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Beyond lip service: Tackling racism in your development organisation

‘It’s going to take more than one workshop to uproot structural inequalities.’

Two women working on computers in an office
Two women working on computers in an office (Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash)

As a black American woman and international development professional, my first thought when I am deployed is: “how do they perceive and treat black people there? Will I be safe?”

Fortunately, I have yet to experience any overt acts of racism while overseas. However, I only needed to engage with one seasoned white male team leader to learn that not all international development professionals share my commitment to social justice. 

This was an admittedly naïve perspective for a young black woman entering a career in international development. The senior leaders of international development organisations, as in many other industries, are overwhelmingly white and male.

Despite an increase in corporate diversity and inclusion efforts, 85 percent of senior leaders from Fortune 100 companies are white, while only three percent are black. Another study found that 87 percent of executive directors or presidents of non-profit organisations and foundations in the United States are white.

International development organisations often speak about respect for diversity and inclusion as bedrocks for meaningful aid projects and interventions. We advise foreign governments to integrate inclusion strategies into policies and peace agreements. 

However, when I began a short-term technical assistance assignment abroad a few years ago, the shock on the expatriate team leader’s face that I am black was visible. This was another stark reminder of how “do good” industries and professionals are not exempt from racial bias. 

“I want international development organisations to not just “do good” in other countries, but to do better for their own employees and communities.”

I have also struggled throughout my education and career to find black international development professionals that could provide coveted professional mentorship as well as personal guidance on navigating bias and global anti-blackness while being mindful of my privilege as an American abroad. 

There is no shortage of critiques about international development as a neocolonial enterprise. So it is alarming that international development, as an industry, is still not taking a leading role in demonstrating practical and moral-driven organisational strategies to dismantle structural inequalities and to address its role in reinforcing them. International development organisations and companies, particularly those headquartered in the United States and Europe, should consider the following: 

  • Require implicit bias and systemic racism training for all staff. Before engaging with local teams or deployment, all staff should be required to participate in industry-tailored workshops on unconscious bias, power and privilege, and institutionalised racism. The histories and present-day manifestations of racism and inequity vary across countries. However, the skills of critical self-reflection on personal biases, privilege, and power dynamics are essential regardless of the country context. But organisations should not view training as a “check the box” exercise. Given the embeddedness of racism, it is going to take more than one workshop to uproot structural inequalities. 
  • Evaluate managers and senior leadership on their actions to address structural inequalities. Career advancement should require leaders to demonstrate their efforts to transform systemic inequities, not only assess their verbal commitment to diversity and inclusion. Do not make the mistake of setting diversity quotas or putting people of colour on the spot to educate their white colleagues or represent their communities. In our industry, we pride ourselves on being able to monitor and evaluate complex issues, so quantifying managers’ meaningful behaviours to support systemic changes should be no different. 
  • Invest in professional development for marginalised communities, specifically black Americans. For development professionals from the United States, early career advancement frequently requires you to have the resources to volunteer abroad or take unpaid internships. This is particularly challenging for black Americans whose families’ average net worth is nearly 10 times less than white American families and who hold around twice the student loan debt of white graduates. International development organisations should invest in scholarship programmes that would enable black Americans to get that coveted “first overseas post”. Eliminating unpaid internships would also have a huge impact on reducing structural inequalities. 
  • Treat efforts to address systemic racism as a mark of excellence: proudly include your organisation’s investments to address structural inequalities in proposals to donors. But know that boilerplate language about “diversity and inclusion” will no longer suffice. In order to truly address systemic inequalities through recruitment and business development, we should critically examine how requests for proposals may reinforce inequities and push back on donor requirements that do so. For example, prioritising candidates with 15 years of overseas senior management experience significantly limits the pool of potential outstanding and more diverse candidates. 

In order for our organisations to mirror the inclusion practices we promote abroad and serve as a model – or leader – in proactive strategies to uproot systemic racism, I offer these ideas based on my lived experiences as a black American woman in international development.

I want international development organisations to not just “do good” in other countries, but to do better for their own employees and communities. Our roles in well-meaning and strategically-crafted programming to address global inequality do not absolve us from the responsibility to transform the institutions and communities we are a part of. 

Reese, writing here in a personal capacity, works at the DAI Center for Secure and Stable States.

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