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There is an argument that “aid and development work presume a superiority which is racist”. This argument has some strong grounds that show how the ‘donor-recipient’ relationship is loaded with many inequalities.

As we noted earlier, behind any Northerner going South are five hundred years of an exploitative and colonial history, including slavery. This relationship has changed in some ways, but still the cultural attitudes of developed countries are not without racism. Also, some Northern people who work with Southerners are carrying an ‘infused inferiority’ arising from the experience of slavery, colonisation and reinforced today by the burden of debt.

A Northern volunteer can go abroad with the moral high-ground of being a volunteer, who is ‘giving’ and ‘helping’. The recipient can be seen to be in need, suffering from poverty and requiring salvation from this by an ‘expert’ Northerner, whom it is presumed has the power to do so.

It is forgotten that in many situations, it was with the intervention of earlier Northern ‘experts’ that a lot of today’s problems arose.

The volunteer worker, no matter how good their intentions, operates in a culture that conveys superiority on the basis of education and training, on control of resources, positions of authority and access to money.

The volunteer will have all these, while the recipients can be seen as less educated and less skilled, and their opinions of less value. Invariably the difference between the lifestyles of the volunteers and the local community will compound the gap. You may agree or disagree with this argument. Some conclude that it would be best that no more people from developed countries go overseas naively aspiring to do good. Others respond that there are various ways in which the individual volunteer, the sending organisation, and the host community may work to reduce the risk of racism in development.

Here are some questions worth asking of any particular relationship between a funder and a recipient:

  • Who makes the decisions – white or ‘Northern’ personnel, or local nationals? Are there Southern persons on the board of the Northern organisation?
  • Are the recipients portrayed fairly in the agency advertising?
  • Where are the decisions made, outside the country or locally?
  • Who controls the purse strings?
  • In whose language is work conducted?
  • What is the practice, not just the policy, of any organisation you may link up with?
  • Does the agency consider racism in its recruitment and give appropriate anti-racism training to assignees?
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