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Aid workers: It’s time to practise what you preach

‘I needed to fight to be at the table, and fight while at the table.’

People hold signs during a protest against the police killing of George Floyd in Vienna
People hold signs during a protest against the police killing of George Floyd on 4 June in Vienna, Austria. (Leonhard Foeger/REUTERS)

Share your experience of racism in the humanitarian sector.

I’ve been in international development for nearly 20 years. And still, when I walk into meetings, I can appear – to some – invisible.

I have lived and worked in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States. I am 43 years old and lived the bulk of my adult life outside of my country.

On various occasions I have had to explain that 1. Yes, I am African and no, the whole of Africa is not at war, and when I have walked barefoot it has been out of my choice to feel the earth 2. Yes, I was born in a hospital and not under a tree, and no we don’t hunt lions for dinner in our backyard 3. No, I do not speak English because I was adopted – the foundation of my education was in Zambia, and it is that which prepared me to qualify for jobs in the UN and elsewhere 4. Yes, I have also qualified, with merits, for two master’s degrees at the University of London and York St John University in England, where as you can imagine, the language of instruction is English.

I put this background here because I have to counter this ignorance again and again and again.

I was at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2018 attending a fragility and conflict conference. Enthusiastic as I always am, I joined a short queue of experts to intervene, as we were beckoned by the facilitator in one of the sessions.

Fifth and last in line, I scanned through my notes to prepare my intervention as the line moved up. As the person in front of me went up to the standing microphone, the facilitator announced it was the last question she was taking because of “time constraints”.

Bear in mind, I am already standing in an aisle with participants on both sides of this big auditorium, brightly dressed in my yellow-and-mustard suit, and in my high heels.

So yes, I was quite – if not very – visible. I thought to myself, “Oh, perhaps she has not seen me. Do I walk back to my seat or do I stand here and still try to make my intervention?” 

Of course I settled on the latter. 

The person in front of me finished his intervention and walked away, so there I was, standing facing the panelists and having all eyes on me from the auditorium. The facilitator, a white woman, looked at me and turned to the panellists as if not seeing me, and started wrapping up. I interrupted her and stated I was sure my intervention was not going to hold us hostage forever, which drew giggles. I went on to state that I needed to make my point as I represent the under-represented of the most vulnerable people, who are often “left behind” in these so-called “high-level” meetings, because they can’t speak the language, they don’t have passports, and because, let’s face it, getting them a visa would be too much of a hassle.  

“If this enterprise of aid, development, international relations cannot model the values we preach, why should anyone take us seriously?”

That moment was uncomfortable to those watching and whoever saw what was wrong. For me, it was humiliating, and while I stood there with my head high (which is what we are often told to do), I did not understand why I needed to fight to be at the table, and fight while at the table; why I had to politely interrupt the meeting and seem rude just so I could be heard.

Emotional intelligence would have told me if I were facilitating, which I often do, that the best thing would have been to quickly talk to that person standing there, acknowledge her, and ask her to quickly make that intervention in 60 seconds, instead of blatantly ignoring her.

This field that I – and the facilitator – work in is supposed to be anchored on fundamental humanitarian and human rights principles: humanity, unity, universality, equality. The application of these principles has to be conscious and deliberate. If this enterprise of aid, development, international relations cannot model the values we preach, why should anyone take us seriously?

Many of you who have never experienced overt or subtle acts of racism or gender disregard will think very lightly of what I describe above. But here is why this example should not be diminished. Watching the police officer lodge his knee into George Floyd’s neck, in broad daylight, with an audience filming, had me thinking, on just how invisible our lives can be to some.

The knee is lodged in so many ways into black people and people of colour. Reverend Al Sharpton’s analogy of “get your knee off our necks” resonates at so many levels.

The blatant disregard of that one black life is symbolic of deep-rooted injustices, prejudices, and plain racism that filters to many more sectors of our lives in this globalised world. We go to plenty of NGO and UN meetings and conferences where inclusion and equality are buzzwords. On a social level, we mingle at restaurants, offices, gyms, meetings, airports, where the barriers are sometimes genuinely or superficially broken down.

However, that systematic and institutionalised prejudice, the entitlement to undermine and disregard others because of their skin colour, and make them invisible, is not stuck just in Minneapolis.

And this is why you should care about that daylight lynching of George Floyd – because you may just be complacent about how you, unconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, perpetuate some form of modern-day lynching in your space.

“You alone can start to make a difference in your space, by not pretending the world is not in crisis, and speaking up when you see wrong.”

Grief and outrage do not even begin to describe the emotions I have experienced watching the news. That “lodging of the knee” unravelled so much for any black person, or person of colour who has ever been slighted in meetings, been told they need to get a native British or American intern to read over their document; ever watched a team slowly get decimated to undermine you; or been passed over for promotions; ever got strategically written out of your job when it’s changed to perfectly fit that intern; found yourself stuck at the same level after 10 years of loyalty and hard work...

Maybe you have simply watched how management systematically empowers certain groups by giving them opportunities that place them at an advantage over you, the black woman or man, or you, the person of colour. 

Or perhaps you are privileged to silently watch these things I describe, and may have in fact benefitted from these systems and probably find this conversation uncomfortable and noisy.

Don’t.

You alone can start to make a difference in your space, by not pretending the world is not in crisis, and speaking up when you see wrong.

As for me, I don’t doubt that you see me! And while I am at the table, I will continue to ensure that my voice continues to represent the voices of the poor and most vulnerable people that we are seeing, and yet continue to “leave behind”.

Mwape, writing in a personal capacity, is Humanitarian Diplomacy Coordinator for Partners for Resilience and the Netherlands Red Cross Society.

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