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Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast | Diversity in the aid sector

‘Whilst people of colour are raising their voices, and perhaps opening up more conversations about discrimination, are they being heard?’

Amid the 2020 global movement for racial justice, aid organisations were criticised for their lack of diversity and colonial structures. Many published statements promising to do better. So, more than a year after this renewed push for racial justice, what progress has the humanitarian aid sector made? 

In this episode, TNH CEO and podcast host Heba Aly reveals the outcomes of TNH questionnaires circulated among aid organisations and aid workers. We also hear how one independent watchdog is trying to keep the sector accountable, and from an aid executive trying to foster change from the inside; as guests Lena Bheeroo from Charity So White and the Racial Equity Index, and Peter Walton, CEO of Care Australia, share their decolonisation journeys.

For more, check out this article summarising the findings of the questionnaires The New Humanitarian shared with aid agencies and aid workers.

New episodes of Rethinking Humanitarianism are published every two weeks. Make sure you never miss an episode of season two by subscribing on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or searching “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

Show notes

Bearing Witness inside MSF - The New Humanitarian

MSF staff letter - The Guardian

Dignity at MSF - Decolonise MSF 

Charity So White

The Samaritans - A hit Kenyan satire about a fictional NGO

TRANSCRIPT: Diversity in the aid sector

Heba Aly: Last year amid a global movement for racial justice, aid organisations were criticised for colonial and racist attitudes in their hiring, financing, and aid delivery. Many of them pledged to do better. 

Audio clips, Oct 2021

Right now we are listening. And we’re taking a hard look at how to confront racism and discrimination within our organisation. 

We will continue to challenge ourselves to recognise and address the systemic racism of the international development sector of which we are part – an active, anti-racist role we must play.

While commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t new, we haven't expressed our commitment to anti-racism determinately enough. And we haven’t matched this commitment with wide ranging action that dismantles privilege. 

We are committed not only to fight against racism, but to begin an actively anti-racist organisation. This requires dismantling structures that institutionalise white power and privilege. 

We will seek more diverse partners across our development, humanitarian, and domestic work, sharing with and giving up power to them.

We pledge to live up to our values, and promote an equal and anti-racist workplace. 

Aly: Nearly a year and a half after those well crafted statements. Has the humanitarian aid sector improved when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion? What about the broader decolonisation agenda? Have all of these promises led to real change? 

In today’s episode, we share the outcomes of questionnaires circulated among aid organisations and aid workers. We hear about one initiative trying to hold the sector accountable. And we speak to one NGO executive grappling with the challenge of decolonising his organisation.

I’m Heba Aly, and this is Rethinking Humanitarianism.

In today’s episode, we’re asking what progress has the humanitarian aid sector made more than a year after the push for racial justice? And to try to answer that question, Rethinking Humanitarianism reached out to some of the biggest international NGOs and UN agencies working in humanitarian response. We asked them to answer a set of questions about what they’ve done to advance racial justice within their institutions since the murder of George Floyd pushed the Black Lives Matter movement back into the spotlight. The questionnaire touched not only on racism, but also on the broader debate about decolonising aid that has taken hold in the last year.

So today’s conversation will encompass both diversity and inclusion among aid staff, but also the degree to which aid is locally led. Our producer Marthe van der Wolf is in the studio to give us insights into the answers. Hi, Marthe.

Marthe van der Wolf: Hi.

Aly: So you reached out to twenty-one organisations, nine international NGOs filled in the questionnaire, and the three UN agencies provided statements. What were some of the main takeaways?

Van der Wolf: There’s certainly an acknowledgement that more needs to be done around diversity, equity, and inclusion. But also, of course, that one year is actually a short amount of time to realise change when it comes to tackling racism, improving diversity and inclusion, and changing long standing structures. But also, one of the main takeaways is that there are different definitions of what diversity actually is. So the self-reported progress is mixed. Some organisations seem to have made racial diversity a priority, while others are focusing much more on gender. And then, it kind of seems as if UN agencies appear less committed to the agenda than their NGO counterparts. 

Aly: And somehow I’m not surprised. We asked these organisations what actions they’ve taken in the last year. Where was most of that action focused from what they reported?

Van der Wolf: Mostly at the strategic level. Many agencies reported much more high-level engagement with the topic. Most of the organisation’s reported having introduced new policies and centre diversity in their strategies. Some had set very clear diversity targets in their staffing and committed to public reporting. Four of them reviewed salary skills or reviewed retention numbers of non-white staff. Many also offer training on anti-racism and racial equality.

For most NGOs, responsibility for the diversity, equity, inclusion agenda – it rested with senior leadership and they reported engagement from leadership on these issues. 

Aly: I was looking through some of the results and found a number of initiatives pretty interesting. The ICRC setting up a new global independent board of appeal, and holding town halls in different languages open to staff around the world where people could express their experiences on racism and discrimination. 

Save the Children UK had this fascinating concept of reverse mentorship. So rather than mentoring people of colour and minorities, that the minorities and people of colour were mentoring others. 

Mercy Corps set up internship programs with Black and Hispanic institutions and universities. And simple things like Oxfam GB establishing diversity champions on recruitment panels. 

But, to what extent has all of that kind of trickled down to the field level, from what we can tell? 

Van der Wolf: Actually, only one of the agencies surveyed said that had devolved power to local communities in the last year. And there were only two who had said that they had increased partnership or funding to local organisations. 

Aly: Interesting. And then we also did a survey, or an open call I should call it, to individual aid workers to answer a similar set of questions. We got about 150 responses. How did their answers compare to the more institutional responses?

Van der Wolf: There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between what aid agencies report having done and then what aid workers experienced as a change. Agencies reported that they had taken a number of actions like creating new positions dedicated to diversity and inclusion or approving mechanisms to report discrimination. Yet, the majority of eight workers who responded to the other survey said that these actions had not changed their personal work experience. And three quarters of respondents said their organisation’s performance in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion was not good and could be better. And there were actually more than twenty people who said that they considered leaving their job in the last year due to racial discrimination. 

Aly: We should note, I suppose, that there’s an obvious risk of self-selection bias in the sense that those who take the time to respond are probably those who feel the most frustrated, but I was struck by one of the comments in which someone said, ‘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.’ 

Van der Wolf: Yes, there were a lot of these kinds of statements. But also another one said, ‘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.’ But I mean, we also have to be fair, there were also aid workers who said that there was progress and one said that they saw strong demonstration by their organisation being serious about developing greater awareness on diversity and inclusion. And that they did feel that there now was a safe space for them to open up about this and speak about their experiences.

Aly: Thank you, Marthe, for these initial insights.

Van der Wolf: Thank you.

Aly: We’re not the only one surveying people about racism and diversity in the aid sector these days. A group of current and former staff of Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, who call themselves Decolonise MSF are trying to abolish racism within the organisation. And they recently released a report about abuse and discrimination at MSF, based on a survey they conducted this summer. 

You may remember that last summer a 1,000 current and former staff of MSF wrote an open letter to management, saying the charity is institutionally racist and reinforces colonialism and white supremacy in its humanitarian work. 

Following that letter, The New Humanitarian published a testimonial by Arnab Majumdar, on his experience as a person of colour working for MSF. And he described racialised internal power structures and a culture of institutional racism. Arnab is now a member of Decolonise MSF, and we asked him for his thoughts on progress in the sector more than a year after his personal story went somewhat viral. 

Arnab Majumdar: After writing my article last year, I was deeply touched by the wave of personal messages of support from across the sector. MSF leadership, interestingly focused on public statements. Despite press releases and letters to staff, many of which included my name, few directors ever reached out directly, and none asked for meaningful input to reform existing processes or structures. This past spring, my colleague Monica Mukerjee and I began disseminating stories from the original staff-led open letter. We began to think of how we could actually understand in greater detail what was happening within the movement. So we designed a global survey, which went live in July, and engaged 359 participants. While we cannot claim that our data is representative, what we found was alarming.

Fifty-four percent of MSF respondents witnessed or experienced one or more types of abuse over the last twelve months. Almost half saw no change in these issues on their teams or inthe wider movement. Almost 60 percent of MSF respondents have at one point reported abuse when managers are included. And just below nine percent of those who reported felt fully satisfied with outcomes. 

We hope that our report serves to propel the organisation into carrying out a complete independent investigation. 

Aly: You’ll find links to Arnab’s testimonial and the survey done by Decolonise MSF in the show notes of today's episode.

Now, Decolonise MSF’s report and our questionnaires give us a finger on the pulse but are obviously a limited sample size. So for a broader view, we have called Charity So White into our virtual podcast studio. Charity So White is a grassroots campaign by people of colour in the UK that advocates for tackling institutional racism within the charity sector. 

They say they don't want to burn the sector down, but they want to make it better. Joining us from Charity So White is Lena Bheeroo. Her day job is leading anti-racism work at Bond, a network for international development organisations in the UK. But she’s also one of the volunteers behind Charity So White. Welcome, Lena.

Lena Bheeroo: Hi

Aly: So tell us how did Charity So White start?

Bheeroo: Charity So White started in August 2019. And it was actually one of our founders, Fatima, who was going through the Citizens Advice website, a charity in the UK, and found some training materials which the organisation was publicly using to upskill their staff. And it was advice on how to engage with racialised communities. But all of those training materials were full of stereotypical tropes and racist assumptions about racialised communities. And so, she kind of called that out on social media, using the hashtag Charity So White. And very quickly, a lot of people of colour across the UK working in the charity sector just started to use the hashtag and shared some of their experiences, their racism incidents with us online. And so it became a hashtag, it became a movement really. 

Aly: And so I’m interested from that vantage point – but also from your work at Bond where you did a similar survey last year with a much bigger sample size – how you react to the results of our survey with aid workers and with aid institutions and how they compared to what you’ve seen?

Bheeroo: Yep. So we did a survey last year with 150 NGOs responding. We also, similar to yourself, did a survey for – I use the term people of colour – across the sector, both in the UK and outside and also got 160 responses. I think your data doesn’t surprise me at all. 

The fact that you didn’t get as many organisations responding with detail, and perhaps more statements, demonstrates that they don’t have in place real mechanisms to collect data on this information. Perhaps they don’t track it, perhaps they’re not at a position where they feel like they can be transparent about it. 

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

It really speaks to how much work needs to be done within organisations across the sector more than a year on after the murder of George Floyd. But, this harm to people of colour in this sector has been going on for years. And it’s only since last year that we’ve provided spaces for some of those issues to come out. And so whilst people of colour are raising their voices, and perhaps opening up more conversations about discrimination, are they being heard? 

Definitely a first step is recognising that policies and procedures that we have in place are actually creating and maintaining racist practices. And that really needs to change. But that is not the be all and end all. It must not just be something that sits in HR. This is an everybody problem. 

Aly: And it was very interesting because, yes, there were those policies and procedures, but then when you looked at actual diversity in the staffing the numbers didn’t necessarily reflect that that much change had happened. Particularly in leadership and governance teams. 

So, I should be fair, that percentage of new staff that brought diversity was higher than the percentage of existing staff. So that shows movement in the direction of greater diversity. 

But a lot of organisations had a massive contrast between the makeup of their staff from country offices, so 85-90 percent of their staff being from the countries that they serve. And yet, the makeup of the leadership and governance teams often less than 50 percent diversity, and more often less than 15 percent. Which actually lines up with research the Center for Global Development did as well when they surveyed 15 NGO governing boards and found that only two percent of board members of NGOs had lived experience of humanitarian crises. 

So, what are you seeing in your work in that regard in terms of the actual composition of staff.

Bheeroo: So in Charity So White we don’t talk about diversity and inclusion. We talk directly about power and privilege, and anti-racism, anti-oppression. And I think that’s one of the problems with the sector and getting to grips and getting comfortable with using terminology like that. 

With boards, certainly across the sector, they are made up of people who have been in this sector a long time. They hold a huge amount of power and privilege and getting to a place where you can invite your board to think differently about the people they have on it, how perhaps some people should step down, means relinquishing power, means relinquishing the privilege status that you do have and perhaps you aren’t the best person to be governing an organisation that is working with communities in Latin America or Africa or South Asia. 

Having that lived experience is really important. And it benefits the organisation, it benefits the work, it benefits the staff. But those conversations are very uncomfortable, there is a need to continue as things are if people don’t understand the benefit of shifting that balance. And connecting anti-oppression, anti-racism at board level is vital. And it really does need to happen in a more open way than it is happening at the moment. 

Boards obviously have a huge role in governing and also recruiting CEO’s. So if you have a homogenous board, the likelihood is that they will hire a white person. And again, we disregard what expertise is in the sector. So when you’re looking for people to lead or to contribute to boards, and to lead organisations, the expertise and value that we need to have involved in our organisations, particularly at the leadership level is that lived experience. 

Aly: And so when you look at where aid agencies are placing their efforts in this journey that they’re on, do you think that they’re focusing on the right issues? 

Bheeroo: It’s a mixed bag, some of them are talking about anti-racism, and they are specifically using those terms. Some of them are talking about [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion]. And the worry with EDI is that they will just try to diversify their workforce, their leadership and their board, but that it’s not going to be done in an equitable way. There is no point, for example, in a country office that you may have to hire local staff into that country office, if they do not have any power over decision-making. If they are not heard in the headquartered country, wherever that may be. So we really need to think more intentionally about the processes, the culture in our organisations. Not just hiring for hiring sake, but for actually getting the right people into the right roles and supporting them to be able to thrive. 

There are so many different elements to this. It’s not just a simple tick box exercise, which is a very dark rabbit hole that we must not fall down. And some organisations who do perhaps just put up those black statements of solidarity, those black squares last year, revamp their policies. And yet that’s not connecting to, as you spoke about, the results from the individuals in the aid sector. That’s not their experience, it’s not translating because not enough work has been done inside organisations.

Aly: In fact, the responses from the individual aid workers that word tick box came up a bit regularly. One of the comments was that ‘our organisation is trying to be seen to be doing good rather than committing to doing things well’. Another said ‘simply tick box exercise, zero tangible change, the hope is that the noise will disappear’. And I wonder, the extent to which we have moved on past a box ticking exercise to do that hard work that you’re talking about? 

Bheeroo: Yeah, certainly at Charity So White and the Racial Equity Index, and I have also created a POC – people of colour – in development working group. What we hear from people in the sector is that it’s a constant struggle for us to keep raising this issue. 

Certainly in the UK, the UK sector has undergone tremendous change since last year with the merger of [the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office] and the aid cuts. So again, it’s about racialised people keeping this on the agenda, keeping it a priority, encouraging, demanding that leadership see this is a priority, and not just a summer of solidarity movement of 2020 that just ended, and now we’re going to talk about funding. 

Obviously, there are lots of challenges for organisations and for leaders to be considering right now. But this work is exhausting. And yet, it’s too important to us not to do. Because the longer we don’t engage with this in a meaningful way and start to unpack what it means to be actively anti-racist, to talk about power and privilege, to be vulnerable. The longer we harm people in our organisations, and we harm the communities that we are working with. 

Aly: You mentioned the Racial Equity Index, and I want to come to that in a minute. But perhaps just to put things in perspective, we heard from a lot of the organisations that this is a long term effort that can’t change overnight. So what are reasonable expectations? How long should it take for this work to take hold? What would be meaningful action one year in?

Bheeroo: A culture change where certainly staff of colour feel safer. That they can actually report incidences and the action will be taken. That they are brought into and invited into decision-making conversations. That their organisation across all areas policy, safeguarding, funding, all the areas that organisations work on, programming, that people who have lived experience are actually in that room when you are discussing how you measure success. Those things can actually be done now. But of course, it is very slow moving. 

Slavery is 400 years old, we really need to confront where our sector came from. The colonial roots of the sector, and recognise how the system that we’re working in is not fit for purpose. We live in a different time now. It is not equitable. And leaders in the sector, CEOs in the sector certainly, have the power to change the way that their organisation works. They’re the ones who the buck stops with. 

And there is also obviously individual work to be done here, as well as in organisations. Of course, a CEO could want to be quite radical and change things in their organisation, but they also need to take their organisation along with them. And that requires those longer considered conversations about why you’re doing it, why it’s important, how everyone has a place, a role in this. And again, that speaks to the self reflection of all of this. 

But it’s a balance between doing action in the right way, not just for action sake, like tick boxing, and not taking action.

Certainly, this is going to take a long time to unpick. And there are some amazing asks to the sector, which the gender and development network have put out and Bond supported. Which, I think, one of them is about by 2023, to have 50 percent of boards of NGOs – this is in the UK – to be reflective of the communities they serve. So be from local communities. That’s a huge ask, it is a bit possible. I do wonder how many organisations will actually commit to that. We trip over ourselves, really, and we hold ourselves back when we don’t move on this. 

But it’s a balance between doing action in the right way, not just for action sake, like tick boxing, and not taking action. What we’re seeing a lot across the sector is that organisations are paralysed by fear, by getting it wrong. And the longer they stay paralysed, the more harm we continue to do. We need The critical step is starting to open it up and to own it. And what we need to see then is true leadership on this, which is something that is very kind of taboo. To be open and honest, and say my organisation is racist, I’m working to dismantle that with my staff, and I’m going to be transparent about it, I’m going to be accountable for I’m going to get things wrong. And I'm going to learn and do it again until I get things right. 

Aly: Really interesting. And we did in fact hear from one CEO in the survey results that the biggest challenge was bringing staff along. And so, this just cuts in so many different ways. 

But I want to hear a bit more about this Racial Equity Index that Charity So White is helping to set up. That, as I understand it, aims to be a barometer of how well international NGOs are measuring up on indicators of racial equality. So where are you at with it? How will it work? Tell me.

Bheeroo: We looked across the sector, looked across the global development sector to see: Is there anything that's like the gender indexes, that’s like the FTSE100. That is transparent about organisations and a place where you can see how well they're doing on racial equity. And we couldn’t find anything. So we thought we would get together and create one. 

What we recognise is racism shows up very differently in different countries. And it makes it more complex. In order for us to build a racial equity index that was representative of people’s experiences of working in global development in different countries, we needed to ask those communities. How do you measure racial equity? 

And so we’ve just released our demographic, our first demographic set of data. One of the things that we’re doing with the racial equity index is we recognise that we do not know everything. And we started to realise the language that we use here is not always translatable. And we need to be more intentional in thinking about that. So we wrote a whole blog about how we got that wrong, and how we are actively seeking different perspectives to make sure that we plug the gaps of any data that we are missing or haven’t received enough data on in terms of countries, communities. 

So we’re pulling all of that information together so that we can set up focus groups to kind of help us fill in those gaps. And then the next stage will be a secondary survey to solidify some of the information that we have. But we wanted to get to a frame that was a racial equity index with clear key indicators of how we are measuring racial equity. 

And once we launch it, which hopefully will be next year, we'll be inviting NGOs, again, from around the world, to submit their data to this. And this is all going to be transparent.

Aly: Really interesting, and will also be interesting to see the extent to which NGOs engage with that.

I think we found that with the survey, those that are a bit more progressive, were keen to have us hold them to account and were pretty transparent about where they’re at on their journey. 

We heard from a lot of the aid workers that responded that they didn’t feel, as we discussed, that their personal work experience had changed despite all of the actions that have been taken over the last year. I was struck by some of the comments we got that ‘hypocrisy was even more evident’, that the efforts were ‘tokenistic and symbolic’. Some went further to say they were attacked when they expressed concerns around DEI-related processes. And we’re talking since all of this awareness and consciousness has emerged. Someone else saying, ‘we’re benefiting from wonderful new hires, but I fear for how they will be treated as we haven’t changed our foundation, which is rooted in white supremacy’.

So I just wonder for you personally, has your experience changed as a woman of colour working in the sector? 

Bheeroo: For me, once I started to speak out, it got to the point where I couldn’t not. And not just me personally, but what I was seeing around me. While sometimes I get very disheartened, when I hear some of the things that my fellow racialised people across the sector are experiencing. I also remember that this time eighteen months ago, you would never be able to have a conversation like this. It just wasn’t possible, you would get shut down very quickly. And yet now there are more and more conversations opening up, whether welcome or not, talking about these issues, talking about power, talking about privilege, talking about shifting the power, locally-led development, how can we do things differently.

Aly: We always ask one last question to all of our guests, which is if they have one practical idea for making change today. What advice would you give to executives, CEOs, etc? If there was one thing they could do today to improve on, as you put it, power and privilege rather than simply DEI? 

Bheeroo: Take the decision to feel the fear that you fear and move past it. Because on the other side, it's much better than being paralysed by fear. So lead by example. It’s a huge thing to ask. It’s also a huge thing to ask people of colour to raise their voices, we aren’t always safe. So join us and actually dive into being uncomfortable, because you will get used to it and you will have so much respect. And being open to being held accountable, being transparent will only make your organisation better, your leadership better, your work better. And that’s what we need to see more of. 

Take the decision to feel the fear that you fear and move past it.

Aly: Thank you, Lena, for speaking up today, for having that courage and for being with us. Really appreciate it. 

Bheeroo: Thank you.

Aly: It's one thing to talk about what needs to happen in principle, quite another to do it in practice. And as Lena said, CEOs do have the power to change things. 

In our survey, aid agencies pointed to challenges that they faced in rolling out this agenda from the difficulty to foster candid debate during lockdown, to legal constraints on collecting data and ethnicity. Federated organisations like MSF noted the challenge of charting a unified way forward amid so many different groups with their own leadership. Others pointed to the need for donors to provide funds for diversity, equity, and inclusion work. But aid workers surveyed said that the largest obstacles to progress were a lack of willingness and leadership not being up to the task. Some agencies also mentioned the need for a mindset change and cultural shifts. 

So what’s it like trying to steer a traditional international NGO towards a more equitable way of working. Peter Walton has been on that quest and joins us to share his experience. Peter was previously international director of the Australian Red Cross where he convinced donors to actually give more funding to local actors directly and shrank his own organisation’s international operations in order to support a more local humanitarian response. He’s now CEO of CARE Australia, where he was brought in to reimagine the organisation. Welcome to the podcast, Peter. 

Peter Walton: Thanks for having me. 

Aly: It is hard to be honest about what it’s like on the inside. So we appreciate your willingness to join us today. You've been in the sector for more than 25 years, I’d love to hear what you think has changed or hasn’t changed when it comes to addressing questions of power and racism in the industry? 

Walton: Not nearly enough. I think the sector has evolved over time in many, many different ways. But I think largely when we talk about shifting power, whether we use terminology such as locally led, not enough has happened. And I often remarked that the department of the status quo is often the most powerful. And actually having significant systematic change is a very painful process because there are so many perverse incentives to not change and I think that’s part of the leadership challenge that Lena was referring to before. 

It isn't just about making a choice it's actually really following through on quite fundamental shifts and narrowing the gap between what I think we often are guilty of, which is, there's a lot of rhetoric, there's not always a lot of action, there’s a lot of spin when it comes to concepts, such as localisation, locally led decolonisation. And I think we have to get better at making sure that we have genuine measures for the shifts that we need, and that the measures of success change over time as well. I don’t think enough has been done. But I also am probably still optimistic that we’re at a time where there are choices that we can make. And I do think it is fundamentally a cultural shift and a leadership challenge. And I think we need to see more and more people align around that. 

Aly: And when you look back at your own journey, I imagine 25 years ago, you were engaging in types of aid that nowadays you might think, ‘oh, I don't know if that was quite right’. 

Walton: Just to tell a very personal story back in the early 90s, I used to feel very proud about thinking I was doing amazing things. Me being this young 24-year-old armed with a master’s degree swanning around parts of West Africa, thinking I had answers, even if I was doing so with humility, and just how fundamentally wrong that was on so many levels. And I do look back and cringe at times now. I was, in many ways, part of a system that was perpetuating huge power imbalances. My career has been, like many, moving through a so-called head office role, going into a country office role. And even that I often reflect on now, in hindsight, that years ago, when I was in those roles, I was often the only expat. But I wasn't the most experienced, I wasn’t the most knowledgeable, I didn’t have the insights around local communities that my local colleagues had, and I got paid more than them. And I think there was a realisation there that there was something fundamentally wrong about the way that the system was working. So I have sort of taken that and in some small ways, tried to challenge and think about how we can do things differently, still respecting the fact that there needs to be an interface between ‘local as possible, as international as necessary’. We’re dealing with very trans-boundary initiatives. But how do we do that, in fundamentally better ways is something that I think I’ve been focused on both at the Red Cross when I was there, but certainly now at CARE. 

Aly: So let’s talk about your time at the Australian Red Cross, just to start, you have kind of developed this reputation now, as the person who shrank that organisation significantly, you laid off 100 people, shrunk the team from 140 to 40. And shifted from this model of boots on the ground to technical support and greater advocacy, you pushed for the Red Cross to give multi-year funding to its local partners, you also pushed the Australian government to do the same. What do you think was behind your ability to do that? Was that just courageous leadership? Or if we try to understand what allows that to take place – help us navigate it. 

Walton: In terms of motivation, I trace this partly back to tropical cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu in 2015. And to be honest, I was just horrified by the well intended international reaction, but how devastating it was with, by my estimation, over 100 international organisations capitalising on a crisis, arguably with good intent, but many of those organisations had never worked in Vanuatu, before they descended on a community, bypassed all local infrastructure, they bypassed years of so-called capacity building. And I was horrified by that, and, fast forward five years to last year, a category five cyclone hit that country again. And because of COVID, the international surge system couldn’t fly in and couldn’t be the white saviours. And guess what? It was a good response. And I often think about the hypocrisy of how international organisations with good intent, want to provide support, but they do it in a way which is often really taking over and not genuinely getting behind those people. The affected populations, the local organisations that should be in the driving seat. The driver for me at Australian Red Cross was certainly: How can we shift to genuinely support local? And that meant reassessing what we do and how we do it. We did commission a piece of research, which we called ‘Going Local’, which was looking at what a localised humanitarian response would look like in the Pacific. But importantly, we used local researchers, using local methodologies. And their finding was: If you’re really serious about power shifts, you’ve got to start by changing yourself. You can't just think about transferring funding differently. You can't just think about designing your projects differently, you have to think about fundamentally changing your own operating model. So that’s what we did. We shifted towards stopping development work focusing just on humanitarian work, but how do we support institutional strengthening and give core funding to local partners – guaranteed, multi-year – to make them in a much better position to pursue their own sort of agendas.

Aly: But I guess many organisations would agree with your assessment of the problem, not so many would be able to make the changes that you made. So what was it that allowed you to be able to make those changes, apart from a personal motivation and commitment to the issue? 

Walton: I think there was a recognition that, like many international organisations, so many of them are now trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. I was really keen to make a statement around how do we add the most value, but do it in the right way. And that did actually mean making some choices to stop a whole range of things, which we were, frankly, chasing the money. And that was arguably a brave call, but it actually opened up space for a different conversation around how can we work differently? And how can we also help the Australian government provide better support to the region, that in itself was a challenge, because we were asking the Australian government to work in quite a fundamentally different way to the way it had worked before. 

Aly: So then you moved on to CARE Australia. And just after you joined, the Black Lives Matter movement reemerged. How, at that time, were you as a new NGO executive in a role like that thinking? And how did it affect the way you were looking at this issue? 

Walton: I was brought into CARE to sort of think about: How do we maximise impact in the space that we work? And that for me, was not just about what we do, but absolutely how we do it. And it was about the identity of CARE Australia. I think whether it’s Black Lives Matters, whether it was decolonising the aid sector, whether it’s anti-racism, a lot of this all involves power and power shifts and really understanding where power sits. So there was an exploration when I joined around what role do we want CARE Australia to play that’s complementary adds value, but also does it in the right way. So we went through a process of, again, similar to the Australian Red Cross saying: Where do we think we can add the most value? What should we stop doing? But importantly, we made a very public commitment early on that the way that we would operate would be fundamentally different as well. And it’s linked to this broader discussion, in so far as we said that we want to be as local as possible and led by those most impacted. We made a public commitment around shifting resources and decision-making to local organisations. And that’s the process that we're working on now. But we also said we don't want to be playing a role which we think perpetuates some of the problems within the aid sector. And so we’ve made a number of shifts: We’ve changed our language, the lexicon of aid; We’ve changed the way that we represent our work to make sure that we’re much better at amplifying local voice, that we aren't engaging in any, what some people would call, poverty porn, any imageries which present people in the wrong way or an undignified way. Everything is strengths-based, our languages change. And we’re changing the way that we work as well, using local storytellers, local photographers, but really focused on how do we complement and support the decision-making and ultimately, the resource-holding of local organisations. To do this well also required a long hard look at ourselves, let’s really lean into unpacking our own unconscious bias, unpacking our own understanding of privilege. So we’ve done a range of things with the whole team here in Australia looking at what is anti-racism? What does that really mean? What does it mean to deconstruct whiteness, deconstruct privilege? What does allyship look like? How do we support people of colour in power and resilience, issues like white fragility, white saviour complex, and there was a very uncomfortable discussion and it was a discussion that was had not just with staff, but also with our board, and helped to identify some other changes that we make. Because if you really want to walk the talk, you’ve got to be honest enough to take yourself into some uncomfortable conversations. So we’re nowhere near where we need to be. But we’ve certainly started that. And I think that's one of the critical things. 

Aly: You heard the results of the survey where, when you ask CEOs what they’re doing, and how much impact it’s having, and then you ask aid workers, what they see, in their own experience, there’s a big gap. How did that resonate with you? 

You’re talking about making sure you're not stuck in your own limited interpretation? What are you hearing from your staff? 

Walton: The fundamental shift is the cultural shift. It's not the tick box exercise, having policies or statements that say, what you believe in, or what you do, the real test is, how do people feel about this? And we’re beginning that conversation, but it is an ongoing conversation, 

Aly: What has been, perhaps, a surprisingly easy part of the change? And what's been the hardest part, were you struggling the most? 

Walton: I’m not sure any of it’s easy. The harder thing I think is still well intended people that work in this sector are leaning into the issues of racism. And that is hard. And similarly with boards, Lena before was talking about CEOs do have power to lead, but they also have accountability with donors, they have accountability to boards, that may or may not be representative. And I think that is a challenge around how do you bring people on the journey and get that tipping point, as early as you can. And I think that that is always a challenge. I mean, at CARE Australia, I've got a board that’s hugely supportive. But I think in many organisations that isn't the case. 

Aly: If you as CEO do show that leadership that Lena was talking about, and really push. And if you push too hard, that actually boards that might not be ready for that could just kick you out the door. And so actually, you’ve got a balancing act, right in terms of pushing, but pushing just the right amount, that it’s acceptable. 

Walton: And pushing others within the sector, I think there is something around, CEOs coming together to work more collaboratively on some of these issues. I am part of a CEO group with a range of CEOs from around the world that is a bit of a peer network, saying, look, we’re all committed to trying to make some of these changes, whether that's around genuine shifts to equitable partnerships, or genuine shifts around language imagery, or pushing donors, I think that’s exciting, because I think there is something about strength in numbers, the role of leadership and CEO is both influencing and bringing your board along. And that’s challenging when the measures of success have historically been very different. But also making sure that you’re not alone, there’s also that risk of any leader that really pushes in a certain direction, if they create a void through shifting power that just gets snapped up by another organisation and nothing changes systemically. 

Aly: You’ve talked about some of the kind of general challenges for you personally, what has been the hardest moment? 

Walton: Well, I’d go back to the Australian Red Cross, because, as you mentioned at the start, many people are now talking about that shift as being a brave, different, rare example. And that’s flattering in hindsight. But at the time it was painful, because to tell – it was just under 100 people over the course of time – that their well intended jobs within an organisation aren’t going to be required. That studying for a master's degree in Melbourne isn’t necessarily going to lead to jobs that will exist in a few years time. What was really challenging, because they’re good, well intended people. But certainly at that time, I felt a brave decision needed to be made to create space to demonstrate how things could be done differently. That was really painful, and really isolating, frankly, really quite lonely at the time, these are your team colleagues, your peers in many respects, and I think that was one of the challenging things, because to really lean into the changes that I think are required, does mean iNGOs changing themselves. It does mean letting go. Someone has to relinquish something if you’re shifting power. And that is hard. It’s really hard on a personal level. In hindsight, you can look back and feel proud, but it is painful. Every day was uncomfortable. And I think there is an element of getting comfortable with your discomfort. 

I felt a brave decision needed to be made to create space to demonstrate how things could be done differently. That was really painful, and really isolating, frankly, really quite lonely at the time.

Aly: How do you do that?

Walton: Try not to lose sight of what we’re really trying to achieve, a future where local organisations are genuinely empowered. They do have the resources [so] that they can aspire to international support not being needed at times of crisis, as is often the case in a country like Australia or Britain or America. Why shouldn’t we be helping to facilitate that long term shift as opposed to perpetuating the short term reality, which is, arguably the white saviour complex, where the international cavalry is here to save the day.

Aly: But I’m interested as a CEO who's getting some pressure from your board for results in terms of money and growth, probably some pressure from your staff, both the white staff who may be uncomfortable with some of the directions you’re going, and, I would imagine, some of the local staff or people of colour who are saying, ‘Well, you’re a white man at the helm. Who are you to be saying all of that?’ I mean, there must be pressures from all sides. If you had advice for other CEOs in this position, how are you dealing with those nights where I imagine you're up at night thinking, Oh, my God!

Walton: Look, I’m not immune to the sleepless nights around some of these issues and probably overthinking them. And yes, I am a middle-aged white man. I’m learning every day around this, I think it's more around having a clear intent. I aspire to a very different world where international aid is fundamentally different. And I think I’m trying not to lose sight of that North Star. 

Aly: From your experience doing this, if there was one thing that others that are trying to make this shift could do today. What would it be? What’s the one practical idea for the way forward that others could adopt? 

Walton: Start. Frankly, there’s no silver bullet, there’s nothing’s gonna all align at the same time. I think starting even with incremental steps to build up momentum. So certainly at CARE, there are shifts around language shifts around how we present ourselves, shifts around public commitments. I think it's making sure that a number of things that are progressing in the right direction just start to be put in place. 

Aly: Peter, thank you very much for sharing your experiences. 

Walton: Pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Aly: That’s it for today's episode, you'll find more detail on the responses to the questionnaires about diversity and decolonisation in an article on our website. We will link to it from the show notes, which as always, are available on TheNewHumanitarian.org/podcast. Thank you to the organisations and aid workers who took the time to fill out our questionnaires and share their experiences. If you’ve got thoughts, we would love to hear them. Do you believe that the aid sector is making progress towards dismantling racism and decolonising its structures? Have you seen a shift in power or greater equality? Where have you seen tangible results? I’d love to hear examples of success or where you’re facing challenges. Send us a voice note or a message at [email protected]

Interestingly, some of the feedback we got on our last episode about humanitarian reform ties in quite a bit with what we’ve been talking about today. Jessica McCommon, a researcher at the Humanitarian Advisory Group wrote in from Melbourne to say: 

“Even with much more attention to local leadership in the past few years, the sector seems to be stuck on the assumption that proposals for reform must be driven by international actors. Why not have nationally led discussions about what’s needed for the different ecosystems that operate where responses actually take place?” 

Thank you for the feedback, Jessica. And I completely agree and in fact, The New Humanitarian is working on convening local and national actors to share their vision of what humanitarian reform and, in particular, the decolonisation of aid should look like to international policymakers. So look out for that in the coming months.

In the meantime, on the next episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism, ahead of the UN’s climate conference, COP26, we’re looking into the findings of an upcoming investigation by The New Humanitarian into carbon emissions of the humanitarian sector. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. 

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, and I’m your host Heba Aly. 

Today we leave you with a clip from the 2013 Kenyan mockumentary, The Samaritans, which pokes fun and critiques the role of a new country director flown into Kenya to save the continent. 

Thank you for listening to rethinking humanitarianism.

Audio clip, Oct 2013

Hi, I'm Scott Bartley. I've been appointed by head office as your new country director for Kenya. Now as your director, I'm here to make that difference. That change for Africa. I'm not as wet behind the ears as some of you may think. I’ve worked for my mother’s NGO since I was six years old, where I gave my first speech at the Plaza in New York City. I have a master’s degree in international development, an MBA from Stanford. After that I did a six month internship in Casablanca, where I wrote my master's thesis entitled: Kenya, the state of the political economy of industrialisation, ICT infiltration, and capacity building. As stakeholders in this organisation, I’m here to empower you to engage effectively with the BOP.

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