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Rethinking Humanitarianism | How to step aside to promote change

‘If we're going to make commitments to work toward localisation, toward more decolonised structures, then we also need to ask: How are we going to support people who need to move on?’

This is a header image for the Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast. The background is orange with a grainy texture. On the bottom right, collage-style, black and white cut-outs of portraits of the two guests: Diane Essex-Lettieri and Ignacio Packer.

For as long as the international humanitarian sector has existed, its top jobs have been overwhelmingly occupied by white Western men.

And yet, most of the people affected by their decisions come from the global majority.

One, rarely exercised, tactic to address this power differential is for Western leaders to step aside or be willing to turn down coveted top positions in favour of historically marginalised leaders – especially those whose lived experience gives them a better understanding of the very issues international organisations aim to address.

Co-hosts Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira are joined by two guests who voluntarily relinquished their roles in efforts to make way for more representative leadership. They reflect on the defining moments that led to their decisions, how they prepared their exits, the triumphs and disappointments that followed, and how the sector as a whole can operationalise “stepping aside” as a tactic to shift power. 

Guests: Ignacio Packer, Executive Director of the Initiatives of Change Switzerland Foundation and former Executive Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA); Diana Essex-Lettieri, consultant and former Senior Vice President of Asylum Access.

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Show notes 

Transcript | How to step aside to promote change

 

Martin Griffiths on Rethinking Humanitarianism Season 2: “Humanitarian action started with Solferino and Eglantyne Jebb and all that Northern principled effort [...] And the next wave is going to be values [...] It's going to be adapting to the fact that the world shouldn't be run by the North.”

 

Heba Aly

For as long as it’s existed, the international humanitarian sector’s top jobs have been overwhelmingly occupied by white Western men. And yet, most of the people affected by their decisions come from the global majority. 

 

Melissa Fundira

Much has been said and done about how to change that, with varying levels of success. But the truth of the matter is, when it comes to having more representative leaders at the very top of the aid sector, it can be a bit of a zero-sum game.

 

Heba Aly

Because one of the ways to make room for historically underrepresented leaders – leaders who have a better understanding of the very issues international organisations aim to address – is for Western leaders to get out of the way or be willing to turn down coveted top positions.

 

Melissa Fundira

So we might say – and forgive me for the pun here – that they have to be willing to step aside for a change.

 

Heba Aly

So what does it take to get out of the way? And will that actually have the intended effect? 

From Geneva, Switzerland, I’m Heba Aly

 

Melissa Fundira

And from Toronto, Canada, I’m Melissa Fundira. This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast about the future of aid in a world of rising crisis.

 

 –––

 

Melissa Fundira

So Heba, a few years ago, you wrote an article for The New Humanitarian called “Ten efforts to decolonize aid.” And you listed all of these different ways that the international humanitarian sector is trying to decolonise. You mentioned, for example, a racial equity index, changing narratives, and a slew of pledges and new policies that have popped up, especially since 2020. But there is one tactic on that list that I think many would argue is rarely practiced, and you called it “getting out of the way”. Very simply put, it means leaving your top position or declining a top position in an effort to shift power in the sector. Because, of course, a disproportionate amount of top positions are held by Westerners. I think there's probably no better example than the United Nations. Some of the top Undersecretary-General positions are reserved for Westerners and the P5 countries in particular, for example, and I want to list a couple for you. The heads of peacekeeping operations have mostly been French, almost entirely European, the only exception being Kofi Annan. The head of political affairs has traditionally been from the Soviet Union, there was one Russian after that, and the last two appointments have been Americans. And then, of course, there's the top humanitarian position. Now, the current Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, is incredibly qualified for the job, but he is the fifth Briton in a row to hold that title. And he, himself, told you on this very podcast two seasons ago that he wants to be the last Briton to be in this role, because the convention is that this role is typically given to someone from the UK. 

 

Martin Griffiths: "It was perfectly clear to me there wasn't going to be an appointment outside those conventional things. Of course, I do think that it's a very strange system, which keeps certain positions for the permanent five members [of the Security Council] [...] I think some of your colleagues were recommending to me, ‘Make sure you're the last before the world wakes up’. This is too… how can I say this without being immodest… This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism. That's the proposition, isn't it? I hope we move in that direction."

 

 

Melissa Fundira

But when you look back at the very first Briton, who was given this title in 2007 – John Holmes, he was appointed by Ban Ki-Moon – it was already seen 16 years ago, well, 17 years ago now, as a missed opportunity. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was already seen as having succumbed to the pressures of UK lobbying, essentially. And every single successive British person who has gotten that role has come with a lot of commentary from people saying, again, it's a missed opportunity, it's a missed opportunity, it's a missed opportunity. So there's all of this desire to have more representative leaders in these positions, but when it comes time to appoint a new person, that doesn't actually always happen in practice. 

 

Heba Aly

I think that's absolutely right. But there are a couple of disclaimers that are worth noting. First, I don't think this is just about white men, right? I'm a woman of colour, but I was born in Canada and raised in Canada. I'm Western for all intents and purposes. And my upbringing doesn't represent that of those living through humanitarian crises in the Global South. So that kind of nuance isn't always reflected when we talk about diversity, but I think it's important to keep in mind that even those of us who may be further along that spectrum of diversity, if we can put it that way, are not perfect representations either. Because for me, this is about lived experience more than it is about race, even if that, of course, feeds into the power differential. But secondly, I would say, it's important to acknowledge that there's a lot of emotional baggage about stepping aside. And I know that from my own personal experience of deciding to step down from The New Humanitarian just how hard those kinds of transitions can be. But I hang on to this, this quote that I read somewhere, that that concept of directorship is not to serve as long as you want to it is to serve as long as you're needed. And I think that's really the crux of this is: you stay in a role so long as you're the right person for the job. 

 

Melissa Fundira

Today, we're speaking with two guests who did decide they were no longer the right person for the job. And I want to add a quick disclaimer here for the listener. You'll notice that the sound quality changes a bit throughout this interview because of technical difficulties that we had. Our apologies. But do stick with it because this was such a fascinating conversation between two people who took a very unlikely path. They both held leadership positions in their respective organisations for many years. They’re both white – one European and one American. And they voluntarily relinquished their roles in an effort to make way for more representative leadership. But while their decisions were the same, their effect was not.

 

Heba Aly  

Ignacio Packer is the former executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, better known as ICVA. It's a network of more than 150 NGOs worldwide. More recently, Ignacio became the Executive Director of the Initiatives of Change Switzerland Foundation, and he joins us today from Geneva. Welcome, Ignacio.

 

Ignacio Packer  

Hello, Heba, nice to be with you. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

And Diana Essex-Lettieri spent nearly a decade in leadership positions at the refugee rights non-profit Asylum Access, including as its Senior Vice President. She has since become a consultant and founded Diana EL Consulting. She joins us from the Bay Area in California. Diana, welcome to the show.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

Hi, thank you for having me. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

So you both made this very intentional decision to step down, or Diana in your case, to refuse a position, at your respective organisations to essentially get out of the way. Can you walk us through your thinking like, well, what is the moment that led to you making that decision? We'll start with you, Ignacio.

 

Ignacio Packer  

For a number of years, I've been questioning whether I was the right person in the right place. And when I joined ICVA, I must say I started off really strong with a strategic move of the organisation to work much more on diversity and being more inclusive of different voices, which has been what ICVA has done, but to bring it to another level. And it's actually two and a half years after I was in the organisation preparing for the 60th anniversary of ICVA, that I realised that of the over 60 years now of ICVA leadership, it had been very much led by people of my profile. I remember leaving the office and saying, “Well, there we are. Now you have to make something out of it. You really have to do something.” It's not calculated, where am I going to go next, and so on, what's the risk, professional risk I'm taking is. And even if I try and be someone that pushes different ways of thinking , that tries to step aside for other colleagues, and so on, I said, “That's not enough.” We've already done a lot of progress. Now it really has to be at the top level, that we have a major change. And I said two and a half years to get to this change. So I announced to the council in November 2020 that I will be leaving end of March 2023. This has been my dream job. It's been an incredible journey with ICVA, and a wonderful team. And with a network with high diversity, high commitment of people. And it seemed just one of the additional elements that was really, really needed for us to be walking to talk when we talk about DEI [Divesity, Equity, and Inclusion].

 

Melissa Fundira  

Diana, I want to bring you in because you didn't quite have the top position at Asylum Access, but you were kind of headed in that direction. What did getting out of the way look like for you? What was your journey?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

I think people like maybe Ignacio and myself and others that have this experience, there's some sort of awakening that happens. We could talk about what we're waking up from, and certainly, I still feel like I'm waking up from it, given how long I've been in the sector. But for me, that awakening began in 2019 at a conference in Geneva. It was the UNHCR NGO consultations, one of these really big UN conferences where there's dozens of panels, and they're all pretty much run by the UN. And I was facilitating one of those panels, and really felt like I was doing a good job at what I was trying to achieve. And the Global Refugee-led Network

had sort of broken the glass ceiling at the time and had a panel. I sat in the back and listened intently and sort of slunk further and further down in my chair in the back. You know, normally, I was doing the advocacy in this seat at Asylum Access. I'm asking for a policy change, I'm looking for funding, something that I'm advocating for. But in this moment, I was the advocacy target, you know. The request was really clear: it was “We are asking for representation. We are asking for space to lead”. I'm so grateful to them for that awakening moment, but I also felt profound self-doubt, just not very sure of myself and my contribution. And I'm naming that white fragility, because I think it happens to a lot of people who go through an awakening, and it does need to be navigated. That emotional journey does need to be navigated. But I wanted to do the right thing and I wanted to be on the right side of history. And I want to be very clear that there was no guarantee that I would have been Asylum Access’ CEO at the time. What I can say for fact is that I was being actively prepared for that role by the CEO and by the board. And I made it clear that I wouldn't be taking that role. And part of the reason that I felt confident in that is that I looked around and saw that there were a lot of capable competent leaders, both within and outside the organisation, that had the skillset, I believed, to run the organisation. And we did a lot of work at Asylum Access in that interim period on internal inclusion, on understanding our implicit biases, on cultural intelligence, on how do our policies need to shift to promote representation more generally not just in these top leadership positions. And so [I] felt pretty confident by the time the CEO transition came around that we were prepared for it. I left just as the new CEO assumed her seat, which was is Sana Mustafa, who among many competencies, skills and qualifications for this, is a Syrian refugee.

 

Heba Aly

And we actually just heard her at an event that we co-hosted at the Global Refugee Forum, which I think is also on the podcast feed. So for those who haven't heard it, I would really encourage you to, because you can see that one of her skills is certainly advocacy. A really compelling, candid conversation around how to make this shift towards refugee leadership. But I'm curious, Diana, you mentioned what you described as an emotional journey. Did you have any models or blueprints to look towards when you decided not to take the job?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri

I had advisors that helped me through it, for sure. People that I felt were in my corner, but also understood what I was trying to achieve, and who I could talk about that sense of guilt and frustration and loss and grief around a career I thought I was building. It's worth going back in time and seeing how early this career machine that I was a part of took hold of me. I was a child in the 90s who watched a lot of TV and the Save the Children advertisements were on TV a lot at that time. And I think they still are, but they look at sound much, much different. But at the time, it was half-clothed Black children, unnamed, following a white man, named pristinely dressed. And they're hugging him, and he's looking directly in the camera, and he is saying to you, the watcher, you are the solution to their suffering. And I can say that from that earliest point, this was like where the white saviour journey probably began as a young child. And then on the career conveyor belt, I did undergrad for International Development and African Studies, I volunteered in Zambia in refugee camps, I went to grad school for humanitarian affairs, and I followed the wisdom of all of my advisors along the way, which says if you do this kind of research, if you do this kind of field work, you will be positioned to make a difference, and also, you're going to have a viable career. And I think one of my big lessons from this whole period is acknowledging the strength of that career machine that privileges Global North-based leaders, and understanding that dismantling power dynamics is incredibly complicated because there is an entire ecosystem lifting it up to be successful. People who helped me through this helped me parse through my emotional state on it versus the fact of the situation, and also helped me see that I could be a part of something in a way that was productive for the sector, and that I can take pride in being a part of it in that way. 

 

Heba Aly  

What about you, Ignacio? How did your colleagues and peers in other organisations react?

 

Ignacio Packer  

When I announced I was leaving, or even just months before I was leaving, I only went for one job, and that was because one of my colleagues said “You better take care of yourself, you’re going to soon be without a job.” But being without a job was not something that I was afraid of. I mean, we're so privileged compared to the people that we're trying to get the voices out there, that we're trying to support. So there's no question of thinking, “Oh, yes, and what's my pension scheme going to look like”, and so on. And as individuals, we have to get out of that type of thinking, and really build the trust that things will be okay. It's okay to take risks.  And I prefer the words “step aside” than “get out of the way” because we still have a role to play. We do have a role to play, us white men. And if you talk about the reactions that I had, it’s people with my profile that would come up to me and say, “Ignacio, you sure? You sure that what you're saying is correct?” Very discreetly, but trying to tell me “You're not serving our cause.” And there's something I often bring is, who is not in the room. Actually, this conversation, we should also have it with a white man who is frustrated because he feels he had the best expertise and he didn't get the job. And that is also part of the picture that we should be looking at. 

 

Heba Aly  

Can I ask a bit about that? Because I think that's such an under and under-discussed part of this issue, and one of the challenges that, if you don't address, you'll never be able to really make change on this front, and that is what happens to those who are now expected to kind of get out of the way.? It's hard to articulate exactly this point without rubbing someone the wrong way. Diana, you talked about getting into this, this industry, yes. Okay, the ads might have had white saviourism to them, but you got into it because you genuinely wanted to help and you thought you were doing something good. And I think if this kind of shift is to be sustained, those who genuinely want to do good need to be able to find a new place for themselves. And I've seen many cases where, as you say, Ignacio, there are white Western men who are very frustrated, because they feel like their expertise is no longer valued, they can no longer get a job. And yes, okay, I appreciate some listeners might be saying, “Uh, the white guys are doing just fine, “but what is the appropriate place today for a white Western man In the extreme case who does have expertise and who does want to do the right thing? And rather than get out of the way and become useless, what's the healthy role that they can play? And I think the sector needs people to answer that question a little bit better if any of this change is really going to happen.

 

Ignacio Packer  

Yeah, and I think that's something that already we have to practice in the organisations we're in because everybody with goodwill has to find its place. The solution is not only stepping aside, it’s also finding a different role to play in teams. That can only come with us adopting a little bit more humility, building systems that are more agile, and that welcome much better different ways of thinking. As long as there is a dominant way of thinking, we're going to be a bit stuck. But it's around how people can contribute into very different ways of mentoring, but mentoring in an intelligent way, which is open and which stimulates different ways of thinking.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

What you're saying really speaks to me, Ignacio. If somebody who was planning to step away from their organisation because of their identity as a privileged or white person in the name of shifting power, I would start by asking: what's your goal? Is your goal to be a part of rectifying the historic exclusion of marginalised groups from leadership? Are you looking to diversify leadership? If so, then I say, absolutely, step away. This was my rationale when I stepped away, and do so carefully so that you can be successful at that. But if your goal is to shift power, if your goal is to ensure that communities around the world have decision-making power over the things that impact their lives, I would encourage a leader to ask what roles they can play from their respective seat. A lot of those things, they're so operational in nature, in my opinion. It requires reflections on your organisational structure. Who's making decisions? Governance bodies: is there a Global North-based board that is approving your budget every year? What does it mean to undo that way of thinking and working? Are your plans for change top-down or bottom-up? You know, is there a strategic plan that says by 2023, we're going to increase revenue by 25%? This is not a humanitarian goal. This is a capitalist goal. The goal would be “Okay, we want to see Venezuelans in Colombia have their full rights respected.” What does it mean to build an organisation that prioritizes that first and foremost? And it may mean that decision-making power, and ownership, and resources need to be pushed away from a centralised function toward the global majority who need to be making these decisions on a regular basis. I look around in the sector, and I do see a confusion happening right now between the pursuit of representation, and maybe allowing that to equate to this full realisation of shifting power, or localisation, or even being a decolonised organisation. And we have to be able to separate these things. There is a lot of research that would show how they are in service to one another, or they can be. The representation can help promote these other things, but there is no guarantee that because you diversify leadership, the power structures are going to suddenly change and morph and lead to localisation in practice.

 

Heba Aly  

But here you're talking about what you need to do beyond getting out of the way, let's say, and what is, as I understand it, is a whole kind of wrath of operational steps that you need to take for this to actually work. And I want to come back to that because I think it's a key point because it's not enough to just be bought in at a values level. But it doesn't answer the question of “what then?” for those who get out of the way. What is the role for them?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

Well, (a) Can we embrace some creativity here? When we only have this one dominant way of working as a society, then we're saying, “Okay, if I'm not a part of one of these major [international] NGOs or the UN system, is my role gone?” I started a consulting business, and I go where I'm called, and I feel really comfortable with my contribution in this way. I also think what I was trying to say before is that there's many ways to step aside. Stepping aside isn't just leaving your position. Stepping aside can be, “I'm going to understand how I decentralised power, and lessen my power and ownership over what happens in this institution”. And maybe you step away two-thirds of the way of a journey toward localising your organisation; maybe there's a journey toward making your organisation more of a network rather than having a C-suite. What is the radical redesign of these institutions? And you can be a part of stepping away in terms of power. And also, stepping away can happen on a much more granular level. Equitable partnerships is just about – on a day to day in your interactions as a Northerner interacting or supporting a partner in the Global South – taking less space, it's showing you how to take less space. And those small interactions of taking less ownership and power also do a lot to promote, over time, localisation in practice.

 

Ignacio Packer

I mean, quite an extraordinary shift, and I feel very privileged, moving out after 30 years in the humanitarian sector into an organisation, which has this structure, which is a movement. It's a people's movement. And we have to look more at these organisations, we have transformed many of these movements that were born in the 50s, or in the 60s, with much more structure and organised and so on. Of course, we need the accountability systems, and so on. Now I find myself in a huge organisation, and actually, people ask me “How many people work [with you]” – I have no idea. I know how many people are on the payroll, but I don't know how many people are engaged. And it's absolutely extraordinary, because that's where I'm feeling there's a lot of diversity and inclusion, and working with teams that have ways of working that are very different to what I've experienced elsewhere. In July, for instance, we had teams of up to 550 people working together in ways of working that I had never experienced before, which are very much connected to the individual, and to what each and every individual has to change within to be able to contribute to the teamwork. 

 

Heba Aly  

If I'm hearing you both, right, what you're saying is: moving into roles where you're part of a movement, where you're supporting an overall move in a certain direction without necessarily being the one driving it. But Ignacio, you're still the executive director. You're still the guy at the top. So what makes you less apprehensive of taking up that space in this case?

 

Ignacio Packer  

Of course, there is a boss. At the end of the day, there's a boss, roles and responsibilities. But it's a more horizontal organisation that still gets things done. And the agility is also because you have to let go of control. And perhaps the level of risk of things going wrong is higher. But you're rewarded then in having, I believe, much more innovation, a different type of energy that certainly I really feel is much more inclusive than what I believed in my previous positions.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

I think it does serve us to be really honest, though, that if you follow this chain far enough, it probably does spell the downsize of the Global North career machine function where there should be much fewer jobs. And people do feel that. And they are worried about that. In some of my consulting work, that fear of job loss is not just even amongst Global North leaders, I also see it in Global South leaders who are not the “affected population”. We need to figure out how to talk about the people who are concerned that they're going to lose their jobs around this. We, as institutions, if we're going to make commitments to work toward localisation, to work toward more decolonised structures, then we also need to ask how are we going to support people who need to move on. What are the options that we have through our structures, and privilege, and resources to help them find the next thing? Is that off-boarding? Is that off-placement? Is that job coaching? Is that, you know, supporting people to relook at their resumes? How do we create a sense of possibility and creativity as people think about what's next?

 

Melissa Fundira  

you elaborate on that a little bit? Because I’ve heard you say that this is an operational challenge, not just a values issue. You can't just say we want to have more representative leadership, you have to actually put a plan in place. You mentioned offboarding, for example. Maybe it's just me, but I did not know that term until you mentioned it to me. I think we're more likely to hear about onboarding. What does that actually mean? What does it actually look like to put a plan in place to help people step aside and take on more appropriate roles?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri

First, I don't want to be prescriptive about what any given organisation should look like, because I think it really depends on what it is that you're trying to achieve, and we should have that goal be the driving force. But if you follow this thread toward localisation, and ramping up global majority/Global South-based initiatives, and ramping down these large institutions that have huge technical units – the money and time it takes to centralize operations, the accounting, the compliance, the [Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning] frameworks – all of this work that's happening in our largest of institutions at some point should be redundant. We should be scrutinising that redundancy and asking “How do we free up those resources so that we can support localised efforts?” We're sort of failing at resourcing localisation, right? Offboarding is just the practice of supporting people, individually and en masse. There's early retirement. There's taking voluntary severance, it's the resume-building. It's bringing in people who can share where your skills are complementary in other sectors – local government, local NGOs. It's a hard look at your HR offboarding practices. There's there's lessons we could draw from the corporate world around this, who, at times, do mass layoffs and are more familiar with mass layoffs than the humanitarian sector is, because we have created a world in which we are supposed to sustain the size of these large institutions, which is untenable in general because the funding is limited. So that can't be our priority. We know that that cannot be our priority. So if not that, how are we going to encourage the individuals who are holding on tight to step aside? And I think some of it is offering them support. I choose compassion for the people who are going through that, because I think it will lead us to the outcome we seek. I had a senior UN official say to me a couple of years ago, “Well, Diana, international workers need their jobs too’.” And it was painful to hear, but also a very human response. It was a very human response. People have mortgages, they've got childcare payment - whatever it is that is standing in the way of them making this this leap, even if their values are calling for it. Can we help them with that? And I think we can.

 

Heba Aly

I'd argue though that it's not just a fear of losing your jobs. There is also a fear of losing the notion of international solidarity. So if I am a Westerner – and in this case, I am a Western for myself, so I say that in a sense from my own perspective – want to feel connected to the world and want to feel that I have a place in helping the world. And I'm not just going to retreat and go do something in my Western society, because that's where I belong, and that's where I'm not going to be colonial, and that's where I don't have to face all this pushback and critique, then what happens to the notion that we're all supposed to be helping each other. And so I think there is also a piece of this that is around redefining what international solidarity can look like. And that – I'm not sure there's a clear answer to yet. I hope one of you is one.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri

Ignacio? 

 

Ignacio Packer  

I think reinventing solidarity, it goes back to the skills and the qualities at the individual level. The cognitive skills, the way to interact with other people, to have the courage to enable change. We have to be individually much more prone to risks, and to think beyond “Where's my next job?” Perhaps I'm privileged, but I've left jobs without knowing where I would go. And for me, it's always been extremely healthy. I've been lucky. I've jumped on other things that have been challenging for me and interesting, and so on. And this is where it's framed as inner development goals. So you have the Sustainable Development Goals, then you have all the inner part, which is probably the accelerator for many of the changes that we want. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

You've both been doing a great deal of introspection on this, clearly, and are in positions to share those ideas and shift the levers of power a little bit, which is no doubt what you already do. And I'm curious to know: when you're in those rooms with these traditional power holders, and you're sharing these ideas about inner development goals, more introspection, offboarding plans, scaling back global operations, what's the reaction? 

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri 

The reactions run the gamut. It depends on where people's mindsets are: have they gone on their awakening yet? Yes or no? And if and if they have, then it does venture into the how. It ventures into the how. What does this look like in practice? And for people that are at the helm of trying to make these shifts internal to their organisations, it can be very overwhelming and very complex. And, I think organisations should get support, a lot of support. And I hope funders support the financing to investigate what are the options for an organisation to operate more equitably. Which I think speaks to your last point, Heba, too, about international solidarity, because I don't believe that every international organisation is a problem. I don't believe that at all. Especially if you're working on refugee issues, these are inherently international issues, right? Of course, we need to have a spirit of international solidarity, but it is about how you come at that that really matters. And so if you're going to be investing in equity, you should get some support.

 

Ignacio Packer 

I agree with you, Diana. Out there, there are so many people who have the potential to do very much more if the environment was slightly different and really more supportive [of] the changes. There are so many people of really good will and really trying hard in our sector. And sometimes I feel like it just needs a little, but at the right place. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

So let's talk about what actually ended up happening in your respective organisations. Ignacio, you made the decision to step down in 2020. You followed through on that promise last year. What happened?

 

Ignacio Packer  43:08

Shall we say, I was surprised and disappointed on the nomination of someone with a similar profile [to] mine. So I'm not talking about the competencies. It’s a super competent person with a long track record in the humanitarian sector and so on. But when I saw that, I said: “Well, I could have stayed. I could have stayed. This is an extraordinary job. I could have stayed.” What really happened? I don't know. Because I'm not involved in the recruitment process of course. But what I know is that we have to think a bit further about this. How come we weren't able to attract candidates that are out there for such a job? For what reasons? Because I know the board really made all the efforts. And they had the courage also one moment to say “Well, we haven't found the candidate, so we’ll relaunch the process.” But my big question is: Surely, out there, there are some people. How come we didn't attract them? And there are many things that we can think about. Were we advertising in the right way? Our systems are deterring some people to apply? Are we promoting sufficiently the package for people to be able to travel because it's a position based in Geneva, and, quite rightly, perhaps many other different elements. These jobs are really, really very tough. I mean, you have so many people that fall with burnout with these types of jobs, so we have to reinvent the jobs as well. We have to look at the sharing of power also at the top level of the organisations. And then we can have more of this diversity, because no one has all the skills to be able to run these types of organisations. We have to think much more in terms of teams, but with clear roles and responsibilities. There have been some examples of NGOs that have been working with co-directions – someone from the Global South and someone perhaps more for the donors, from the Global North. We have to experiment more of these, and trying much more of these and build the structures that enable this to work. The top jobs in this sector, you have to be mad to take some of these jobs. So I’ve been on this madness for a number of years, but we have to view it in a different way than just ‘this is the job and we can’t fit someone there’. We have to reinvent the type of leadership of our organisations.

 

Melissa Fundira  

This is by no means just an issue at ICVA…

 

Ignacio Packer

It wasn't talking about ICVA. ICVA is super smooth and lean! 

 

Melissa Fundira  

But I do think it's worth mentioning that you gave ICVA more than two years notice before you stepped down, and we did reach out to a board member at ICVA for comment about this story. And we did not receive anything as of the recording of this interview. But they did respond to our colleague last year and said they can't comment on this particular case, because of the confidentiality of the hiring process. But sorry to belabor the point: When you have two and a half years to find a successor, and when the incumbent says he wants somebody who is not of his traditional profile, and you do have women and women of color who are in senior leadership positions at ICVA and elsewhere, but then you end up hiring a competent, but still, white Canadian man for the position, can the sector really come up with an excuse for not hiring differently in that case? Or in any similar case?

 

Ignacio Packer  

Well, Melissa, all I can say is that this has been a missed opportunity.

 

Heba Aly  

But what's really interesting, Ignacio if I understand you well is that you're saying the board was bought in. At a values level, they wanted that diversity in the leadership role. It was at an operational level to Diana's earlier point about how important it is to back up the values with an operational plan. It was at the operational level that things fell through?

 

Ignacio Packer  

Certainly the willingness of the recruitment panel was certainly for this to be driven by the values.

 

Heba Aly 

Really interesting.

 

Ignacio Packer  

You look at the board itself. 

 

Heba Aly

It’s very diverse, in fact. 

 

Ignacio Packer  

Nine members, huge diversity. It’'s not about ICVA, it's about the whole system. Are we also supporting sufficiently some leaders from the south to be ready for these types of jobs and to be sufficiently visible, to be able to access these type of jobs. But at the same time, I say the jobs have to change.

 

Heba Aly  

And I think that part is fascinating because we've had the same debates internally at The New Humanitarian, because we're also trying to better represent the people we serve, particularly in our editorial team. And we came to the conclusion that indeed it is the role that is the problem - that you're expecting somebody who has lived experience to also have the perfect, in our case, English writing skills to make a good editor. And it's not reasonable to expect those two things, in all cases, to go together. And so I wonder the extent to which this is also about the kind of norms that we expect out of these roles. You talked about reimagining the role: we imagine a leader to be someone who is self-confident, expresses their ideas clearly and concisely. And I think part of the challenge is that if the sector wants to welcome people - the humanitarian sector, but also many other sectors - with lived experience that also comes with very different cultural styles in leadership. And that entails then a whole different way of working for an organisation - in many cases, slowing down, focusing more on relationship building, on storytelling. And to what extent are organisations set up for that? So, you know, maybe that's also another part of this, what would it take to build the capacity to be able to embrace a different kind of leadership style?

 

Ignacio Packer  

Certainly Heba, yes. I'm convinced that that's the direction. So perhaps at that top level, the profiles of the leaders we need are people that have developed lots of soft skills, that have communication skills, that push co-creation, that are creative, that are optimistic, that have courage, that work on the connectedness between people. That's that's really what I believe. And then to be able to say, sorry, I don't have the answer, I have to check with my team. But Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, for me, she's a role model. The humility that she showed, the way she stepped down from her position, the way she was human. And that's what we need. We need leaders that are very human, and that bring that element of humility. They can say, ‘No, I don't know. Oh yes, I made a mess of this’. That is what we need, because then we're more in reality. We're more with real people. And for the moment, we're asking leaders to be superwomen, supermen. That doesn't work.

 

Melissa Fundira  

Diana, things moved in a bit of a different direction at Asylum Access. Sana Mustafa was appointed CEO. Sana Mustafa, who, on top of being extremely qualified for the position, also has the experience of being a forcibly displaced person from Syria. Why do you think Asylum Access was able to do what other organisations, like ICVA, was not?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

The CEO gave us a long runway also in the way Ignacio did. And we were in the thick of a major DEI journey. So the timeline of this in the US is important because in addition to the Global Refugee-led Network encouraging reflection, also George Floyd had been murdered. And there was just a huge investment of energy within Asylum Access to say, how are we going to be better? How are we going to be on the right side of history? So there was major staff buy-in across the organisation, especially, I would say in the top leadership positions. And we brought in a DEI professional, who's still one of my favorite mentors today, Samara Hakim. And we prepped the board, we prepped the organisation, we asked about our inclusive ways of working. We did the hard work of operationalising a recruitment strategy that was going to reveal more candidates with lived experience. And I think one of the safeguards here is that the point of hiring, and at the point where we were releasing the job description and calling for proposals, we were saying explicitly that we were after lived experience, and we're open to co-leadership models. And so there was a dedication from early on, to be working in this way. And I also would say that, I was very clear about my rationale as to why I was stepping back from the role and I remember at the time feeling a bit of discomfort, or feeling that I was hogging space. But I think it's really important if somebody is relinquishing that role with this intention in mind that they create accountability by being clear about the reasons why.

 

Heba Aly  

Although we should note that, Ignacio, you did that and it wasn't enough.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

I think it was the package of things.

 

Melissa Fundira  

And then, of course, there's what happens once you do get more representative leaders at the helm of your organisation. There are too many stories to count about women of colour, other folks from marginalised backgrounds who come in to take that top position. It's seen as a big moment, the page is turning, the diversity champion is here, only to be ousted or pushed out in some way soon after, because of lack of support, because of a straight up a hostile work environment, different manifestations of racism and patriarchy, whether it's microaggressions or just structural issues. I mean, for me the most high-profile case that comes to mind right now, because it's so recent is Claudine Gay. The former president now of Harvard University, who, for various reasons, was pushed out of her position. She was the first Black woman to be president of Harvard in its near 400-year history. And she lasted six months. So what is the responsibility of someone who's deciding with intentionality to step aside? What is their responsibility to their successor in a case like this?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

I think that our investment in trying to create an inclusive work environment was my offering to the successor. Operationalising inclusivity it’s as complex as an investigation into what kind of support that CEO will have, what kind of salary and benefits packages and time off they're going to have? Is there adequate, to your point Heba, about expectations around what the position will be given different backgrounds? Is there the right kind of professional development and, or support staff surrounding a person to help fill gaps? I had a person say to me once who's important to me and has lived experience of forced displacement, they said, ‘Diana, while you were busy getting your graduate education, I was busy surviving’. And, you know, that has stuck with me for many years that the lived experience is such a valuable contribution. I don't know if we've talked enough about the impact of representation. But it's such an important thing for work in myriad ways. And also that skills gap is going to be present, if it's in this case. And how did the organisation support that included resources to resource their support staff? And then inclusivity more broadly, what is our approach to meetings where everybody can be heard and have we scrutinised the cultural intelligence of our staff handbook? And we went through these operational steps to attempt to make an inclusive environment. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

You make a good point about the impact of all of this. We've been talking about stepping aside. But why? To your knowledge, how has stepping aside or having more representative leadership impacted the work? How has it impacted refugee response?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

Yeah, a lot has changed since the 2019 glass ceiling breaking with the Global Refugee-led Network. I had the pleasure to support three different clients in their preparation for this past Global Refugee Forum. And there were dozens of refugee-led organisations that were participating in this large global policy discussion. It's the UNHCR pledging processes, and there's so many donors present and governments present. And it's such an opportunity for your work to be seen and heard and to set yourself up for a funding opportunity or to influence a policy decision. And this time around, a set of refugee-led organisations were supported by a handful of donors, Open Society Foundations and Bosch Foundation, to create an alternative space to the UN space. I think they had maybe upwards of 40 panels, mostly run by refugee-led organisations. It was such a trauma-informed, much more informal space. There was theatre performances, in addition to complex and deep discussions about what should change in which places. And  I don't know what will come of that. You never know what will come of these big global interventions. But what a profound difference. And I think what I've seen since and continuing to support groups like Asylum Access or the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, is that these groups are inclined to lift up other refugee-led organisations. And so it does snowball, there is a snowball effect. And you've probably heard the saying that the fastest way to change a culture is who's participating within it. And this alternative space to me feels like another step toward a changed global culture around how we respond to refugees.

 

Melissa Fundira  

So to everything you've spoken to throughout this interview, this is such a multi-layered, multi-step organisational endeavour. But on a personal level, no doubt there are going to be some listeners of this podcast who are in leadership positions in the aid sector who might fit this profile, as you say Ignacio, and with everything that you've experienced, if they were to come to you and say I'm considering stepping aside, or I'm grappling with the decision to step aside, what would you tell them is the first step to doing it in the right way?

 

Ignacio Packer  

Is it right for you? Do you feel a certain calling for you to do that? So even before thinking about ‘and what does it mean for the organisation? Or what does it mean for my next job?’ Certainly, I've been reflecting a lot of how I could have done this differently. And I feel that I haven't been sufficiently tolerant and understanding, at some moments with individuals, that were doing their best to try and ensure a certain transition.

 

Heba Aly 

Do you mean the hiring committee?

 

Ignacio Packer  

The hiring committee, yes, because I'm impatient. And this has to be looked at in a longer term and with the sector perspective. It's not that they did anything wrong. It’s just that it missed an opportunity, but hopefully, it generates other opportunities. And if I'm happy to speak out, I'm not going to present apologies for things that perhaps I haven't said correctly. And I'm sure I'm pissing off a number of people in the way I come up to you. Let's talk about it. And certainly, it's not to harm in any way, ICVA. This is just one of the most extraordinary organisations.

 

Melissa Fundira  

And Diana, what about you? Just on an individual, human level, what do you tell someone who was in a similar position to you when they're in the midst of grappling with this decision about if, when, and how to step aside?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

I would definitely ask them, what's their goal? You know, what is it that you're trying to achieve with by doing this. I would reassure them that they have an important role to play in the sector. And it's just a matter of finding out what that role is. And I would be very careful not to allow my story and my experience to signal that every white person in power should step down and step aside. I don't believe that, it creates power vacuums. We have to figure out what's best for our objectives. For me, my eye is on how do we shift power to communities themselves, to affected communities to make decisions and power over their lives, encouraging people to think about what are the steps they can take to be a part of that. Especially with these large NGOs that have such consolidated and concentrated power or at the UN system. And then if at the end of the day, it still sounds like the right decision is to step aside, I would walk them through some of the steps I think are critical to success, like ensuring your decision makers are fully on board finding the right way to have an insurance policy around that, getting them to say it publicly, making sure that you're creating the conditions for inclusion, and making sure that that future CEO or Executive Director is set up for success with the right support team around them.

 

Heba Aly 

For me, the thing is that the sector is so good at identifying what it wants to tear down, but it’s not very good at articulating what it wants to build. And the question that’s outstanding for me is, what is the appropriate role today for  Westerners who care about international solidarity?

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

The simple act of asking how can I help you, instead of providing the solution can fundamentally change what you're doing in your position. And that is also a huge part of trust building, to not to assume that you have the answers for especially local actors. And if organisations did that at large en masse, right, so it's not just one person doing that, but everybody doing that, then it might really change what your entire institution is up to. Also, there are examples of, of movements, where people with the skills that Ignacio and I have, can be of use of value. Two examples of where there are initiatives that are sort of movement building, that are encouraging thriving local ecosystems, but still have this like cohesion, there's still this like global component is the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative that is both driving localised work and calling attention to the work of refugee-led organisations but also has like a central advocacy component toward shifting the system in a useful way. So being able to say what is my way to contribute to initiatives like this, or the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network, which is run out of Carleton University, but they're funding 12 Research Chairs for people with lived experience out of a global south based universities. It’s this idea that we have to like, grow the ecosystem and research production and the global south so that solutions can be understood and born of the South instead of imposed by the North.

 

Heba Aly

What I took away from this is that it sounds very obvious. But it's really hard to make this shift succeed in practice, even when the political will exists. And I think we hear that often in the humanitarian sector, ‘Oh, there's no political will’. But actually, political will is not enough. And for the shift of power to really work, boards, in particular, need to understand the investment that is going to be needed, operationally, financially timewise, and also that willingness to reimagine what leadership roles are. So thank you both for sharing your experiences and learnings with us today. Very illuminating.

 

Ignacio Packer 

Well, thank you to you, Heba and Melissa. And really it was great listening to you, too, Diana. Really great.

 

Diana Essex-Lettieri  

Same, thank you. And I think my parting words are just that I'd like to offer gratitude to the people that have been a huge part of that awakening journey to me. And obviously, I don't have all the answers for myself or for anybody else. But my hope is that this conversation sort of tickles in the back of people's brains a bit of a reflection on what they could or might consider changing about their current position.

 

 –––

 

Heba Aly

Ignacio Packer is the Executive Director of the Initiatives of Change Switzerland Foundation, and Diana Essex-Lettieri is the founder of Diana EL Consulting. 

 

We’d love your thoughts on what we’ve been discussing today. I’m especially keen to hear from those who are Westerners in leadership positions in the aid sectors – how are you thinking about the trade-offs of stepping aside and getting out of the way? How are you navigating those questions? And how do you think you can most effectively contribute to the sector in an age when representation is such a key issue? Write to us or leave us a voice note at [email protected].

 

Melissa Fundira

Today we’ll leave you with a clip from Global Refugee Forum event we mentioned in the interview. It’s a panel on refugee leadership, co-organised by TNH and moderated by Asylum Access CEO Sana Mustafa. In the clip you’ll hear Rogyingan human rights defender and Co-Secretary General of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, Hafsar Tameesuddin, talk about the fear of losing power. Not just among Western leaders in the refugee response sector, but within refugee-led movements too. A reminder that you can watch the whole event – “From refugee inclusion to shifting power” – on TNH’s YouTube channel or in our podcast feed.

 

Heba Aly

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was hosted by me, Heba Aly, and Melissa Fundira…

Melissa also produced and edited the episode.

Original music by Whitney Patterson.

Sound engineering by Mark Nieto

 

Melissa Fundira

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

 

Hafsar Tameesuddin (Global Refugee Forum panel): “There is one element to resistance to change is the fear. The fear of losing power, the fear of losing their space. So it is really important for us to address that fear. Why? Why? What are you afraid of, by giving this to the people with live experience? We need to address that fear. That is also really important for all entities involved, including us, knowing the why. Why do we do that? Why, why? Why inclusion? And then now we know the why, and what do we do? And then we know what to do, and how do we do that? And I'm also thinking about in my head, many refugee leaders and representatives who don't speak English, who don't have the rights to travel like me here in this room, I'm speaking on their behalf of all these first-world people. So the reason that I'm speaking is: I was here in the Global Refugee Forum in 2019. I never had the right to properly study in the past, so I don't hold PhD or Master's or whatever. I just arrived to New Zealand five months ago. And then all I have is so much passion in my heart, the lived experience that I have lived as refugees and all that. And also nonbinary person, and so much, and I have so much to give. But then my fellow refugee leaders were sitting right here in front of me. And one day they are they are forming a group of this movement. I said, ‘Can I be a part of it?’ They said ‘No, no, no, Hafsar it's still too early’. Because I don't have what all of them have, because they have a little bit of privilege than me. They have been resettled more than, I don't know, 10 years ago, they excluded me. And then at that moment, I vow I will never ever exclude my fellow refugees and people with lived experiences under any circumstances. Incredibly important lived experience and insight they bring is not only important, it is really important. In fact, it is essential. It will be unfair for me to assume that I understand all the refugee situations in a different part of the world. I don't. I only have what I have lived through. And it's really important for us to know that, all the barriers that we have to be included. And are we actually including people? Also, I was really sick, if I can be very blunt, seeing the same one or two leader UN darlings everywhere, in every webinar, every meeting. I am sick of it. To be honest with you, I don't want to see myself at the next [Global] Refugee Forum here.  I have done it twice. It has to be someone else. I don't want to speak any more. If I can, I just want to be behind the scenes and mentoring the younger people. Okay, you go now, the new voices, because there is a lot of news and emerging issues happening.

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