Unlearning together – The Unlearning Team

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis more than a year ago was a wake-up call to many people working in international development. By showing the brutal reality of racism in law enforcement, it confronted us with the question of how racism is embedded in our own sector, in our organisations, attitudes, relationships and ways of working.

The global outrage triggered by the murder has created a unique opportunity for the sector to prioritise a long-overdue conversation about race, coloniality and development. The conversation is without doubt an uncomfortable one. Most of us are drawn to the sector by a desire to do something positive about global poverty and inequality. But we pay little attention to the ways in which poverty and inequality are legacies of a colonial history that is all too recent. We don’t like to be reminded how our conceptual categories on underdevelopment and modernisation echo the colonial worldview. And we have only just begun to talk about how racial inequality is coded into the hierarchies (Northern donors vs. Southern beneficiaries; international vs. local staff) that are so pervasive in our sector.

The conversation on decolonising development has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. The International Development Committee has been hearing evidence on the philosophy and culture of aid. Many of the witnesses have emphasised the lack of racial diversity in the sector and the unequal relationships between Northern and Southern partners. Bond’s Lena Bheeroo pointed out that, given our commitment to leaving no one behind, we have a problem if our sector reflects the very same inequalities we’re attempting to overcome.

At Agulhas, George Floyd’s murder affected team members at a personal level. It led to a conviction that we must do our part, individually and as a team, to address the challenges facing the sector. We committed to a process of unlearning and relearning, in order to do better and be better. Three of our staff – Trisha, Nikita and Mazvita – formed an ‘Unlearning Team’ to guide us through the process.

Our Unlearning project works at several levels, reflecting the different levels of racism in society (personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural).

4 levels of racism graphic.


Our starting point was a process of reflecting on our individual unconscious biases and positionality. The Unlearning Team led Agulhas through a series of sessions that created safe spaces for sharing our own experiences of privilege and discrimination, in our lives and careers. We developed a reading list of influential Black authors, both fiction and non-fiction, and discussed some of the texts in book clubs. We experimented with spoken word poetry to help people express the complex feelings that emerged from the discussions.

At the institutional level, we have started to rethink how we partner with institutions from the Global South. As a company specialising in research and evaluation, our work has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, making joint working within Southern partners the norm. We are looking for ways to build more equal partnerships, to provide fair access to opportunities, revenues and recognition. We are participating in a pilot for The Equity Index, which is developing an approach to measuring equity in the policies, practices and partnerships of UK development actors. The results will help us identify areas where we can improve. With Agulhas becoming an employee-owned company at the beginning of this year, the staff have an important role to play in articulating the values of the company, including on equality and diversity.

At the structural level, we are embarking on a process of reflection on the complex challenge of decolonising the aid sector, so that we bring an anti-racist perspective to our work. We have established a Knowledge Circle, with a programme of readings, discussion groups and speakers. We will be deepening our knowledge of colonialism, anti-colonial struggles and decolonisation, to better understand the historical origins of the global challenges we work on. We will be introducing ourselves to thinkers from the Global South, to help us bring a diversity of perspective to our work. Like many in the sector, we share a conviction that many aspects of traditional aid practice are dated and anomalous, and we’ll be looking for opportunities to help our clients identify solutions.

Decolonising development is a complex problem, and we don’t expect to find easy answers. But this feels like the right time to be asking the questions.

We’ll share updates from time to time as our Unlearning work proceeds. In the meantime, here are some reflections from Agulhas team members on their learning so far.

Why is it important for us to do this work?

“Because only by doing this work can we uncover our own unconscious bias, including exploring of our own privilege, which we might not have thought about too much recently or ever before. It is good to think about what might be perceived as ‘normal’ and what might deviate from a purely artificial, constructed ‘norm’, and how this impacts on anyone outside of that made-up ‘norm’.”

“The work to tackle racism globally and in the field of development is not new. The fight for justice and equality has been fought by ancestors, peers and allies for decades now. And change has happened, albeit slowly but unfortunately there is still a way to go. At present, the various challenges that arose in 2020 have built up momentum to pursue the equitable and just world we all want to live in. But momentum alone is not enough, it is integral for us as individuals, as a collective and as organisations and institutions to invest time, energy, resources and to unlearn and learn. It is not enough to tackle each issue in segments: fighting for racial justice and indigenous rights is climate justice, for example.”

“It isn’t important for us to do this work. It’s important for everyone to do this work – either with colleagues, in their families, just with themselves. However, I think it is particularly important for people in the development community to focus on this because of at least two things: (1) many individuals working in this sector are really privileged, and have had the luxury of not facing these issues in their direct personal experience, and (2) because of the ‘ethical’ nature of our work we are probably at a greater danger of blindness to problems entrenched in our own sector.”

It is very important to be aware of our subconscious thoughts/mind which dictate our behaviour and actions. There is a need to dig deep into our exclusive thoughts – which are mostly shaped by social norms commonly found in our upbringing and environment. We need to unplug, unwind and unlearn.

“As development practitioners working mainly in monitoring and evaluation work, we play a great role in promoting and ensuring good practice. As such, I think it is extremely important that in our line of work, the values and principles of social inclusion, diversity and equity are brought to practice. To do this well, and just as individuals, we must acknowledge our subjective nature, which is influenced by our privilege and positionality. It is important that we do this continued work not only to become better citizens, but to also become better practitioners and evaluators in a sector working towards greater social justice and equity.”

How have the unlearning sessions impacted your thinking and working?

“The unlearning sessions have offered an opportunity for me to think deeper about privilege, race, gender and decoloniality. I have had an open and safe space to reflect, challenge, to be challenged, unlearn and re learn. There has been space to imagine what transformational change will look like and having the space to look inwards and address these issues has been helpful. I have been able to apply these lessons and to take challenging questions to clients as we begin to rethink ways of engaging with citizens and as we look to closing the feedback loop in a meaningful way.”

“Unlearning sessions have formed part of a wider journey that we’ve all been going through….Certainly I think it has been a really good experience bringing conversations that I wouldn’t have expected to have in a workplace setting into the workplace, and that it hasn’t taken the place of a ‘mandatory HR course’ that you have to do but has been voluntary, and everyone has been able to shape and engage with the sessions constructively – that has been incredibly important.”

“I think this work is really important for us to challenge our assumptions and reflect on any unconscious bias that we may bring to our work. It’s certainly helped me to pause and reflect on some of my work more deeply to really make sure I think things through from different angles and perspectives – it’s reminded me that we can and should slow down, particularly when designing and stress-testing new projects and research methodologies.”


[i] Jones C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener’s tale. American journal of public health, 90(8), 1212–1215.

[ii] Applied Research Centre (n.d.) Racial Equality

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