The Development Sector’s Diversity Problem

While a majority of development work happens in non-white countries, people of colour rarely call the shots.

In July 2019, the hashtag #CharitySoWhite began to trend on Twitter when participants at a training event run by the British Citizens Advice Bureau noticed a training slide enti­tled “Barriers to working with BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities.” The slide said that people of colour were in­herently money­-oriented and had low levels of literacy. For the participants, this blatant racism was symptomatic of a fundamental problem with diversity in the charity sec­tor, where unfair pay, racist comments and micro-aggressions—including confounding names of people from different races—are rife.

In the U.K., charities that focus on home­lessness or support for relatives of cancer sufferers place great emphasis on the lived experience of their beneficiaries, and work with them to shape policy. In international development, though, while a majority of work happens in countries with non­-white majorities—in Africa, Asia, and South America—people of colour rarely hold decision-­making roles, which perpetuates white colonial narratives in the sector.

As Charity So White, now a campaign group, points out, “racism affects the lived expe­riences of populations deemed unworthy, flawed and dangerous. These lived expe­riences matter and we believe that people with experience of racism must be central to the work of anti­racism.”

Lena Bheroo, Equality, Diversity and Inclu­ ion Manager at Bond, a network of British development NGOs, says part of the problem is who the sector values as experts. A glaring 9% of employees in the U.K. international development sector are non-white. And in a 2014 study of the 50 largest fundraising organisations, only 12% of chief executives, 6% of senior managers and 8% of trustees were non­-white. This reinforces the classic “White Saviour Complex”—the idea of privileged, often white, wealthy Europeans carrying the burden of “saving” poor, disenfranchised people in the less economically­-developed nations. The prob­lem is both structural and implicit.

There are several barriers to BAME candi­dates entering international development. In the U.K., for example, to get a sponsored visa, candidates from outside the European Union/European Economic Area must earn over £30,000 a year and be sponsored by an organisation—something many interna­tional development charities can’t afford.

Shreya Nambiar, who is from Bangalore, India and has a master’s in Developmental Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, has been applying to jobs in the U.K. development sector for months. Her Indian passport means prospective employers’ “hands are tied,” she says. “And they haven’t been able to pay the hefty fees needed to sponsor visas.”

“I have lived and worked in a country where there is such a big development sector, I real­ly thought that would give me the upperhand.” These challenges can dispropor­tionately affect candidates from countries outside of Europe. “It’s mentally exhausting and has a huge toll on your self­-esteem,” says Nambiar.

This year, a report published by the Associa­tion of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organi­sations highlighted how “the charity sector, despite good intentions, still reproduces racial inequality, blocking BAME people from positions of influence and power through policies and processes designed without them in mind.”

Jobs in international development often require prestigious degrees, which can be unaffordable and out of reach for candidates who face challenges accessing higher edu­cation—typically BAME candidates. Job adverts are written without published salaries—which dispro­portionately affects BAME candi­dates when negotiating fair pay. Additionally, once recruited, it is not uncommon for people of col­our to report that they are the only non­-whites in rooms, teams and sometimes whole organisations. In one study, 147 BAME participants out of nearly 500 reported being treated as intellectually inferior by colleagues.

International development’s issues with race are unsurprising, given the industry was built on colonial foundations. One international development professional puts it this way: “First, there is a very big lack of finding, identifying, and disabling problematic struc­tures of privilege in international development. Second, there is a problem with understanding the racial stereotypes in international development and third, there is a need for true inclusion that will be understood by a local in the streets of Nairobi or India.”

By the end of World War II, the break­up of European empires had over 61% of the world living under the poverty line. Most of these people belonged to former European colonies and didn’t have access to basic necessities like food, water, education and health­care. In the years that followed, a number of global organisa­tions—such as British NGO Oxfam, the United Nations and Voluntary Service Overseas—sprang up to address poverty, compelled by the injustices of war and colonialism.

Many of these organisations con­tinue to perpetuate the colonial values upon which they were built. Felix Owino works for a U.K.­based NGO tackling gender inequality in rural Kenya. Where he works, on the banks of Lake Victoria with a community of local farmers, in­ternational aid comes with condi­tions. “There are fishing communi­ties where people have used their education and their knowledge to come up with better ways to fish and not having to depend on donations from the West,” says Owino. Although communities have been successful at this, they have to approach their work differently because of what Western donors want, explains Owino.

These power dynamics are harm­ful, not only because they position people in poverty as hapless and in need of rescue by wealthy, well­-meaning strangers, but also because they reinforce the power imbalances that led to the creation of the sector in the first place. The disconnect between fundraising in countries in the West and the char­ity work being implemented around the world means that, despite its best intentions, the international development sector still has a long way to go.

But there is hope. Charity So White participants hope to change some of the attitudes to race within the sector by having honest conversa­tions about the challenges people of colour face within it. Bond is pushing for NGOs to disclose the salaries of positions advertised on­ line—a step the network hopes will help make the sector more inclu­sive. It is also organising conver­sations solely for people of colour. After one such event, participants thanked the organisers for creating a space for them to share their experiences in a safe environment. For many, it was the first time in a room where they were not the minority. “Development as an in­dustry needs to be valuing voices from the marginalised communi­ties. Valuing that experience and bringing them into the industry,” says Namibar. “To help them do their work with a more informed perspective.”

“I hope there is a shift,” says Bheroo “and that [people of colour are] seen as valuable.”

“In one study, 147 BAME participants out of nearly 500 reported being treated as intellectually inferior by colleagues.”

"While a majority of work happens in countries with a non-white majorities—in Africa, Asia, and South America—people of colour rarely hold decision-making roles."

“These power dynamics reinforce the power imbalances that led to the creation of the sector in the first place.”

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