“In terms of my gender, class and race I am in every way a minority”: interrogating the charity and international aid sectors

“In terms of my gender, class and race I am in every way a minority”: interrogating the charity and international aid sectors

I’ve worked in the charity sector for more than 12 years, and something that’s become clear to me is how startlingly it mirrors UK race dynamics. Elitism is rife, opportunities for BAME people to enter and flourish within the sector are severely limited, and in-built prejudices are systemised. This creates real problems – not just for equality and equity, but for ability of the sector to efficiently and ethically deal with emergencies and crises. Here’s a snapshot of some of my key observations.

Homogenous leadership

I joined this world in 2009, volunteering for a grassroots organisation before going on to co-found Capoeira4Refugees, an award-winning international sports charity. Over the years I’ve found myself in the uncomfortable position of regularly being the only woman from a working class, immigrant background working in the sector. In terms of my gender, class and race I am in every way a minority. In all of my time working in this space I’ve met just one other person in a leadership position of an international humanitarian organisation who is not white.

Multiple barriers to entry

When you interrogate the structure of the UK charity sector, it’s clear that it has been created in such a way that only a particular type of person is readily able to enter and flourish. Many BAME people are designed out of the space.

The sector demands that those in senior positions have undergraduate and Masters degrees, as well as experience interning or of voluntary work. This can be a barrier to entry for those who are marginalised, or who do not have the capital to invest in such training – or the financial stability to undertake unpaid work.

The skills that are coveted as fundamental for a successful career in the humanitarian sector – being able to formulate written arguments; training in governance, safeguarding and human rights law; English language aptitude – are those that are most readily gained from an elite education. In contrast, skills such as a deep cultural or socio-political understanding of target communities, or a shared language and community networks, are not seen as prerequisites for the professional aid worker. Therefore it’s a certain ‘type’ of individual – generally, white and elite – who is able to gain entry into the profession. This reinforces a dearth in the number of BAME and/or working class candidates from which to recruit, particularly to leadership positions. (There’s more on all of this in ‘The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation’ by Eric James.)

Young people from a BAME background who do consider international development as a career pathway will often self-select out of the process as it becomes too uncomfortable – or too alien a field – to pursue. To be the only one (or one of a visible minority) in a predominantly white sector, is to comprehend that it will be a challenge to climb the leadership ladder. The visibility of skin colour is compounded by an awareness of being on the outside of an in-group (this is discussed in the report, ‘Home Truths’: “in a context in which racism is normalised and whiteness is associated with excellence, the question of who is seen as clubbable and who gets to be ‘in the club’ can be highly racialised (as well as classed and gendered)”).

Compounding these issues is a charity governance structure designed around unpaid trustees. They are required to put in voluntary hours to govern, and to support with fundraising activities through their networks and personal fund. Those from a less affluent background, or those with less available time (perhaps because they have to work longer hours or do shift work) are excluded.

Visibility bias

When white and elite is the norm in the sector, this affects who gets to be seen, heard and funded. It also directs the narrative. Remittances – which are mostly given by immigrants to support families living in poorer countries – were worth 401.2 billion dollars more than international aid in 2019. Yet it’s the aid money given by rich countries and wealthy people that’s accepted as the default for how poorer countries and peoples are supported.

Meanwhile, the voices of those who are not white are noticeably absent in official reports and policy-making opportunities. The ‘Rights Through Sport’ mapping report was published in 2018 by the Institute for Human Rights and Businesses. In the appendices, the list of “international organisations, national governments and development agencies, sport governing bodies, national and international sport federations” is 100% Western. Organisations on the “non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations” list all have white founders. And 19 of the 20 people chosen to be interviewed for the report are racialised as white. The report itself states that “[sport for development and peace] programmes are mainly implemented in the global south”, yet it has failed to represent people from the global south in its selection and identification of those who are contributing to policy in the space.

Race is the elephant in the room

The Paris Agreement of 2005 called for more equity between ‘international’ (ie mainly white Western) and ‘donor’ (ie mostly not white-skinned) countries having a seat at the leadership table, and similar sentiments were repeated at the World Humanitarian Conference 2016, with the term ‘localisation’ popularised across the sector – again with no mention of race.

In international charity work, where the majority of aid projects take place where people are racialised as black or brown – places that are forever changed by the racism integral to colonialism – race and racism have not been directly addressed in development policy discourse. Rather, pseudo-language and terms such as ‘local’, ‘localisation’ and ‘neo-colonialism’ fill the space.

The mainstreaming of race as lens through which to interrogate and deconstruct power disparity in the sector has not happened, but there have been calls for such by academics like Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey: “I would like to strongly suggest that an anti-racism commitment to transformative development requires speaking and writing race into existence, because it does exist”.

Colonial structures

Ultimately, the charity and development spaces mirror a colonial structure of power disparity, where monolith brands (for example those like Save The Children, Oxfam and various UN organisations) subcontract to grassroots organisations who subsequently have little power or independence to affect change beyond the confines of the rigid contracts and structures they’re beholden to, which serves to proliferate and reinforce the various disparities. This has certainly been my experience at the helm of charities working in conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond, and I’ll be talking more about it in the book I’m currently writing.

What next?

It’s time for meaningful conversations to take place about race in international aid leadership structures, and for white decision makers to start sharing their leadership space. There are an increasing number of conferences and articles exploring how to disrupt the traditional structures of international aid, with technology being an especially favoured solution. I’ve co-founded a company, FrontlineAid, and we’re developing a platform that eliminates the systemic issues in delivering charitable help at a local level.