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?
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:
- 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;
- 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”
- 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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