Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist on Martin Luther King Day

Harare, 2002. The word came. Cash is in the banks. The three colleagues I was standing near at the time and I quickly jumped in the car to get downtown to Standard Chartered as soon as possible.

It was my first “real job” in the development sector after graduate school. I knew enough to know how little I knew, and little else.

The conversation in the car from the office to Nelson Mandela Avenue inevitably turned to the growing inequality between our corporate aid agency staff, due to the rapidly devaluing Zimbabwe dollar in which local staff were paid and the U.S. dollar in which international staff were paid. It was a divide that would continue to grow until it resulted a year later in wide-spread lay-offs, most of which of course affected the local staff.

Naively, I thought that I straddled the divide. As a Fellow, I earned significantly less than the other international staff, though I too received my salary in U.S. dollars and had many of my living expenses covered. Like many, I had worked hard to forge what I thought were strong relationships with the local staff. The fact that I was even privy to the b&*%$ session in the car, for me, was evidence of this.

That is, until the driver of the car, Lovemore, dropped a bomb:

“They’re all a bunch of neocolonialists anyway.”

An uncomfortable silence fell upon the car. It seems Lovemore had forgotten, or maybe not, that there was a budding neocolonialist in his midst.

In the many times that I would go on to but heads against Lovemore (I joined his team a few months later), I remember many times thinking, “Why can’t he just see that we have the same goal?” It would take many more experiences and people who were willing to challenge me to discover, admit, and confront my do-gooder ideas of how change could and should occur. (This is an ongoing de-throning process by the way.)

Thinking back on the experience now, I knew at the time that the North-South aid model built around top down conditionality had not worked and was incredibly dehumanizing and demotivating, despite everyone’s best intentions. What I didn’t know was just how this structure colored every interaction, severely impeded relationships, and even how the admittance of this elephant in the room, or the car for that matter, could stop conversation.

Timothy Ogden in the Stanford Social Intervention Review wrote last year in his article, Lagging Imperialists in Social Entrepreneurship and How to Avoid Them, “Too often we’re seeing ‘solutions’ designed from afar based on a cursory understanding of the lives of the poor gleaned from simple statistics or quick field visits. When that happens, we see failures of the sort common in international aid recently epitomized by One Laptop Per Child and PlayPumps.”

I continually see and hear incredibly harsh, if inadvertent, modernist and racist views shared among colleagues that the poor “clearly don’t know any better” or “just need to…” or “have no capacity.” I now know better that this attitude and behavior is exactly how do-gooders can earn the colonial comparison.

When NGOs gave advice to incoming UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valer..., one concrete suggestion was to “make humanitarians ‘less white’.

“The international response model must be re-oriented to place local organizations and capacity at its centre, with the international community helping them,” the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response suggested.

The International Council of Voluntary Agencies agreed. “Relationships between international organizations, including NGOs and national or local agencies, must be improved. There is a broad sense in the humanitarian community that it remains too white [at its power base]. Creating local ownership by 'flipping the system' should see national and local actors in the driver’s seat of humanitarian response.”

Luckily, these days I also hear radical and wonderful new initiatives in the sector in which aid recipients are the inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on challenging inequality in the world.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s a revolutionary idea that calls all aid workers to recognize, own, and change our role in what Freire describes as “liberating people from all that holds them back from a full human life.”

I take comfort in knowing that even the United States’ foremost civil rights leader and orator did not begin espousing nonviolent action. As I read today about Dr. King’s life and legacy, I see that he too was influenced along the way by many significant experiences and mentors.

And that is something that gives this recovering neocolonialist hope.


This post originally appeared at:


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Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on January 19, 2011 at 10:04am
Thanks Laura and Mary Lou for your comments and sharing your personal experiences. I think the feelings you both shared is, unfortunately, all too common in the development sector. The resulting cognitive dissonance is certainly very difficult sometimes. When people are able to break the silence on this, we can question why this happens and explore alternatives.
Comment by Mary Lou Klassen on January 18, 2011 at 6:24pm
I normally don't take the time to give comments here, but I completely resonate with the experience of, in fact, being a neo-colonialist, despite my best intentions. I sometimes talked about my "superiority complex" that goes with me everywhere I go, and was (is still?) evidenced in myriad small ways, most of which I was (am) unaware. I'm six years away from my last stint in an African country (I've spent fourteen in total in several different places) and that sense of not getting it right on the neo-colonialist front still stings.
Comment by laura simms on January 18, 2011 at 11:15am

your posting is very poignant.  hard as i work to self investigate when in the field and try to respond to what is needed, rather than impose, I am always reminded (sometimes after the fact) of my own assumptions about other's cultures and the fix it mentality that disregards more complex inner needs that are being ignored..  negating self empowerment of those we serve.. who lose their instinct for resilience.  

  The most demanding practice to self check has been to work at 'unbaised listening" and to ask questions before moving forward when I am not sure of how what I am doing in a training either is being heard or understood.  But far more disturbing is that the NGO's I work for may have set up the criteria for a program based on expediency, assumed needs without the cultural context and complexity, and are worn out and overwhelmed with logistics and frustration. 


Are any of you working with training people in the field in meditation techniques, deep listening, and cultural communication?  What are the results?  



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