And I just wonder if there is something particular in the peace building and humanitarian sector. In terms of decolonisation practice, what do you think are the priorities and challenges that this particular part of international development faces?

Dylan: I think both of those sectors, Kate, that you mentioned, are [00:16:00] steeped in the problem.

I think it’s hard baked into their operating system. And by hard baked I really do mean structural racism, really going to the kind of core of what they do. And I think the development practitioners potentially might be slightly ahead. If you think about the work of Robert Chambers and you think about the research that was done back in the 1980s where we were looking at whose knowledge counts, development practitioners were always asking that question, even if they might have gone astray.

The humanitarians meanwhile have always prided themselves on being the technical expertise to deliver certain types of activities, and so haven’t necessarily asked themselves more fundamental questions around whose knowledge counts, whose agency matters, because it was simply about saving lives and that humanitarian imperative.

Of course, we all understand that imperative around saving lives, but I think that again, it has shielded them from asking the most important questions which is, you know, if we save lives in a particular way, which is through our intervention, us positioning ourselves as the experts, does that mean we are eroding the [00:17:00] ability and diminishing the agency of those in those communities who are well capable of saving their own communities and helping their own communities, but haven’t been given the chance to do so?

Because 93% of all the funding for CSOs around the world goes to INGOs in the Global North, 93% of it, only 7% of it goes to local organisations based in the Global South. So I think that humanitarian organisations are behind the curve. As a peacebuilding organisation, we asked ourselves, are peace builders any different?

Actually, we held a global conversation about this. So having held a global conversation around sort of the decolonising agenda more broadly, this next year in 2021, we said, “how does this show up in peace building?” And surprise, surprise, it shows up in peace building in a number of ways, that same sort of sense of outsiders, for example, outside mediators being somehow more expert than those in the country. And that’s very common in peace building, is that you think about these [00:18:00] mediations as being something that has to be done by outsiders. There’s enough evidence to show that inside a mediation, those mediators from within the community are as effective, if not more so, than outsiders. And yet there’s this dominant sense that we need the outsiders to come in. So I think that peace building and the humanitarian sector are no different and in some cases may be worse. And what I think is also worrying is that there’s very few conversations, particularly in the peace building space. So peace building organisations have been slow to respond to the question of structural racism. I think because peace builders far considered themselves different to the humanitarians, not tainted with the brush that has happened to the humanitarian sector with the sexual exploitation scandals for example.

So I think that it was really important for us to have a conversation with the peace building sector and saying, “you guys are no different. We are no different. We all have to work on this ourselves.” and I think that that’s helped because I think that the [00:19:00] conversation is now being socialised across all those sectors.

I don’t think any of them now feel that this is something that doesn’t apply to them. 

Kate: Yeah. That’s really useful and interesting. I mean, I guess thinking about particularly humanitarian action, shifting slightly from peace building into humanitarian work. I suppose one of the excuses or fig leaves that can be used is “this is really urgent. If we don’t act now, people will die. We don’t have time to identify local actors to work with. We’ve got people good to go right here, right now. We can just helicopter them in and chuck lots of money at the problem.” I guess that’s one of the things that goes on, particularly in humanitarian action, and I’ve seen it on the ground particularly where there are food security crises going on that actors come in and they ship in food that’s actually been bought on international markets rather than, for example, buying up local food stuffs and supporting the development of local markets, but I think it’s much broader than that. But what you’re saying is that this challenging conversation is [00:20:00] now being taken into peace building and into the humanitarian sector and you are seeing changes taking place. 

Dylan: Uh, well, I’m not sure. I would say that we are seeing changes taking place.

We are seeing a conversation that’s happening now and that there’s an acknowledgement. But I think the point you made, Kate, about the humanitarian response, I hear that and I have heard that, you know, “we can’t wait. We need to save lives.” Think about, for example, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, or the floods in Pakistan, or, you know, you can name however many of them you want.

The list is endless. The earthquake in Haiti, over a decade ago. The humanitarian response is “we have to help and we need to help now, we can’t afford to find the partners, we can’t afford to build that capacity.” But I think that they’re both right and fundamentally wrong. Yes, they need to help, but that excuse has been used year after year, decade after [00:21:00] decade, and as a result of that, the ability of indigenous civil society to be able to respond effectively with the resources at their disposal has been completely stripped out. So if you go back to post independence, say, in the 1950s and the 1960s, you could argue at that point that there was a fairly nascent civil society in some of these countries and there was a huge brain drain and very few graduates, very few organisations that might have been able to provide technical programs, for example.

So go back 70 years, maybe you could have argued that case, but over the last 70 years, in almost every country worldwide, the ecosystem of civil society actors has grown exponentially. And you can look at any country and see the number of organisations that has grown. And yet they have grown with a shoestring budget. So there are tens of thousands of organisations out there active in their communities, volunteer based, but [00:22:00] not necessarily with the resources. Humanitarians haven’t invested in those over the last 70 years and have invested all the money in Global North expertise and building up their response capability.

So this is a problem of our making. If we had decided 70, 60 years ago to say, you know what, we are just going to invest channel funds to civil society to help them develop, grow, make mistakes, help their own communities, and we will just support them as sidekicks, as a support team. Imagine where we would be now.

Imagine how many of those organisations would stand up immediately and be able to respond in Pakistan. And in fact, there were hundreds of organisations responding to the floods in Pakistan. Same in Syria and Turkey. The way in which our sector has developed has deliberately damaged and slowed down dramatically the growth of civil [00:23:00] society’s ability to be able to do some of those things.

So the humanitarian argument, I don’t buy, I really don’t buy. I think we made this problem. It’s our responsibility to fix it with Global South actors who are very aware that things need to change. 

Kate: Thank you for that response. That’s very hard hitting and profound, and I mean, what you’re talking about there really is that the way that the funding system works at the moment is actively crowding out the development of a strong, robust, independent, civil society ecosystem in the Global South.

And I’d just like to loop back to something you said right at the beginning of the conversation. And I just wonder if this is, to put it politely, about information asymmetries and to put it rather more hard hitting, it’s about perceptions of risk, which we were talking about earlier, and nervousness in the Global North and funding agencies about fraud and fiduciary risk.

And how lines [00:24:00] of accountability work and related to that the kind of nexus of money, power, and accountability and how much of that is part of the picture in terms of crowding out these actors in the Global South. And I suppose that’s how I see the situation. 

Dylan: I don’t deny that those are problems. I think issues around fiduciary risk, compliance, fraud, all of those are issues that are real. But they are hugely overblown and I think that’s the issue. So when I look at the international funding ecosystem, as I mentioned, 93% of the funding goes to Global North organisations, not Global South organisations, only 7%.

There are lots of reasons that donors and policymakers and INGOs would give for why that funding doesn’t go to local organisations. But I think it’s a little bit of a red herring to talk about fraud, fiduciary risk, compliance, or even information asymmetries. I think those are issues.

But the fundamental issue is that we don’t trust [00:25:00] certain groups of people because they’re not like us and we don’t believe they have the agency to chart a path for themselves. We don’t want to say that. So we wrap it up in other types of language, but fundamentally, I think deep down inside it’s about the Global North saying, you know what? We don’t quite trust those people. We’ll help them, but we don’t quite trust them with our money. So we’ll get people that we trust, those folks in London or in Brussels or in Washington, and we’ll get those folks to fly over and do the work because we don’t quite believe that these folks over there in their own communities are capable of doing the job themselves. They lack skills, they lack expertise. I had that very recently, just this week when I was speaking on a panel where someone, an INGO said, well, what do we do with these communities who lack the technical skills? And I said, well, who’s telling them? Who’s saying that they lack the technical skills? Are they saying it or are you saying it? So I think we’ve made those decisions. And I think that’s something that [00:26:00] we have to confront. That doesn’t mean by the way that I’m denying that there’s a problem around, for example, financial management. Obviously some organisations may not have that experience of managing hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants.

They may not want to manage hundreds of thousands of dollars. But actually, I think it’s those assumptions that sit underneath all these issues around fraud and risk that we need to uncover and unpick. 

Kate: Yeah, I think that’s really powerful. And in previous podcast guests we’ve heard a similar narrative actually around agenda setting, prioritisation, who provides data and analysis and who provides evaluation, evidence for accountability.

And I think these things are linked, aren’t they? Because when you are talking here about capacity, it’s partly about, well, what capacity do people need? And what capacity do they have and how do you know they don’t have it? And is it about actually how you are phrasing it and framing it?

And are the skills that you say are needed, are they really the skills that are needed or are they just the skills [00:27:00] that you’ve got, and therefore you’re saying that without these skills, the job can’t get done? So, yeah, I think that’s quite a powerful critique. And it’d be very interesting to see where we go from here because what you’ve said is the conversation has started, but the change hasn’t yet been made.

And I wonder if you can just expand on that and step back and have a bit more of a kind of eagle eye view of the sector as a whole and think about what changes are happening in the sector and what changes you think need to be prioritised for kind of the next step? 

Dylan: Thanks, Kate. So I’m really fortunate and really privileged to be able to speak to donors, INGOs around the world and have spoken to probably hundreds of them over the last few years about this issue.

And I see that there are a number of things happening in the sector right now. The first is there’s a gradual acknowledgement of the problem. But, and here’s the but, that acknowledgement is [00:28:00] still not visible enough. So there are not enough, there’s not a critical mass of people within each organisation and across the sector.

So I would say that a really important next step is how do we build a critical mass of people within the big INGOs, within the policymaking community, within the donors, who can acknowledge this problem and how do they acknowledge that, both internally but also externally because I think acknowledgement provides oxygen for a conversation to take place.

Without that acknowledgement, you’re starving the room of oxygen. You’re not enabling other people to say it too. So imagine if you only have two or three people in an organisation secretly talking about how there’s problems compared to the leadership of an organisation saying, you know what? There’s a problem here.

We’ve been part of this problem. We as an organisation are going to change and we’re going to do that, and we’re going to mention that on our website. We’re going to make a public statement about that, and we’re going to have a change agenda internally. So I think we need to [00:29:00] be bolder and braver about admitting this and owning up to this and acknowledging this.

The second that I’ve noticed in the sector is that there are a group, and it’s a growing number that are acknowledging this problem, but they don’t know how to take the first step. And in fact, the interesting thing is because they don’t know how to take the first step, they’re not taking any step.

They’re afraid of making a mistake. And I understand that because this is a sort of environment I guess, where maybe we’re less willing to be tolerant with people who’ve made mistakes. And I think we need to accept that we are going to make mistakes. We’re going to get this wrong. Peace Direct made mistakes. We’ve probably done harm as well. We’ve got to be okay with admitting our failures, admitting our mistakes. And so we have to find a way of helping people get over this sort of, psychological barrier, which is, I don’t know how to take that first tentative steps. And so what we’re looking at is how do you operationalise a decolonising agenda?

What does that mean in terms of all the aspects of your organisation, from your strategy to your operations, to your [00:30:00] fundraising, to your communication, to the way in which you do your research. The way in which you establish your partnerships, the way in which you recruit. So how do you operationalise all those aspects?

And so I think the second phase of the changes that I’m starting to see is that people are starting to think about how to operationalise, but not enough. And then I think the third area where I’m seeing changes is that Global South actors are just being more vocal. They did not want to talk about this, at least the ones that we spoke to when we reached out in 2020 because they were afraid of losing funding.

They were afraid of being vilified. They were afraid of being seen as troublemakers. And of course they already get scraps when it comes to funding. So they said, “yes, we understand it’s a problem. We know that the system is dysfunctional. We know that you give money to the same people, the same INGOs. We know you don’t invest in us. We know you don’t believe in our abilities, but we know you want to help.” so there’s a sort of acknowledgement from the Global South that this is a problem. But only very recently have they wanted to stand up and say these things. [00:31:00] 

And I think what we as Global North organisations need to do is figure out how to be their ally, how to stand with them when they say this, and sometimes how to step back and allow the space to be taken by them. Because actually part of the problem is that Global North organisations take up too much space. So how can we provide space for organisations in the Global South to say these things? Where they need allies to be able to stand with them, how can we do that? But I think the sector, that sort of critical mass building, the critical mass thinking about how to operationalise and then providing that space for Global South actors to speak truth to power is really important.

And we’ve seen when they do, it does change things because hearing people’s lived experience and how this has affected them, I think can have a profound impact on the INGO community and the policy making and donor community. So we need to provide those opportunities for that to happen more.

Kate: No, that’s brilliant. Thank you. I’m kind of following on from that question, and to wrap up, I wonder if you could tell our listeners and viewers [00:32:00] what you think their priority next step should be. What practical thing can they do next to support anti-racism and decolonisation in humanitarianism, peace building and international development?

Dylan: I would say, this might sound like a cliche, but it really does start with them as individuals, I think. And it’s something that sometimes raises a few eyebrows when I talk to donors about this, particularly government donors, because I think they’re averse, they’re almost allergic to the idea that there’s some deep inner work that needs to happen.

Every single person who works in this sector needs to reflect on their own positionality, their own power and their own privilege, and they need to say, how have I benefited from this and how I can change things in my own domain. So they might feel powerless because they might just be a communications officer or they might be a research officer, not in the senior leadership, they may be able to make changes at that level in their own [00:33:00] work. So reflecting on their own power, privilege and positionality and thinking about what they can do in their own job, I think is really crucial because if we wait for someone else to do it, it won’t happen.

We need to start doing it and modeling it, and we need to help build that critical mass. So I’d say I’m sort of breaking the rule here. You asked for one thing. I’m going to give you two, which is first reflect on it yourself, and second, help build the critical mass within your organisation because all of this will, I have no doubt, lead to a radically transformed sector, which will deliver better outcomes for communities around the world. And we will look back and be proud of that. It has taken too long and there have been too many blind spots, but I think we can get there. And I think that every Global South actor that I’ve spoken to wants to work with Global North partners, they’re not rejecting, they don’t want to destroy the whole sector. They just want a different type of partnership. So we are talking about building something new around [00:34:00] solidarity and around trust and around mutual respect. And I think that that will come but we all have to work on it ourselves.

Kate: A brilliant response, and I’d actually like to loop back in to Charmaine here because what you’ve just been talking about in terms of the personal work, working on yourself as an individual and thinking about your power, privilege, and positionality is exactly what she does in her groundbreaking training program, Racism in Real Time.

So I just wonder, Charmaine, as we finish up this episode, if you could give our listeners and viewers just a little snippet of the work that you do. So that they can understand how you are working on this exactly in the work that you do. 

Charmaine: Yeah. So I think, Dylan, what you’re talking about, and I completely agree with that, any kind of change, if it’s going to be organisational, has to start with you because the organisation is made up of individuals. So my work is, for 10 weeks or on a weekend, and what we do is, during the sessions, [00:35:00] racism will come up and I work with, maybe they’re just a group of White folks, and then I work with a group of just Black and Brown.

And one of the reasons why I do that exactly what you’re talking about is because particularly for White folks, it’s very awkward. It’s very shaming. Right, that they even want to even talk about that they’re White. For many White people, they can’t actually name what it is to be White. And what you’re saying, sometimes the organisations can’t grow because of the awkwardness and because they can’t take the next steps.

So in my course, what we do is we deal with the awkwardness in real time. We talk about, so what is it that you’re afraid of? What is the risk about when you enter inter racialised situation? And so we help the individual sit with the discomfort because if you can’t sit with it, it’s so overwhelming that any racialised situation you’ll run, you’ll have the sign, it’s sort of like the signs that you were talking about, where you’re talking to them and the White folks don’t have [00:36:00] anything to say, but they’ll come back in an indirect way and sabotage the very program that you want. So we really help both sides sit with the awkwardness, build resilience to the awkwardness, build resilience to the shame, and really let them know that this will not kill you.

This will not take you out. This will not stop you from living. It is a temporary situation, but when we’re in it, and I’ve been in it too, oh my god, I want to run. I do not want to sit in the awkwardness. I do not want people to see how ashamed and how much guilt I have. So we help each person to regulate, right?

We regulate down so they learn how to breathe through this. I know a lot of people think, oh, well breathing, we all do breathing. But one of the first things that we help them realise as soon as you start breathing, that’s when the shame and the hate and the guilt comes in and you cannot think, and then we’re predisposed to do the things that [00:37:00] we normally do, which is to run or disappear.

So my whole course is bring it down to the minutiae, bring it down to the individual, start listening internally to some of the internal tapes that have gone on inside you that you have no idea. That predisposes you to not speak, predisposes you to not take the appropriate action that you actually need from these challenging situations.

So basically, in a nutshell, it’s a microcosm and it’s called Racism in Real Time because it is moment by moment. So we freeze frame in that moment. What is actually happening with you in an internal, individual response? It’s like learning how to ride a bike, nobody got on a bike and rode it for the first time, but it’s about getting on the bicycle, falling off, and knowing you’re not going to die.

You get back on the bicycle until you become an expert in feeling, what does your bum actually feel like on the bike? What do you need to do to [00:38:00] steady yourself, to make sure you don’t crash into that old lady you’re going to run over. So it’s about that. In the minutia, it takes time, but I have to say in a weekend or even 10 weeks, I’m always really impressed at just how much change for the Black and Brown, because they need to also work on their internalised racism.

Because it does come out, with Black and Brown, we have colorism. What does that feel like when you’re with somebody in another group and if you’re Asian and you see someone who’s darker than you, or if you’re Black, you see someone who’s lighter skin. What’s the internal confirmation?

What’s the internal configuration? That’s actually going on with you where you can’t actually be joined to be in alliance with a person, you’re gonna be divisive. And so for the White folks, they learn about their own internal White supremacy. And what is it for them that they can’t speak to another White person like Kate was saying, and call them out.

So both sides learn how to be with one of the most [00:39:00] excruciating things about racism, that it does distort reality. It makes you feel alone. And what the course says is that we actually do belong. So in a nutshell, that’s exactly what I do. 

Kate: So I wanted Charmaine to just have a chance to talk that through because I think this process of personal transformation is absolutely vital if we are to embed decolonisation in development and humanitarian organisations. But I’d like to just finish off the session by thanking you, Dylan, for the great insights that you’ve shared with us. This has been so useful and a very rich conversation touching a lot of points I think our listeners and viewers will find very, very helpful. I’d like to remind listeners and viewers to take a look at the show notes below this episode to find out more about Dylan Matthews, more about Peace Direct and more about the work that they do, the reports they’ve written on decolonisation and also some other very useful links to resources [00:40:00] that may help you in your process of decolonising your work and your organisation.

So thanks again for joining us today. 

Dylan: Thank you. 

Charmaine: Thank you, Dylan.

This weeks guest:

Dylan Mathews is CEO of Peace Direct

Dylan Mathews is CEO of Peace Direct having joined the organisation in 2015. His commitment to supporting local organisations in the global south spans almost twenty years, during which time he has worked for a range of peacebuilding, international development and humanitarian organisations.

While working for the peacebuilding think tank Oxford Research Group, he authored ‘War Prevention Works’ which profiled the role of non-state actors in conflict prevention and resolution – a publication that helped launch Peace Direct in 2004. He is the editor of ‘Working with Conflict 2’ a practical toolkit for local peacebuilders, published in 2020. Dylan is the Vice Chair of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a global peacebuilding network based in Washington DC.

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