Dirk Jan Koch

10 december 2021


‘Dirk-Jan reproduces colonial ideas in his class’, a student recently wrote on a feedback form. The reason: Koch had explained that some of the Dutch colonizers really thought they were doing something good. The new generation in the development sector is putting language and words under the magnifying glass – are they exaggerating or should Koch mince his words?

I have to be careful, nowadays, with the words I use in my lectures. Some colleagues now prefer we don’t talk about ‘aid’ and ‘beneficiaries’; that would be derogatory. We should be talking about ‘international cooperation’ and ‘participants’. According to them, we create more equality in North-South relations with these terms. Until recently, I thought such discussions were pointless.

After all, you and I know what we are talking about, so why spend a lot of time on the exact term? Let’s put our energy into how to make aid more effective, instead of playing the game of who can use the most politically correct terms, I thought for a long time. Moreover, during famines, food aid is simply given to hungry recipients. So let’s not use words to insinuate equality that isn’t there – in doing so we disguise structural inequality.

The research of my PhD student Lena Gutheil, who will receive her PhD at Radboud University on 20 December, has made me think differently. She analyzes a term that is so often used in development studies – also by Radboud colleagues – that you no longer think about it: ‘the aid chain’. She convincingly shows how such an apparently neutral term perpetuates incorrect ideas.

What exactly are the associations with the ‘aid chain’? Most of us imagine a picture in which the donor is at the top and where through various links (the international NGO, the local NGO, et cetera) the aid eventually reaches the recipient. The links are firmly established in the chain and the money flows from ‘top’ to ‘bottom’. In the image that pops in your mind, there is little say for local organizations, let alone for the local population.


The dance floor and the machine

To study how the “aid chain” works in reality, Lena Gutheil traveled to Vietnam and Uganda to investigate local partners who receive funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And there she saw that many local partners did not behave like defenseless, chained partners in an aid chain at all.

They turn out to be much more inventive and flexible than the sketched picture suggests. They arranged exceptions to reporting obligations and skipped certain links in the chain if that suited them better. Local organizations and field offices provided multiple funders so they had flexibility. The chains turned out to be much more flexible: local actors were in one chain one year and in another the next.

Lena and I conclude that the “aid dance” is a much better metaphor than the aid chain. The whole aid world looks more like a dance floor than a machine, doesn’t it? One day an organization dances with one organization and the next day with another. Do you accidentally step on your donor’s toes? Then you will not be thrown off the dance floor, because the donor also needs a dance partner. Does one of the dancers have a nice new move? Then others on the dance floor take over organically. In short, there is quite a bit of freedom.


Of course it’s not all about freedom, happiness and equality on the dance floor. After all, there are dominant dance partners and there are followers. There are dancers with more resources, who can more or less force weaker partners to perform dance steps that they really don’t want to do. So there can also be a power inequality on the dance floor and we do not deny that by talking about the auxiliary dance.

Professionals who stick to the term ‘aid chain’ thus associate themselves with a term that overestimates the power of Northern organizations and underestimates or ignores the ingenuity of Southern organizations. We all say that we want to ‘decolonize’ aid, then we will also have to change our language. So we can say bye bye to the ‘aid chain’ and welcome the ‘aid dance’ or the ‘development dance’.


Superiority thinking

The politically correct language police occasionally has a point. A few weeks ago, there was an important debate in OneWorld about whether we should still call ‘developing countries’ developing countries. Indeed, the term ‘developing countries’ projets the idea that we are ‘developed’ and that they have to develop towards our level – so it can be seen as a neocolonial term. After much deliberation, the World Bank decided to use the more objective ‘low-income countries’.

But let’s not get bogged down in semantic discussions. Tonight, fourteen million children worldwide will go with enormous hunger to bed there. Would they care whether they are “development aid recipients” or “participants in international cooperation”? Do their stomachs get more filled when their countries are called “low-income countries” and not “developing countries”? Well no! But: some words, such as the aid chain, wrongly perpetuate our superiority thinking. The world has moved on – now our language has to follow uit.


This article is based on the research of Lena Gutheil (supervised by Dirk-Jan Koch), who will be awarded at the Radboud University on 20 December – at 10:30 am – on the theme ‘Adaptive Management in Development Cooperation: Policy and Practice’. It is possible to join (digitally)

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