Below all of the talk of “evidence-based approaches” and “taking interventions to scale,” there is an undercurrent of disquiet.
It happens when “local partners’ capacity” is maligned. It happens when two people have the same idea, but it is considered legitimate only when the white guy in the room offers it. It happens when people of color are passed over for leadership positions, jobs, promotions, or pay raises. It happens when different opinions would be helpful, but perspectives are not asked for, or are discounted. It happens when only 1% of humanitarian relief funds make their way to national organizations in Haiti, in West Africa to fight Ebola, and now in Nepal. It happens when people of color are assumed to have a lower job status than they do and are treated as such. It happens with every unclosed feedback loop and every feedback loop not yet opened. It happens when the stories and photos we use to describe our work reinforce harmful stereotypes. It happens when an approach is suddenly considered “new” or “relevant” only because now donors have “discovered” it.
People’s experiences of everyday, subtle racism, or racial microagressions – and the resulting anger, powerlessness, fear, humiliation, and sadness – are not just fleeting instances. They accumulate. And the resulting frustration can result in deep hopelessness in a sector that is supposed to be about equality, fairness, and lifting each other up. The very premise of our industry – that others should live as those in the “developed world” do – has to be acknowledged and exorcised.
If US-based development practitioners have learned anything from the discourse on race in our country over the last few tragic weeks (and centuries…), it’s time for some uncomfortable conversations. And if we can’t find the courage to have the conversation now, then when will it happen?
I hear plenty of conversations about risk, or rather mitigating it in our sector, over and over in fact. But we need to take the next step to talk about control and power. Who has it? Historically, how did they get it? Systemically, how do they use it? And as a result, who is not welcome at the table when decisions are made? (See this Guardian chat from 2013.)
I’m uncomfortable talking about this. Going under the surface is scary. But unless we open up the conversation on racism, sexism, and privilege in the global development sector, we will continue to perpetuate the same, tired system and make the same mistakes – ones that right now we believe can be solved by best practices and improved indicators.
When we face uncertainty in the global development sector, we have two choices. We can design (make abstract) and manage (control), or we can inquire (make real) and listen (let go). When our sector focuses our language, our meetings, our reports only the first option, we assume “responsibility to only a certain extent,” as described to me by Semhar Araia.
We are too protected by the abstractions of our development lexicon. We can too easily claim our commitment to “results” or “locally-led development” and too easily skip over the racism at the root of the problems we seek to address and the prejudices that color the solutions we profess.
Every time I talk about racism on my blog how-matters.org, I realize there’s much more I can and should be doing to advance this discussion in the global development sector. Every time I go to a conference and see a sea of white faces talking about “their” help to poor, brown people in the Global South, I see how much work needs to be done.
So I am assuming more responsibility. I need to learn more about people of color’s experience in international aid and philanthropy, if they are willing to share it, and how this can be improved. I need to engage (and challenge) other white people about why they are not doing so. Our sector does so well at ignoring “the political,” but that has got to change, starting with me.
Forgive me for the mistakes I will surely make…