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Published on: 22/07/2020

Black lives matter
Gay Village, Montreal. Credit: Martin Reisch/Unsplash

“The problem isn’t men, it’s patriarchy.
 The problem isn’t white people, it’s white supremacy.
 The problem isn’t straight people, it’s homophobia.
 Recognize systems of oppression before letting individual defensiveness paralyze you from dismantling them”. (Ruchika Tulshyan, founder of inclusion strategy firm Candour)

This is not a quote you would expect to hear from an opening speaker in your usual WASH sector webinar, but the title of the IRC Global Talk on 16 July was anything but usual: “Decolonising WASH sector knowledge and decolonising systems thinking”.

On 18 June 2020, IRC posted a message from our CEO on Black Lives Matter with a commitment to the global struggle against racism. For this Global Talk, we found two, young undaunted voices to help IRC kickstart discussions on our commitments to #BlackLivesMatter. We asked them to elaborate on their recent provocative think pieces on decolonisation. First up was Euphresia Luseka, a WASH Governance Consultant from Kenya who wrote “Initiating De-colonization of WASH Sector Knowledge”, followed by the UK-based writer/facilitator and historian, Alara Adali who believes in “Decolonising systems thinking” for social change.

The colonised African WASH sector

Non-revenue water losses in Kenya - 2010/11 to 2018/19

Non-revenue water losses in Kenya. Credit: WASREB, 2020.
Impact : performance report of Kenya's water services sector – 2018/19, fig. 2.4, p. 27

Euphresia Luseka confronted us with a practical example of WASH sector colonisation in Kenya, related to non-revenue water management. Despite years of increasing donor funding, non-revenue water losses are not declining and amounted to 43% for 2018/2019 according to WASREB, the Water Services Regulatory Board. Project design is conceptualised in the North and implemented by expensive Northern experts using expensive imported technologies. There is neither a deliberate focus on the unserved, nor on accountability that would support the scaling-up of sustainable services after the donor leaves the scene. There is no value for money.

Global Talk participant, Martin Watsisi from IRC Uganda gave the example of a Northern NGO that had installed an imported prepaid solar water meter and monitoring dashboard in Kabarole district. Both became dysfunctional and were never repaired.

Interactions between donors and Southern partners are always political, Euphresia remarked in response to a question from IRC Uganda’s Florence Anobe Komakech. Most donors want to hurry the process so consultation only takes place at the kickoff of the project. Southern partners are reluctant to voice their opinions, afraid to appear to be ungrateful and hope they can influence the process later in project monitoring meetings, which often never materialise. Euphresia stressed that consultation should be a continuous process starting at the project conception, supported by open communication channels amongst other social accountability tenets.

IRC CEO Patrick Moriarty reminded us that 10 years ago, country leadership was at the heart of the Dutch development aid effectiveness policy, supporting direct budget support, pooled funds and sector-wide approaches (SWAPs). Now the Dutch have largely rowed back from this.

Decolonising knowledge

Euphresia’s blog in Medium sparked a lively discussion with 25 contributions so far, when she reposted it on the RWSN Leave No-one Behind Dgroup discussion forum [login required]. In the Global Talk she told us that before we can decolonise WASH sector knowledge, we first need to decolonise our minds. The next step is then to define what we consider to be a good knowledge product and a good knowledge producer, taking multilingualism and copyright into consideration.

Euphresia would like to see knowledge collections showcasing Black perspectives and knowledge products based on collaborative research and peer review. Ironically, COVID-19 may help speed up this process, as the “days of parachute research teams from [the] global North [are] winding up”. The “pause offers opportunities to develop greater, more equitable collaboration between researchers in the global North and South”.

Decolonising systems thinking

“Holding Up” mural by Caitlin Taguibao. Lalitpur / Patan, Nepal

“Holding Up” mural by Caitlin Taguibao. Lalitpur / Patan, Nepal. Photo credit: Tobi Feder/Unsplash

Our second speaker Alara Adali wrote an opinion piece with the intriguing title “Decolonising systems thinking”. It was full of words and concepts that I never came across in IRC publications about systems thinking: empathy, support and care, creative acts of resistance, toxic positions of power, feminist, solidarity. Alara explained that she is using the term systems thinking not only within an international development and social change context, but also within a personal and political context. For her, indigenous knowledge, feminist theory and human rights are integral parts of systems thinking.

Within this integral context, Alara believes that decolonising systems thinking compels us first of all to come to terms with the legacy of colonialism and social injustice, which is now being amplified by COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter. We are not only responsible for existing systems but also those created by our ancestors. Secondly, Alara believes we must create safety and support networks for disadvantaged groups so that they can be honest when sharing their experiences for instance with development organisations. In this way communities can become active members within the system.

As a facilitator of workshops on migration and the climate emergency, and networking events, Alara says decolonisation requires communication and power sharing so that everyone can become agents of change. Within the London International Development Network, she is part of a group of young professionals involved in organisational change and systems thinking. At their events and team gatherings, group members promote horizontal leadership, switching between their roles of facilitator and participant. A safe space is created for all participants to share their experiences and ideas on decolonisation in an authentic way.

So what can IRC do?

Euphresia believes IRC is already on track to address decolonisation issues by opening platforms such as this Global Talk and should continue communication about these issues. She urges IRC to look beyond WASH SDG 6 to SDG 10 (Reduce inequality within and among countries) and SDG 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development). Together with promoting mutual accountability and, as mentioned, earlier, build knowledge collections showcasing Black perspectives.

Alara asks IRC to take decolonisation to a next level by incorporating indigenous knowledge or knowledge from activist communities, which can be practically applied in WASH systems.  Secondly, learn to ask uncomfortable questions during IRC’s planned internal review on diversity performance in support of the commitment to the global struggle against racism.

Be bold, get uncomfortable and show leadership.

View below the recording of the Global Talk



This blog was reviewed by Euphresia Luseka and Alara Adali. You can follow them on Twitter at @Euphykl and @alara_adali, respectively. Thanks to Tettje van Daalen for copyediting.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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