youth activism

[OPINION] No strings attached: Young people’s role in decolonizing aid

Angela Maree Encomienda

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[OPINION] No strings attached: Young people’s role in decolonizing aid

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'As the Philippines grapples with the legacy of colonization, its young people face the confusion of choosing pathways to change'

To grow up as a young person in the Philippines is to grow up knowing local realities while being educated to espouse colonial ideologies.

While they see poverty and inequality all around them, they are taught to valorize “clean-cut” NGO work and villainize “messy” movements for radical change. While they deal with the high prices of commodities, including the education they so value, they are conditioned to look away from historical fact and look down on ideas borne or adopted by those who have suffered the most from the land-grabbing, pocket-emptying blows of the past.

And so, as the Philippines grapples with the legacy of colonization, its young people face the confusion of choosing pathways to change. Despite having one of the largest and most active civil society movements in the Global South, only a fraction of its youth learn the history and power dynamics that are tied to the continuation of poverty and inequality in the country.

The Philippine aid sector from the 1940s to the 2020s

Sonny Africa documented the Philippine development sector’s postcolonial journey from the 1940s to the 2010s. In the 1940s and 1950s, after World War II, the government controlled the flow of funds for postwar rehabilitation and development, while leadership remained in the hands of politicians seeking re-election and their foreign backers. It was during this period that migration to Mindanao increased, driven by the desire to exploit indigenous peoples’ lands for elite-led development as well as relocate the impoverished farmers from the Tagalog and Bisaya regions who had been fighting for agrarian reform and economic independence.

From the 1960s onwards, the aid industry in the Philippines grew to be dominated by the business class, the Catholic Church, and the United States government, which led to a gradual absorption of radical pressures by conservative forces. Martial Law and the People Power Revolution divided those who supported armed struggle from those who sought political reforms. With this division, foreign funding flowed to NGOs, some of them being used to delegitimize activist and militant movements and make neoliberal policies more acceptable by providing temporary aid to mitigate the policies’ adverse effects.

In the early 2020s, the COVID-19 pandemic created space for Filipinos to experiment with new ways of supporting each other, even as the national government introduced policies such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, delaying, impeding, or even preventing the delivery of aid to communities in need. Civil society also mobilized for the 2022 national and local elections, with powerful countries like the United States and China maintaining alliances with officials, candidates, and NGOs to give elite politics a palatable development facade.

China, Japan, the United States, and other global powerhouses continue to fund aid in the Philippines, aligning organizations and movements to their agenda. Arundhati Roy has famously problematized this as the NGO-ization of resistance, warning that financiers oversee the neocolonial project, bring about the slash in government spending in the first place, and even create opportunities for corruption among local elites. Notably, despite neocolonial control over aid, the country retains its mass movement and armed revolutionary struggles, steadfast in working with communities in the midst of compounding crises.

The harms of failing to decolonize aid

Since the 1940s, young Filipinos have been molded by education systems implemented during the colonial period, particularly under American influence, which still propagate narratives that justify the presence and influence of foreign powers today. This imposition has perpetuated a sense of dependency on Global North models of change, priming the mindset of Filipinos to value external validation and solutions.

Now, the Filipino youth tend to select pathways that are perceived to bring external validation and economic stability. Some young people speak and write threadbare statements about how neocolonialism and its accompanying phenomena are not necessarily “bad,” enabled by their own teachers and peers. Others rely largely on exercising their right to vote to effect change locally and nationally, instead of practicing their wide array of rights and fighting for more rights to be recognized by the state. Others entwine themselves almost entirely with development opportunities such as fellowships and scholarships funded by the Global North, without bothering to build a thorough knowledge of history and power dynamics and ties with communities on the ground.

While this piece does not aim to vilify the youth’s attempts at participating in social change, what the youth may not realize is that when they live out neocolonial ideologies, they contribute to the marginalization of local communities and reinforce existing power structures. This sustains a society where decision-making and resource allocation remain concentrated in the hands of those with the most power and privilege. In such a society, disempowerment takes over, hindering the ability of communities to define and pursue their own development priorities.

Moreover, when young people prioritize colonial values, norms, and development models, they contribute to the unraveling and erasure of indigenous cultures, knowledge systems, and ways of life. This cultural erosion diminishes the rich identities and collective wisdom present in the Global South, endorsing a narrow and homogenized understanding of development. Such an understanding of development may prioritize short-term gains at the expense of the long-term needs determined by the grassroots.

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The role of young people in decolonizing aid

Young people hold immense potential in driving change, particularly in the context of decolonizing aid. The active involvement of youth is crucial in challenging power imbalances, reweaving narratives, and promoting equitable practices in the aid sector. The primary responsibility for this lies in the hands of education systems, which should effectively facilitate the learning of young people, so that the youth may break free from the colonial ideologies that have limited the Philippine imagination for so long.

While education systems still come short in teaching young people to seek the truth and think for themselves, the youth must go the extra mile to understand history, question existing power dynamics, and embrace innovative approaches to development. Part of this is making themselves aware of the strings attached to publicly justifying certain development ideologies and engaging exclusively in development activities that are largely funded by and economically beneficial to the Global North.

Starting by seeing these threads, young Filipinos can fulfill their vital role in decolonizing aid and reimagining a future characterized by freedom and self-determination. –

Angela Maree Encomienda, 23, is a social innovator with a heart for child and youth participation, gender equality, and digital literacy. She is the founder and chairperson of The Initiative PH and the National Youth Convenor of YouthVote Philippines.

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