The podcast series “African Voices, African Arguments” features African scholars, writers, policy makers and activists on issues of peace, justice and democracy, and is produced by World Peace Foundation and presented in partnership with African Arguments and The Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University.

World Peace Foundation Executive Director, Alex de Waal speaks with Degan Ali, Executive director of African Development Solutions (ADESO).

“The system has created a very good way of self- perpetuating because you have made the cost of speaking out, the cost of challenging the system, very expensive for people… financially expensive.”


Access “Degan Ali on how Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs” referenced in this podcast on “In Pursuit of Development” with Dan Banik.

Degan Ali headshot

Executive Director of Adeso, Degan Ali has more than 20 years of hands-on experience in the humanitarian and development field. Degan is a strong believer in transforming the current aid system to give more power and voice to local communities and civil society organizations. Following this belief, Degan continues to innovate and develop new solutions to build the infrastructure that will truly shift power and resources, including co-founding the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR).


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African Arguments is a pan-African platform for news, investigation and opinion that seeks to analyse issues facing the continent, investigate the stories that matter, and amplify a diversity of voices.

The Institute for Global Leadership is an incubator of innovative ways to educate learners at all levels to understand and engage with difficult global issues. They develop new generations of effective and ethical leaders who are able and driven to comprehend complexity, reflect cultural and political nuance, and engage as responsible global citizens in anticipating and confronting the world’s most pressing problems.

Photo: Humanitarian supplies for CAR, December 15, 2013 EU\ECHO CCBY-NC-ND 2.0

2 Responses to Emancipating the Humanitarian System in Africa: A Conversation with Degan Ali

  1. Lydia says:

    Interesting and thought provoking

  2. Halsey Royford says:

    In the name of reckoning -Is being a person of colour synonymous with being anti-racist?
    As the dust settles on the horrifying murder of George Floyd and the resultant swift reaction in the whole world, different sectors, continents and even religions have found different ways of reacting to this pertinent issue. Most of the reactions were in support of the black lives matter(BLM) movement that coordinated the protests in the USA. All people of goodwill tried the best way they could to show solidarity with BLM. Indirectly, the movement gave power, agency and voice to some people of colour that were being violated and silenced for a long time to speak up. We saw this very clearly in the women deliver case that shocked both the humanitarian and development sections of the non-profit sector. As a result of international attention on the issue of racism, the non-profit sector is especially engaged in a self-evaluation and examination of the it structure related to the way it treats employees of colour.
    As result of this, there are all manner of interventions in the sector that are trying to create awareness, validate and sometimes show solidarity with the negative experiences of people of colour in the sector. Most importantly many people of good will are seeking to find solutions to this structural inequality ironically in the sector that is meant to alleviate suffering for all humanity. This is all positive and well meaning. But one misconception that they have is that all black people are by design antiracist, knowledgeable on the subject and committed to the welfare of all people. Further and even more disappointing has been the misguides assumption that the people that shout loudest and have their footprints at the international scene are the best placed ones to speak for black and brown people on the subject. There is also an assumption that the black race especially in the continent of Africa is a homogeneous group that automatically looks out for the welfare of each other. These misguided views have gone further to assume that in the continent of Africa especially, discrimination can only be on skin colour and therefore, that is the only thing we should focus on. By doing so, organisers of these events, webinar and other forums are knowingly or unknowingly using the people with the same mentality as the colonizers used against Kenyans during the struggle for independence.
    To understand what I mean, let us go back in time during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Being a child of the African continent, and a Kenyan, I cannot help but notice not just the insincerity but also the parallelism between what is happening now and what happened to my fore parents in beloved country Kenya during the struggle for independence. So let us for a moment look at the way the struggle for independence was structured.
    The British Empire established the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, from 1920 known as the Kenya Colony. This was with very little resistance from the local people who were no match for the British. They were pushed into the unproductive areas while the white people occupied the most fertile and productive areas popularly known as the “white highlands”. The British were to remain relatively unchallenged while committing shocking atrocities against the local people that they called “natives”. During the second world war, the British took some Kenyan men to fight alongside British white soldiers. Many of them died fighting for a course they did not even understand, alongside a colonizer that had for generations built their home country on the backs of their free labour and with resources from their motherland. Someone that had brutalized and treated them as subhuman for generations often times committing human rights violations against them with full knowledge and approval of their British home government. Luckily, some of these did come back alive. Some of my grandparents’ generation often talked about having been in Burma and having seen their kind die there. Some of them died much later with bullets still in their bodies for lack of care from the British.
    Unfortunately, even after having put their lives on the line, they were treated just like the second class citizen they always were to the British. While their white counterparts got land, promotions, monitory rewards, medals and other tangible and intangible rewards, the African solders went back to their subject status of calling the white race bwana (Kiswahili word for boss/your honour) while the white man called old men with wives and children or even grandchildren “boys”.
    Fortunately, this experience drastically changed their perception of the white man. Unlike the previous demi God status that was presented to the Africans inside their own countries, the Africans that fought alongside white solders were able to witness their humanity(Whites) first hand. They died, they were afraid, they got sick and even more important, they also did make mistakes and sometimes performed below their black counterparts.
    This is one of the many reasons why Kenyans decided to ask the British government for self-rule. This was not to come easy. The British considered Africans as subhuman, savages that were not capable of self-rule. The British believed that “natives” needed more time to become “civilised”. While this happened Kenyan were used as slave labourers while often times being abused at will. So Kenyans decided to take matters in their own hands and fight for their independence. This is when Mau Mau (The name of the movement that fought for independence in Kenya) was formed among the central Kenya communities (The Kikuyu, the Meru and the Embu communities). Having no option but to get violent, the Mau Mau started attaching and killing white people, resisting abusive treatment and subjugation. To ensure allegiance to the movement, the Mau Mau used an oath of allegiance that ensured that they would never betray the movement.
    When the Mau Mau started the struggle, the reactions of the British colonial government were swift and brutal. The Mau Mau were very determined and fight from the thick Mount Kenya forest. Though they would live and fight from the forest, they come back to their homes to get food and other supplies. So to control the struggle and completely cut the Mau Mau from their source of food and supplies, the British decided to declare a state of emergency. This allowed them to result to brutal and savagely ways to control their subjects in the Mount Kenya region and hopefully destroy the struggle. They therefore, round up all the citizens and put them in places that looked like the Nazi concentration camps. While doing this the state of emergency allowed them to suspend civil liberties for the Africans therefore, committed allowing them to commit civilian massacres in what come to be known as the British Gulag. There were two types of camps, one for ordinary people especially women and children and the other for Mau Mau suspects that were supposed to be “rehabilitated” and “civilized” by the British. These camps ended up as torture chambers and places for back breaking work even for the supposedly innocent civilians.
    Now here is my point. The British did not necessarily commit the atrocities on their own. In charge of the camps are black Africans from the same communities that were British collaborators. These were given positions of power like being chiefs and headmen. But the most dreaded and brutal were these in charge of the camps also known as home guards. From 1953 to around 1960, the British used home guards to commit unimaginable atrocities against the local people. The confusing thing is that they were black just like the people they so mercilessly brutalised! My own mothers account of this scene is that they would be called by the white man to give an account of what happened during the course of the day. They would pride themselves with how much work they got done while trivializing the atrocities they committed. My mother vividly remembers countless children and babies that died on their mothers’ backs while they worked from dawn to dusk under the scorching African sun with babies still trapped on their backs.
    Unfortunately, this is the exact same scenario that is being repeated in the international scene by some of those that purport to speak for the black and brown people. In their own organisations, some of the most vocal and respected ones are guilty of violating the same black and brown people they pretend to speak so passionately about. Even though unlike the British appointed home guards, the modern day home non-profit guards do not have whips and will not use physical force to violate their victims. Some of these are guilty of subjecting their subjects to similar psychological conditions making them modern day home guards. Some of the things I have witnessed during my time in the sector are as follow;
    Like I have already indicated above, Back Africans are not a homogeneous group. Some of these most atrocious modern day home guards are those that have spent any length of time in diaspora. Owing to the fact that African have been taught to self-hate. They therefore, consider themselves to be better than the other Africans because they have been better civilized by the white man as a result of having either lived or studied in Europe of America. If they have citizenship of those countries, that makes them feel even more superior. I have heard the worst racial slurs especially against Kenyans made by one of these. To assert their superiority, when they work in Kenya, the organisations that they manage will have two types of contracts for staff. The local(Kenyans) and international (Africans from Diaspora and whites) some of whom have never set foot in Kenya before. Their pay and benefits are better than those of Kenyans. More often than not, they will have benefits that allow them to have better insurance, house allowance, schooling allowances and huge salaries. Even when Kenyans have better qualifications, these “expatriates” will always earn more than Kenyans. One would wonder why knowledge even remotely foreign considered more superior and more important than local Kenyan knowledge? Why would a foreigner that doesn’t even understand the context be of more value than Kenyans? How is this pro black and how does it give those shouting loudest the audacity to speak for Africans?

    To protect jobs in Kenya and give priority to Kenyans in employment, Kenyan law requires that only foreigners with special skills not available in Kenya can get work permits to work in Kenya. As a precondition, they are required to have a Kenyan as an understudy for a maximum of two years. However, often times, some of these will live in Kenya for decades and hold the same position while doing jobs that can easily be done by thousands of Kenyans. Despite purporting to say that they believe in local capacity will not do what is legally required and leave those jobs for Kenyan. They will often time portray Kenyan officials as corrupt. If they are themselves not corrupt, how do they manage to keep their jobs for decades in a country where the law clearly says two years?
    Furthermore, some of these modern day home guards will have a reputation of only hiring foreigners from the same populations they call racist to the most lucrative organisational positions. I know of a situation where one such worked for a big project from one of the major donors. Despite there being Kenyans that could competently do the job, this modern day home guard hired foreigners to run that project. They are reported to have advised the donors not to hire “stupid Kenyans” to a certain position. In another project with the same organisation, I witnessed white people insisting that there were qualified Kenyans for certain positions while the home guard insisted on hiring white people remotely to work on a job that could be done by Kenyans! Shockingly the project was meant to prove that the developing world has the potential to manage their own affairs. So between the modern day home guard and the white people, who believed in local capacity and who didn’t?
    Some of the organisations that are managed and sometimes owned by these modern day home guards have overtly discriminative practices against the same black people they pretend to take care of. More often than not, home guards are never interested in hiring locally. But owing to pressure from donors(white!) and a desire to appear to believe in local capacity, these people hire locals. However, they cannot hide their negative attitude nor accept that these people have capacity or that they need to be treated with dignity and respect. As a result, they look for every opportunity available to either frustrate them into resigning or getting fired. Often times, just like the white masters did in the colonial Kenya they use the foreign white or black diaspora hires to harass and humiliate the local staff. If all else fails, they often result to levelling wild claims against Kenyans to force them into submission or to find a reason to sack them. To further humiliate the locals’ application of organizational rules, regulations and organisational policies are applied selectively to the disadvantage of the local people. More often than not, the foreigners possess poorer qualifications then the local people they are often times put in charge of. As a result, they try to buy their stay from the home guards by playing along with the plans.
    In addition to the white/black and diaspora divide, there usually are other variables that dictate the way home guards treat their staff. These include religion and ethnic origin. The African context values religions believe and ethnic origin. Unashamedly, these home guards that purport to fight for the recognition of the black and brown talent in reality do not even recognize that talent outside of their ethnic origin and religious affiliation. The hierarchy is as follow; family members, followed by white and African diaspora, other people, then ethnic and religious similar to the home guards, then finally Kenyans.
    This classification creates one of the most toxic work environments anyone can witness. This is very ironic given that the setup of non-profit sector is by its very nature assumed to be designed to alleviate human suffering. As a result of this, there is a very high employee litigation history at the Kenyan employment and labour relations court emanating from some of these organisations. Some of the allegations against these organisations are horrific touching on discrimination and racism the same evils they purport to fight against.

    In the long history that I have witnessed in Kenya between civils society and government, these issues were always in the reverse. Meaning that civil society looked out for the welfare of citizens that were being violated by the government. But this scenario is that the government is the one in good books with the citizens whose rights are being violated by civil society! The big question is, how can persons that cannot be trusted to treat employees that do not believe like them, look like them or originate from ethnic group or nationality as them, be expected to speak for all black and brown people?
    Given the above, I feel that people that are organizing these webinars and workshops need to do their homework. Talk is cheap and anyone can talk. Walking the talk is the real issue. Taking people that have no moral authority to represent black and brown people and putting them on a pedestal is not only lazy but offensive. I believe there should be a little bit of scrutiny of these so called black saviours to make sure that they indeed walk the talk. Otherwise, this discussion is being hijacked by insincerity in the process sounding hollow and lacking in the requisite moral authority to propel this important discussion forward. Finally, let us all take cognisant of the fact that racism is not in one’s skin colour, it is to in one’s’ words, it is in one’s actions and deeds.

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