Published on February 3, 2022
by Aïda Cissé (Université Laval)
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a decentralised social and political movement which advocates for the rights of Black communities, condemns racial prejudice and systemic racismBlack Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter: about, 2021, https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/. Most recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the movement saw an increase in visibility following the death of George Floyd, yet another unarmed African American person, at the hands of policeHenrika McCoy, “Black lives matter, and yes, you are racist: the parallelism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 37(5), 2020, 463-475.. Floyd’s death ignited a racial reckoning defined by a reactionary aftermath that brought several organisations across the world to face their colonial past. Many released statements pledging to join in on the fight against ingrained systemic and institutional racism through policy and organisational changeRichard Feloni and Yusuf George, “These are the corporate responses to the George Floyd protests that stand out, Just Capital, 30 June 2020, … Continue reading. And with BLM’s impact reverberating through varying tissues of society, humanitarian aid was cited as one of the sectors in dire need of technocratic fixesMedium, Video: How to be anti-racist in aid, 2020, https://medium.com/aidreimagined/video-how-to-be-anti-racist-in-aid-a6eaebc54d3e.
When discussing the intersection of anti-racism and international aid, it can be tempting to simply focus on external practices or impacts on communities served. The latter remains important but does not tell the full story. Much like gender mainstreaming, anti-racist approaches require transversality because racism occurs at several levels – including extraorganisational, intraorganizational, as well as individualMaria Veronica Svetaz et al., “Inaction is not an option: using antiracism approaches to address health inequities and racism and respond to current challenges affecting youth”, The Journal of … Continue reading. In other words, the organisational structure and its composition simply cannot be ignored. Hence, using the growing literature on anti-racist praxis, this article will propose three areas where anti-racist praxis can be applied to better internal organisational practices within humanitarian aid organisations. Herein, anti-racist practices may be defined as “focused and sustained action” set in place “to change systems or institutional policies, practices, or procedures that have racist effects”Ibid..
The international development and humanitarian aid sectors find roots in dominant powers, its structures profoundly anchored in systems of oppressions such as colonialism and eurocentrismMedium, Video: How to be anti-racist…, art. cit.. Columnist Paul Currion of The New Humanitarian echoes this by defining aid as “the unfinished business of decolonisation” and “the direct descendant of the old European empires”Paul Currion, “Decolonising aid, again”, The New Humanitarian, 13 July 2020, … Continue reading. Oppression’s omnipresence indeed speaks to deeply embedded power imbalances. For one, most humanitarian groups are based in wealthy nations and operate in vulnerable communities of the Global SouthSonia Elks, “Exclusive: Aid groups face calls to open up on racism as the survey finds data holes”, Reuters, 14 July 2020, … Continue reading. Countless literature observing North-South relations consistently denote the power imbalances inherent to the rapport amongst its actors (e.g., aid workers, local partners, and beneficiaries) and colonialism continues to be cited as the source of these inequalities. This ongoing conversation surrounding linking the aid and colonial history underlies the emergence of the decolonising aid agenda, a framework which promotes “ongoing efforts to decolonise the minds of many of us from the power of Eurocentric framing” as well as the move “from patronising, colonising interventionist approaches to a much more mutual process”Jonathan Langdon, “Decolonising development studies: reflections on critical pedagogies in action”, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 34(3), 2013, 384-399..
Even within humanitarian aid organisations, colonialism, and eurocentrism seeps in as the rule is often that “whiteness is considered as the standard category against which non-white thinking and people are judged, irrespective of the history of the organisation”Duncan Green, Lucy Morris and Andres Gomez de la Torre, “How to decolonize international development: some practical suggestions”, Oxfam Blogs, 18 December 2020, … Continue reading. The countless testimonials given by racialised aid workers regarding workplace racism highlight an all-too-common manifestation of oppression at the organisational level. As a case in point, one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), most recently was called “institutionally racist” by 1,000 aid workers due to via policies, hiring practices and aid programs deemed discriminatory and reinforcing white supremacyKaren McVeigh, “Médecins Sans Frontières is ‘institutionally racist’, say 1,000 insiders”, The Guardian, 10 July 2020, … Continue reading. White saviour complex, a problematic phenomenon which rests on aiding for self-serving purposes, easily flows into the internal debate as racialised aid workers and recipients demand greater organisational accountability. From all fronts, the aid sector is now being pushed to acknowledge potential power imbalances present within aid-yielding scenarios but internally, in their offices.
Anti-racist approaches respond to power imbalances by pushing for the acknowledgement of societal privilege at the individual level. Herein, recognising privilege means understanding that specific social attributes including race, gender and socioeconomic status may lead to oppression, differential treatment, and social inequityAshleigh Shelby Rosette and Leigh Plunkett Tost, “Perceiving social inequity: when subordinate-group positioning on one dimension of social hierarchy enhances privilege recognition on … Continue reading. In recognising privilege, humanitarian actors belonging to groups deemed “advantaged” (White, male, heterosexual, middle class and above, for instance) can understand how their social positioning influences their practices and approaches, but also their behaviours towards racialised colleagues who do not belong to these “privileged” groups. Indeed, acknowledging privilege helps identify internalised and invisible forms of racism altogether while providing tools which may unveil the structural exclusion which maintain the oppression of racialised communities both here and abroadMiriyam Aouragh, “‘White privilege’ and shortcuts to anti-racism”, Race & Class, 61(2), 2013, 3-26..
Furthermore, understanding privilege means recognising that it can manifest within an organisational structure in various ways including the positioning of certain groups over others for better job opportunities and/or promotionsAshleigh Shelby Rosette and Leigh Plunkett Tost, “Perceiving social…”, art. cit.. In using MSF’s recent call-out as an example, inequity appears in the persistence of continuously prioritising Global North staff for senior and managerial positions. By the same token, an online survey ran by 286 aid workers in sixty-three different countries reported on this reality by confirming that “about half of those who experienced racism said it involved pay or benefits discrimination”Sonia Elks, “Exclusive: Half aid workers report racism at work in past year – poll”, Reuters, 30 October 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-aid-racism-exclusive-trfn-idUSKBN27F1SE. Hence, as “privileged” groups experience few, if any, barriers to career advancement, racialised individuals may face inequity as they struggle to attain similar professional objectives.
Anti-racism education and access to informative resources play a crucial role in applying anti-racist praxis to organisational structures in that they “ individuals to acquire confidence in ‘owning’ or becoming accountable for their actions”Maria Veronica Svetaz et al., “Inaction is not an option…”, art. cit.. Hence, offering the resources and training to humanitarian staff on foundational concepts tied to anti-racism such as privilege, colonialism, the concept of race and its interaction with other identity factors (intersectionality), the varied manifestations of racism in humanitarian aid, systemic barriers etc. place the worker at the forefront of his/her learning as it relates to his/her specific field and work environment. Herein, accountability remains key as anti-racist praxis aims to address complex systems and thus advises content which goes beyond the mandatory diversity training on unconscious bias offered every now and then. In fact, much research critiques such ad-hoc diversity interventions, deeming them as “a quick-fix rather than the start of an ongoing and possibly lengthy process of reflection, discussion and awareness-raising” on structural disadvantages existing within an organisationMike Noon, “Pointless diversity training: unconscious bias, new racism and agency”, Work, Employment and Society, 32(1), 2017, 198-209.. As a whole, educational content must fuel conversations that are uncomfortable, but necessary, to be effective.
Moreover, it remains essential to note that anti-racist praxis strongly relies on self-education and places much emphasis on removing the role of educating from the oppressed. In her poignant article on the parallelism between BLM teachings and social work as a practice, Henrika McCoy highlights the importance of not expecting Black people “to educate you about racism and becoming anti-racist”Henrika McCoy, “Black lives matter, and yes…”, art. cit.. This is crucial as removing the burden of educating from the oppressed can reduce chances of further oppressing and recreating power imbalances. Case is made in a testimonial by Arnab Majumdar, a former humanitarian aid employee of MSF who experienced “vicious resistance,” microaggressions, racial bias and verbal attacks from both staff and management following his attempts at challenging institutional racism at workArnab Majumdar, “Bearing witness inside MSF”, The New Humanitarian, 18 August 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/first-person/2020/08/18/MSF-Amsterdam-aid-institutional-racism. Undeniably the latter is expected as humanitarian aid networks still struggle with a denial often reinforced by historically held values of “impartiality”, “neutrality “and “independence” which fails to recognise the “diverse set of stakeholders, issues and challenges” unique to the contextNorwegian Refugee Council and Handicap International, Challenges to principled humanitarian action: Perspectives from four countries, 2016, … Continue reading. Moreover, experiences of violence remain commonplace for members of racialised groups when positioned in a space to educate and/or openly challenge systemic injustices in professional spaces. It may explain why some completely avoid doing it altogether. As best explained by McCoy, asking racialised folks to recount their stories of racism may lead to them reliving traumatic experiencesHenrika McCoy, “Black lives matter, and yes…”, art. cit.. Hence, anti-racist praxis acknowledges racialised folks’ right to refuse the position of the educator.
Reframing diversity and inclusion (D&I)
The New Humanitarian garnered testimonies from racialised humanitarian aid workers on their perceptions of diversity in the workplace. Their statements spoke volumes: “the current organisation I am working in is supposed to be multicultural and yet it is so white that I often feel cornered, excluded and powerless”“Readers react – Racism in the aid sector and the way forward”, The New Humanitarian, 11 September 2020, … Continue reading. An anti-racist framework and strategy builds on transversal demographic variety within an organisation, in fact, concrete D&I efforts “can be observed in the very constitution of the teams in the field and in the places where decisions are made”. Anti-racist approaches do go a bit further by reinforcing the role of inclusion, which relies on closing distance between people “rather than only eliminating boundaries or barriers between us and them”Anver Saloojee, Social inclusion, anti-racism and democratic citizenship, Laidlaw Foundation, 2003.. D&I policies and practices aimed at mitigating structural inequity must be thus outlined and implemented to promote anti-racist organisational environmentsAshleigh Shelby Rosette and Leigh Plunkett Tost, “Perceiving social inequity…”, art. cit.. Humanitarian aid organisations may benefit greatly from ethnocultural diversity by, for instance, having staff which reflects the demographic makeup of the community to be served which then allows for a more efficient response.
Once diversity is included, only part of the work is done. Valued recognition of diversity’s contributions along with promoting involvement and engagement of marginalised communities remains key to inclusionary workspacesArnab Majumdar, “Bearing witness…”, art. cit.. An inclusionary space also allows for diversity to fully express itself without being penalised for transgressing invisible guidelines rooted in Eurocentric dominance. Majudmar exemplified this greatly as he recounted being scolded for transgressing established rules for “respectful discourse” after pointing out the lack of diversity in trainingsIbid.. Once again, the conversations circle back to accepting that in a process of applying anti-racist praxis within institutions and/or organisations, discomfort is inevitable and must be welcomed accordingly.
The global impact of the BLM movement was most felt amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and led to a wave of socio-political changes across institutions, countries, and organisations to address systemic racism. The reckoning quickly came knocking at the door of humanitarian aid organisations, leading to outcry both internally and externally for immediate accountability and change. This article contributed to the growing literature surrounding the intersections of anti-racism approaches and humanitarian aid by providing distinct approaches to be applied to an aid organisation’s framework. That is to better both internal and external practices. Greater research on the matter is expected and this article encourages a deeper look into the possible challenges capable of hindering the application of an anti-racist praxis to humanitarian aid institutions.