“Audacious women leaders from across the Oceanic Pacific have simply had enough [and] a re-imagined positioning of women in the Oceanic space. When this happens, women can begin to confidently resist being ‘confined physically and psychologically’ by demanding supportive, equitable and decolonised relationships” - ‘Ofakilevuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Enough is enough: audaciously decolonising the development and humanitarian nexus, Mitchell Oration 2022
CAIRNS – ‘Ofakilevaku (‘Ofa) Guttenbeil-Likiliki is Director of the Women & Children Crisis Centre in Tonga and a filmmaker and women’s rights activist.
In a recent speech she addressed a serious and not uncommon issue: the high-handed attitudes of those who believe they know better than people with lived experience.
I can attest that her description of how she and her colleagues were treated, marginalised and made to feel worthless is replicated elsewhere by the ‘we are here to help you’ specialists who are both tunnel visioned and deaf to local nuances and desires.
They are the so-called experts, with no local lived experience, who arrive in a developing country with preordained solutions that ignore local knowledge.
They do not speak the local language, their world view does not accord with local realities and they are oblivious to the nuances around social interaction.
How did we get into this position where those who are culturally unlearned get to tell the culturally learned how best to develop their own country?
Another recent article on the blog by Huiyuan (Sharon) Liu, An overview of Australia’s aid program procurement, also addressed this matter and described how it had become systemic.
Liu’s analysis revealed that delivering Australian Aid has become a mega business dominated by just a few players.
Over the past decade, the proportion of funds allocated directly by contracted aid providers to local partners averaged only 1.2% of the value of a contract.
If correct, this surely shows that much aid is determined by Canberra’s desires rather than what the recipient needs.
Where are the balance, partnership, collaboration and support for local empowerment in such a relationship?
The stakes are so high and the process so competitive there is a need to ‘press Canberra’s buttons’ at all costs to win.
Facilities are defined by metrics, milestones and outputs that often ignore realities at subnational level and gloss over or omit inconvenient truths to secure the prize.
It is understood that DFAT requires transparent accounting of funds.
However, what should be an administrative requirement appears to have morphed into an attitude of we know what’s best for you and fit for purpose or not we have a mandate to deliver it.
That is a recipe for harm.
Too often the resulting plan overlooks cross-cutting issues of paramount importance and a midterm review finds a veritable herd of elephants grazing happily in plain sight that nobody was prepared to confront. (It’s the money stupid.)
I agree with ‘Ofa that it is past time to recognise that, where life is defined by the community, the best results will be produced by supporting local leaders to address local issues in accordance with their worldview, not the donors.
In my view there is a case for allocating a much greater portion of contract funds to local actors with models that do not always imitate the perceived wisdom.
‘Ofa’s quotation of a Hawaiian proverb reminded me of words of wisdom that were offered to me when I was seeking advice about a failing development program.
“There are lots of trees in the forest – some big trees and many smaller ones. You have only spoken to the big trees. You need to speak to all of them.”