The elephant hasn’t left the room: Racism, power & international aid

After Sasha Rabsey, Founder and President of The HOW Fund (yes, obviously I love the synergy with!), came back from an international conference on poverty reduction at the end of last year, she called me and wanted to talk and learn more about racism, privilege and development. Unfortunately in terms of ready resources, I didn’t have much to share with her other than this 1981 essay, “Development aid and racism” by Jacob Holdt and a post on the now retired TalesfromtheHood blog explaining the inherent harm embedded in any “perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions about whom the poor are, what they need, and how they should be helped.” (Note: If readers have any other resources or articles, please do share them in the comments section.)

Discrimination is rife in the aid industry. I don’t think that many people would refute the lack of local staff in positions of decision-making power in international NGOs, nor the grantmaker/grantseeker power imbalance in philanthropy.

But is this a problem or is it just the inevitable? To serve the poor is an endeavor of the privileged. Sasha’s experience at the conference demonstrates how aid workers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and do-gooders have the opportunity much too often to act in ways that are completely oblivious to racism and their participation in it. As a donor, her honesty is refreshing and a call to all of us involved in international assistance.


I attended the conference with two grantees, both African women engaged in grassroots work for adolescent girls. I was excited to be able to introduce them to potential funders and collaborators—after all they’re doing superb work on a critical issue. Yes, their financials checked out, their impact assessments looked good, their stories were compelling. But for me it was about the work they were doing. Both women are deeply thoughtful and respectful of the community they serve, critical qualities of successful leaders. So I was looking forward to validating their efforts. That is exactly what did not happen.

For most of the conference I was on an emotional roller coaster as I watched both women come up against the subtle, yet unmistakable signs of white power and privilege in the world of donors and grantees. I squirmed when the light bulb of donor’s unintended condescension turned on. I felt terrible as one grantee said to me, “I don’t know why I came. I would have learned more doing my work at home.”

I started to wonder if I am as guilty as any other donor. Aren’t I in a position of power and privilege in regards to my grantees? Is the support the How Fund offers more about me blowing my own horn for having this great grantee, rather than about the girls being served or the work being done? What about the language I use to describe our grantees or speak to them?

We, with power and privilege, want to appear to be polite and respectful. But how often do we end up sounding condescending, as if we are talking to a child, putting grantees in a position of having to be grateful?

I don’t believe the intention of any donor at the conference was to hurt or run roughshod. But here it was—my grantees sharing with me the evidence of donors’ paternalistic attitudes. And here I was—aware of how discouragingly easy it is for donors to adopt these attitudes. It starts when the conference participants are encourage to say, “What can I do for you?” Asking this question implies a power imbalance between donor and grantee. When I started to work in philanthropy, I considered this question to deferential. What I’ve come to understand from my grantees, though, is that the question actually elicits a sense of the “Other.”

So how do we shift the conversation, right the imbalance? As donors we need to have the humility and honesty to be clear about our contextual and cultural lens, the “default assumptions” we use when we interact with grantees. This is an uncomfortable exercise because it forces us to face our whiteness, our privilege, and all the less-than-pristine laundry that comes with these labels. However, I want to be able to have an open conversation with grantees that allows me to be who I am. That is the only way I know how to use my power and privilege to support others, to carry philanthropy out in a way that knocks down the hierarchy and promotes teamwork.

Why do I do this work? Let me be frank. It’s because it makes me feel good. But I can’t feel good if I am behaving in a way that’s anything but collaborative. Yes, I want my grantees to make me look good by doing stellar work, but I can’t tell them how to do that, so my half of the partnership is to be supportive. To me that means providing funds, but also establishing a relationship that assumes I will listen, learn and do my damndest not to make a fool of myself.

For all of us to be the best we can be, we first have to look deeply at ourselves and where we come from. When I started The HOW Fund, I began my journey as a white woman of privilege. I am still a white woman of privilege. What I know now is that to create a true partnership with those two powerful African women means that we must walk the journey together. The right question is not “What can I do for you?” It is, “What can I do with you?”


Related Posts

Aid, Africa, Corruption and Colonialism: An Honest Conversation

If I had only known…

Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist

Pity, Pictures and Poverty

Our Most Important Job

More on Why ‘How Matters’


  1. I love this post. I have seen the issue from both sides. As a white person working against racism, I think the angst is valuable. I mean that the discomfort and self-doubt is appropriate and helps us stay honest, or as close as possible. As an activist in Palestine, I see the other side. Recently, at an international conference, I approached an INGO for methodological help with a research study. They told me about research they wanted to do. When I later emailed them to get the methodology, they answered me that they couldn’t give me funding. I hadn’t asked for funding! It was very disturbing. What could I have done or said that would enlighten them about the assumptions they made and how it undermined a genuine relationship?

  2. Some comments coming in from LinkedIn:
    (1) From Jacqueline: A thinking and honest international donor at last, who recognizes condesention, arrogance and an appreciation of what is and can be done by locals with limited resources, one who feels that they do NOT have all the answers. Amazing and gratifying. Will this go anywhere, will grantees speak up? Can donors or their representatives change? Only time will tell.
    (2) From Carmeline: I think it is a very difficult issue and could be emotive. I work in an international setting and sometimes I can share the sentiments of the African women in the context. I think the issue of Power and Priviledge is critical since the international humanitarian arena is also inhabitated by many non-white but senior persons who also exhibit similar characteristics. But a thought provoking article nonetheless.
    (3) From Manish: Thanks very much for sharing this interesting article Jennifer..
    you have raised this at the time when I was seriously thinking over this issue …
    actually for past few years.. I am more in disaster management and emergency response….so in terms of “discrimination” I can understand that many of under developed or developing countries have not much experience in responding disaster where more expatriate’s presence is some time justifiable.. but after a while we need to give a serious thought on why the “national” /”local” staff’s presentation is too low?
    i have been to many coordination meeting [UN-NGO coordination mtg] where surprisingly some time I dont even see a single “local” person .. its really denting fact.. and ridiculous that many foreigners [some may be very fresh in particular country..may be just arrived] take over most of the discussion and influence the decision making….
    one of the other think attached here with is “favorism” !!
    I see we all need to discuss more on this issue over here!!
    (4) From Rocio: It is so simple and honest…Thank you for sharing it
    (5) From Martin: Interesting article. The Listening Project might be of interest to you
    (6) From Takawira: Powerful and thought provoking. Do we aid with aid or we trash with aid. Should predjudice prevail over goals of development.

  3. SmallButScrappy

    I would very much like to hear more from the two women who attended the conference with you. Do you think they’d be willing to provide a guest post explaining more exactly what kinds of behaviours they encountered at the conference and how they perceived it all?

    Your reflections on the question “what can I do for you?” gave an interesting case in point.

    This is a question I often ask (particularly when I’m in between gigs, as I often offer my services on a pro bono basis to organisations I admire, national or international, depending on the context) and this is the first time it has occurred to me that it might not be interpreted in the way it’s meant.

    I’m not a donor. I’m just someone with a specific set of skills and experiences and when I ask “what can I do for you?” I’m entirely open to the possibility that the answer might be “Actually, nothing. All the things you know how to do, we’ve got covered.”

    Admittedly, I’m as likely to frame the question: “Here’s what I know how to do, and here’s how much time I’m free to commit; is that of any use to you?” And in all cases, that’s what I mean if I’m asking “What can I do for you?” What I hadn’t been alert to is how history (and perhaps the present realities of how many expats deal with local partners) might affect how my question is heard.

    So… returning to my initial thoughts: Do you think your colleagues might be willing to expand on what you’ve shared in this column and possibly offer suggestions for how these interactions could take place with less likelihood of unintentionally making people feel condescended-to?



  4. A critically important “elephant-in-the-room” topic and kudos for raising the “R” word-racism. I’m both an academic and development specialist who works “in the field”.’Globalism, racism, and Human rights’ is a university course I teach and the issues raised in this blog are on point. When ‘development’ stops running on the principles and practices of the ‘old boys’ club'(class/race/educational privilege) and starts focusing on the true goal-the elimination of extremes of both wealth and poverty, we’ll all be in better shape spiritually and materially.
    Racism, in all of its forms, is embedded in nearly all of our institutions, laws, and policies. It is a particularly pernicious demon when linked to material wealth and a difficult one to overcome.
    Please visit my blog at for my comments on this critical topic. Bravo, ‘How matters’!

  5. When I started making grants at the How Fund I had one thing to offer…money. With a few years of experience under my belt I now have a little more to offer my grantees but most importantly I trust them. I choose grantees that know far more than I do about the work they are doing and that is how I have learned about how I want to carry out my grant making. I didn’t write this piece to finger point but to open a difficult and uncomfortable conversation and encourage other donors to have this discussion with me and our grantees. I consider myself an educated, liberal, nice person and it is embarrassing and awkward to realize some of your words and actions have racist overtones or are embedded in uneven power structures.I wasn’t even aware of my mistakes. I want to have good relationships with my grantees and in order to do that I need to clean up my house. It will never be perfect due to the nature of the beast but I want to be honest so we can forgive each other’s mistakes. Thanks for all the great comments and I am open to hearing more on this topic.

  6. There’s this piece by Uzodinma Iweala from a few years ago, “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa.”

    Maybe not *exactly* the kind of thing you’re talking about, but certainly related.

    Funny, “what can I do for you” is so ingrained in my head as a service industry kind of thing, it’s hard for me to change it from something where the asker is not the servant but the powerful one. But I do see how it be interpreted this way.

    Do you think this applies in domestic work with the poor as well? Do you think it’s equally problematic that there is a “poor = black” undercurrent going on here? And how much of it is racism versus condescension of the poor in general?

    I myself went through a process of devastating realization while doing my MA in African Studies. Really had to re-wire myself to think differently and ditch all these assumptions I didn’t even realize I was making.

    Thought provoking as usual, thanks for the post!

  7. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and insightful reflection with us. As SmallButScrappy suggested, it would be really interesting to hear from your two conference companions as well!

    I wanted to emphasize just how tangled up the notions of race and class are in this scenario (as they tend to be in all discussions about eliminating poverty, both at home and abroad). In fact, I think what we’re speaking about here is actually rooted in classism: assumptions about with ‘the poor’ can and cannot know, made based on the initial assumption that if you look a certain way you must be one of ‘the poor’.

    The very structure of the international development and humanitarian aid sectors lock this power imbalance in place through their basis on the donor-beneficiary model (even those very terms indicate who has the power right from the get-go). This relationship is fundamentally paternalistic in nature, but the financial dependency it creates on the part of the beneficiary precludes her from speaking out about that fact. So the cycle continues.

    I think that the only way to truly move towards permanently eliminating the power dynamics of racism and classism that are systemically embedded in international development and humanitarian aid sectors is to step away from the donor-beneficiary model entirely.

    How exactly we go about doing that, I don’t know. But I do know that if the need for discussions like this still exists, the band-aid solutions we’ve seen so far haven’t come close to tackling the root of the problem.

  8. 1- As you rightly said elephants have not left the room, and they won’t.
    Enstein said that prejudices where in people brains because of mental blocks- 2- It hurts and it harder to change these people values (racism,….) that dictated their attitudes.
    There are also, as much racists (in white or black people, and coloured people too). Either you make it your daily bread or you don’t…
    3- They consider the behavior as a self-defence, particularly, when the economies are bad -it is always the others and never them.(perhaps what you can teach is to execute things and be self and responsible….
    4- Also, you do not need to move far from home- Just watch in your neigboorhood of your house. How many racists have you got? (racists in talk, by actions, thinking or behaviors…They hate others, but they are prevented too,…
    5- Only way to make these behaviors acceptable is to implement deterrence policies agaisnt all forms of prejudices (law society)-
    6- In the meantime in development, you have to live with and against,… without yourself turned to racism too or criticism- because at the end it it their goal, to distabilize the aid- donors.
    You need to unite with people you want to help -and not destroy them….

  9. Yvette

    Jennifer, I think this is a fascinating and honest article. It particularly resonated with me not just because I’ve seen these issues but because I’ve experienced them as well. I’m not an in-country national in my current work in Malawi, but as an African-American, I’m often mistaken for one. And somehow, this “identity” that I’m boxed into warrants the way I’m treated in the professional sphere, requiring me to prove myself and my intelligence when others in similar positions who look different than me don’t have to. What I would love to hear from you is where we go from here. I don’t think that this is inevitable; it can be changed through little steps along the way. How do we move forward?

  10. Pingback: SCOUT BANANA» Blog Archive » The Little Things: on “-isms” in International Development

  11. Dear Jennifer,
    Both in your note here and in Jacob Holdt’s (linked)I find what I should term self-pity especially for what both of you and a few others of your stock (did you say ‘whites’ or the rich or donors, or privileged, etc) deem to think of the ‘poor’ Africans and may be others elsewhere. But I will speak for Africans because they are the ones I think I understand better because I’m myself an African and have done some researches about us.

    In short, you feel outraged, embarrassed and may be demeaned by what you regard as your (‘white’ or rich) people’s attitudes (‘patronizing’ did you say?) towards the poor and disadvantaged Africans!

    But may I ask you to take heart. You might have read my earlier note I sent to your e-mail, in response to ‘Aid, Africa, Corruption, and Colonialism: An Honest Conversation’ at In that note I stressed the point that the biggest trouble is not from without Africa contemporary, but rather within. The biggest trouble, as I have asserted even on other sources, especially on, is the unyielding state structures that we have today, which have jeopardized and compromised us to what you otherwise regard as demeaning or compromising external attitudes.

    I’ve often made an analogy that what would anybody imagine if they found a mature and normal-thinking person eating mud in broad day light? Either they will initially think the person is insane or something else has happened to him or her. This is the natural reaction from anybody. But in Africa we are neither insane nor is there, in fact, anything wrong about us. We are as human or intelligent as anybody else in the world. And we have immense natural resources, as every one out there knows. However, our actions reflect very differently. And the question is why should it be like this in Africa? I have, belabored to answer this question in my paper at, on human rights and development in Africa. In short, I’m saying the problem is basically internal here and has to do with the alien state structures that continue to undermine us even to the risk of extinction. The states I’m referring to are our own currently in Africa but which we stupidly inherited from colonialism of the 19th to 20th centuries. We did not destroy or even transform these states at the so-called independence, but merely carried them forward like they were a god-send from the creator. This is where the trouble begins, and as long as we continue to find explanations elsewhere (I have argued in my paper) we are at the very verge of extinction. So, please, read my paper and encourage others to read it too. It is an online publication of free/open access. Thank you

  12. JMCooper

    Partnerships became the flavor of the month in aid agencies a few years ago. Few organizations really thought through what they wanted from partnerships; most thought -and still think- it meant fundraising. The most uncomfortable partnerships have been those that are NOT about money… The critical question comes at the very end of this thought-provoking piece. Partnerships is about “What can I do with you?” So simple, yet elusive.
    Thanks for sharing this post. We may not change the world in one day but we still can change some things today in our small way. I, passionate advocate for Africa and African development, want to partner with you to help make this change.

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