Glocalization: a possible key to decoloniality in the aid sector?

As global as needed, as local as possible: glocal is a buzzword both in the humanitarian and development fields. According to many, acting glocal is a possible response to the long debate on coloniality in aid, and the key for a new generation of international practices that are more aware, more equal, and more balanced. But recent practices show how also glocalization can be steeped into coloniality: who is deciding what is possible and what is needed? And which voices, among the many that are composing the so-called Global South are being heard?

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Coloniality and the aid sector

The Peruvian Sociologist Anibal Quijano used the word Coloniality to identify patterns, structures, norms, customs and beliefs, based on the generally white, Christian and Eurocentric vision of the world, formerly directly imposed on colonized countries, that remained there even after the colonization ended.

Coloniality expresses itself in 4 realms: Coloniality of power – how power is shared and used in a way that resembles the old models of former colonizing states, Coloniality of being– how human beings are classified in a hierarchical fashion according to  if they belong to the dominant group (or not), usually composed of white, European, Christian men, Coloniality of knowledge -how knowledge is categorized according to a Eurocentric perspective that juxtaposes the alleged “rationality” and “universality” of European knowledge, to any other kind of knowledge produced in other contexts, and Coloniality of gender, to refer to the imposition of European gender structures and categories over non European gender cultures and traditions.

The aid sector is directly linked to colonial history and it has been identified as  embodying several forms of neocolonialism. Critics focus mainly on three factors:

  1. Providing assistance is often a way to keep influencing the agenda of a self-governing entity, its decision making processes and allocation and use of resources located in former colonies;
  2. The sector lives on the assumption that knowledge is produced in the “Global North” and magnanimously brought to the “South”, that civilization, wellbeing and individual rights as they are conceived in the “North” are concepts that need to be introduced into a generally primitive and otherwise wild “South”
  3. In the mainstream narrative of the aid relation, the main character, the hero, the agent, is the person from the “North”, who is usually depicted as a white non-disabled man, while those who participate into actions and projects in the South are reduced to passive objects in need of help, often called “beneficiaries”.

There are several signs of momentum for decoloniality in the sector, and different initiatives have arisen to question the colonial foundations of the aid industry. Such initiatives look at narratives, logistics, human resources, visual communication, project cycle management and funding mechanisms. The most recent and visible move in this direction is the Pledge for Change, initiated by Degan Ali, Executive Director of the African non-governmental organization (NGO) Adeso, with support from the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Originally signed by five major NGOs, the pledge today has over twice that number of signatories. It identifies three streams of change: equitable partnership, authentic storytelling, and influencing wider change

In this landscape, one of the most vivid debates is around the role, space, position and power that communities, groups and organizations rooted in countries traditionally receiving aid have in shaping the relation with programs. Too often they are still considered passive beneficiaries of programs designed without their involvement, who should be grateful from whatever arrives from the white savior, even though what arrives is not adequate to the context and does not address needs and priorities.

Glocalization in aid

The concept of Glocalization was borrowed from marketing and introduced into the sector straight after the launch of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, as a key methodology for successful implementation of the agenda.

The meaning of the word Glocalization is usually summarized into “think global, act local”. It recognizes the need for a coexistence between global trends and dynamics and specific needs, priorities, knowledge, customs, and cultures.

From a decolonial perspective, the concept of Glocalization appears interesting at least for two reasons:

  • Values, knowledge, and epistemology: traditionally the whole aid industry assumes that valuable skills and knowledge arrive from former colonial powers. Aid workers bring “capacities” to those who allegedly don’t have any. A huge collection of local, indigenous, and traditional knowledge on which local systems are based is ignored, dismissed, and historically sidelines, or often intentionally destroyed. Glocalization encourages learning from the local and using local knowledge when it is the best fit to reach the intended outcome, without importing and imposing knowledge and practices from other contexts.
  • Agenda setting: who participates in decision making processes, who decides that something represents a problem, and that this needs to be urgently sorted with international support. The concept of glocalization includes and encourages agency from local actors and recognizes their power to shape global trends, while asking international actors to place themselves in a position of openness and active listening.

However, the use and ownership of the word “glocalization” has mirrored a still-very-unbalanced North-South relation. The first use can be seen in allegedly glocal actions and programs (including manuals that should support the practical implementation of glocalization), while the second simply accepted the term as a new buzzword that needs to be mentioned in project proposals in order to receive funds.

Looking at the use and application of allegedly glocal approaches, we are called to ask a difficult question: Who is deciding when local is possible and when global is needed? In other words, who has the power? Glocalization practices need to start at decision making level: no real glocalization can be possible if the agency of communities, civil societies and other actors located in countries traditionally receiving aid is not recognized and given space.

If we return to the concept of coloniality, we soon realize that for true glocalization, this practice needs to be deeply connected to a decolonial process. On the contrary, we are too often witnessing a sort of “glocal-washing”, where those who traditionally held power and resources keep doing so, through a seemingly different process. If existing power relations are not challenged, and if the process of knowledge production does not change, the usual suspects will decide how and when to ‘go glocal’.


Having difficult conversations

The word glocalization by itself suggests that there is no one-fits-all solution, and that every context needs to be interpreted, explored and listened to, in order to find adequate and unique solutions.
Each context requires a different balance between global and local, and this balance can emerge only if power relations are questioned, and if glocalization is approached from a decolonial perspective.
The first step are not the manuals produced in the so-called Global North. The first step is finding the way to have difficult conversations on power, knowledge, and resources, with the communities that will participate into aid programs.

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About the author:

Carla Vitantonio is a Humanitarian and development professional, author, researcher. She is a member of the board of the International Humanitarian Studies Association. In 2022, she was awarded the honor of Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the President of the Republic of Italy, for her activity as a humanitarian and as an author.

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International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference 2023: “Humanitarianism in Changing Climates”

The International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), which is hosted at the Humanitarian Studies Centre at ISS, held its biennial conference at the beginning of November in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Held in collaboration with North-South University (NSU), and the Insights Network, the three-day conference featured a huge range of presentations and panel discussions on everything from migration, conflict, humanitarian education; and much more besides. The conference was also an opportunity to elect a new President and Board Members for the Association.  

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The International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), brings together both researchers and practitioners from across the Humanitarian Studies spectrum and its related ‘sister’ subjects: including conflict studies, migration studies, environmental sciences; and international relations. The Association was founded in 2009 by a group of researchers including Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS), who  stood down as the third president at the conference. IHSA has plenty of activities and opportunities for members, including working groups and expertise databases, but one of its biggest activities is the biennial conference.

This time, the conference was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, (and online!) and featured over 300 attendees.  It highlighted over 60 different panels and roundtables held on a range of subjects including: “Filling the gap or filling the shoes? Civil society and political change in historical disasters”, “Who or what constitutes the Humanitarian?”, “Building  locally led solidarities over shrinking space for civil society”, and “Humanitarian action in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC): Its governance and peculiarities in the region”. You can check out the full list and schedule here, while various recordings of the roundtables will be available on the IHSA YouTube channel in the near future.


New President and Board Members elected

Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute, Oslo) was elected by the IHSA Members as the new IHSA President, and will lead the Association for the next four years.

In a commendation speech, the outgoing President, Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS) said: “I’m delighted that Antonio will be leading the International Humanitarian Studies Association for the next few years: he is an excellent academic – a formidable intellectual that has a strong track record in field research in humanitarian arenas. He is a great networker and I am convinced he will be a wonderful IHSA President. I look forward to him working with the new board to bring the Association to a broader audience and take the IHSA community to become yet more meaningful to its members.”

Dorothea Hilhorst – one of the founding members of IHSA in 2009 – was the third President of IHSA after Alex de Waal and Peter Walker whom she succeeded in 2016. IHSA will now be hosted at the Humanitarian Studies Centre in The Hague, and will benefit from two new staff members, increasing the capacity of the organization exponentially. An exciting programme of events and initiatives is planned for the coming years.


New Board Members

Members of the Association also voted for new Board members to join the 10-person board. Palash Kamruzzaman (University of South Wales), Carla Vitantonio (CARE), and Juan Ricardo Aparicio Cuervo (Universidade de Los Andes) were newly elected, whilst Rodrigo Mena (ISS) and Andrew Cunningham were both re-elected. Board members serve for four years, and the newly elected members now join existing members Susanne Jaspars (SOAS, University of London), Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), Patrick Milabyo Kyamusugulwa (ISTM-Bukavu), and Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre (George Washington University).

Mohamed Jelle (UCL) and Virginie Troit (Fondation Croix-Rouge) have left the board following the end of their terms; IHSA would like to thank them for their work and dedication over the last four years.

The International Humanitarian Studies Association welcomes new members: students, researchers, and practitioners from across the world of Humanitarian Studies. You can find out more about member benefits by visiting the IHSA website.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.

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International Humanitarian Studies Association conference roundtable and North South University statement on Gaza: “As scholars and practitioners of Humanitarian Studies, we strongly condemn acts of widescale and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations”

This blog is part of a series about the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In this piece, Dorothea Hilhorst (Professor of Humanitarian Studies at ISS, outgoing IHSA President) and Sk. Tawfique M Haque (Professor and Chair of Political Science and Sociology, North South University) present a statement made by participants of a roundtable held at the conference to take stock of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

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At the IHSA biennial conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a roundtable took place on the ongoing violence and humanitarian catastrophe in Palestine. The roundtable included contributions from Professor Dorothea Hilhorst (outgoing IHSA President), Research Professor Antonio De Lauri (incoming IHSA President), Professor Sk. Tawfique M. Haque (North South University), Professor Shahidul Haque (North South University), Professor Mohamed Nuruzzaman (North South University), and Dr Kaira Zoe Canete (International Institute of Social Studies).

During the roundtable, several aspects of the ongoing humanitarian situation were discussed, including access for humanitarian aid, the interests and positions of stakeholders in the conflict more generally, ways to counter the situation being used to further polarize society, and what the role of Humanitarian Scholars is in the face of the situation.

The International Humanitarian Studies Association and Center for Peace Studies (CPS) at North South University would like to share this statement, following the roundtable:

We extend our solidarity and sorrow towards those grieving loved ones in Palestine and Israel, and deplore violence carried out during this conflict. As scholars and practitioners of Humanitarian Studies, we strongly condemn acts of widescale and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations. This extends not only to ongoing military violence, but the blocking of humanitarian aid and assistance.

These actions by the Israeli state and military amount to multiple breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including the 1949 Geneva Convention that was signed by Israel. We condemn the collective punishment of over two million people in Gaza, of which more than half are children.

We also highlight UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2417, which condemns the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and confirms that any blocking of humanitarian aid breaks IHL. Further, we draw attention to Israel’s role as an occupying power in the Palestinian Territories, and its commitments to maintain medical services and infrastructure under IHL.

We call for respect for and adherence to IHL, International Criminal Law (ICL) and UNSC 2417 to prevent starvation (due to blocking access to food, water, electricity, health care and other items essential to survival) and death of civilians. This means allowing immediate access to aid for those who need it and protecting civilians.

Humanitarian Studies scholars need to use their knowledge and evidence to speak truth to power and counter any silencing mechanism that jeopardizes academic freedom and the freedom of expression. One of the challenges of wide-scale violence, wherever it happens, is that it makes us question the value of humanity. We need all voices in this discussion to maintain dignity and respect, and we condemn the use of antisemitic and Islamophobic language, as well as narratives of dehumanization and polarization especially when they come from powerful institutions, political leaders, and states.

For more information about the IHSA Conference, check out their website.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.





Professor Sk. Tawfique M. Haque is the Director, Center for Peace Studies (CPS), South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG), North South University.

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