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  • Stella Köchling

Challenging Power Relations through Systems Change – Decolonization and Depatriarchalization

Updated: Sep 6



International Development and Power Inequalities (Part 1)


Without any doubt, the international development sector evolved from a world in which countries that positioned themselves as developed conquered countries they designated as undeveloped. This process is commonly known as colonialism, which had its climax at the beginning of World War I, in 1914, when European countries possessed colonies on every continent. International development can be described as the cooperation of industrial and developing countries, designated as Global North and Global South. The Global North can be viewed as donors who transfer economical capital, resources and knowledge within projects to the Global South in order to improve the economical, political and social situation. The different organizations engaging in international development can be national, international, government financed or non-governmental, and are influenced by instructions and guidelines of transnational organizations, as the United Nations or OECD-DAC. For example, in Germany the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) provides guidelines for development programs and projects focusing on different topics, as migration, economic support or gender.


Even if international development cannot be equated with the main characteristics of colonization, such as exploitation, political control and cultural assimilation, it still contains a hierarchical and paternalistic divide between the developed Global North and the emerging economies of the Global South. To take action against these divides which evolved from colonialism, there is the need to decolonize international development by acknowledging the colonial history and trauma of the countries, dismantling racist norms and honoring local knowledge, priorities and needs.


According to women’s rights activists from Bolivia, the precondition for decolonization is depatriarchalization which intends to deconstruct patriarchal structures that are also embedded in colonialism. In that sense, colonialism is an instrument of patriarchy which “is the system of ALL oppressions that oppresses everything that lives on the planet and thus, all humanity (men, women, and intersexual persons) as well as nature”. The connection of patriarchy and colonialism is also expressed by postcolonial feminists with the concept of double colonization to describe the oppression of women by colonized forces and by male domination of patriarchy.


Global efforts are being made to deconstruct colonialism. One such effort is the 2018 publication by UN Women which captures complexity by guiding practitioners to conduct deeper and contextual systemic analysis. The publication is the Inclusive, Systemic Evaluation for Gender equality, Environments, and Marginalized voices (ISE4GEMs). The intersectional dimensions of power relations are an emerging concern in terms of the expansive and interrelated analytical lenses gender equality, environments, and marginalized voices – the GEMs. Gender equality considers gender as continuum, environment(s) can represent flora and fauna as well as contexts or living conditions, and marginalized voices can be human or non-human. Firstly, using the GEMs framework, this blog seeks to outline the mechanisms of patriarchal and colonial power relations in international development. In a second part, it should be portrayed how development workers from Germany that were interviewed as part of my master thesis negotiated power inequalities in international development. Finally, this blog aims to provide approaches on how existing power imbalances might be challenged.


Gender and the Colonial Past

As the authors of the ISE4GEMs Guide point out, gender is not a binary or biologically determined concept, i.e. male or female. Gender and “gendered attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed, learned and changeable through socialization processes, and specific contexts”. In that sense, not all people designate themselves as male or female, therefore, gender should be able to deviate from stereotypical identity constructions. Besides the constructivist character, gender provides the potential for an intersectional analysis of unequal power relations. For example, LGBTIQ-people are treated differently regarding their race and social status depending on historical, cultural and political contexts. The GEMs framework is also grounded in intersectional theory to visualize complexity. By emphasizing a holistic, systemic, and contextual perspective, the GEMs framework takes into account the constructions of gender stereotypes and how those are influenced by certain environments, as living conditions. It also has to be considered that someone’s own gender identity depends on historical, political, ethnical, religious, personal safety, and further contexts and circumstances.


This being said, the concept of gender was developed in the Global North and translation of the non-binary concept of gender from the Global North to the Global South, may contain risks and reproduce missionary/religious characteristics of colonialism. To avoid this, the authors of the ISE4GEMs Guide suggest “engaging with participants to self-define and describe the attributes of behaviors and consequences of gendered roles and expectations including those outside the binary women and men”. Even this recommendation, which articulates a participatory approach, needs to be questioned in every new situation, as legislative, political and social boundaries might hinder and create safety vulnerabilities during such an open exchange.


To understand complex contexts, which are not mirroring one’s own experiences, there is the need for a confrontation with one’s own past – the colonial past – as the ISE4GEMs Guide promotes an “ongoing reflective critical questioning of your own involvement”. The connection from gender inequality to colonial aftermaths is emerging, as women and other LGBTIQ identities were marginalized by patriarchal structures and colonial forces. Countries from the Global South are predominantly former colonies. Therefore, the present vulnerability of specific groups cannot be decoupled from their colonial past. Their exploitation is grounded in racial and gendered dimensions. As already stated, decolonization goes hand in hand with depatriarchalization.


Colonialization is not articulated explicitly in the ISE4GEMs Guide, however, its contextual, multidimensional and intersectional approach, which aims to include multiple relationships, perspectives and voices, provides an appropriate way to take the colonial past into account. For instance, the Culture Checklist emphasizes consideration of “history of place, people, programmes” and “knowledge of cultural heritage and traditions, including their evolution over time”. Additionally, the analysis of boundaries or the development of a boundary story provides the opportunity for practitioners to take a deep dive into the context and the limitations of their own understanding. The inclusion of a historical dimension might be helpful in development evaluations and projects. Furthermore, the consideration of history provides an opportunity to embrace awareness about patriarchal and colonial interrelations, and might challenge their expressions in the present.



Talking to Development Workers from the Global North (Part Two)

Based on the assumption that decolonization in international development is interrelated to depatriarchalization, I wanted to find out in my master thesis in cultural anthropology how development workers negotiate these issues. Therefore, I conducted qualitative interviews with ten development workers from several different international organizations in Germany. I aimed to find out about their attitudes, experiences and reflections on gender in international development and bring those into the context of decolonization and depatriarchalization. The ten persons I interviewed had in common that they grew up in Europe and worked for international organizations from Germany, as part of the Global North. The expertise and experiences of the workers were different concerning their areas of work. For example, interviewees worked as consultants, experts, but also in leadership positions, and specialized in diverse topics such as nutrition, gender, participation, or education. The individual work priorities were often related to that of the organizations’ mission focusing on diverse areas such as malnutrition, women's rights or conflict resolution.


During those interviews, it became apparent how gender is entangled in power relations that interrelate with patriarchy but also with the colonial past, capitalism and neo-liberalism. For example, several interviewees mentioned that a universal, essentialist, hetero-normative and monogamous worldview from the Global North dominates the work in the international development sector. Moreover, the claim of particular development workers noted that the historical dimension of power relations is not central in their work, may indicate that that those power dimensions are often neglected in international development.


International Development Workers – Circumstances of a Working Environment

When I reflect on the conversations I had with development workers about gender and power relations, three themes emerged: (1) international development as a unit formed by diverse national and transnational organizations and their workers, (2) multiple (mainly national) organizations that have different goals and objectives, and (3) the workers themselves who express subjectivity. In the language of the ISE4GEMs, international development can be seen as a contextual ‘environment’ in which the workers are embedded.


Regarding the first two themes that refer to (1) the unit international development and (2) the individual national organizations, the workers stressed several indirect power exercises which are defined by transnational guidelines and executed by the organizations. Workers noted that bureaucratic structures, quantitative indicators of impact or change and limited financial and human resources, hinder them to work sustainably or to be gender transformative. Especially, the factor that development interventions are too short to change unequal gendered power dynamics and empower marginalized groups has been criticized by individual interviewees. Additionally, the structures within their organizations were identified by the workers as patriarchal and western-centric, which is counterproductive if you want to change patriarchal and western power relations. For example, the interviewees claimed that the leadership positions were mostly filled by white men who are not engaged critically into the processes of international development and gender. As a result, gender trainings within the organizations were avoided by men in leading positions. Moreover the interviewees articulated that female workers were paid unequally.


Concerning the third theme, the interviewed workers named (neo)-colonial and neoliberal relations including the western, hetero-normative (or homo-normative) and monogamous worldviews in international development. In that sense, the workers are critically engaged with the circumstances in which they are working in. Furthermore, they examined the limitations and boundaries to reflection of their own identities. For example, they stressed that due to their experiences as being white, privileged and growing up in the Global North they cannot fully emphasize with the people living in the Global South. This critical and self-reflexive positioning has the potential to challenge unequal power relations by raising awareness and sensitivity. Besides these individual processes, the workers articulated that there is the need for a dialogical inclusion of local perspectives, actors and organizations during each phase of a project (planning and design, implementations and monitoring and evaluation). The interviewees stressed that international development needs to be more contextual and intersectional, especially in gender work. In that sense, the interviewed workers tried to identify, hear and involve marginalized voices, and articulated their intrinsic commitment and will to change global inequality.


A Supplementary Pedagogy, Systems Change and a Never Ending Contextualization Process

The ISE4GEMs guide addresses complex, intersectional and holistic systemic process for intervention evaluations in the international development sector. The involvement of individual voices and perspectives from the Global South is important to challenge patriarchal and colonial structures, which are still embedded in international development. The postcolonial feminist and theorist Gayatri C. Spivak promotes a supplementary pedagogy that concerns the education of people in the Global South and the Global North. The Global North needs to stop commiserating and victimizing the Global South and to start learning from it. In this sense, it might be possible to hear authentic voices and deconstruct existing hegemonies. Concerning international development, this means that paternalistic patterns will be disrupted and the initial needs of people will be considered.


The presented results of my master thesis provide promising insights about the attitudes of development workers who are conscious of their own privilege and the unequal power structures existing in international development. Nevertheless, to overcome these structures there is only one solution – a systems change. According to the principles behind the ISE4GEMs approach, this systems change would include the interrelationships between multiple dimensions, perspectives and voices of different people and the boundaries which reflect the limitations of understanding of any given situation. Going beyond the inclusion of different perspectives and voices, there is the need for putting people from the Global South first and let them determine their needs by themselves.


Additionally, I would like to critically reflect upon my own position. As a white woman, of a western and hetero-normative environment and society, I cannot understand fully what it is like to grow up in a different, non-privileged environment. In that sense, my perspective is restricted and I potentially run the risk to reproduce power relations. Using the essentialist designations Global North and Global South, is a case in point, as while these labels are problematic, I could not find a better solution. However, the examination with those unequal power relations during my master thesis encouraged me to be more sensitive for colonial aftermaths and patriarchal structures in my future research and work live.


Alongside the ISE4GEMs, the insights of my master thesis point out that international development work needs to become more contextual, intersectional and holistic, and position the people living in the Global South, more decision making power. There needs to be a systems change which reallocates those power relations that go along with decolonization and depatriarchalization in international development, and which might even dissolve such binaries as the Global North and Global South. What we need to keep in mind is that it will be a long way that might be even longer than a lifetime. However, the power shift in international development needs to start now. A first step would be to rethink, reflect and situate the own position in certain contexts. Even if this is definitely not enough, it is a foundation for further changes.

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