We need to talk about race and development

I snuck into the development sector through the backdoor. Having worked for a think-tank and as an activist for children’s rights in the UK, I switched to advocate for vulnerable children in the poorest countries. This necessitated a pay cut and huge chunks of time away from my young family, but I was one of the lucky few. Young people of colour frequently ask me — how do I get into development? They tell me about their multiple masters degrees and demonstrate their passion and skills by supporting development projects ‘back home’, but they find the gate to entry firmly shut.

A career in development is brilliant, and the sector is packed with smart, creative and dedicated people. But it needs to be reformed, and that reform should begin by removing the collective blindfold when it comes to race. There is a huge reluctance to acknowledge, discuss, or to challenge the racial paradigms in development and it seems that everyone pretends race doesn’t matter. Universities may be packed with vibrant debates about post-colonial theory, but in the world of work, business as usual means ‘try not to mention the race thing’, it just makes everyone uncomfortable.

This matters because business as usual is letting everyone down and the leaders of the sector should know that the walk in development is more complicated, dare I say harder, and certainly more emotionally charged for their BAME staff.

For years I secretly hoped that somewhere in Africa, British staffers are required to sit quietly in meetings while panels of African experts in ‘British affairs’ debate how to fix the problems in British society. Inconceivable? Perhaps, but ethnic minority staff often experience the reverse of this. I was frequently the only black person in policy discussions about development. Event organisers target participants for these meetings from government, parliament, NGOs and academia, and since all of these institutions and their leadership are overwhelmingly white, the conversations, strategies and decisions about development reflect an echo-chamber of middle class white voices, opinions and experiences. I saw only one black woman speak on a panel at the Conservative Party Conference this year. She spoke beautifully and powerfully, but there was an unwritten rule that her participation required that she disclosed her HIV status, share her families’ health woes and express her gratitude to the people in the room who were helping to keep her alive. Of course, I want to hear from black women who benefit from development assistance, but I also want to hear from those who are leading it; from the ministers, the academics, the journalists, the health professionals and the CEOs. Numbers in every one of these categories are depressingly low.

People of colour who work in the UK’s development sector will often share the same nationality and some of the privileges of the white aid worker, but may look like, and feel closely connected to the recipients of development. So when the sector portrays recipients as passive, needy or helpless, it is indirectly portraying us in this way, and projecting a narrative that influences the way that we are perceived in the world.

The good news is all of this can change, but it will take some effort, creativity and most importantly, the will to acknowledge these inequalities and to challenge them.