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How racism manifests itself in NGO culture and structures – part two: The pitfall of EDI

The Bond report Racism, power and truth: Experiences of people of colour in international development, released in June 2021, laid out the very real experiences of people of colour across the sector. In this blog series, we aim to build on the themes that came out of the report and to reflect on what we think has changed over the months since its release.

This is part two of two blogs looking at culture and structures inside of NGOs and the discrimination it exacerbates. You can read part one here.

The pitfall of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)

The past couple of years have rightly brought back or re-energised long-standing calls for structural change in the international development sector, including demands for anti-racist action and structural change within organisations and across all areas of our work.

These demands seem to be shaking our sector – or, at least, we are seeing initial signs of this. Responses from leadership have been varied, though. There are organisations which are already taking action, such as looking at voluntary or negotiated changes in their leadership and boards, restructuring their operating models or looking at pay equity across their operations.

But there are other organisations that seem to be still considering their options, and yet others, who are not engaging and seem to be in denial of the urgency and significance of the change needed. These are the organisations that run the very real risk of being left behind.

There is no one right approach to embark on the transformational change needed, as each organisation is different. However, it is, at the very least, problematic when an organisation’s approach to anti-racism is seen as a performance issue, or worse, a marketing exercise in an attempt to demonstrate quick progress.

Some visible trends across the sector include the recruitment of consultants, the hiring of “in-house” EDI experts or the invitation to “critical friends” or “advisory panels” and accompany certain organisational spaces. Let’s be clear: none of these approaches is necessarily inappropriate, as long as they are understood as steps forward in a process rather than as an “end goal”.

Certainly, they should not be seen as a replacement to the more necessary – and at times uncomfortable – conversations (followed by decisions and action) aiming to identify the ways racism manifests in the culture of an organisation and, specifically, across the organisations’ operations and work.

Referring to one of these trends in a great blog published by Charity So White, Akiko Hart makes the point that: “Within the charity ecosystem, the critical friend sits on the margins, often in a smaller or more precarious organisation. The critical friend has less power (of course: otherwise they would be taking the advice and making the decisions).

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“It is often the lone lived experience “voice” in a room full of commissioners or service providers or professionals. As an individual, the critical friend is often someone from a marginalised or racialised community.”

Furthermore, as NGOs continue to recruit EDI consultants or staff to support culture change, the more obvious first step is putting policies and procedures into place. Again, this is a start, but not the whole story. In fact, while transformation can be encouraged by adequate policies, without human conversations and a shared sense of urgency amongst staff, diversity and racial equity become just another box to check.

Working with the help of colleagues from Bond and Healing Solidarity over the last two years has helped me embark on a journey of personal work alongside the work I am doing in my organisation and externally. I’m more aware of my white male privilege as a result, and as my awareness grows so does my recognition that my personal journey to change my behaviours is probably too slow. The faster way would be to follow in the steps I have seen some peers in the CEO learning groups taking to share their power in radically new ways, or to open up the seat they occupy in leadership. I suspect that if other white privileged leaders are like me in lacking the bravery and/or pressure to move faster, the overall pace of sector change will be too slow.

Tim Boyes-Watson, global director, influence andinitiatives, Humentum

With a few exceptional cases, what seems to be missing is leaders and leadership teams modelling the behaviour change needed. Are we creating environments where challenge is welcomed, and space is given to reflect, acknowledge and address the harm that is being done? Are we making space to hear how People of Colour are experiencing organisations?

An uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of organisational leaders in our sector are male, white, well-educated and middle-class. It does not take much to realise that most would not have the lived experience to fully understand the racial equity issues and power imbalances that stem from that, in the international development sector. Can they really be up to the job of accepting, with humility, their limited experience and expertise, and embrace others’ knowledge and transformational demands? Or maybe accept that it is just time to “pass the baton” or, at the very least, “pass the mic”?

As the Bond Racism, Power and Truth report highlights, it is fair to say that many in our sector are frustrated with leaders who, instead of acknowledging the problem, prefer to “remind us” of all the good work done over the years and how “aid” has positively impacted millions of people “in the developing world”, highlighting a narrative that “our organisation or network’s structure is totally different and does not reflect post-colonial structures”.

We have been around long enough to know that structures are just the “tip of the iceberg”, as we referred to in part one. These leaders are choosing to ignore the issues related to power, privilege, and racism, deeply entrenched in ways of working and via the exercise of formal and non-formal power. A simple starting point would be for organisations to agree that there should be no all-white leadership teams and boards in the 21st century.

We believe that it is important to understand that EDI and anti-racism are not the same. EDI sets out to create an organisation that better represents its own constituencies or the wider society, promoting an environment where everyone in an organisation feels respected, valued, welcome and able to contribute. Whilethis is necessary, it is not enough.

Anti-racism is “political” and is about dismantling unequitable power structures and dynamics. It is the convergence of the personal and the professional, because this is about real lives. An active intersectional practice against racism and white supremacy in all their manifestations and across all areas of work is required, including across EDI practices.

Sadly, we have observed that EDI is sometimes being used as an excuse not todiscuss the power imbalances that exist, and without addressing these, we cannot make meaningful progress. Organisations need to think way beyond EDI to change the systems, behaviours and attitudes that are holding us back as a sector.

Finally, in our experience, the most significant change takes place when both external and internal drivers and pressures converge. When courageous individuals inspire and effectively lead organisations, from whatever role or position they hold with the space and support from leadership to do so. We also need white leaders to accept that the minimum expected from them is to be well-informed, to engage in current debates, to educate themselves on anti-racism matters and accept the need to “unlearn” past behaviours, while committing to listen and act on feedback, particularly from People of Colour.

As organisations, we all need to create spaces for our staff to thrive and not just survive. We need to promote and protect time (as part of our jobs and not as “personal time”) for self-reflection, and to model transparency and accountability. Challenging racism demands looking in the mirror and talking about what hurts, about what we do not like to see in our reflection.

As Uma Mishra-Newbery from the Racial Equity Index comments in a conversation with Rethinking Development Podcast: “These conversations aren’t going away, as much as white leadership in the sector would wish that they would. Either as an organisation you can choose to continue working the way that you have, and pretending that anti-racism is an issue that’s not going to hit you. Or as an organisation, you can do something different. You can listen to the [People of Colour] that you have on your team [and organisation], you can promote them, you know. Question all-white leadership teams, make different choices”.

Progress is happening, but there’s a long way to go

We have seen some good examples of honest attempts to tackle racism within NGOs since the publication of Racism, Power and Truth. Here are some of the measures we’ve seen from within the sector so far:

  • We know that conversations about addressing racism in the sector are now happening.
  • Organisations have begun audits to find out how their staff are experiencing the culture they work in.
  • Organisations are looking at their recruitment processes to assess if they are advertising in the right places and creating the environment for diverse candidates to show their strengths rather than judge them for “fit”.
  • Through Bond’s own work, we’ve spent a year engaging with CEOs of NGOs to build anti-racist practices and gain confidence in engaging in these issues.
  • Some organisations have created strategies that embed an anti-racism lens into their culture, EDI work and, importantly, across all functions in their organisations.
  • Organisations have taken difficult decisions around leadership change, embarking on exit strategies.
  • Some donors are doing their part by challenging traditional ways of working, and demanding equitable working in partnerships, while promoting community-led action.
  • Boards have started to recruit from beyond their “default network” and we have seen an increase in recruitment agencies expanding their EDI practices.
  • We have seen an increase in People of Colour, BAME, REN, anti-racism working groups being created in organisations.
  • Cross organisational and sector spaces are emerging such as the RINGO Project (reinventing INGOs).

To progress racial equity and become an actively anti-racist sector, we need to have both courage and willingness to be transparent and to hold organisations and sectorleaders accountable. We need both of these now. Without a clear anti-racist stand, our sector will never progress racial equity and, as a result, never reach our missions as civil society organisations.

Learn about the work of collectives already working in this area across the sector here in Bond’s Anti-racism hub.