A hard look in the mirror: reflecting on racism and whiteness in the development sector

Development Policy,Inclusive Politics24 Sep 2020Yannicke Goris, Kiza Magendane
racism and whiteness in the international development sector

Inspired by the transnational protest against anti-black racism after the tragic death of George Floyd, many governments, institutions and (development) organisations made strong statements in which they condemn institutional racism. Whilst public statements against racism are important, the bigger challenge is to go beyond such statements and dare to confront one’s own racist behaviours, mindset and structures – no matter how hidden or unconscious they are. This is no less true for development organisations. While people often like to believe otherwise, the international development community is not immune to racism; a point that is brought home in various online seminars and reflections on the relationship between racism and international cooperation. The recent protests and calls for action of the Black Lives Matter movement present the international development community with a unique opportunity: the chance to take a hard look in the mirror, reflect about and dismantle its own blind spots and embedded racist practices. Recognising this momentum and embracing the opportunity, on 3 September 2020 Partos and The Broker co-hosted an online dialogue for Dutch development practitioners about racial biases and blind spots within the Dutch development sector. After three thought-provoking keynote speeches, 60 participants joined various break-out sessions, during which they engaged in open, interesting and, at times, difficult conversations about their experiences with racism in the development sector and their own organisations.

The white gaze

A meaningful debate about racism in international development cannot be separated from ongoing debates about decolonisation and asymmetrical power structures within the sector. Scholars such as Robtel Naejai Pailey argue that international development suffers under a ‘white gaze’ problem in which whiteness is considered as the standard category against which non-white people are judged. According to Pailey:


“The white gaze of development is measuring black, brown and non-white people against the standard of northern whiteness, and taking their political, economic and social processes as a norm […] Development uses that standard of northern whiteness to measure economic, political and social processes of people in the so-called global South.”


The most obvious manifestation of this white gaze in international development is the concentration of decision-making power in the global North. While a strong push for ‘shifting the power’ and localisation has been encouraged by the Grand Bargain (localisation of aid), the majority of leadership and senior positions in international development is still held by white people residing in the Global North. Dismantling this white gaze and institutional racism is considered a cross-cutting issue: touching  organisational consciousness as well hiring and other organisational practices within institutions.

In her own words, the first keynote speaker of the online dialogue, Dr Althea-Maria Rivas – Senior lecturer in Development Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) – also pointed to the ongoing presence of the ‘white gaze’ and, importantly, the failure of development practitioners to acknowledge it. Rivas observes a loud silence within development policy circles about the entanglement of race, racism and development. In fact, Rivas notes, “there is an almost passionate denial of ways in which racial discrimination and colonial violence and its legacy are fundamental to the emergence and continued of everyday practice of development”. This loud silence is maintained by two widely held assumptions.  The first assumption is that development takes place outside of the racialised histories, meaning that while discourse of race – strongly embedded in colonial power structures – may have played a role in the history of development, there is no continuity between those historical processes and development practices and discourses today. Second, it is assumed that development takes place in non-racialized places. This means that even though race exists as a social construction, it does not constitute a determining factor in the way people relate to each other in the development context.

Both assumptions, Rivas argues, are false and have made us blind to the prominence of racialized discourse and practice in development. International development and racism were and continue to be intertwined. Not only is international development a direct product of the colonial project, its current architecture still fundamentally depends on asymmetrical power relations in which blackness embodies poverty and ignorance and whiteness signal wealth, knowledge and the bringer of aid. While such statements may be uncomfortable, if our goal is to realise an international development sector that is based on true equality and respect, and is void of racism, there is only one way forward:


“We need to be willing to sit in discomfort with unsettling thoughts and failure and work through these things. It is important to resist the imperative to reproduce and resolve complex problems with uncomplicated solutions. Instead, we need to sit with and learn from this discomfort. That is the only way to move forward and reflect on our own role in collaboration and investment in these systems.”~ Dr. Rivas


Reflections from the field

Dr. Rivas’ academic contribution was complemented by stories and experiences from the field. First by Annewies Kuypers, who was interviewed by Kiza Magendane (The Broker), and then Degan Ali, who gave the second keynote speech about her experience as a black woman leading a Kenyan NGO. Through their personal stories, both Kuypers and Ali demonstrated the racial hierarchy within international development. During her interview, Annewies Kuypers – a Dutch, white woman who has been active in the development sector since 1986 and recently retired – shared her recollections of her first experience working for a Dutch NGO in Burkina Faso, just after graduating from university. In one of her first field trips to a provincial town, Kuypers asked her local team members what they were supposed to do, because her knowledge, as a fresh graduate, was limited. Her question was followed by a silence, after which her Burkinabe colleagues replied that they thought she was the expert. “I found it very difficult,” Kuypers said. “I realised that we were seen as experts simply because of our skin colour.” To close her interview and, in a way, her career in the development sector, Kuypers shared a final message to the new generation of development professionals: “Do not assume but ask questions. Be curious and do not suppose you know anything because nothing is what it seems. To really make a difference, you need to be humble, willing to dig deep and, above all, be genuinely interested in the other.”

Degan Ali is executive director of the Nairobi-based Adeso, an NGO that wants to improve ways in which aid is delivered. During her keynote speech, she recalled that, as a Somali woman who migrated to the United States, she has had to face racism her whole life. She found, however, that American society has found a way to recognise its own racism and have a conversation about it. The opposite holds true, she recounted, for the development sector. Especially when working with Europe-based development organisations, she observed that the blindness for internal racism still persists and, as a consequence, frank conversations about the issue are absent. Ali points to the connected ideas of ‘white saviourism’ and the ‘innocence of aid workers’ – the notion that aid workers cannot be racist because they sacrifice their lives to help brown and black people in Africa – as the basis for this persistent ignorance. Because of their assumed self-sacrificing and inherently benevolent work, Ali argues, white development workers are taken as ‘good’ and ‘trustworthy’.

Yet, as Ali experienced first-hand, for black development workers this logic does not apply. For example, she was not allowed to manage funding because, as she was told, this would be ‘too risky’. “That was a code language for corrupt,” Ali said. At present, she continued, it is corruption by white Europeans that is tainting the development sector – and everyone is turning a blind eye.  She found it bewildering that when she reported a case of corruption by a European white male, it was kept under the rug because the organisation was afraid of backlash from the taxpayers in Europe and reputational damage. The lack of trust even extended to research Ali conducted. During a large public meeting she and her team presented information about drought using their own data. These data were immediately disparaged and a senior UN official called her a liar in front of everyone. “Nobody ever stood up for me,” Ali shared. “Nobody called him out for this unacceptable behaviour. Nothing. The room was completely silent and I had to defend myself to a sea of white people.”


The way forward: embracing discomfort and creating a policy framework

Keeping in mind the main messages of these three inspirational speakers, participants of the online debate were divided into eight break-out sessions. Here, in the safety of small groups, they engaged in open and honest conversation about their experience with racism, whiteness and the ‘blind spots’ in the development sector. Many personal stories were shared, and uncomfortable topics were not avoided. One black participant, for example, noted that she felt empowered by the story of Dr. Rivas. She felt the explanation of the historical connection between development and racism offers a valuable starting point for opening the conversation about the issue with her colleagues who find it difficult to recognise the presence of racism in their organisation. In another break-out group one participant shared her personal experience of being unequally treated for being black but finding there was no mechanism in place within the organisation to bring this issue to the management. The lack of appropriate mechanisms to tackle racism was a recurring issue in various break-out groups. Additionally, if the issue was brought to the attention of higher management, it was often reduced to ‘just another element’ of diversity policies.

Realising meaningful change is not a simple manner of changing words and imagery. It is a first step – and an important one at that – but much more is necessary. Challenging racism demands looking in the mirror and talking about what hurts, about what we, development practitioners do not like to see in our reflection. When organisations really look in the mirror, and dare to face the uglier spots they would rather ignore, various issues become apparent. Most participants recognised that within their organisations words and imagery are used that perpetuate racist ideas. For example, images of black suffering continue to be used by NGOs to get funding from their white constituents, assuming that such ‘disempowerment’ of black people still works. But it is about more than these visible manifestations. Racism, whether conscious or not, is part of the organisational structure. Another painful spot that demands a critical look is organisations’ hiring- and renumeration-practices. According to one black participant, working in the HR department of her organisation, while she is convinced the racism is not intentional ‘it is, undoubtedly and quite obviously there’. Opening the conversation, however, has proven almost impossible, let alone changing current practices.

Positive stories were also shared; stories that can be an inspiration for other organisations and offer guidance for policy frameworks and points of action. One participant told about inviting an expert to give a training on white privilege. Because of this training and the awareness that it generated among her colleagues, she was able to write an internal blog and convince the management of the importance of reflecting about racial related issues within the organisations. This eventually led to the hiring of an expert who will help the organisation with developing an adequate policy framework. While such a framework is essential, participants also recognised it is not a silver bullet to solve racist structures within development organisations. Transformation can be encouraged by adequate policy, but without the human conversation and a shared sense of urgency among the staff, diversity and racial equality become ‘just another box to check’.

A key message that returned, in one form or another, in all conversations was the idea that racism in the development sector is very real, highly complex, and inextricably intertwined with the way in which funding and aid in general are organised That is, with development organisations and donors in the North still being in a position of power. Therefore, a final spot that we should examine is the power-dynamics that continue to define the development sector. To help in this endeavour, the power analysis tool developed by Partos’ Shift-the-Power-Lab was pointed to as very useful. The tool has been designed to make power imbalances more visible, enabling organisations to analyse and reflect on power relations. Likewise, donors and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should pick up a mirror as well and critically look at what they can do to change long-standing power imbalances and im- or explicit form of racism within their organisations.

This debate on racism in the development sector is not a one-off event. It is a first step in a long process in pursuit of justice, equality, inclusion and integrity. Racial justice and equality are an integral part of that process. How to reach our goal – a development sector devoid of racism, characterised by respect, equality and true partnerships – is a key question. As Bart Romijn, director of Partos underlined. “[We] must go beyond simple statements of support. [We] must also go beyond new words and becoming woke, beyond socially or politically correct behaviour. We need to define principles guiding our work, and rethink, learn and unlearn about our systems, approaches and actions on an individual-professional, organisational and sector level.” We, as the development sector, must stand in front of the mirror open our eyes, and start our transformation.


The Broker and Partos are committed to continuing to make headway on this path towards racial justice and equality by facilitating the conversation and exploring practical steps for meaningful change. For questions, comments or more information, please contact the author here


Key messages and resources

  • Racism in the development sector cannot and should not be denied. It has its roots in history and continues to be fed by present-day discourse and unequal power-relations.
  • Dutch development organisations should create room -in terms of time, physical and mental space- to reflect about how racism plays a role within their organisations. This possibly uncomfortable dialogue should be facilitated, leading up to points of action.
  • The framework of an integrity system, addressing the misuse of power, discrimination and other interpersonal violations, as well as corruption, provides a conducive framework for identifying, discussing, reflecting and (moral) learning about racism.
  • Black people working in the development sector should be given more opportunity to share their experiences.
  • Management of development NGOs should address racism as a real and complex problem; not as another ‘box to tick’ on their list of diversity policies.
  • Developing adequate policy frameworks to tackle racism in the development sector is key. Hiring of external experts to do so should be considered.
  • Organisations should look critically at (possible) manifestations of racism: Areas of concern include hiring- and renumeration-practices; use of words and imagery, especially in marketing.

The following list of resources provide a good opening for development practitioners who want to become more aware (and generate more awareness within their organisations) of issues around racism: