Africa: "Our African Colleagues" - On the Limits of Diversity in Development

21 July 2020

Institutional racism is about power. It cannot be changed by simply hiring people of colour or putting them on the cover of annual reports.

When I hear talk of diversity, I often think back to an incident my former colleague refers to as "the tale of the Lion and the Giraffe". It occurred a few years back when we were both working for a development policy centre. A senior manager was doing the introductions at the start of an important meeting. We were expecting him to explain our roles or various credentials, but instead - and no doubt aware we were in an African capital city - he proudly presented us simply as "our African female colleagues".

Later that evening, my colleague told the senior manager to "stop treating us like the Big Five; here is the lion and here is the giraffe".

This was one of several incidents but a very telling one all the same. In that international organisation, me and my colleague were consistently treated as diversity trophies. While our white co-workers were congratulated for their work and secured promotions with less effort, we found it much harder to climb the ladder and, when we did, were told it was "good for diversity". We were paid 12% less than colleagues with the same responsibilities and were ignored when we raised concerns over what we considered racist emails or behaviour.

In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter and #AidToo movements, many stories have emerged of institutional racism in the development and humanitarian sectors. In response, several organisations have made pledges to diversify their staffing and hire a more diverse mix of consultants. Not for the first time, diversity has been presented as a silver bullet.

Yet as my experience demonstrates, this commitment can take many forms. Diversity can mean hiring people of colour but only in non-decision-making positions. Or employing them but ensuring they don't rock the boat by isolating them in seemingly powerful positions. It can mean "partnering" with organisations in the Global South but retaining all power and responsibility in the Global North hub. Or establishing diverse but largely toothless supervisory boards.

It is easy to do diversity tokenistically and for an organisation to continue promoting intellectual incest over meaningful debate and top-down control over genuine partnership. Far from addressing institutional racism, this superficial approach - exemplified by my former manager ("here is the lion and here is the giraffe") - can in fact work to mask it.

So, what is required?

Institutional racism is about power dynamics and these do not necessarily change simply by hiring people of colour or putting them on the front cover of annual reports. Instead, addressing power dynamics requires depth of diversity, which is reflected in how much the make-up of the staff reflects the community it serves and the extent to which people with different backgrounds are empowered, given responsibilities and equal opportunities, and how they are remunerated.

The shift from shallow to deep diversity is not a luxury for the development sector but a necessity. To be relevant, they need to understand the communities they seek to serve and the contexts in which they operate. And to be effective, they must put the expertise of those who know the terrain intimately at the very heart of what they do.

Fortunately, this realisation is growing in the sector. The modus operandi of foreign "experts" flying in to provide technical advice is no longer as acceptable, and local involvement is increasingly becoming a requirement. So many Western-driven prescriptions have been seen to fail, while Africa's own knowledge ecosystem has been growing exponentially.

As these calls for deep diversity grow, international organisations and their donors must adapt. It needs a similarly urgent and strong response to that which following the sexual abuse scandals that sent shockwaves through the humanitarian sector a couple of years ago.

Organisations need to immediately step up their efforts against institutional racism. Among other things, they should introduce mandatory requirements on diversity that move beyond mere numbers and that can be assessed through indicators such as the presence of people with a diversity of relevant backgrounds at different levels of the organisation. They should examine their remuneration policies, ensuring they have measures to ensure equity and the resources to transform mere pledges into reality. It is only by being internally anti-racist that organisations can hope to be anti-racist in their external activities.

Although the development sector is largely perceived to be progressive, creating deep diversity will be difficult. It is easy to forget that this is a multi-billion industry that relies heavily on well-oiled networks of western-dominated organisations and money. Avoiding the issue, however, is no longer an option. And fortunately, there is a rich body of studies that provide tools to dismantle institutional racism and there are more voices emerging to allow those working in the sector to at least start a conversation. The journey from tokenistic diversity to genuine anti-racism is a long and arduous one, but it must start by recognising a problem and realising just how deeply rooted it is.

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