Liberation starts at home

7/2020 | Cecilia Milesi

Northern and Southern actors need to work towards a radical renewal of the international cooperation business


In the midst of a unifying global humanitarian and political crisis, as it is with the Covid-19 pandemic and a global call to seriously tackle systemic racism in the United States and the United Kingdom (two of the major “aid providers”), the international “aid” system is openly debating its weaknesses and finally facing unanswered accountability and equality questions. All this, even painful, might be good news. There is nothing better than a crisis, to build from scratch and start anew. I have seen this as I supported, for example, the momentous process of decentralization of Amnesty International or the historic negotiations towards the renewal of the South-South international cooperation agenda

I am writing this piece as a woman, sociologist from Latin America, considering my own experience as analyst and facilitator of multiple change processes around the world. I also write as a professional committed to participation and empowerment of local, Global South actors and historically marginalised communities and groups.

Liberation starts with language: aid and localisation as prejudiced concepts

There is a lot written about localization of aid; and yet again, it seems we need to remember that what we are battling in this discussion is really about who holds power in the international cooperation business. Beyond “fancy” concepts, the issue at hand truly forces us to ask: are there ways to hold those with the power in the international cooperation business accountable? How can we make them answerable and responsive for the sometimes unfair and non-transparent way they operate?

Localization of aid should be a process to share power, decentralize and deconstruct the inequalities inherited of the post-colonial international cooperation system. This is even more important in a multipolar world, as diverse countries strive to ensure the inclusion and rights of communities affected by multiple complex crisis.

Solidarity rather than “aiding” others

In this context, firstly, it’s important to note that aid is in itself a disempowering concept. There is compelling evidence and arguments demonstrating the linkages between aid and imperialism or aid and the sustaining of Western dominance in our world. Within the concept of aid there is subtle bigotry: inherently the idea of “aid” puts the other at the “receiving end” as someone in a needy position, incapable to respond, monitor, organize and lead a process of prevention, recovery and transformation. Thus, the language of the sector portrays a neocolonial power dynamic: someone with the power to “help” (aid) and “the other” with limited capabilities and in dire need of assistance. This is not to dismiss the fact that there are some countries and groups requiring urgent, lifesaving support; however, it is necessary to counter these unfair politics in language by reviewing the way in which the concept disempowers “the other” as it names its multiples “passive beneficiaries”.


As a counter-narrative, many Southern countries and policy actors -particularly, those working in feminist, participatory and South-South Cooperation circles like me- have simply erased the concept of “aid” and “beneficiaries” from narratives, policies, and programmatic documents. Instead of “aid”, we promote the concepts of “solidarity” and “horizontal exchange”. These concepts frame cooperation endeavors in such a way that “mutuality” constitutes a central pillar: this simple shift in language exposes a two-way exchange without conditionalities.[1] Likewise, we support calls for international actors to be made accountable for delayed reparations for colonial exploitation and slavery. More than aid, this involves formal apologies, truth-telling processes and reparations in various forms. The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) efforts in this regard are commendable.


Similarly, for example, those committed to Participatory Action-Research (PAR) and, in particular, the Latin American School of PAR, emphasizes that there are politics in any social change effort. In this sense, for example, generating evidence to measure impact is linked to liberation from oppression, as people identify the structural issues that have kept them marginalized, becoming conscious of their own power to change their context. Embedding these empowering principles and concepts in programming is central to creating more inclusive societies. With this lens, we see that in any international cooperation initiative is a “joint effort” to transform the structural causes that create vulnerability. Power, agency, and voice is recognised in all groups, nations, and communities. International cooperation becomes a collective effort, owned by each and every one involved in a co-creation process with the idea of active citizenship and legitimacy at the core. I am often inspired by the saying: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.  Today, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and the migration crisis are clearly showing how interdependent we are, making every one of us, not just an “outsider” or a “local”, but a protagonist of the present and the future we want to create.


Power-sharing and accountability in the international cooperation business

As Northern countries face dubious results of their own national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and grapple with how to save democracy from some authoritarian and racist leaders, it might be a good time to realize that liberation starts at home. This is an opportunity to rebuild Northern agencies and organizations whose policies and programmes might not be embedding the principles of participation, fairness, and ownership in everyday business. A pathway to reshape these institutions, starts with regularly asking ourselves four basic questions, swiftly acting upon our responses:

  1. Who controls the resources? How are initiatives designed and budgeted? Are they co-designed with everyone in a transparent and participatory manner?
  2. Who makes decisions? Are decision-making procedures inclusive, transparent, and just?
  3. How decentralized are power structures? Do initiatives ensure citizens’ leadership and demand-driven programming
  4. What are our own implicit biases and persistent privileges? Have we institutionalized these as part of the dynamics of our cooperation? How can we work to dismantle these in our daily activities, and, in every action and decision?


Most probably, the responses to these simple questions will demonstrate that international cooperation is not impartial, neutral and goodness-driven “aid”: power, resources and decisions are concentrated in a few. As such, a logical bias will derive from any endeavor. If we are committed to deconstruct and localize power, then, there is a dire prerequisite to share power and resources.


With this in mind, one potentially good exercise to start the deconstruction of the international cooperation business, would be to critically reflect on how the industry of aid is built in concrete national and regional policy priorities set out by donor countries. For example, today in the UK there are efforts to dismantle of the Department of International Development (DFID) so to align it with the Foreign Office. I wonder if this move explicitly exposes an uncomfortable truth: international donors are working to advance a concrete model of development, based on national and political interests; rather than operating with the apparent “apolitical” aim to help the “poor”. For someone like me, this is obvious if we look at the criteria, conditionalities and standards attached to grants and funding mechanisms. It’s necessary to critically face this fact: if donors are mainly governmental agencies responding to concrete national priorities, then their capacity to “localise” (legitimize) social action will be limited. International cooperation agencies of any given country will always (and maybe understandably) operate with a concrete pre-defined agenda. Similarly, they will mainly trust familiar organizations from their own countries to channel funds, monitor and ensure the “quality” of programmes. These national organizations can be more easily controlled, monitored, influenced, and even coerced by international cooperation “aid” agencies. In this context, local citizens will be maintained at the “receiving end” as passive recipients of programmes designed and steered far away.


Meanwhile, to remain viable, national and local NGOs must mirror the international organizations ways of organizing, working, and responding. Because of this they have to leave behind more creative, flexible, and innovative organizational approaches to promote change. Often, locals end up getting stuck in a mountain of bureaucratic demands which, at the end, makes them unable to quickly adapt or respond to their fast-changing context dynamics. As we strive to find more just and inclusive ways of working, we should ask ourselves: how many times do social movements, informal groups, self-funded community driven responses, and local governance structures respond in a more impactful, agile, inclusive, and transformational way? These experiences are typically unaccounted for in most evaluations or publicly available research which, arguably, tend to be done with the aim to benefit the “usual suspects”, guaranteeing the successful extension and negotiation of future grants.  

In all, discussing about how to realize “localization” should require reflecting on another three uncomfortable questions:

  • How much are Northern donors ready to decentralize decision-making and resources in foreign national partners?
  • How willing are they to disburse funds directly through national partners without requesting to simulate what they are not or pushing them against learning from failure?
  • Are they ready to be monitored and controlled by national foreign actors, making themselves accountable to the citizens they say to serve?

In sum, are northern donors ready to change?


It’s also the responsibility of Southern actors

We all need to start at home. Change will not come from the Northern countries and organizations alone: we, as Southern actors, will need to ensure that there are local systems and networks to constantly monitor performance ourselves. The power structures are pervasive. Change will not be derived from new policies, top-down global evaluation efforts, or rolling out standards through never-ending trainings. Change will come from local civil society networks working together to hold international agencies to account.

We, as Southern actors, need to regain our dignity and sense of power by clearly ensuring the following:


Seek joint budget making

Not accepting the leftovers of the “aid” game. This means demanding and ensuring joint budget making. International donors have promoted participatory budget making and tracking for years. In many Global South countries, we have solid examples of city-level participatory and open planning. Let’s use the same vision, tools and techniques to demand and ensure that international agencies undertake budgeting with us. From the start to the end, full transparency and accountability.


Turn the accountability exercise upside down

We (Southern actors) are constantly “measured” by Northern institutions and included in various “rankings” built without any considerations to our opinions or needs. It’s time for us to measure the performance of international “aid” organizations and donors, rating them according with our own, bottom-up standards. It’s time for a Southern-led mechanism to track donors’ successes and failures. Networks of organized Southern actors -from governments to civil society organizations- should come together to set the parameters of engagement and evaluate how they are being met or not. This would be different from the current government-led push to control “foreign interference” of various international agencies. This would be a citizens’ lead process, based on a solid methodology to gather data on donors’ and international agencies performance based on day-to-day observations. The data gathering exercise could include a locally-led mechanism to hold INGOs and agencies to account – to ensure that abuse, corruption, and discriminatory behaviour are reported. There are more and more efforts to account for the behaviour and performance of international organizations in various contexts. However, still, these efforts seem to be in the hands of a small group of “experts” demonstrating, at times, some openness to bring some “locals” to various research process. The accountability exercise should be turned upside down. 


Understand how we are replicating inequalities

A true commitment to change means critically looking at how we are replicating multiple inequalities. For example, how funds are distributed between national capitals and rural areas or big NGOs and grassroots organizations. Many times, access to opportunities depend on the chance to get an international degree or global exposure, or we discriminate certain groups from decision-making (in particular, women, youth and indigenous groups). National organizations should embrace a soul-searching exercise to discover how they have also adapted to benefit from an unfair international cooperation business, discriminating diverse actors from participatory action.


Strengthen national and regional governance structures

We must work with governments shaping national development plans in order to increase the power of nationally- and regionally-led crisis response structures. The international sector should be better at engaging with local governance structures, becoming more sensitive to political and power balances, countering and going beyond potentially oppressive and inefficient governmental mechanisms. In this process, nationally organized citizens must ensure transparency and control over both international agencies and governments.

In this sense, it’s also important to continue building alternatives and complementary funding institutions such as the New Development Bank, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, South-South funding mechanisms. All of them, must respond to the global call of Agenda 2030 to increase Southern actors’ participation in regional and global governance structures as we aim to achieve peace and development for all.


Enhance sovereign self-organization

As national groups increase their share in power in the international cooperation agenda, it’s important that we also promote more innovative, organic, and purpose-led change processes around the institutionalized and mainstreamed forms of vertical and linear programming of traditional international cooperation business. For example, part of our core funding, could be invested in supporting creative actions, ensuring that we always maintain sovereign activities linked with political and peoples’ demands, beyond any donor agenda.

In all, are we ready to avoid the temptation to only mirror international standards so to enjoy the leftovers of the international cooperation game?


Looking ahead

Today, we stand astonished, witnessing a unique global crisis which, it seems, is leading us into a New Cold War era. There is not time to waste to think anew. In this short article, I wanted to offer just a few practical questions and reflections to promote necessary transformation of the international cooperation agenda. The renewal of multilateralism cannot be sustained following the parameters known up until today. Northern countries and organizations will need to seriously commit to doing things differently, sharing power and resources and learning how to make decisions with us. Southern actors will need to become stronger at controlling, making them accountable, and overcoming the temptation to get a few sweets. Democracy, justice and true development are at risk.

It’s now.

Citation: [1] See paragraph 8 and 9 of the Outcome document of the “Second United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation, BAPA+40.


Photographs listed from top to bottom: Photograph 1: World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, 2004. Cecilia Milesi joined India grassroots leaders from India. Photo credit: Cecilia Milesi. Photograph 2: South-South Cooperation Global Expo, organized by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation UNOSSC), New York, 2018. Cecilia Milesi conveyed meting with global partners committed to South-South peace and development. Photo credit: Cecilia Milesi. Photo credit: Cecilia Milesi. Photograph 3: Participatory Learning Workshop, co-designed, and co-facilitated by Cecilia Milesi (working with Conciliation Resources). The workshop aimed to gather learnings on accountability and governance in conflict contexts. The workshop was organized together with partners from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau. Photo credit: Cecilia Milesi. Photograph 4: Photo group of electoral observers to the Somaliland presidential elections. Somaliland is an unrecognized country in East Africa, an example of bottom-up peacebuilding and state-building. Cecilia Milesi is a member of Somaliland Focus UK, supporting electoral observation in Somaliland.  

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Cecilia Milesi is the Founder and CEO of Global Change – a social enterprise providing advisory services to multilateral and global organizations, and Founder of Subir al Sur, an Argentine organization promoting intercultural education and youth leadership. She is a board member of Asuntos del Sur (Southern Affairs, one of the leading Latin American think-do tanks promoting political innovation).

Cecilia is one of the awardees of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Innovation Challenge. With this award, she is devising an adaptive model to identify volunteers and activists’ contributions to conflict prevention worldwide. Cecilia was a senior advisor on South-South Cooperation for Peace and Development at the United Nations (UN). In this role, she facilitated a consensus-building process with the aim to design and implement a South-South cooperation strategy on peace and development in dialogue with all UN member states.

Being a sociologist specialized in conflict and development, Cecilia has over 20 years of experience supporting social change processes in the areas of inclusive development, sustaining peace, governance and human rights in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. For example, Cecilia held leadership, advisory and research roles at some of the most renowned organizations around the world, including Amnesty International, Conciliation Resources, Oxfam GB, BRICS Policy Center, Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), Kering Foundation, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Voluntary Service Overseas, and SES Foundation, among others.

Cecilia holds a Masters degree in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and she graduated with honours as a sociologist from the University of Buenos Aires. In 2014, she was selected as fellow of the Global South Unit for Mediation (BRICS Policy Center, Brazil). Cecilia is a certified mediator and expert in the analysis of systemic conflicts involving governments, communities and private companies (University of Cape Town, South Africa).

Cecilia was selected as Asia Global Fellow by the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.