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Aid agency actions on racial justice ‘inadequate’, aid workers say

Questionnaires suggest the steps international NGOs have taken don’t yet amount to meaningful change.

Aid workers coordinate the aid response in hurricane-hit Haiti, 2016. DFID
Aid workers coordinate the aid response in hurricane-hit Haiti, October 2016.

Several aid agencies have reported taking action to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion since last year’s renewed push for racial justice, but aid workers say they haven’t felt the effects, according to two questionnaires circulated by The New Humanitarian. 

The questionnaires assessed changes made within aid agencies since the Black Lives Matter movement re-emerged in 2020, driving a debate about decolonisation within the aid sector. They included questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the staff of aid agencies, but also asked about the broader localisation agenda.  

The nine international NGOs whose management responded said they had introduced new policies, provided training, reviewed salary scales, and/or made DEI central to their strategies. 

Many reported other signs of progress: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has established an independent board of appeal for staff, and made a diversity and inclusion data dashboard available to all staff; Oxfam Great Britain has appointed diversity champions in all recruitment panels; Save the Children UK has colleagues from under-represented groups giving reverse mentoring; Mercy Corps is striking partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions for internships; and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has launched a large-scale consultation process asking thousands of staff to define “the MSF we want to be”.  

Several have produced DEI strategies, set targets for diversity within their organisations, and established diversity and inclusion teams that report directly to the executive level. 

But in a separate questionnaire that more than 150 aid workers filled in, two thirds said their organisation’s response to demands for greater racial justice has not been adequate; and 85 percent said the actions taken hadn’t resulted in any change in their personal work experience. The respondents do not necessarily work at the same organisations that filled out the institutional survey. 

“Nothing has changed beyond rhetoric,” one aid worker wrote. “There is a lot of talk and internal consultation, but no real action (yet),” another wrote. 

PODCAST: Listen to this episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism for a discussion on the findings and to hear more about what two organisations in particular are trying to do to improve racial justice.

Forty percent of aid workers who responded said they wouldn’t feel secure referring DEI issues to their management, and more than 20 aid workers said they had considered leaving their job in the last year due to racial discrimination. 

One respondent said that when they reported discrimination they had witnessed, they were encouraged to keep quiet about it. Another said an audit of DEI in their organisation was “dismissed to protect leadership”. 

Less than half completed the survey

The New Humanitarian invited 21 of the largest international aid agencies active in humanitarian response – including international NGOs (some of whom were country affiliates of larger networks) and UN agencies – to fill in the questionnaire. Seven organisations did not respond to an email directed to one or more of their staff; two declined to respond; and three shared statements instead of responding to the questions. 

“The fact that you didn’t get as many organisations responding with detail… demonstrates that they don’t have in place real mechanisms to collect data on this information; perhaps they don't track it,” Lena Bheeroo, who leads anti-racism work at UK international development network Bond, told the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. “Perhaps they’re not at a position where they feel like they can be transparent about it. It really speaks to how much work needs to be done within organisations across the sector, still, more than a year on after the murder of George Floyd.” 

The questionnaire for aid workers was circulated publicly and open to anyone to fill in. About one third of respondents were people of colour; more than two thirds worked at international NGOs; and almost one fifth worked for the UN.

The findings echo some of what Bond discovered in a broader survey of UK NGOs working internationally, conducted in 2020 and published in 2021. It found that despite DEI policies in place, high levels of racism were preventing people of colour from entering and progressing through the sector.

The Bond research noted that people of colour don’t have faith in their organisations' work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Only 11% of our survey respondents strongly agreed that their organisations were committed to this agenda,” the report said.

Diversity still lagging in leadership roles

While The New Humanitarian’s questionnaire focused on racial diversity, organisations defined diversity differently. Some considered it to include class and sexual identity, whereas others considered gender parity to be a central part of their diversity efforts. 

When it comes to racial diversity, aid agencies reported higher degrees of diversity among newly hired staff. 

The ICRC said all new hires to senior leadership positions were from countries outside the mostly rich country membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Oxfam GB reported going from zero to five people of colour in the 40 top posts in the last three years. Save the Children International said half of the employees being trained in its leadership programmes for senior roles in country offices are people from a diverse background and women. CARE reported Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour increasing from 40 to 52 percent in its leadership team in the United States, and from 26 to 42 percent on its US board.

But overall – despite some recent momentum – leadership and governance teams remain largely unrepresentative of the people they serve.

Organisations with offices around the world, such as Mercy Corps and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), reported at least 85 percent of their staff being nationals of the country where they work. And yet most of the NGOs who filled in the questionnaire said less than 30 percent of their leadership teams were from under-represented groups, defined as people of colour, representatives of local communities, or other marginalised groups; and several were less than 15 percent. NRC reported having not a single person from an under-represented group on its leadership team, while the ICRC reported not a single person from an under-represented group on its governing board. 

This is consistent with the findings of a recent survey of 15 prominent international NGOs by the Centre for Global Development, which found that fewer than two percent of board members had been impacted by a humanitarian crisis; and fewer than 20 percent were from countries eligible to receive aid.  

And while some organisations, like Mercy Corps, have set clear diversity targets (30 percent of global senior leadership positions to be occupied by individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, or person of colour, or a citizen of Africa, Asia, Central/South America, or the Middle East by 2023), others, like MSF, do not track the racial identity of staff.  

Others still were not forthcoming with data. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, noted in a statement provided to The New Humanitarian an “increased” proportion of its workforce coming from African and Asian backgrounds – but it gave no figures. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said it had made “important progress” on improving race equality and equity, but it gave no details about the composition of its staff. The World Food Programme said its “extensive work to achieve a more inclusive workplace is well underway and already showing positive results”, but pointed to increases in the representation of women in the organisation and said nothing of racial diversity. All three UN agencies declined to answer the questionnaire and instead sent statements. 

Diversity, but not inclusion? 

Many organisations noted that DEI has now become a priority at the highest levels, with CEOs taking personal responsibility for the agenda. 

Several appeared clear-eyed about the journey to becoming “an anti-racist organisation”, as Save the Children UK put it. 

“In the past, it was more ‘tick box’,” CARE Australia wrote. “We are now moving to ensuring that issues of diversity, inclusion, overcoming unconscious bias, or issues of Indigenous reconciliation are part of our DNA, not an add-on.” 

Many of them acknowledged there was a problem – the ICRC noted “inherent power imbalances between international and national staff”; NRC said that “when it comes to DEI in a broader sense [than gender], we have a way to go”; and Save the Children International said it had struggled to improve the representation of Black people at its headquarters. 

Respondents were also cognisant that this work takes time: “Many of the actions underway related to HR recruitment and development will take years to produce measurable results,” MSF wrote. And many noted that they had started this work well before the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.

However, responses from individual aid workers – who were surveyed anonymously – were much more sceptical (note: those who took the time to respond are potentially more likely to have had a negative experience).  

One aid worker said “hypocrisy was even more evident”. Another said only “token and symbolic” efforts were made, and that they had quit due to the organisation’s reluctance to make any impactful change. A third said they were attacked for expressing concerns around DEI-related processes and performance. 

“Whilst people of colour are raising their voices, and perhaps opening up more conversations about discrimination, are they being heard?” Bheeroo asked. 

Is leadership the problem?

Agencies pointed to several challenges in doing this work, ranging from the difficulty in fostering candid debate during lockdown to legal constraints on collecting data about ethnicity. Some agencies also mentioned the need for mindset change and cultural shifts. Oxfam GB noted the challenge of “bringing staff on the journey with us on why this is important, urgent, and transformative”. Federated organisations, like MSF, noted the challenge of charting a unified way forward amid so many different groups with their own leadership.

By contrast, most aid workers surveyed said the largest obstacles to progress were a lack of organisational willingness, and leadership not being up to the task. 

Arnab Majumdar, who published this deeply personal testimonial of his experience of systemic racism at MSF in The New Humanitarian last year, told the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast: “We’ve watched as the organisation has begun a series of fragmented initiatives across operational centres. While we acknowledge this, the lack of a movement-wide response is itself a source of staff confusion, and a signal that there's little commitment to addressing fundamental structural inequalities like MSF’s two-tiered staff structure.”  

Staff respondents to the questionnaire went further:

“Leadership have provided lip service and no action. Information is hoarded, people are policed and threatened, no changes have been made. When issues arise, staff are told their experiences are incorrect. The workplace feels more unsafe than ever before.”

“Tick Box Exercise. Zero Tangible Change. The hope is that the noise will disappear.”

“Leadership is not interested in self-reflection or change... Leadership regularly has 1-1 meetings with those who speak out telling them to change their tone, threatening them, or asking them to stop sharing feedback.”

“I am dehumanised on a daily basis in my job. To make matters worse, in the face of this undignified disrespectful experience, I'm constantly made to feel like I should be grateful that a white European organisation from the Global North has benevolently blessed me with the job.”

“As a white person, I haven’t suffered the indignity of racial discrimination, but I have witnessed it. And when I reported it, I was encouraged to keep quiet about it and told that I was making people feel uncomfortable by talking about it.”

A minority of staff respondents said recent discussions within their organisations have helped. One aid worker said it had compelled them to examine the ways they are perpetuating the problem. Another said the town halls held in their organisation had made them feel less alone. A third said a safe space had been created for them to open up and speak about their experiences.

And what about the localisation debate?

Given its links to racial justice, the questionnaires also examined progress on localisation – the degree to which power has been devolved to the local level. 

In a recent survey by the British Red Cross as part of research into decolonisation and racism, 20 percent of respondents cited structural racism as responsible for the unequal relationship between local organisations and international aid organisations. 

As Michael Barnett, professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University, writes in the Washington Post, “humanitarian organisations won’t listen to groups on the ground, in part because of institutionalised racism”, which he argues became “coded” in the humanitarian sector through discussions about capacity building and “competence”.  

In contrast to recent findings by the Overseas Development Institute that Black Lives Matter has forced an “urgent rethinking of current practices and relationships with local partners,” only two agencies who filled in The New Humanitarian’s questionnaire reported the increased focus on racial justice trickling down to increased funding, partnership, or decision-making for local organisations. 

What now?

When asked what needs to happen, aid workers called for: hiring people to lead diversity, equity, and inclusion work internally; funding to enable organisations to engage DEI experts; meaningful pipeline and succession plans; and, above all, greater honesty.

“There needs to be a serious acknowledgement that to this point the organisation has been getting it wrong,” one wrote. Another was more direct: “Current leadership needs to step down. They have spent the past 15 years proving they are not interested in self-reflection.”  

The organisations that filled in the questionnaire are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Oxfam Great Britain, Save the Children International, Save the Children UK, CARE International, CARE Australia, the MSF movement, Mercy Corps, and the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

The organisations that provided statements in answer to our questions are the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Programme, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

You’ll find the full answers to the questionnaire here

Share your thoughts with us by email, or add your voice to our Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast by sending a voice note to [email protected].

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