#PowerShifts Resources: Anti-Racism in Development and Aid

June 23, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

‘White saviour complex’, ‘poverty porn’, ‘locals’ vs. ‘expats’. These terms are all part of an old conversation that has revived as a result of the mass protests calling for racial justice and anti-racism across the US and globally. Racism in development and aid is not a new issue, so why does it continue to be overlooked?

Sadly, I’ve noticed a notable silence from leadership in many charities and aid organisations, hiding behind the fact that their mission statements and objectives do not specifically outline “combatting racism” as an integral part of their work.

But that’s perhaps because the notion of development itself is pervaded by what some have called the ‘white gaze’.  We recently published an interview with Robtel Neajai Pailey on how we can de-center this white gaze from development thinking and practice, which I strongly suggest you listen to. This anti-racist work is, essentially, about the urgent task of unpacking power dynamics that continue to limit the possibilities of collective well-being and social justice.

For this batch of #PowerShiftsResources, I’ve compiled this list of resources in the hope that we can collectively interrogate our roles in perpetuating systems of oppression within our own places of work, world-views and behaviours. Dismantling institutional racism is cross-cutting: it goes all the way from tackling inequitable hiring and MEL practices, to reimagining partnerships and funding structures, all the way to opening up the range of possible ways of ‘developing’. 

The topic raises a diverse set of questions as wide-ranging as:

Is the moral imperative of decolonising international development a strong enough incentive?
What does accountability to anti-racism look like if leadership structures remain unchanged?
How are INGOs and their colleagues in philanthropy reimagining funding strategies to ensure that they are standing in anti -racist solidarity with black people globally? 
Who has the power to consent? And what does it mean to establish (and maintain) an equitable partnership?
How can we elevate stories and practices of anti-racist and decolonial struggles from the Global South without tokenising them?
What does doing development differently look like?

But before continuing, there is something important to take note of: the majority of articles and resources available to the anglo-sphere relate to experiences dictated, in their majority, by legacies of slavery in the English-speaking ‘North’. It is not enough to use these coordinates of racial justice to explain what is happening in other regions and countries. So, please take the time to learn about the history of racial relations, representations of racism and anti-racist initiatives in your local context. 

Para hispanohablantes: en esta página encontrarán varios recursos para entender y hacer frente a representaciones de racismo en América Latina y sus consecuencias en la actualidad.

To better understand racial relations in the Dutch colonial context, I highly recommend works by Surinamese anthropologist Gloria Wekker, especially White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race.

For experiences relating to racial relations in France, Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, you might be interested in Une discrimination positive à la française? by Milena Doytcheva, and La Condition Noire by Pap Ndiaye.

Here we go!

Racism, aid and development

As a kickstarter, I strongly suggest you take an hour of your day to watch this conversation between Stephanie Kimou, Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, Naomi Tulay-Solanke and Arbie Baguios on How to be anti-racist in aid. Read some of the commitments made by participants on actions they will take to be anti-racist in aid and let them inspire your own set of commitments. (Idea: you can organise a session with your team where you all listen to this and write out your collective commitments with actions you can start taking.)

One organisation you should really check out is PopWorks Africa, which seeks to “to disrupt the historically white space of power in international development.” As a team of black women (also led by black women), they help organisations foster anti-racist approaches in the development, implementation, and monitoring of interventions in the African continent. 

In this interview, the founder of PopWorks Africa, Stephanie Kimou, said she sees three windows of opportunity for global development professionals to decolonise the way they work: dismantling the ‘white gaze’, fostering transparent partnerships with locally rooted partners, and elevating local expertise. Since last year, they set up an e-learning platform for international development professionals “looking to unpack questions of race, white privilege, and how the colonial hangover is still impacting the global aid sector today.” It will run from September 7th until December 20th, 2020 – make sure someone in your organisation is part of this.

Another group to check out are the No White Saviours (NWS) campaign,  led by a majority female African team of professionals based in Kampala, Uganda. NWS works with organisations to educate and bridge the knowledge gap that exists when it comes to responsible aid work and unjust treatment and stereotypes in the development space. Through their social media channels (TwitterInstagram and Facebook) they are constantly spotlighting the problematic ways in which the white saviour complex manifests in the African continent. 

Another important player is CharitySoWhite, a POC-led campaign group seeking to tackle institutional racism in the charity sector. Their vision is grounded in seeing a sector “taking the lead on tackling and rooting out racism,” because “unless we take serious and urgent action to tackle racism, social justice will not and cannot prevail.” They stress the need to reframe the conversation on racism from diversity and inclusion to power and privilege. Read their latest interview here.

Some more readings on the nexus between racism and development and aid:

Other great resource compilations to check out:

“The careless treatment of professional black aid workers by humanitarian aid organisations suggests a hierarchy of worth,with workers from the Global South, especially if they are black, valued the least. We came to this work naively thinking everyone would be treated equally regardless of race, gender or religious affiliation. It didn’t take us long to discover that equality is a charade in this sector.”

Tindyebwa Agaba and unknown author, Open Democracy, 2018

Changing organisational culture

Racism and exclusion are issues of power, and tackling racism involves an equitable distribution of organisational power, revising individual privileges within teams, ensuring pay justice and decolonising program designs. Change requires a range of actors, including ‘intravists’ – those that work to change institutions and their cultures

A piece by Rashida Petersen and Jennifer Lentfer from 2017, on how to tackle racism in the aid sector, outlines four ways to challenge the structural racism that stands in the way of real ‘development’: 1) Question the need for expats to get the job done; 2) Don’t just talk about hiring, talk about leadership at all levels; 3) Know the difference between diversity and inclusion; and 4) Recognise and question how dominant white culture shows up within an organisation. 

“While activism involves external efforts to bring about systemic change in society, intravism involves internal efforts to change organisational structures.” 

Blessing Omakwu

White supremacy shows up in our everyday lives in insidious ways. Follow up with this resource on how ‘white supremacy culture’ looks like in organisations, taken from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. You won’t be surprised at how normal these behaviours seem. Use this resource to reflect on how your organisation or place of work unconsciously uses these characteristics as its norms and standards, making it hard (if not impossible) to open the door to other cultural norms and standards.

Most importantly, why is it so hard to talk about racism? The systems and structures that make up our sector reinforce racism, says Martha Awojobi. But we really need to learn to talk about it openly. To those working in international development and humanitarian organisations: hold your institutions accountable for silences around racism. Here’s a recent conversation that guides us in how to talk about racism in our workplaces. If you work for an institution that has been publicly silent on racism and structural violence against black bodies, here you can find an email template you can use to demand action.

To take this work further in your workplaces:

The Dismantling Racism Works collective have put together some more fantastic offerings for action tools and tools of analysis for organisations that want to embark on cultural shifts towards race equity.

Follow and join the Healing Solidarity Collective to challenge the ways in which all of this shows up in our organisations, and exchange ideas on how to tackle it. As they say, “we all play a part in upholding this system or we choose to be part of ending it.”

Decolonising knowledge in development

Crucial to this conversation are the attempts to decolonise Eurocentric knowledge systems and their role in challenging the enduring effects of colonialism (and racism). We’ve touched on this from the very first post on the Power Shifts project, which talked about the ‘Black Market’ of knowledge production.

Here are some other pieces we’ve published on this:

Below are some interesting spaces and discussions to learn from:

Who should I be listening to?

Groups,  networks and campaigns:

Afro-feminist collectives:

  • Afroféminas (Spain and Latin America)
  • Ofraneh (Honduras)
  • BA(F)FE (France) – a feminist database where you can search by tag (e.g “afrofeminisme”) to gather the latest news/articles from this tag.
  • Rosa Collectief (The Netherlands)

Racial justice educators, activists and scholars to follow:

Featured image: The distribution of in-kind assistance sent by Austria to Mozambique through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism in response to tropical cyclone Idai. Credit: European Union, CC licensed.