Episode 3: Coloniality in the Environmental and Climate Change Sector

About this episode:

In Episode #3 of The Power Shift: Decolonising Development, Amiera Sawas, Chief Research and Engagement Officer of Climate Outreach discusses links between racism, orientalism and coloniality in the environmental and climate change sector. Amiera describes how people of colour are commonly excluded from leadership roles and how the priorities of communities at the ‘front line’ of the climate crisis are poorly represented. She makes important connections between personal behaviour, organisational performance and limited climate mitigation in the worst affected communities. Amiera discusses COP27, how people of colour experienced the event – and much more. 

Amiera Sawas is the Chief Research and Engagement Officer of Climate Outreach. She has diverse experience in climate, environment and development research and programming work, across the private, non-governmental and academic sectors. Amiera has worked in South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. She prioritises feminist leadership qualities and community engagement for climate action. Amiera is passionate about setting an inclusive vision for our collective future.

Episode 3: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 3

Coloniality in the environmental and climate change sector. Dr Amiera Sawas interviewed.

Kate Bird: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. I’d like to introduce today’s episode of ‘The Power Shift: Decolonising Development’. This is our third episode, and we’re speaking to Dr. Amiera Sawas, who is the Chief Research and Engagement Officer of Climate Outreach. Amiera speaks to us in this episode about how the link between personal behaviour, organisational performance and mitigation of the climate crisis in communities facing the very worst effects is linked to racism, Orientalism, and Coloniality. She also talks about the environmental and climate change sector and how it’s steeped in racism and framed by colonialism, and only 4% of professionals in the UK sector are people of colour.

She also talks about how women of color are commonly overlooked [00:01:00] the promotion to leadership roles. And this is particularly acute for women born in the majority world countries and for working class women. She provides a number of recommendations for how you can engage in decolonisation and please listen for more.

Thank you.

Charmaine McCaulay: Hi everybody. 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. 

I’m Charmaine McCaulay, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training programme called ‘Racism in Real Time’, a programme that explores how BIPOC and white folks experience racialised interactions, and provide them with tools to show up differently. 

I’m also interested in decolonising psychotherapy and the visceral impact [00:02:00] that colonialism and privilege has on our racialised bodies. I’d like to introduce to you my co-host Professor Kate Bird, Director of the Development Hub. Kate is a researcher who works on poverty, gender and bottom up growth. She was drawn to the topic of decolonising development during Covid Pandemic when the way that she worked had to radically change, and in reflecting about how Black Lives Matter movement should inform her work. As a black psychotherapist and a white development professional, we are using our own lived experience and professional skills to frame the way that we approach the topic of decolonisation.

Over to you, lovely Kate. 

Kate Bird: Thanks Charmaine. So today we’re talking to Amiera Sawas, who is the Chief of Research and Engagement at Climate Outreach, and she’s working internationally on climate change and has recently been engaging in COP [00:03:00] 27. So we’re here to discuss her reflections on coloniality within the environmental movement and specifically around climate change and her experiences recently at the COP.

So back to you, Charmaine, for our first question. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay, Amiera, I’d like to ask you, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you think you bring to the debate around race and decolonisation. And further to that, what work have you done in terms of personal transformation to enable you to work, confidently on decolonisation?

Dr Amiera Sawas: Thank you. 

Charmaine McCaulay: You’re welcome. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: So I actually am sort of a child of parents who have suffered under colonialism and colonial legacies. So I’m half Syrian and half Irish. And yeah, both sides of my family had yeah, really felt the impacts of colonisation throughout generations, but also currently. 

So I think it was always a [00:04:00] very present conversation and discussion in my upbringing but also as an individual I think I, it was something I was always very conscious of and drawn to. And I remember when I was young, I would always be very upset as a young kid about racism. And I still am now as an adult. 

And I used to talk to my uncles. I remember quite a lot about it. Racialised identities and different experiences of my White family versus my Brown Arab family. So I think there’s a lot of lived lived experiences in there. But on top of that, being aware of my privilege. It’s been definitely a constant process of reflection about the different lived experience and also life chances that I have compared to my cousins, for example, who are mostly now international refugees.

So it’s just, yeah, I feel viscerally, a responsibility [00:05:00] to kind of intervene where I can often in spaces where colonial dynamics, neo-colonial dynamics are very present and they have, very wide ranging impacts and I feel it that I need to, yeah. To take a stand and intervene.

And so I think over time in the sector that I work, I would say yeah, there aren’t too many of us. Firstly, there aren’t too many people of colour. And again, if I’m the, sometimes seen as that kind of the POC person that tells you how problematic it is, considering how light-skinned and white passing I am.

So I, I also think I, I’ve often had to have hard conversations and that I suppose I, amongst various people, have a reputation for intervening around issues of race, racism, colonisation, sexism classism. And so yeah, I think that’s how I’ve become. It’s a very central part of my work identity and life [00:06:00] identity, I would say.

And then on the personal work, so I did do a PhD when I was a bit unsure about where to go with my life and my spoke to my dad about it. And I often say this in kind of a jokey way in the classic Arab father style, his response to my, I dunno, what to do with my life conversation was, oh, you can become an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor, or you can do a PhD.

And that’s actually a sign of the kind of, careers that give social mobility. For lower middle class and working class communities. And also those are the positions in society where Brown people, people of immigrant backgrounds are given respect sometimes. So I think that was a symptom of that and really not knowing what to do I ended up doing a PhD. And it’s through that, it’s a very privileged position to be in actually, because you get time and space to read and learn. So I learned a lot more about [00:07:00] colonial histories, which I wasn’t taught in school about at all. And through the process of doing the research that I did for my PhD, observing my role in colonisation as well, and it’s, pervasive impacts and realising that I was also perpetuating the system. 

So I’m constantly trying to learn more about it. Mess up all the time, but thankfully there’s lots of brilliant scholars and thinkers who are giving us their thoughts and generous, time to help us go on the journey.

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you. I’m really glad that you talked about white passing and so my question is, it’s going to lead on to that about, you are a dual heritage woman. And so you straddle various worlds and one of them is the white passing. Often people who are dual heritage, one of the laments that they have is finding a place to belong. Belonging can become a central theme as to where home is metaphysically, psychologically and concretely within your own tribe, your family and land, et [00:08:00] cetera. 

Can you share with us if and how this might have informed your work on decolonisation? 

Dr Amiera Sawas: It’s a very interesting question. Thank you. So yeah it’s always been a challenge for me that sort of to know what is the right space and place for someone like me.

Yeah, you don’t, I don’t wanna take too much space because that’s also my white supremacy coming out or my kind of proximity to it. But I feel that responsibility also to intervene when. People who face more marginalisation than me are always having to stand up and say, this isn’t acceptable. And that’s absolutely draining and exhausting and it’s just not fair. So I’ve always found it really hard to know what the balance is there and seeing the kind of privileges that I get over others is just, it’s very stark. So just as an example, I obviously did my PhD research in Pakistan and the chances and opportunities that I would get [00:09:00] compared to my Pakistani colleagues who were as good, if not more, actually better than me at the job and the research and the expertise. And I would get the spaces sometimes and they wouldn’t. And the only kind of explanation for that is my kind of Britishness, my whiteness, my, however we want to define it. So I think that has, is something that’s on my mind all the time and I don’t know what the balance is. And it, as a result of that, like sometimes I overreach, sometimes I think I try to intervene perhaps without checking in with my colleagues who more marginalised, like what do they want? What is actually gonna support them. And so it’s definitely something that weighs on me. Personally and professionally, and it’s something I’ve actually recently just to share. I recently decided to get a therapist to talk about these issues specifically. And I said I, I need the therapist to be a woman of colour.[00:10:00] 

I need them to help me talk through these issues. And they can also sort of hold me to account as well. Because I talk through these issues with somebody who doesn’t have lived experience. Sometimes they’re afraid perhaps to challenge me because I can say, oh no, but you don’t get it. You are, you’re a White person. But if it’s somebody who has lived experience, they can help me to challenge my own thought processes where they become problematic. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you. And I mean it’s, I really like the way that you’re framing the sense of belonging because I think most, dual heritage people, I think that almost becomes a bane of existence. So in, in one moment, you can feel a real strong kinship with one group. And then the next minute you can be ousted really unceremoniously because of the skin tone. So I really appreciate, and I think that has a lot to do with how you decolonise oneself, right? The internalised racism that probably sits alongside wanting to decolonise. I think you can’t really separate that. So I, so thank you for talking about that you’re gonna [00:11:00] go see a therapist and why I think that’s important. 

But my last question before Kate comes in so I understand that you’re interested in reflecting today on your experience of how race and coloniality infuses thinking behavior in the environmental sector and particularly your experience of the COP 27. And so what I want you to do on this one, I really do want you to bring in the dual heritage, because I think that’s really important and how are you gonna reflect on that? Where, how do you navigate through something like that? And so contentious. If you could do that’d be great. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah. 

So the climate sector, so I used to work, so I do work internationally, but I worked for organisations that were not necessarily UK based or I was an academic where I had, it was much more about the partnerships that I had in other countries.

And then in recent years I ended up working for UK headquartered organisations on [00:12:00] climate and really felt the kind of, the sector has a long way to go in terms of decolonisation and anti-racism, and one of the ways that’s very obvious is the fact that, only 4%, I believe in the latest research, only 4% of professionals in the environment and climate sector in the UK are from ethnic minority groups and probably even less so from working class groups, to be honest with you.

It’s felt very stark for me, particularly as I started working for UK based organisations. So if we look at the climate sector, I’m just taking the UK for a moment, the leadership is almost entirely middle class to elite people who are white. And I think historically it was men who were running the show. And there’s lots of legacy reasons and lots of research that’s actually been done on why that’s the case. Now there’s more White women in those positions, but you [00:13:00] very rarely see people of colour and certainly not people at the intersections of working classness and and people of colour, and definitely not kind of women of colour who are working class or women of colour from the countries that are actually on the front lines of climate.

You just don’t see it. And every time there’s somebody that, you start to see these sort of rising stars in the sector. They never make it to leadership. That for, there’s always some sort of reasoning which is made, and it’s usually falls into racialised stereotypes and tropes. So these cross between the kind of angry Black woman or angry Brown woman trope.

Women of colour being treated, if they’re, a leader, assertive, they know what they want, they’re seen as aggressive, difficult, angry. So it becomes very hard, I think, for people to progress in the sector. The other thing that happens I see a lot is they’re getting infantalised.

They get, “Hold on, you’re not quite ready for leadership”, but you’ve [00:14:00] seen them lead for years on end. And at the same time, in one of the organisations I worked, all of these White women who had barely any experience progressing up the chain. And the, these women of colour, particularly those who were born, in other countries, particularly on the front lines or in the Global South, just weren’t being promoted. And so you see this play out over and over again, and nothing seems to be changing. And while there is a conversation going on about racism, anti-racism, decolonisation, I would say there’s a huge amount of performativity. So it’s almost as if nobody knew racism existed until George Floyd was murdered.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: And while, while it’s very good to see that people are now aware, taking it seriously, or they perceive themselves to be taking it seriously, it, the actions and outcomes don’t match the words and the black squares and the statements. So you can see that playing out in so many ways, not just in terms [00:15:00] of the progression of people of colour and people from the global majority, but also in terms of that how projects and programmes are thought of and conceptualised, and how the budgeting is done. You still see the situation where the Northern organisation gets 80% of the money and then 20% goes to the people working in the country that we’re talking about, and they get some like crappy short term contracts, but people in the Northern organisations get their permanent contract funded by these projects. And so there’s just this very pervasive structural power dynamic. And where my dual heritage comes into it is I’m sometimes, I am often the only person who’s Brown in the room. And and again, with seeing how white passing and privileged I am I have to say something.

Dr Amiera Sawas: I have to say something. I can’t just sit quietly and allow things to happen because I feel that’s complicit. It’s complicity [00:16:00] to feel huge pressure. But that does also will affect my because I’ll be seen as that angry. And it had, there have been times I have been seen as that the angry Brown woman or what have “she’s always seeing this issue. She’s always complaining”. These sorts of, tropes and stereotypes are happening to me too. It’s just the consequences of that won’t be as bad as they will be for people who are more marginalised. So there’s a lot there. 

At COP 27. It’s close to home for me. I am half Syrian, but a number of my Syrian family who are refugees are now in Egypt. And we have a long legacy in history of family and friends in Egypt. And we’re also working in partnership with a range of Egyptian organisations. And there was a very strong narrative at the end of COP about it’s failure.


From White commentators predominantly. And from the perspective of people who live on the front lines of the crisis, there was a huge success at COP, which was the establishment [00:17:00] in the official negotiations of a fund to support the loss and damage caused by climate disasters. And I know, and because I came from advocacy in that space there are people who’ve been fighting for this for 30 years. And even a year ago when the COP was in the UK, there was a very big political will block there. This is never gonna happen. No one will ever go for it. So the fact that something shifted, there was a moment for transformation where that decision, could be agreed upon was a huge success.

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Dr Amiera Sawas: Even though there were many frustrations with the rest of the decisions that were taken, but it was, just the commentary from why commentators were firstly that it was a complete failure. 

And then secondly, a very racist commentary, orientalised commentary, about, so about, the Egyptian government and how they hosted it, and this, there was a lot of words around the security [00:18:00] state and 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: The, murderous regime and of course every country has its issues with rights, okay, so we have in the UK many issues with people’s rights and freedoms, as does the US, as does many countries that have hosted these big negotiations before. So I’m not saying we shouldn’t be aware and flag those, but the narratives on which which were used about the sort of the host country were just so orientalist. That it made me quite frustrated. It just felt that they were being, they’re just total, that they were being criticised for the, doing exactly the same things that had happened the year before when hosted by the UK government and the language around it, the securitisation language was quite just, very intense and quite shocking.

And I think the reality for the large majority of people that went to that COP was that they were never hassled by anybody, any security agents. But there’s this big narrative going around that, “oh, the [00:19:00] security agents”. And actually I would guess that the reason there was such a strong security presence at the COP was actually for all of our safety.

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: and just to ensure that nothing happened there, because that would be a massive disaster, not just for the country, but globally. And so I think that’s probably the reason there was a huge number of security officers there, but the narrative that was used was like about crackdown on our human rights. And yeah. So that was frustrating. And then when I challenged some of the narratives about that, yeah, there was quite a strong. I would say, yes. Some of the, those commentators were not pleased with me challenging their kind of racialised, orientalised takes on the COP. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s good, Kate. 

Kate Bird: Yeah, Amiera, just to follow up on that, is that, do you think because they’re actually a naive innocence about the positions that they’re taking and, by you raising [00:20:00] the issue they’re having, perhaps for the first time to confront how they think, how they project their thinking into the world, and how that therefore affects the people of colour that they’re interacting with or do you think it, that they are knowingly being racist and orientalist and colonialists in their attitudes? And they’d quite like to be allowed to just get on and be that and do that. And they think that’s normal. That’s the benchmark of normality and that’s how the world is. And goodness, all these people being woke and radical left wing and, these are some of the accusations that flow around. So I just wonder if you can reflect on that before we go, when we go on with uh, other issues. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Sure. I think that we’re all trained into a system, a deeply oppressive structure and system in which it’s informed by huge legacies and histories that we’re not educated about. So if it, [00:21:00] if I didn’t learn about colonisation in its, fullest sense until I started doing a PhD, which I had extreme managed, to get extreme privilege to access. Just imagine like for the average person, they’re just not educated and they, I think there’s, I don’t think the majority of people intend to be harmful. I think the majority of people have good intentions, but there’s a kind of fear about being policed or there’s a fear isn’t there, about how far is this kind of conversation gonna go and what does it mean for me and my power and my space? And when we’re in a situation where we are reflecting on a global crisis, and this global crisis -now proven by science- has been driven largely, not entirely, but in a significant part, by colonisation and kind of colonial the economic impacts of colonisation as well that starts to, we start to [00:22:00] question whose voices matter in these spaces? And what is the kind of perspective, what’s a fair or relevant perspective and lens through which to understand these situations and who, I think that is where people start to, with power, start to freak out. Because they’re like “what about me? What about my career? I’ve put my whole career into this and now I’m being challenged! I don’t like it”. And when we talk about, why is it that the space in the media is taken predominantly by White voices, for example, or when, even when we’re talking about countries on the front lines, why is it that the people who are heard the most are from very elite backgrounds? A lot of the time? So that requires that reflection, requires an understanding and an openness to passing the mic and going, “You know what, maybe I’m not the biggest expert on this! Maybe I shouldn’t really be commenting on whether COP was a success or a failure, because maybe it’s the people who are the most impacted by climate change, who should really be evaluating whether [00:23:00] this is a success or a failure.”

And so I think that is the challenge that it’s there is a naive innocence, but when it’s flagged, there’s a resistance to taking a seat, passing the mic, and learning a lot of the time, that’s not everyone, though. Some people are genuinely committed to learning, and I’ve seen it over the last five or six years. There’s been some people that have taken themselves on a really transformational journey, and I have so much respect for that because it requires so much work as an individual. But I ha I would say there’s a lot of resistance from other people, in large part because of what the consequences of going on that journey might mean for them.

Kate Bird: It’s really interesting. I’m really interested by the way that you are drawing out the links really clearly between people’s internal world their thought processes, their belief systems, and then that, how that plays out in, in, in the world. And I’ve just got another follow on question. Going back to what you were saying before about organisations [00:24:00] within the environmental movement and within organisations that are challenging climate change. You mentioned that people of colour, particularly women of colour, particularly women of colour born in the majority world, are attempting to take leadership roles and are being denied career progression and the way that you have described that alongside talking about kind of conversations that you have with others that are quite challenging. It, it sounds as though people of colour in positions of leadership are in a way having their voices denied and their perspectives denied. And it’s almost as though the kind of cookie cutter model of leadership and what a leader looks like, what a leader sounds like, and what a leader thinks is based on a kind of normative model of the middle or upper class White male. And if you diverge from that, then you [00:25:00] can’t fit the model and therefore you fall short cause you’re not acceptable. Yeah. And I just think. don’t know if that, if I’m reflecting back accurately but then if that perspective is true, then that really does require a major power shift. And change, change needs to happen. People need to relinquish power and do the internal work that re enables them to do that. That transformation, and I just wonder if you can reflect on that and then draw it back to this conversation about climate change. Because in order for climate change to happen, those voices that are being denied have to be heard.

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah, so I completely agree there’s a normative ideal for what is a leader. And I think it’s, that is shifting because of the feminist movement a little bit. But the place where it seems to be at right now is the, if you are a woman, it’s be the nice White woman a thing. Be kind. There’s this thing around kindness and this expectation that everyone, you you [00:26:00] won’t be too direct, you won’t be too decisive. You won’t be. And that is really difficult because particularly for the women that we are talking about from the majority world, they get judged differently. So they’re expected to fit this niceness paradigm. Being direct means you’re being aggressive.

As I was saying before being….. bringing a different perspective is too risky, but if it’s a guy, it’s like he’s innovative and he’s decisive. And so I see that play out all the time, all the time. And so I think that makes it very hard. But I also think, know, we are not addressing this problem, this major global crisis super effectively. There are, moments of change happening. 

So as you say, does it mean that maybe we need to address the model of leadership? And one thing I think about a lot is the scholar and feminist activist, Audrey Lorde. She talked about something along the lines of the master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s house.


Dr Amiera Sawas: So if we’re going to address this massive global issue that we’re not doing very effectively, we probably need to look at the root causes and think about how to address those root causes. And the root causes are unequal global power, histories of colonisation a global economic system, which makes it impossible almost for countries on the front lines of the crisis to actually become resilient, adapt, and you know, address climate change. And so I think until we have leaders in the space who are willing to speak to those root causes and what needs to happen in order to address the crisis, I think we’re going to struggle. 

Right now, we’re in a place where we’re often, it’s about building political consensus. So it’s very tricky. So there is a need to balance out kind of radical narratives with what’s politically possible and practical. [00:28:00] But I think often because leaders don’t have that lived experience, they don’t have that visceral reaction. 

So I can give an example the interim director of my organisation, Nora, her name is, she’s born and raised in the Maldives, which is a small island state, one of the most vulnerable in the world. So for her, when we don’t get agreements and decisions on climate, she’s, the future, like viability of her entire home, her family, is at risk. So that’s a visceral, there’s a fe, the urgency is felt and lived. I feel it a little bit, but I can never understand it on the level that she does. So for her, like taking action, the urgency of action, the urgency of rethinking this and addressing it in ways that it’s going to work is so much, it is more, more visceral. And that’s not the case for most of the people in the climate movement, because most of the people in the climate movement have a comfortable life in the UK, don’t really have any family in any of the countries on the front lines, they just get to go there for the, for [00:29:00] work trips where they have a lot of fun and holidays in the Maldives and whatever. They don’t have that same feeling and so therefore they don’t respond to the root causes in the same way that people with lived experience often do.

Charmaine McCaulay: I think also because they don’t have to. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Exactly. 

Charmaine McCaulay: More than anything they don’t have to. It, and that, I think that’s the privilege of not having to attend to anything except for what’s personally bothers you. You like what’s the difference between Pepsi and Coca-Cola? Oh, I don’t know. And it really does come down to that kind of mundane thing. Yeah. Again, where White people get to stand is, “I don’t have to do anything”. And it’s, and in many ways with climate change, it’s not a requirement. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah. 

Charmaine McCaulay: It really is not it’s more of a requirement from the people of the South to make the changes. The effort and the pressure is for them to show up. And I think a lot of times when I watch the news, they really do have to show up white because if they do show up in their own ethnicity, [00:30:00] their own language, the smear campaign that comes out in the news 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Is like they’re is if as if they’re idiots. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah. 

Charmaine McCaulay: And they’re really belittled. So I just wanna add that into, the stakes of, the stakes for Black and Brown person to show up at the COP 27th is enormous. That’s a huge risk to be vilified on the front lines. And you, lot of them, they don’t have the entourage, they don’t have the support system, they don’t have the news to mitigate any of that, and some of them just go home really broken and it’s really hard for them to come back and show up year in and year.

Dr Amiera Sawas: We, we did a lot. We do a lot of work to support negotiators from different countries. Yeah. And we, so part of the reason is because they don’t have massive delegations. Yes. Particularly with the small island states. So in this COP, we started to notice the difference in size of the delegations.

And so one day my colleague and I said, let’s actually count the difference in size and the delegations and the ‘Annex 1 [00:31:00] Countries’, which are the rich countries, UK, US and Europe as a block and everything. They have three to four times more people on their delegation. The small island states and countries, global majority countries effectively.

So that is a huge problem. when it comes to having their energy, the time, the space , yeah, to strategise and have influence. What was really effective about global majority countries this time around is that they resisted divide and rule tactics really effectively. ​

In the past, yeah. There was, there were, there are times where negotiators from the rich countries will try – and I’ve seen it – you just see, you also see the enacting of colonial dynamics very physically as well. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: And yeah, it must just be a completely exhausting experience for con, for negotiators and also when it’s a life and death situation. Yes. I Last year, COP 26, I remember in the final plenary, [00:32:00] the minister from the Maldives, I believe her name was Shauna Aminath, saying, the difference between 1.5 and two degrees is a death sentence for us.

So the pr, the, it’s that, again, I’ll keep saying it, that visceral embodied experience of what this means leads to very different approaches. 

Kate Bird: It’s really interesting hearing you reflect on that Amiera and I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about how you think the big players in the climate change world need to change in order to decolonise their work on climate change. You reflected as an individual and you’ve reflected on some of the things that you’ve seen, but just thinking about some of the big players, how do they need to change? . 

Dr Amiera Sawas: This is a very big question, but I think every institution I think it has to start with the top. I think every leadership team and board need to go on some urgent training. One of the things that we do, there’s a number of resources [00:33:00] out there more broadly, and one of the, resources that many people have found useful throughout my career in the last few years is the ‘Me and White Supremacy’ book, I believe that was written by Layla F Saad. Yeah, it has like a workbook with it. And that’s a kind of personal journey, but it’s actually very important that people go on that personal journey so they understand how they could be perpetuating power in, everyday work in the kind of words that they use, in the ways that they interact. So I really think there needs to be that kind of senior leadership, honest, genuine intention, to reflect as a person, as individuals and then start to think about what it means as an organisation, because I just don’t believe, like many of the kind of statements that have been put out there, many of these organisations, they hire Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers or Decolonisation Officers who end up either becoming a tool of white supremacy 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah.

Dr Amiera Sawas: Or end up burned out [00:34:00] and hurt themselves and having to leave and completely exhausted because there was no genuine intention in the first place. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Exactly. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Yeah. So I think that that is a very important first step. I think that the global kind of climate leaders need to understand that decolonisation and diversity, equity and inclusion are not the same thing. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Exactly. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: They’re very different and both can have very important approaches, but if we’re not looking at how systemic power has been built and how our entire society and institutions are structured within that framework, we’re not going to be able to address it, basically.

And so they have to be able to see where their organisation fits within that power structure. So you have these kind of global climate organisations, which are headquartered in Northern countries, which are staffed predominantly by people from very privileged backgrounds, and yet get millions, if not billions of pounds slash dollars every [00:35:00] year to implement climate programming, or climate justice or climate advocacy, but the people actually making the decisions around what programming matters are usually from very privileged Northern backgrounds, haven’t lived a day of their life experiencing climate impacts in the way that most people of the global majority have. And so the therefore, that impacts the priorities they have and what they think is important also, who they think should access the money.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: That’s really, like that is why, I believe, we don’t have a kind of we, we haven’t had the kind of movement on climate in countries that are on the front lines as effectively as we could have, because those people and organisations in those countries just haven’t had access to the resources, haven’t been able to shape the programming. They’ve had to fit into a structure that’s being imposed on them. 

In Pakistan, where I worked for a long time, my PhD was actually on the first kind of mega floods that they had 10 years ago. So in [00:36:00] 2010, and then subsequently in 2011, they had massive mega floods and all of these international climate and development NGOs landed on the country. I remember I was working in one of the most affected areas and they had something like 136 INGOs that had landed in the area. All, no coordination. There was the UN cluster system, but there were lots of frustrations with that because the person running that was a very….. had a very colonial approach, according to lots of the local people. Didn’t respect local customs. The way that they communicated offended everyone. So as a result, there was a very siloed…..all these organisations doing all these different things. And then when it became not so exciting anymore, they just left.

And there was no kind of long-term approach of building resilience. Local people were not given the jobs to build the resilience over the long term. So there, there was, there were a few programmes which the government had funded and then they stopped funding them. And so these spaces were no more resilient than when those floods happened 10 years before.[00:37:00] 

We have the floods again. And instead of 20 million people being displaced, it’s now 33 million people being displaced. And now several years that people have to face awful consequences in loads of other parts of their lives. Health, economy, aspirations, their homes have been washed away and that, you know, is partly because of the, development industrial complex, which is a very colonial kind of system of structure. 


Kate Bird: Yeah. Amiera what you’ve just, what you’ve just described there, I think. Isn’t just applicable to climate change aspect of the development sector. I think the centralising of the conceptualisation of the problem, what is the problem we’re addressing, so what’s the question? How do we address it? And what are the mechanisms by which we address it and the centralising of that in, in the minority world and with people with positions of privilege, I think that’s replicated across the sector, [00:38:00] isn’t it? And yeah and that is one of the absolutely central issues, I think when we’re thinking about decolonising is to flip that. that’s why we’ve called this podcast series ‘The Power Shift’, because it is about shifting that power and that’s one of the, one of the, crucial tools that, that, we need to look at to shift that and just taking our conversation forwards, I’ve been really interested by this conversation, because you’ve very much linked the personal to the sectoral.

You’ve looked at, your personal interactions with people on a day-to-day personal interaction, but then you’ve shown why that matters and how it matters in terms of the performance of environmental, the environmental movement and climate change. But then you’ve also drawn the link more broadly to the development sector as a whole.

So I’ve found this a very interesting and insightful conversation. I was just wondering for our listeners and viewers, if you were to identify one practical thing that they could change, what would you say that they can [00:39:00] do if they are if they’re moved to contribute positively to this process of decolonisation and they want to contribute to progressive change what’s a good starting point? What’s one practical thing that they could do? 

Dr Amiera Sawas: So I do think it is about that personal journey. It’s about investing time and it is time and it is hard work and it’s confronting. But I do think it’s about investing time and firstly actually looking at what has colonisation, what is colonisation? Just as an example, I’m sure most people in the UK don’t know that the UK effectively looted, I think, about US$45 trillion from India, which has had long-term consequences on the kind of the different countries in that part of the world. In the long term. I just think people need to look into, take the time and educate themselves about what colonisation was, the horrific violence of co colonisation and how it lives on today, but then also, doing that self-work on how we are part of the [00:40:00] system and what we can do.

There are lots of things we can do in our day-to-day, and no one’s perfect, no one can do everything. But there, there are lots of things we can do in our day-to-day. And so there are a number of, books which are I, and the people who’ve written them have done lots of podcasts and videos and talks, and I really think it’s worth investing and looking at some of those. So I mentioned ‘Me and White Supremacy’. There are books about white fragility. There are books about the development sector as it’s the develop development as a concept, actually just being a colonial concept. Like where did it even come from? That’s something I learned in my PhD.

It came, the whole concept of development is orientalising colonial concept. And I think doing that self-work is step one. And then there are many other steps that can come after that. But it’s also part of a personal journey of figuring out what can I do? And that does have to have, as you, you were saying, you do have to have that kind of personal commitment.

So it might look different for everyone. It might be about, I’m gonna make sure [00:41:00] that if we are applying for a grant, 80% of it goes to that country rather than 80% of it comes to the UK, and then we give them a little portion. Or it might be about asking yourself, do I need to be the person that speaks today? Or do I need to offer the opportunity in the space to somebody who actually has lived experience and does most of this work? 

Or it might be about citation politics. Am I citing Southern, global majority scholars in this piece of work that I’m doing, they should be the people who are heard the most or am I just perpetuating the cycle of quoting, Northern institutions, Northern people, and that kind of knowledge, power, dynamic.

So I think it will look different for everybody, but I think the first place to start is to go on that personal journey of understanding. 

Kate Bird: Thanks Amiera. I’m gonna come back to you for a reading list, and I’d like to remind our listeners and viewers to check the show notes below this episode. And that’s going to be partly for links to Amiera’s work, but it’s also going to be [00:42:00] hopefully to a reading list that she’s going to give me and I will share with you.

This has been a fascinating conversation wide ranging and challenging. And thank you once again from Charmaine and myself. 

Dr Amiera Sawas: Thank you. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you very much. Thank you.

This weeks guest:

Amiera Sawas, Chief Research and Engagement Officer of Climate Outreach

She has diverse experience in climate, environment and development research and programming work, across the private, non-governmental and academic sectors. Amiera has worked in South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. She prioritises feminist leadership qualities and community engagement for climate action. Amiera is passionate about setting an inclusive vision for our collective future. She was a Researcher in the Climate Change and Risk Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She has been conducting research in the private, non-governmental and academic sectors over the past 10 years. Amiera has a PhD in water governance and is interested in the intersecting issues of climate change, access to infrastructure, gender and security. She is experienced in developing and promoting multi-disciplinary research.

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