Six Concerns about Anti-Racism in the Humanitarian, Development and Charity Sector

A great number of organisations and institutions in the global north, whether they make ice-cream, manufacture pillows or deliver healthcare in warzones, are suddenly making public commitments to rid themselves of racist bias. This raises important questions that have strangely become taboo, such as: Is this our primary charitable purpose? How feasible are our plans? What does success look like? and What will this cost?

To be clear, I do not deny that racism exists and that there are improvements to be made in the sector. I acknowledge that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been on our agendas for years and that progress has been made. I also recognize that health, economic, academic and social outcomes have complicated underlying causes. These causes include, but are not limited to, race and ethnicity. I also acknowledge that attributing value to the melanin content in someone’s skin is irrational and morally wrong.

But other concerns must be considered alongside the quest for racial progress.

I dislike feeling an obligation to declare that I am female and mixed-race, but unfortunately, this makes a difference in how this contribution will be interpreted. The problem has gone that far. More importantly, I am an experienced humanitarian who is becoming increasingly concerned about anti-racist ideology in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector. The humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence align more strongly with a humanist approach to social justice. Moreover, a liberal and evidence-based approach opens itself up to feedback, resulting in a more effective mechanism for social progress that has less chance of causing negative consequences.

Complex social problems have a range of possible solutions and usually require multiple, varied responses. Broadly speaking, two approaches that aim to address racism seem to be dominating our field. One encourages debate, accepts diverse worldviews, recognises people have autonomy, values science and evidence and focuses on unity and humanistic values. This is called liberal social justice and is responsible for much of the great progress in social justice we have seen over the past few decades. The other approach places society into two broad groups of white and non-white (with some varied terminology: BIPOC, POC, BAME etc.), demands ideological conformity and divides us into simplistic categories of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is called Critical Social Justice (CSJ) and the benefits have not been demonstrated. CSJ is on the rise in the humanitarian, development and charity sector and is being promoted as the best and sometimes the only approach to addressing structural racism.

So, to help highlight some of the problems that might come with the growing influence of CSJ in these sectors, here are six concerns about the CSJ approach to addressing racism in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector:

1. Over-investment in expensive DEI consultancies and training with questionable benefits.

The DEI consultation and training industry is expanding exponentially. It is not regulated. Some trainers have little formal education and experience in their field. Some push a particular overly race-conscious form of anti-racism that is not inclusive of diverse worldviews that exist in the charity sector. Worldviews from culturally and linguistically diverse groups and ethnic minorities can be quite conservative and oppose the CSJ doctrine. There is little evidence that this training changes attitudes or behaviour and there is some question as to whether they may make the problem worse. The ideology underlying some DEI training diminishes ethnic minorities as powerless and lacking in agency so that some minority groups oppose this training. Others object to the exploration of their unconscious mind, a fixation on invisible power systems or the acceptance that discriminating against certain groups is necessary to empower others. The underlying ideology to CSJ originates in Anglo-countries, therefore, the terminology and concepts tend to focus on home societies or global north based HQs. Therefore, their relevance is questionable for international organisations with very diverse workforces.

2. Unsuccessful conversations:

A great deal of time and resources are invested in the struggle to clearly articulate the DEI problem, with a lack of consensus and clear identification of the underlying causes. Lengthy debates focus on term definition, which can at least in part be explained by concept creep. Concepts that were once clear and almost universal like ‘racism’ are losing their meaning as the ground shifts with new terminology rapidly arising (microaggressions, colour-blind racism, dog-whistling) and then there are the new applications of old terms (white supremacy). Adding to this is a form of catastrophization where robust debate is suddenly considered ‘unsafe’ for some, and people refer to threats to their very existence. Emotions are driving much of this discourse whilst our rational minds struggle to catch up with the unfalsifiable doctrine that considers lived experience to be high-level evidence. Many organisations have a culture of diverse thinking, debate and constructive dissent, yet this topic tends to silence even the most outspoken. Some people do not wish to be seen as opposing any DEI efforts (no matter how radical or resource-intensive) whilst others are actively silenced due to their skin colour, or for not fully and immediately subscribing to a specific worldview.

3. Funds being diverted from communities in need and instead used for social problems in HQ.

An inconvenient question: How much donor money is spent cumulatively on DEI and how has it benefited the people you serve? Spending donor money to eliminate the remnants of a bug in human evolutionary psychology seems unwise at best and unethical at worst. With needs being sorely underserved as well as on the rise, aren’t there much better uses for this money that aligns more clearly with our charitable purpose?

4. Racialisation further entrenches perceptions of racism:

Despite heavy investment in DEI, some organisations are finding that staff are increasingly reporting that they feel unheard or discriminated against; these increases cannot be fully explained by the improved reporting mechanisms. Is it possible the racialisation of our sector is encouraging people to feel oppressed, or discriminated against, in a way that cannot be sourced to their objective circumstances? What is the impact of CSJ activities on mental health? Some reputable cognitive psychologists are concerned that the CSJ ideology is encouraging unhealthy thought patterns and can therefore have negative mental health consequences.

5. The evaluation challenge.

With many organisations spending a great deal on DEI plans there is significant confusion regarding how to measure success. HR heads struggle to quantify/qualify progress towards DEI goals and the overall feeling seems to be that it is never enough and never soon enough. In other cases, invalid surveys are developed by inexperienced HR teams uncovering problems that are not well defined or are less significant than the results suggest. Concerns are raised that with increasing awareness of racism, combined with concept creep, and with more DEI activities, more (often nebulous) racism will be uncovered, making the endeavour self-defeating.

6. Public positioning and messaging.

Many charitable organisations attempt to communicate complex social phenomena in social media short form and so it is not surprising they are misleading, inaccurate or attribute undue causation to race. These messages have a divisive effect and are often not helpful or actionable. A few examples: “The COVID19 pandemic is demonstrating what we all know: millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, which damages everyone – women, men, girls and boys” (United Nations). “Poverty is an institution of white supremacy. Inequality is an institution of white supremacy. Injustice is an institution of white supremacy”(Oxfam International). These messages fail to recognize multiple complex contributing factors to social outcomes and such simplistic and overly race-conscious narratives can further divide staff, donors and the general public.

The examples and concerns expressed above may or may not be affecting your organisation. However, regardless of the degree to which your organisation is currently affected by these issues, it is important to be aware of the differences in these two main approaches to addressing racism. That way, you may determine what is the best fit for your particular organisation and which best aligns to your charitable purpose, for which you collect funds. Some efforts can make gradual but continual and feasible improvements to organisations and others seek to divide, divert funds and may not contribute to achieving DEI goals- or even damage efforts to do so. It is important to consider the underlying ideology and academic theories of anti-racism and be aware of the risks before making strategic and operational decisions.

Those of us that work in charity perhaps know better than most that the world is not perfect, just like humans are not perfect. We may be especially fearful of being seen as racist or bigoted because it is what we despise most. Yet we also know that funding is tight and spending in one area will mean cuts elsewhere in a context of overwhelming unmet needs. This is our responsibility, and it goes beyond us as individuals and our feelings and personal experiences.

We know that the real suffering in the world occurs in developing countries where people do not have access to healthcare, employment and a level of income that can ensure dignity, education, basic needs and security for their loved ones. There is a need for honest, open conversation about the benefits and risks of various DEI approaches. We need to be humble and realistic and draw some lines in terms of spending limits and feasible outcomes. In doing so, we can continue to make meaningful improvements to organisational culture, while still keeping the lights on for the people we serve.

This piece was written by a qualitative researcher and social scientist committed to intellectual honesty who wishes to remain anonymous.

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