Black Lives Matter protest in USA
Black Lives Matter protest in USA Taymaz Valley - Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Time to dismantle racism in international development

Following protests against the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a public spotlight has been shone on racial inequality, including the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour in the UK and the US.

All of us working in international development are being offered an important lesson in racism, gender and class inequalities. This public moment on Black Lives Matter is our chance to interrogate and dismantle racism and anti-blackness in our backyard.

Reflections on our racism and inequality problem

In February, Bond brought together people of colour (POC) working in global development to explore the barriers we face in the sector. People were desperate to use this safe space to speak about the racism they had experienced while working in development.

From overt experiences of racial discrimination, to everyday micro-aggressions and unsafe workplace cultures, nearly everyone had a story about how the dominant policies, practices and cultures have marginalised them. Black men and women (in particular) told of how hard they had worked to be viewed as legitimate actors in their organisations and described the higher standards they are held to compared to their white peers.

Attendees shared that they had never been in a room full of people of colour in their whole careers. This experience highlights the status quo in the UK’s international development sector, where POC remain the minority. There is a stark lack of visible role models for black and ethnic minorities who are entering the sector.

The UK charity sector is not an inclusive space for POC. Only 3% of charity chief executives are POC, according to ACEVO. 54% of POC have experienced racial discrimination at work, according to a Charity Job survey. Black workers with degrees earn on average 23.1% less than white workers. Those operating the levers of power in NGOs do not reflect the profile of the communities they work in. And the levels of representation are not changing quickly enough.

But something more insidious is going on – and it is harder to pin down or quantify. Scholars, such as Robtel Neajai Pailey, write about international development’s “white gaze” problem: international development constructs whiteness as a signifier for progress, modernity and expertise. Whiteness is the standard against which non-white people are judged.

The shocking irony is that international NGOs purport to promote human rights and equality for all communities around the world, yet our workforces have a systemic racism and inequality problem. We have a lot of work to do to decolonise the development sector.

What should NGOs do now?

We now all have an important choice to make. We can continue allowing racial inequities to persist. Or we can use the current moment to look inwards and explore how racism – in particular, anti-blackness – shows up in our work to strengthen our collective anti-racist practice.

Given the current context, here are five things senior leaders working in international development need to do now.

1. Support black staff and volunteers

There has never been a greater need for inclusive leadership within the sector. Black staff and volunteers are dealing with the emotional fall out and grief from George Floyd’s death – including black staff in-country. Acknowledge their pain and anger. Don’t ask them to volunteer their time for free to advise you on what your organisation needs to do next.
Offer people time off if they need it. Reach out to your organisation’s network for POC to explore what support they might need.

If your organisation doesn’t have a staff wellbeing team or representative, ensure that someone in your organisation is equipped to offer additional support. Bond will also be launching a new working group, which will be a safe space for people of colour working at Bond members.

2. Educate and self-interrogate

Create safe spaces for your staff to discuss how racism, privilege and anti-blackness manifest in your organisation and the sector. Here is a reading list to start with. Employees of colour shouldn’t have to do the brunt of the educating work, so recognise that the onus is on everyone in your organisation to learn and unlearn racism. Ensure these discussions are happening at the highest levels and are tied to clear actions.

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Be honest about why these discussions have or have not happened before this point. What will this mean for how your organisation engages with anti-racist work in the future? Commit to continuing this work after the headlines cease.

3. Accelerate diversity and inclusion initiatives

There is a huge risk that NGOs will deprioritise or postpone diversity and inclusion plans to deal with other Covid-19-related emergency measures, or the forthcoming merger that has been announced with DfID and FCO. Diversity and inclusion needs to be embedded into the DNA of your organisation – and this process needs adequate resourcing.

Equality is about more than just the numbers of black people you employ: it’s about dealing with the structural and systemic roots of racial inequality. Ask yourself: Where are black people situated in your organisation? Is there occupational segregation, i.e. functions where POC aren’t working, such as programming or advocacy? How are they paid compared to others?

4. Shifting the “white gaze”

Breaking the white gaze in international development involves questioning whose expertise we value, who we listen to, who holds the levers of power and who gets a vote. It involves interrogating the extent to which we appreciate the expertise of black people in our work, including how we work with and centre diaspora communities in development work to recognise these communities have the expertise we should start with.

It also requires dismantling the ways we construct the communities we work in as “other”, i.e. places overseas with problems and needs, rather than places where solutions are generated and capabilities are in place. And most importantly, it involves transforming power structures so that those holding a seat of power start to look more like the communities where the work is taking place.

5. Act in solidarity

Move beyond superficial statements of support for #BlackLivesMatter, which risk being inauthentic and untethered from concrete action. Explore practical ways your organisation can act, rather than just “stand” in solidarity. This list is an excellent start, but remember: we cannot act in solidarity if we are not addressing the racism and anti-blackness in our own organisations and contexts.

The UK is a country with deep racial divides. Yet so many NGOs are silent about the injustices taking place on their own doorstep.

Finally, we as a sector must ask: why does it take the unjust deaths of more black people to finally hear the call for much needed change? Deep rooted systemic divides and implicit bias has been active in our sector for years, but at least now we might be waking up to it.

Help Bond establish basic benchmarks on BAME representation in the NGO workforce. Take our diversity survey for Bond members.

If you are a person of colour working in international development or aid and a Bond member, we have just launched our POC in development group that you can join.

Bond joined other national umbrella bodies for charities and social change organisations in committing to dismantling racism in charities and the voluntary sector. Read the joint the statement.