The American anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi stated that anti-racist “is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.” In response to police brutality in 2020, many U.S. organizations embarked on discussions about race and racism. Unfortunately, this discussion has not always been around the practices of the entire sector.
I have reflected a lot on colonialism since I joined the international development field in 2017. I was born and raised in Brazil. The experience of being an immigrant in a sector based on the idea that developed countries will fix problems in developing countries is unsettling. Often, program design has no input from local staff; decision-making has no regard for the local context, and indigenous groups are overridden. This also happens in domestic programs in the U.S. where local communities are not consulted; instead, input from minority staff is dismissed, and programs proceed based on a flawed design that is disconnected.
The rise of ideas of localization and decentralization is causing organizations to undergo restructuring or re-imagining initiatives. Donor agencies are prioritizing direct funding of local organizations. Many of my white colleagues tell me they are reconsidering their roles in the industry. I want to encourage us to frame these issues around anti-racism and anti-colonial ideas.
Here are some ways to do it.
Support and empower local and black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) staff in racist systems
Deep-rooted systemic racism is a global problem. Black and brown staff often feel silenced and dismissed. A colleague once told me they were raised believing you should always defer to and respect white men, so it is hard for them to find their voice and express their opinions when those go against white people’s ideas.
Be an advocate and champion for local staff in-country and regional offices and BIPOC staff in HQ offices. One of the biggest barriers facing talent of color is the lack of advocates and champions. Everyone has a sphere of influence and can use this to open the door for someone else, pass them the microphone, and pull a seat up at the table to make it more inclusive—if anyone says the table is full, move to a new table and pull up a chair. Seek out local and BIPOC staff first in opportunities for volunteers, special projects, or speaking in front of internal and external audiences.
Checking in with local staff on racist and colonial dynamics is a priority for me. Check-in agendas always include a debrief time, where sharing feelings and difficulties is encouraged. I am purposeful about asking my team how the organization or I can support them. I make it clear we are behind them in their work and will always have their backs. The combination of safe spaces, non-judgmental active listening, encouragement, and support helps build strong relationships and trust.
Calling out racism when it happens is also essential. Racist behavior often arises in relationships crucial to the life of programs and with players where strong power dynamics are at play. Therefore, it can be tricky to call it out. I learned that if I sense a power dynamic, the local staff feels it, a hundred-fold. One way of addressing racism towards local staff by external stakeholders is making it clear that you trust your local team. There will be times where a direct conversation or reporting to a supervisor is needed. Knowing how and when to do it requires training, and if you are not sure what is appropriate, check with others in your team and always consult with the local staff before taking any action.
At times, racist behavior has caused my teams to decide to end working relationships. Even when that is not feasible, having an open conversation about what happened and acknowledging it was unacceptable can be healing.
Be purposeful in recruitment and retention
The way we write job requirements can create barriers. For example, requirements around academic studies, which do not allow practical or life experience to make up for the lack of official degrees, exclude many talented people. In countries where formal education is reserved for individuals with a higher social-economic status—and race and economic status often intersect—this restriction can create exclusions based on race.
Prioritizing candidates with western education is also a problem. The idea that western courses are “better” implies that the western way is best and should be the system we follow. Furthermore, prioritizing education and experience in international development further exacerbates this problem. The idea that one who had the privilege of education or worked in international development outweighs the talent of a person who has walked a life through systems of marginalization and oppression generates further exclusion. An anti-colonial approach would question the root of these beliefs.
- Ensure that local and BIPOC staff are part of interview panels and hiring decisions. Hold department leaders accountable.
- Set targets and monitor diversity data by location, department, and level. Pay attention to patterns that may indicate systemic issues and talent barriers.
- Lastly, there is no reason why we can’t find and prioritize local and BIPOC talent instead of expatriates and white staff. Having someone with in-depth knowledge of the local context of the communities we serve will yield better credibility, execution, impact, and results.
Donors recognize the importance of localization. In recent years, many agencies have decided to dedicate close to 100% of their funds to local organizations. Although this is an anti-colonial approach, when it is not accompanied by a change in donor’s expectations to accommodate local ownership, it can be problematic.
Historically, compliance has fallen under the responsibility of U.S. staff. The sudden shift of agencies’ funding priorities, combined with the historical allocation of responsibility, puts local organizations at risk of losing funds due to compliance issues. Donor agencies’ expectations have not adjusted to this reality.
All solutions begin with donor education. This requires organizing and advocating within our industry to share difficulties and training gaps and to brainstorm solutions with donors to improve local and indigenous organizations’ chances of success. A phased-in approach to compliance could be a strategy.
Building capacity of local staff in current programs and having technical assistance roles for operations, compliance, and award management built into proposals submitted by local organizations is another strategy. Donor education related to gaps and needs must accompany these strategies, as they are dependent on funds commitment.
Donor education could also lead to the creation of technical assistance roles in donor agencies, specifically focused on award management for local organizations. All these strategies aim to recognize the strengths and particularities of local ownership instead of having a one size fits all attitude.
In international development, people in developed countries have held all the power for decades. Asking people to let go of it creates discomfort and fear. Some of my peers have told me they cannot relinquish control because local teams are incapable and/or corrupt. These ideas are rooted in racism and colonialism.
Localization will fail unless we decentralize power. Determining funding priorities for an agency should start and end with local ownership. Decisions around program design, fund allocation, and risk management should start and end with local ownership. Local participants should be able to trust programs designed, managed, and delivered by their people instead of continuously waiting for another INGO with a “white savior” complex.
Delivering effective localization requires us to re-imagine, set targets, and hold ourselves accountable. Some actionable ideas include:
- Downsizing the number of headquarters staff (HQ);
- Identifying at least one position that will be filled by local staff instead of HQ staff (in programs, business development, communications, technical teams and finance); and
- Implementing term limits with succession plans which involves progressively developing local staff capacity to take on roles traditionally performed at HQ.
These plans should involve measurable targets on institutional balanced scorecards and leadership performance objectives. Leaders need to be held accountable for this the same as we would with other key performance indicators.
The anti-racist and anti-colonial work required to move forward is complex and extensive. While my blog outlines some suggestions regarding how to start this work, this overview is not exhaustive. To that end, we must remain critical of our individual, organization, and sector’s decision-making processes. This is the first step in ensuring we break the systemic racism and colonial status quo that has determined how our space functions since its inception. Unpacking our privilege and leveraging our power will contribute to sustainable and transformative change that will positively impact our work.