Before Covid-19, before Black Lives Matter, the aid and development sector was already grappling with massive challenges – the ‘Aid too’ movement, the full-on attack on multilateralism, the toxic narrative against refugees, just to name a few. Yet, there was little questioning where to turn for solutions. The sector has responded to those challenges with a flurry of initiatives based on ‘best practices’ and widely accepted knowledge. Stricter measures have been introduced for higher protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in country programmes. In some cases, policymakers have started listening more to the voices of affected populations; in other cases, they have allowed for refugees’ participation in key policy discussions. Yet, the reforms enacted so far are still fundamentally grounded in traditional Western/Northern notions of what is best for ‘developing’ countries and their people.
This year marks my twentieth anniversary of working in the humanitarian and development sector. One of the issues I grapple most with these days is whether international aid is still, fundamentally, a Western construct based on assumptions that are no longer relevant, or if it is a universal form of assistance that takes different shapes depending on the region of the world we work in. In particular, if international cooperation is truly universal, is it paying more attention to what Southern citizens and the people directly affected by a crisis think of the aid they receive across the board, or is citizen engagement just another Western trend?