Enough is enough: audaciously decolonising the development and humanitarian nexus

This is an edited extract of the 2022 Mitchell Oration given at the Australasian AID Conference in Canberra in November.

I have been working in the space of ending violence against women and girls for the last 18 years in Tonga. This year, I experienced something I had experienced many times before but not to the extent that it reached this year, it was the tipping point.  I was actually on the brink of “losing it”.

When Tonga underwent a humanitarian crisis in January of this year – the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcanic eruption followed by a tsunami – the NGO I work for, the Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC), was one of the first responders on the ground, within the first 72 hours, carrying out rapid safety assessments with women and children in the most affected communities on Tongatapu. This was followed by on-going daily psychosocial support to high-risk areas during the response phase. At the same time, Tonga had lost all forms of communication with the outside world – we couldn’t telephone or communicate electronically with anyone for about five weeks.

Within three weeks of rolling out psychosocial support during the response phase, Tonga had its first positive COVID-19 case which immediately sent the entire country into lockdown and borders closed.

Tonga was dealing with all these issues on its own. I was proud of my team at WCCC and the way we worked during the response phase, approaching our targeted women and children from high-risk areas with care, compassion and respect while ensuring that everything we did was based on the key guiding principle of “do no harm”. We knew exactly what to do, how to do it and executed it like professionals, albeit with the limited resources we had access to at the time.

We made sure the space we created was safe and that it wouldn’t bring too much attention to what we were doing. What turned out to be about a 45 minute conversation with these female leaders was the beginning of a relationship that we knew we had to continue nurturing throughout the response phase.

We had gained their trust and respect and thereafter we commenced our psychosocial talatalanoa (conversations), support and advocacy. We were provided with names and families who were at high risk and the most vulnerable to visit and carry out our “AHA” strategy that we use in any humanitarian crisis: Are you safe? How are you doing right now? Are you being listened to?

But all of what I have just explained is not what made me almost lose it.

As soon as our communication lines to the outside world were back to normal, humanitarian experts on gender-based violence (GBV) in emergencies started flooding our EVAW (ending violence against women) and GBV spaces. Pre-designed approaches of how to roll-out psychosocial support to communities were being emailed to those of us in Tonga. We were being invited to attend online information sessions on what these experts in GBV had to offer us. We were told that they had been in communication with government counterparts and had been given the go ahead to roll out the pre-designed activities on the ground. So basically, we didn’t have a say – it was going ahead regardless.

WCCC reluctantly joined these interagency approaches – it was a situation where if we didn’t, we would not have access to all the areas they had access to because they could pay for chartered flights and boats and we couldn’t. To them, it may have seemed that we were validating their approach (which killed us internally) – but to us, it was our way of reaching these areas and ensuring that we carried out our psychosocial support the best way we knew how, making sure that women and children in high-risk situations in these areas were referred to ongoing counselling, support and advocacy.

WCCC and I had never been made to feel so worthless and incompetent in the EVAW space as I did this year with that experience. I felt we had been bullied and disempowered.

I left Tonga for about two months over the July-August period because I felt if I didn’t, I was going to absolutely lose it. I felt like I had failed as a leader for my NGO. I had tried with all the energy I had left in me to call these interagency approaches to account. I emailed and discussed this with them several times expressing my concerns. I wanted them to understand their colonial approaches and break the pattern. I wanted them to just stop and hand over the resources to the NGOs on the ground. I wanted them to acknowledge their “power-over” and to stop bullying. At one time, a comment was made to me: “Yes, ‘Ofa we understand your concerns, but it was the Tonga Government who requested our help.”

I responded to this person by saying: “Yes, because they assume you are the experts in this area. You have a responsibility, and the ability, to respond by saying, yes, we have the resources and we would be happy to support your local experts on the ground. That is the difference between ‘power-over’ and ‘power-to’. That is how you can start contributing to decolonisation.”

Research I led with the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) in 2020 navigated through the knowledge and experience of 35 Pacific Island women, who have been working in the women’s rights movement space over the last three decades, who agreed to talanoa with me (or hold conversations) sharing their perspectives on the role of Global North organisations and the interactions they have had with them.

Participants described the power dynamics that reflected unequal relations. In the last decade, more so in the last five to six years, there is a strong feeling that Global North organisations, in particular donors, have started to be more forceful in dictating ways of working rather than listening to their partners on the ground – in spite of the Paris Declaration, Busan Partnership and Cairns Compact.

There is an urgency in what I am sharing today because the issues are very real and happening as I speak.

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, said Australia would listen and would stand shoulder to shoulder with us. I want to see this turned into a reality.

Because the root of the problem is this: those with “power-over” and access to resources control the entire discourse and refuse to listen. When you have a team of experts sitting in an air-conditioned office, oceans and oceans away from your lived reality, there is no room for real and meaningful shoulder-to-shoulder partnerships.

“Locally led” or “localisation” become the terms in fashion. Programs and activities become a tick-box. We revert back to my European ancestors’ view of Tonga 140 years ago – they need us, we bring money and resources to their country.

There are so many things I want to say, and I could go on and on.

But I leave you with this thought: if we go back to how I was feeling in July–August of this year, Tonga almost lost a women’s rights leader at the expense of those with the power and resources not wanting to listen.

Finally, I would like to share a Hawaiian proverb that academic Teresia Teaiwa often quoted:

‘A ‘ohe o kahi nana o luna o ka pali;
iho mai a lalo nei;
‘ike I ke au nui ke au iki,
he alo a he alo.

The top of the cliff isn’t the place to look at us;
come down here,
learn of the big and little currents,
face to face.

Read the full speech. Watch the livestream recording.

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‘Ofakilevuka (‘Ofa) Guttenbeil-Likiliki

‘Ofakilevuka (‘Ofa) Guttenbeil-Likiliki is Director of the Women & Children Crisis Centre (WCCC) in Tonga, a women’s rights activist and a filmmaker.


  • Ms ‘Ofakilevaku (‘Ofa) Guttenbeil-Likiliki highlights a serious issue. Her experience of the high handed, attitudes of those who believe they know better than the people with lived experience, is sadly common.

    I can attest that her description of how she and her colleagues were treated, marginalised and made to feel worthless is replicated elsewhere by “we are here to help you” specialists with tunnel vision who are also deaf to local nuance and desires.

    So called experts with no local lived experience, who do not speak local language(s), whose world views do not accord with local realities, who are oblivious to the nuances around social interaction and who arrive with preordained solutions that ignore local knowledge.

    An earlier blog posted by Ms Huiyuan (Sharon) Liu, “An overview of Australia’s aid program procurement,” appears to highlight systemic issues.

    Her analysis reveals that delivering Australian Aid has become a mega business dominated by a few players where the percentage of funds allocated directly to local partners has averaged 1.2 percent of annual contract value over the past decade.

    If correct this surely has become a recipe for what Canberra desires rather than the recipient. Where is the balance, partnership, collaboration and support for local empowerment in that relationship?

    It is understood that DFAT requires transparent accounting of funds. However, what should be an administrative requirement appears to have morphed into an attitude of we know what’s best for you and we have a mandate to deliver it – like it or not. That is a recipe for harm.

    I agree with ‘Ofa’s assertion that it is past time to recognise that where life is defined by the community space, supporting local leadership to address issues in accordance with their world view, not the donors, often produces the best results.

    Further to her quotation of a Hawaiian proverb I am reminded of words of wisdom offered to me when seeking advice about a failing international program.

    “There are lots of trees in the forest – some big trees and many smaller ones.

    You have only spoken to the big trees. You need to speak to all of them.”

  • Thank you ‘Ofa. I see neo-colonial and patronising attitudes and behaviours continue around us, and it is well past time for us on the donor side of things to wake up to the damage we all do. We shouldn’t need to keep being told this, but we do. I hope that by now you have received some sincere apologies from Australian colleagues – for the fact that we keep making these mistakes, and that we will not or cannot listen, and that so many in our so-called humanitarian and development community still do not get it. If any readers of this blog are tempted to question or label ‘Ofa’s gift to us, then think, and please think again. She is gifting us a heartfelt truth. I feel so angry and sad that you went through all this, and I hope that your messages were well received at the recent AAC conference.

  • Margaret Mead an American anthropologist once said “arm chair theorists are dangerous”. They don’t listen to the national inhabitants and have no idea how to deliver information at the grassroots level. They lack the skills and ability to deliver and disburse information that is culturally appropriate.

    They have the finances and resources to provide assistance and aid but they are only guests to your islands, and all too often you have to clean up the mess guests leave behind.

    Where international intervention in the Pacific has succeeded, it has been to the detriment of many island countries and people who are slowly loosing their cultural identities and cultural values. Your people know how much you’ve achieved. Don’t let Tonga be coerced into giving into the multinationals.

  • Hopefully your voice will be heard in many places around the world. Truth is the path – speaking up is crucial. Wish you all the best. Greetings from Switzerland coming from Central America. I am so glad you shared your experience.

  • Touche and bravo Ofa! Speaking truth to power in the development, humanitarian ‘industries’ is critically important.

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