By Kate Newman and Paul Knipe

This blog opens a series on decolonising consultancy. For all the outputs from this theme, including a recording of our webinar on 21 September 2023, visit the relevant project page.

At INTRAC, we describe ourselves as  a not-for-profit, values-driven consultancy working to strengthen civil society. We are proud of our values, the way we work with diverse actors, and our commitment to locally led development. All of these inform our decisions about the work we bid for, and the approaches we use. At the same time, we too are also grappling with the calls to decolonise that affect the whole of our sector. 

Some areas of our practice align neatly with decolonisation. These include our focus on local actors and their agency, our commitment to equitable relationships, and our emphasis on what we call ‘consulting with soul’. We know, however, that these are not sufficient in themselves. We want to understand more about what it might mean to decolonise consultancy. This means not only looking at what theory tells us, but also at what needs to change in practice.  

Decolonisation is a term with a wide range of interpretations and theoretical standpoints.  Fundamentally, it recognises that while the formal period of colonial rule has ended the power structures created during this time remain.  These structures influence relationships between and within countries and peoples. They affect the types of knowledges that are considered valid and valuable, and they impacted both the emergence of the development industry and the way it is defined today. 

‘Western’ (and ‘white’) approaches and ways of thinking are privileged.  These in turn shape who is considered a valid development actor, who makes decisions, and how funding flows.  Consultancy within the aid and development system could be considered colonial, because it adheres to the same structures and practices in the way it is described, delivered and funded.    

We need, then, to consider whether consultancy can be decolonised – and if so, how this can be done. We have settled on three questions to shape our thinking: 

  • What aspects of consultancy need to change, to decolonise? 
  • What role do different actors play in creating change? 
  • How can consultancy contribute to wider sector changes to shift power and disrupt colonial logics? 

Interrogating consultancy

Consultancy happens in a range of ways and includes a diversity of types of work.  It often starts with an organisation identifying a specific issue or need and developing a terms of reference. This is used to commission an external ‘expert’ or team with an identified skillset and experience.   

In considering how the practice of consultancy should decolonise, questions are raised at all stages of the process. For example, at the outset we must consider who commissions work and what influences their priorities and expectations. The selection of consultants brings up the issue of who is considered an ‘expert’, and of what knowledges are considered valid and valued. Crucially it involves actively engaging with how power is expressed and shaped through the process, and in what ways dominant narratives and behaviours are reinforced or disrupted through practice.   Decolonisation must address steps right through to the end of the process, including our ideas about accountability and who has access to and determines the use of, or benefits from the outputs from a piece of work. 

Enabling change in consultancy

At its heart, consultancy involves a relationship. Different actors play different roles – the commissioner who has identified the issue, the organisation(s) involved in the work, and the consultant(s) themselves.  Each of these actors bring with them a set of assumptions and expectations.  These relationships can be power aware, can disrupt current sector wide behaviours, and can actively model alternative practice. Conversely, they can reinforce and extend dominant norms.   

Applying a ‘decolonial’ mindset and deliberate attention in this relationship underpins the possibilities for change.  Each actor must reflect on the different aspects of consultancy and consider their approach at each step of the process.  Collaboration, negotiation and space for open dialogue will be crucial to reimagine relationships between commissioner, client and consultant; or between consultant and participant. 

The role of consultancy in contributing to decolonisation 

Consultancy presents a space and an opportunity to do development differently.  This can mean centring local knowledges and expertise; bringing these ideas to global actors who may not otherwise hear them; or breaking down unequal power structures and reimagining relationships.

It is clearly important to pay careful attention to who the consultants are, how power is negotiated, the knowledges they bring, the approaches they use, the values they hold, and the relationships they form.  The outputs of consultancy also matter, however. This means valuing the role of consultants in making sense of wider decolonisation challenges, and commissioning work and practice that directly strengthens our sector’s understanding of racism.  For INTRAC, this also means using our consultancy work to develop and champion alternative approaches to MEL and OD that really shift the power. For example, this includes focusing on systems that are rooted in and celebrate different contexts, cultures, and perspectives – and actively searching for consultancy that enables this practice to grow.   

As an organisation delivering consultancy that was established in the UK as part of the international development system, we are concerned about our history, our position and privilege, and hesitant to make claims to decolonise. We recognise that the scale of transformation may not be possible, but we are committed to challenging our assumptions, reflecting and learning with others, and investing in areas that contribute to better practice.  

A key part of this is to build the influence of the consultants in our global network, and to increase our emphasis on multiple knowledges and lived experience. We must also unpack and reform our ideas about quality and quality assurance.  As we engage with others in the sector, and through this series of reflections on decolonising consultancy, we are excited about the possibilities of integrating aspects of decolonial thinking as we develop our practice.