Decolonizing Service


The following blog has been adapted by FBB staff from Wendy Webber's 6/7/19 speech at the American Humanists Association Annual Conference.

Decolonizing service is a huge topic. I can only scratch the surface today, so I’m going to focus on what "decolonizing service" means in the context of Ghana, because of Foundation Beyond Belief’s work there with the Humanist Action: Ghana program.

Ghana is an African nation with a black majority. I am a white citizen of the United States. These two identities give me an incredible amount of privilege in both the everyday world and in non-profit work. I don’t for a second think I can speak for Ghanaians or for their experience. But with my position, I can speak against the perpetuation of colonial legacies. I can speak against participating in modern colonial practices. And I can speak for the dismantling of colonial and racist systems and mentalities, especially as it relates to service.

I can also speak as to why humanists—especially white humanists—should engage the world with decolonizing intentions. We often talk about the humanist values of contributing to a more just and equal world. For that reason, humanists should be at the forefront of understanding the the factors that contribute to inequality and oppression. Otherwise, our work will only address the symptoms of inequality, not its root causes.

Today, I am going to discuss the ways that FBB as a humanist service organization is challenging savior mentalities, both in terms of how we do our work and how we talk about it.

First, some history for context.


2019-june-revolutionary-on-horseFor a lot of people, the word “colonialism” is a word describing history. Popularly, it's connected to tourist destinations like Colonial Williamsburg and its whitewashed colonial past (more so than its white supremacist mark in world history). In my high school history classes, I learned about the “Colonial Period,” which was 1492 until the US Revolutionary War ending in 1783— the period when the future United States was under colonial rule. This framing completely rewrites history. It describes the European settlers as the colonized people rather than the natives whose land they took. It ignores how the settlers participated in the colonization of Africa through the slave trade.

I learned that the end of WWII in the 1940s marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule. That time until the 1960s was the height of the “Decolonization Period.” That was it. Colonialism was over. That’s what I learned in school, but is colonialism truly over?

No. The effects of the “Colonial Period” are still felt daily in the lives of people all around the world. Many of the world’s poorest countries today were once colonized by European countries who stripped those lands of resources, making themselves rich while ensuring the colonized people remained without the power bought by money. Many border conflicts being fought today are a result of colonial borders being drawn without any regard for pre-existing ethnic and political structures, favoring some groups over others during colonial rule. Many groups whose lands, rights, and resources were taken remain marginalized in modern societies.

Colonialism still exists; we just have different names for it. In the context of the historical period described above, "decolonizing” means no longer having direct governmental control over conquered nations. Colonial power is still very much present in today’s world. It exists in the form of structural legacies, ongoing economic exploitation, and mindsets such as the "savior" mentality in service.

A very abbreviated and incredibly incomplete colonial history of Ghana:

2019-june-the-gold-coastThe Ashanti people—one of the most influential groups in sub-saharan Africa prior to colonialism—had control of much of what is now southern Ghana when the first European country—Portugal—arrived in 1471. The Portuguese built Elmina Castle, which was later used to hold slaves before they were shipped to the Americas. Other Europeans followed suit including the Dutch and British, who set up robust slave trading industries in the region. Over time, the British consolidated their control of the region by taking over other European interests and continuing to invade Ashanti and other indigenous groups’ land. In 1867, they established the British Gold Coast, named for extensive gold deposits in the area.

There were four Ashanti-Anglo wars through the 1800s, but by the end of the century the British had incorporated all of the Gold Coast and its disparate kingdoms and tribes—including northern peoples like the Mole-Dagombas—into a single colony with Ghana’s current borders. During the decolonization period following WWII, these colonized people started restoring autonomy with many veterans leading the charge. They ended colonization in 1895, taking the name Ghana.

Today, the contrast between the north and south in Ghana is remarkable because of the specific colonial history in both regions. When one learns about the British occupation in Ghana, one hears about the schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and industries built by the British that remain important to the Ghanaian economy, like mining and cocoa. These lessons almost always omit the fact that this activity happened almost exclusively in the south. The north—which lacked natural resources the British wanted to exploit—was considered largely a source of laborers, taxes, and not much else, so they did not build infrastructure in the north like they did in the south.

2019-june-ghana-studentA good example of how these two regions differ today due to the colonial government's treatment is found in education. The first school in the north wasn’t established until 1908— about 100 years after the start of school systems in the south. (A few informal schools were set up by missionaries before that, but these were inconsistent and restricted by colonial policies, not having much of a historical impact.) The schools established in the north focused on basic education and trade skills as required by colonial education policy. In the 1920s, much of the money allocated for education in the north was “redirected” (read: stolen) by colonists to build an elite boarding school for students in the south. While that elite school went on to educate many African leaders—including the first president of independent Ghana—the north's first locally-educated high school student's didn't graduate until the 1960s after locals retook independence. To this day, communities in the north are still working to establish secondary schools.

In the south, the British did not allow substantial local participation in colonial economic or academic systems. In the north, those systems were simply not built.


What does all this have to do with service? Almost all conversations about service in the developing world—especially when it’s white people talking—don’t include the colonial history that created the need for the service. This allows white and western people to maintain the colonial mindset of saviors saving the helpless, validating their (our) sense of privilege and underwriting the colonial system.

If we are not confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in every aspect of our work, what are we doing? Most likely making things worse. At the very least, we are maintaining the status quo. To truly make the world a more just and equal place, we must confront the legacy and mindset of colonialism especially when talking about service.

What does it mean to “decolonize” service? In what ways does service work perpetuate colonial legacies and mindsets? To answer that, I am going to discuss how FBB is approaching our work in Ghana.

HA: Ghana-logo

For international service to actually challenge colonial legacies and "white savior" mentalities, we have to upend the way it has been done for decades. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we cannot think about this work as helping helpless people. Colonialists have claimed for centuries that only white Europeans have the answers. This idea survived through the decolonizing era—it just shifted to other arenas like business and international service.

2019-june-white-volunteer-with-black-ghaniansOne of the most apparent indicators of this legacy is how FBB's presence in Ghana has been received. Ghana has a long history of international volunteers looking for a superficial, feel-good opportunity to “help the poor Africans." (Online dating is rife with the cliche of white people using a profile picture of themselves with black African children.)

Local organizations go along with this because it is prestigious for Ghanaian orgs to have western partners and host white volunteers. This itself is a colonial legacy. Organizations also believe that a message delivered from a white person will be received more readily than when delivered by a black person. Studies have documented these 21st century beliefs held by international volunteers and their local hosts in Africa, and I have witnessed them in action firsthand.

Ghanaian orgs leverage this social capital to achieve their goals, but the systemic causes of oppression go untouched. So what is ultimately being accomplished?

FBB is committed to relying on local expertise and shunning the spotlight in favor of centering the work of our local partners. We will never put an international volunteer in a job a local can do. We are not the face of the work in Ghana; the local organizations we support are. We support what they do. Why should we take credit?

2019-june-HA: Ghana-in-ghana-blue-shirts

Our current and potential partners assume we will be like other NGOs, and we have found that they are very confused when we don’t want to take credit for the work.

Once, one of our partners took the initiative of printing some record-keeping books with our name and logo on the front, and were legitimately confused when we asked the books be reprinted without it. This was a learning opportunity for us. We had failed to express that we didn't want our name and logo on the materials and why. This has since informed how we’ve expressed our commitment to centering our partners' work.

classroomWhy should a partner trust us about our commitment to centering their work when all their experience is to the contrary? They shouldn’t. At least not at the start. If we want to support them and their work, we need to put in the time and energy to spotlight them, their work, and their solutions. We need to create partnerships where we are accountable to our partners, not where they are reliant on us. We create projects that are sustainable and designed for FBB to become utterly redundant. This is non-negotiable. We need to prove that we are different through our actions, words, time, and eventual departure.

At FBB we are committed to confronting the legacy and mindset of colonialism in the work we do. We are committed to centering local expertise and solutions. We are committed to seeking out, learning from, and standing with the people already doing the work of resistance in their communities. We are committed to fundamental inclusivity and cultural responsibility. We are committed to accountability to our local partners. We are committed to sustainable interventions that make us redundant.

We have more work to do to figure out how these commitments are realized in the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves year to year, but we are committed to making every decision regarding our work in Ghana and elsewhere within the framework of decolonizing service.