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Readers React | Racism in the aid sector and the way forward

Here’s what readers are saying. What do you think?

Over the past several months, readers have had a lot to say about our ongoing coverage of how the Black Lives Matter movement is reverberating through the aid sector.

Many of you have shared your experiences of racism in humanitarian work, and your ideas on the way forward. Here’s what you’ve told us – and, no, it’s not too late to add your own thoughts (see below). 

Our recent coverage included a look at police violence in Kenya, an op-ed on how people can “do good” and still be racist, and a longer form opinion essay about the writer’s experience at Médecins Sans Frontières, which prompted responses from the organisation itself. All our stories on the intersection of Black Lives Matter and the aid sector are here. And do check out the online conversation, “When the West Falls into Crisis”, which kicked off this coverage and generated much discussion in its own right.

So here's a look at what you've been saying. Comments are arranged in chronological order, beneath the questions we asked you in our articles. 

(Entries have been edited for clarity, and organisational and personal identifiers redacted. When submitting comments, writers could choose to identify themselves in some way or to stay anonymous. The views in the comments below are the opinions of the individuals who submitted the responses. They do not reflect the opinion of TNH and are not our journalistic work.)

In response to: Share your experience with racism in the sector

These comments were submitted by readers of various articles on Black Lives Matter and the aid sector. Add your experience here.

In the workplace

‘Terrible and dehumanising’

– Anonymous, 8 June

‘The organisation is currently paralysed’

I now realise I was tolerated for as long as I was a junior official. But as I rose a little bit and began to aspire for a position of higher responsibility, my life as an African in [my organisation] is hell. I see how difficult it is for so many other Africans around me. Everyone keeps quiet to stay safe and hold onto their monthly paychecks. 

The previous director tried to increase the number of Africans in [the writer’s organisation], which remains predominantly white male dominated – white Anglo-Saxon – a fact that is clearly at odds with the populations [the organisation] is intended to serve. He succeeded to some extent despite the resistance he faced. But not for long!! 

The new administration’s policies seem designed to undo all of that. This administration is superintending over one of the least transparent, most brutal systems the organisation has witnessed. 

The organisation is currently paralysed with no clear process regarding the appointment of staff deputies. This paralysis and the resulting chaos are a self-inflicted wound, I should add. 

UNHCR [not the organisation in question] has responded to the outrage many feel and the support for the ‘I cannot breathe‘ movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd by calling for a town hall meeting to discuss racism. We have not and likely will not hear a peep from [my organisation’s] administration. Should they be compelled to do something similar by external forces, there will be nothing said by any staff for fear of retribution.

[My organisation] needs help as so many Black people in [it] are suffocating. We cannot breathe!! How can [we] serve the people they’re intended to serve and tolerate, in fact, perpetrate such meanness?

– Anonymous, 9 June

‘This is the reality of our work environment’

I am an African woman who works on humanitarian and development policy issues for the [writer's employer] in the African continent. My story is similar to many others that I have read, and this has given me the comfort and dare I say courage to know that I am not paranoid. Because the system will make you question yourself over and over as to whether what you are experiencing is indeed racial discrimination or if in fact your work is substandard and therefore the claims and corridor talk about your level of competency in your area of specialisation are indeed justified. My experience varies from having colleagues who have absolutely no experience nor understanding of the dynamics and specificities that shape the context of migration and mobility on the continent taking the lead role in discussions and decisions being taken. Consequently, if you dare to make an objection, you become labelled as incompetent. The paradox of this is that when you initiate good ideas that result in tangible and successful deliverables or products, woe unto you, because everyone is mobilised against you to find ways to claim the glory for those initiatives. In some instances, your accomplishments and success stories are minimised into mere activities that do not deserve mention. This is the reality of our work environment, however we soldier on because we understand ever more clearly what is at stake, i.e. the development and progress of Africa.

– Anonymous, 11 June

‘I feel that white colleagues can barely connect’

I am living in a “developed” country now and have worked in a few non-profits for international development here. The current organisation I am working in is supposed to be multicultural and yet it is so white that I often feel cornered, excluded, and powerless. The partner organisations I work with are also similar. And often credit for things I have done goes to my white colleague. I lose sleep at night thinking what I could have done better to prove that it was I who put time and effort behind those things to get done. Some of the senior colleagues never have time for me for a short work-related chat, but have plenty of time to chit-chat with my white colleagues. In all the organisations I work at, they keep talking about Southern leadership, but there are only white males and sometimes with one or two white females (who are extremely patriarchal in mentality) in management positions, leading the organisations in a very top-down manner.

When I was working in my own “developing” country, a white lady was in charge to “control the quality” of the behaviour change communication materials I was developing in my own language. Please note that I have a very strong background in communications and commercial advertising. I confronted her and said: “You do not speak the language, and after living in this country of so many years, you never even tried once to eat with your hand, how do you expect to control the quality of the BCC materials I am developing?” Yes, I saw white people with minimum or no empathy and skills being brought to those developing countries and paid high salaries to decide about issues they have very little idea about. 

What's most frustrating is that they are earning their bread at the cost of us and yet they have so little honesty to the cause they work for. They go on work holidays in the exotic “South,” spend money unscrupulously for conferences, hotels and flights, talk big talks, believing and acting very little. Of course, there are sometimes a few white colleagues who question some of these rather unethical methods and approaches of their organisations. But when it comes to personal experience, I feel that white colleagues can barely connect.

– Anonymous, 26 June

International staff

‘It's a bias that keeps reinforcing itself’

International staff in NGOs seem to operate on the assumption that they represent the global standard, and that host country staff need to do all the adapting to work and communicate with the foreigners. The expats don't learn the national language, local staff are expected to learn English or French to a professional level. Expats hold themselves above local society, avoiding the markets, street food, and other parts of everyday life. They don't socialise with national staff or other local people, only other expats. When a crisis hits like COVID, they flee to their countries for safety even though their own countries have more COVID. Too many of the top management posts are occupied by Westerners, which has a huge influence on the style of management, the sense that the office is where important things happen and what happens in the field is peripheral. So many expats make the organisation top-heavy with exorbitant overhead costs, and many of those jobs could be done by qualified national staff. It's a bias that keeps reinforcing itself when top managers all live in the same bubble disconnected from the society of the country they purportedly came here to support.

– Anonymous, 17 June

‘Racism is present in the quota system’

Racism is present in the quota system that these organisations use. They claim each country has an equal quota. They then go off to open offices in Africa and count everyone including the janitor as part of the quota in that organisation while the director will be from a European country. RACISM INSTITUTIONALISED!

– Anonymous, 18 June


‘I deserve to work anywhere where I can use my skills and expertise to serve humanity’

I was fired from my job last year, a job I loved and appreciated. I felt as though my career was at a peak, until I joined a new department. When I joined the team there were only three of us because the department director had not been officially appointed yet. When the director was officially appointed she somewhat adopted the three of us who had been in the department. The first month she became my boss, she changed my position title without consulting me. I received an email from HR letting me know that my job title had been changed. When I asked her about it she told me she has no idea how that could have happened even though she was copied in the emails. I let it go as we were only starting to work with each other. After a while however I started noticing that I had become the department help. I was not given substantive work to do and the work I was doing was taken from me and given to another white colleague who had no background in this work and I was expected to give her all the information on this and transition the information. Thereafter I was then told that I would be “helping” her with the work. She would be leading and I would help her. I refused of course, and said if she was leading the work she should just do it, I didn't need help doing it so why should she have ‘help’? Eventually I got fired because I refused to be “the help” and I refused to be grateful to be there. The director told me that she didn't have money to keep me. HR then informed her that this was unfair dismissal and she preferred to pay me for two months than to keep me and give me proper notice. [This organisation] was never created with the idea of having black people sitting at the table and now that we do they want to make us feel grateful for sitting there. I will not. I deserve to be in this world by virtue of creation. I deserve to work anywhere where I can use my skills and expertise to serve humanity. Please remove your knee from my throat because #ICan'tBreathe 

– Anonymous, 8 June

‘I suffered racism and gross violation’

[My organisation] is not a perfect place to work for as they want us to believe, especially for consultants. I suffered racism and gross violation that resulted with my consultancy contract not being renewed. No explanation was provided, but I heard the chief wanted her fellow country person to get the job from the beginning but she wasn't qualified, so when I got the job the Irish chief pretended to like me, throughout my contract I thought everything was okay but at the end, I heard the chief was writing some emails criticising my performance without even speaking with me and at the end my contract wasn't renewed.

– Anonymous, 8 June

‘Tomorrow they will become my managers’

I had been working in the same organisation as national staff for the last 14 years, with no performance review since 2007. When I asked to be evaluated, I was told I am doing great. The fact remained, I needed proof. My boss knew that I might leave and get a better job and that is what he didn't want. So I was turned into a trainer. A number of international staff were recruited and brought to the country where I worked and I trained them. Tomorrow they will become my managers and because of racism, they have no one developing me by setting objectives, I had been living under that frustration for the last 14 years.

– Anonymous, 9 June

In response to: To what degree will aid organisations need to directly challenge their own staff if they are to initiate the radical changes necessary to dismantle a powerful system of positionality and privilege?

Asked in “Bearing witness inside MSF”. Add your thoughts here.

‘We put up barriers to people who are not well-off white people from day one’ 

We make statements and happy little memes but do not call on anyone at any level to reflect. In my work for an international aid organisation for seven years, something that shocked me was the internalised racism and how well supported it was by the HR system. People of colour would actively seek new staff and interns from specific high-cost universities in the US or Switzerland, passing over or actively excluding people who attended universities in their own countries. It’s hard to get a start in this industry and we put up barriers to people who are not well-off white people from day one. And when people of colour, national staff, support these types of hiring strategies they are seen as making wise decisions, because to back your own people would be seen as nepotism or charity. Nevermind that the whole system at the top is built on nepotism, which we are obliged to call “networking”. 

– Anonymous, 19 August

‘If your idea of privilege is individual status amongst the wealthy you have lost all connection with the reality of what humanitarian operations are meant to respond to’

The systems we need to challenge are the ones that lead to children dying of preventable diseases in South Sudan, civilians being indiscriminately shelled in Syria, the sexual violence committed against women in the Congo. Or internally, the transfer of risk to national actors, the hiring of inappropriate staff to conduct life saving operations in conflict areas. The attempt to transfer victimhood away from the impoverished, from people who have been assaulted, raped, or killed to well-paid, university educated, privileged 'humanitarians' is despicable. If your idea of privilege is individual status amongst the wealthy you have lost all connection with the reality of what humanitarian operations are meant to respond to. It highlights just how far removed ‘humanitarians’ have become from the people they are meant to serve.

– Anonymous, 19 August

‘Racist power dynamics are supported by policies’

It will be necessary for aid organisations to directly challenge their own staff in order to initiate the radical changes necessary to dismantle the inequitable power structures precisely because it is our own staff that are reinforcing and upholding these systems. Inequitable and racist power dynamics are supported by policies and practices which are developed, mainstreamed, and practised by staff! You cannot separate the two and as such, need to have an awareness and understanding of positionality and privilege, and how these dynamics play out which result in the protection of and hoarding of power.

– Institutionally Racist & Complicit, 19 August

‘Will you dare to write about them?’

I wonder about institutional racism and the Gates Foundation, one of your funders, unlike MSF. Might there be significant issues there? Will you dare to write about them?

Note from TNH: We have, and will continue to do so.

– Anonymous, 21 August

‘Donors and boards of management must also be challenged’

1. CEOs and managers should be included in “staff”; not least because projects and programmes often originate from, or are revised by, this level, and they may not consider how far non-managerial and local staff have been consulted let alone involved, and why.

2. Donors and boards of management must also be challenged on race, ability, and gender issues.

3. No automatic promotions, at any level.

– Anonymous, 21 August 2020

‘We have to do it constantly and against any type of injustice’

I strongly believe that any aid organisation, actually any type of organisation, must strongly dismantle any injustice inside the organisation itself and must try to create the most impartial and correct system to work avoiding any privilege. 

Given that, I have a completely different experience from the one shared by the author. I am a European medical doctor and I have worked 15 years with MSF in more than 10 missions all over the world. I have been part of several multicultural teams, sometimes in a coordination position, sometimes as a medical doctor. I have been coordinated by nurses, doctors, European, African, Asian, Black, and white colleagues.

Being part of multicultural teams was not always easy. Diversity is a richness but it requires a continuous effort and wish to understand the others. I have been lucky enough to have always received a lot from the teams I have worked with, and to have created strong relationships and friendships with people from many different cultures.

One of the experiences giving me more joy was to see “national staff” becoming “international staff” and leave for missions out of their own country. This happened to me in India, in Ukraine, in Guinea, in Lebanon, and in Italy… yes, also in my own country I had colleagues working for the first time with MSF in Sicily as national staff, and after 2 years becoming international staff.

In MSF I had probably my strongest discussions, the biggest challenges, the deepest friendship and fight, joy and rages.

There are a lot of things to improve, and I think we have to do it constantly and against any type of injustice.

– Chiara Montaldo, 21 August 2020

‘The entire concept of “international staff” definition is effed up’

A systemic overhaul is needed. The additional aspect is how class (socio-economic status) intersects with race and gender. Many international development and humanitarian organisations are also top heavy: Older staff have grown up in European and North American societies that have never reckoned with the history of colonisation. 

So, if you are non-white, and god forbid, not male AND not rich/suave, you have to make yourself smaller. Confidence is equated with arrogance. 

The entire concept of “international staff” definition is effed up – work experience in the Global South (if it is your home country, no matter how large or diverse) doesn’t count as “international experience”. However, if you have only ever worked in your home country that happens to be located in North America or Europe, that’s “international” work. 

As a citizen of Global South, your experience and education will never be sufficient to make you a specialist or an expert – no matter how many years you stack your resume with. You will never match up to their requirements. If you are from NA or Western Europe, you can go from a background in, say, a generic subject to being an economist or a behavioural scientist with literally zero experience or education… and be a chameleon. 

Micro-aggressions are aplenty. Networking happens over drinking. Nepotism is the norm. The entire system is rotten. Inside out.

– Anonymous, UN 22 August 2020 

‘It’s all equally shocking and disappointing’

This article is brilliant because it captures something that so many people of colour are also experiencing to differing degrees, but it’s all equally shocking and disappointing. Defensiveness, fragility, ego, hypocrisy, and labelling those who are speaking up as troublemakers, especially when they are from a minority group.

– Anonymous, 24 August 2020

‘Change has to be systemic’

The change has to be systemic because the problem is. And, it begins with eliminating the national/international categories in setting salary scales while recognising that some positions are politically sensitive or require certain experience/exposures that could be covered under allowances/special pay. Also, staff on projects in developing countries or conflict areas should be required to live in those locations. It is ridiculous that such “international” staff reside in Geneva, collect post adjustment for living in that city, and incur travel and DSA [daily subsistence allowance] for the projects to which they are assigned.

– Sherry Khan, UNHQ, NY 25 August 2020

‘It cannot work at best and it is neo-colonialism at worst’

I think the concepts of “aid” and “international development” need to be vigorously rethought. The ideas and state of the world that led to the creation of the models that the UN and other international organisations embody are not even remotely close to what exists now. Pare down what international aid organisations and the UN are striving to achieve – some kind of assistance from without – and it cannot work at best and it is neo-colonialism at worst. Effective assistance is hearing what is needed from those on the ground and funding or supporting that, not leading it. A massive change is needed to the underlying concepts as well as all these organisations themselves. Lords of Poverty (by Graham Hancock) could not be more relevant today than when it was written.

– Ele Pawelski (former international development worker), 25 August 2020

‘For radical change to happen it must consciously be put on the agenda’

I think an organisation is only as anti-racist as the people it chooses to represent it as staff. Since anti-racism cannot be done quietly from the sidelines but is by its nature a public counter-act, there can be no room for complacency, nor can racial justice work be a discreet side note.

For radical change to happen it must consciously be put on the agenda by aid organisations and staff must be challenged not only to take a stance, but to actively, deliberately dismantle whatever structures exist within their institution that create or perpetuate injustice.

But true commitment to initiating the necessary changes is hard to come by in many aid organisations, because I think that within many, even openly speaking of racism is already perceived as “radical”, let alone doing the real work of forcing white aid workers off their pedestals (for example by overhauling recruitment policies, resource sharing, and decision-making structures), and acknowledging the power of POC in meaningful and lasting ways.

– POC working for an INGO in Syria, 26 August 2020

‘It is not the responsibility of POC staff members to educate their white colleagues’

As was eloquently stated in Arnab's article, aid organisations must do more to challenge their own staff to initiate conversations on dismantling institutional racism. 

At one aid organisation, I worked with an almost all-white team in an office plastered with photos of only POC children on the walls. Employees would often speak out about progressive topics, but no one would address the fact that there were virtually no POC in that space – save for myself, a handful of staff members, and the kids on the walls. 

If there’s one thing that will get those conversations rolling, it will be reorienting the hiring process to use a racial and social equity lens, so that more POC can enter the space and a genuine conversation on positionality and privilege can take place. Dismantling institutional racism can begin by breaking down the systems that enable it (i.e. an all-white workspace). 

That said, it is not the responsibility of POC staff members to educate their white colleagues on institutional racism. Rather, it is the responsibility of aid organisations’ management teams to facilitate small and large-group conversations on the topic and start addressing racist behaviours in the workplace.

– Anonymous, 27 August 2020

‘It is a chronic issue that should be handled with the urgency it deserves’

To the degree that the same organisations hold matters to do with sexual abuse and harassment among their staff members, it is a chronic issue that should be handled with the urgency it deserves. Am glad Arnab brought this issue forward.

– Current MSF staff member, 27 August 2020

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