Alex Martins, founder of The Equity Index. Photo supplied.

LONDON — The latest wave of civil rights protests that swept the U.S. and sent reverberations around the world also sparked another round of soul-searching in the development sector.

After the death of George Floyd, there followed many statements of solidarity against racism and inequality from U.K. civil society, with Save the Children in particular winning praise for its commitments.

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But “anyone can write ‘Black Lives Matter’ after the fact,” said Alex Martins, founder of The Equity Index, a new project that will evaluate inequity in the U.K. development sector. “We want to look holistically at how development organizations and people within them continue to prioritize equity” in the coming months and years.

Launched the day before U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his decision to close the Department for International Development, Martins’ project comes at a time of profound change for the U.K. development sector. Along with the governmental changes come the renewed momentum for greater racial equity, powerful calls for gender rights, better safeguarding, and fundamental shifts in the way aid is done.

The development sector is used to “calling out poor practice by others. … Our focus has been so external. ... There has not been enough of a spotlight turned inwards,” said Lorriann Robinson, who partnered with Martins on the index. “This absence of a spotlight inwards has created a complacency,” she told Devex.

Martins and Robinson, friends who met at a conference in 2017, are both seasoned development professionals with backgrounds in campaigning and producing evidence-based research. Martins is an independent consultant specializing in research, facilitation and advocacy, while Robinson is director of The Advocacy Team political consultancy and has held previous roles at the ONE Campaign and World Vision UK.

Their meeting came soon after the Haiti sexual abuse scandal that rocked the sector. Despite promises pouring forth from donors and organizations, Robinson concluded that development leaders “were looking for technocratic solutions around safeguarding and that there was no appetite to consider the cultural and systemic issues that contributed to that crisis … or that it was even on their radar.”

Alex Martins and Lorriann Robinson with fellow book club members. Photo supplied.

The two bonded over their shared ideas on the topic, leading to the creation of an anti-racist book group — which is still running, with this week’s read being “Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot” by Mikki Kendall. Just after Christmas 2018, while holed up in a cabin in the Lake District, Martins came up with the idea of The Equity Index. Sharing her thoughts with Robinson, who worked on ONE’s Real Aid Index, “gave us confidence we had the skills between us to do this,” Martins said. The Joffe Trust — which issues grants to fight corruption and strengthen nonprofit organizations — gave them the finances.

Robinson said: “Development does have a problem with race. … The history it grew out of and the very makeup of the way it exists means it should be very open talking about racism. And yet, in the experience of many people, it's just not comfortable doing so, and that plays into cultures that exist in organizations.”

There are representation problems at the senior levels of organizations, which feed into the decision-making on communication campaigns, who speaks for the sector, and more “day-to-day issues of pay and promotion,” Robinson said. Funding, research, and knowledge appropriation are also key concerns.

According to Martins, “equity is the difficult decisions you need to make based on our existing power imbalances, historical injustices, in order to then achieve equality.”

Lorriann Robinson, partner at The Equity Index. Photo supplied.

The index, which Robinson and Martins said is the first designed for the development sector, will begin as a U.K.-focused project. It will examine equity in two ways. The first is “internally,” looking at the policies and practices of organizations in a domestic setting.

“There’s no point organizations being internally equitable if their partnerships aren’t equitable as well,” Martins said, so the second focus of the index is “external” equity. It will examine partnerships between British organizations and those from the global south.

The index will not just scrutinize NGOs, but the “development sector across the board,” including donors, government philanthropists, and research institutions, Robinson said. The first iteration will examine private sector contractors — though in Robinson’s experience, some companies in this field have been ahead of NGOs in terms of equity, and the two partners are not expecting to find “universally poor practice.”

“Development … should be very open talking about racism. And yet, in the experience of many people, it's just not comfortable doing so.”

— Lorriann Robinson, partner, The Equity Index

While indicators for the index are still in development, one for the private sector might look at whether consortiums created by global north organizations include a global south partner and at the size of its role, decision-making influence, or share of the budget.

Robinson said they also want the index to consider how companies conduct their business overseas and to call out any poor behavior, such as bribery, that contrasts with a thorough diversity and inclusion strategy at headquarters.

Along with the index’s indicators, a theory of change is also being developed. “We are learning from what’s out there. Publish What You Fund, the IATI [International Aid Transparency Initiative] — there are models that give us good learning, but we’re not duplicating anything already,” Martins said. The index will be “explicitly intersectional from the outset,” as well as “radically transparent,” she added.

Martins will lead the mixed-method research, which will emphasize qualitative methods. “Something I’ve been hearing over and over again the last 18 months is equity is, above all, a feeling,” she said. “If you’ve been treated inequitably, you know, and there isn’t necessarily a quantitative measure that’s going to tell you that.”

The pair have ambitious and creative plans to disseminate their eventual results and said they have received numerous offers of help to do it. While the rankings are yet to be developed, they want to “encourage a race to the top” and not be “constantly criticizing people,” Robinson said.

She added: “We want to be honest, because that honesty will drive up practice, but … more than that, we want to encourage learning and development and growth — that’s the aim because that’s where it's sustainable.”

They are under no illusion about the difficulty and complexity of the work ahead. But there has never felt like a better time to create the index, Martins said.“It seems like there’s a real opening here to create some actual change.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.