Opinion: From rhetoric to action — an equity roadmap for the aid community

Humanitarian staff at a community meeting at the Gado-Badzere refugee camp in eastern Cameroon. Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

I was heartened to see many in the international NGO community raising their voices and showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This historic moment also represents an opportunity to look inward and examine how racism manifests itself in our own backyard.

Artists, Black executives, journalists, and USAID staff are speaking out and demanding their respective industries move from rhetoric to action and champion an inclusive workplace where employees of color are compensated fairly, valued within their institutions, and able to take advantage of promotions, leadership, and management opportunities.  

To sustain the momentum, the INGO community must continue to discuss structural racism, develop robust equity assessments and evaluation tools, leverage partnerships, and utilize opportunities at INGO conferences to put equity at the forefront.

The INGO community’s noble intentions — around advancing women’s economic empowerment, improving access to lifesaving services for children, and helping marginalized groups thrive and reach their full potential — does not make it immune to systems that perpetuate structural racism. Many organizations pride themselves on employing primarily national staff in their country offices, but more importantly, national staff are often not represented in senior management and leadership positions.

When looking at the board and senior leadership teams, they are usually predominantly white. INGOs have long discussed the need for diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement has given the community renewed momentum to examine institutional racism for the sustainability of the sector. INGOs need to come together and take advantage of this extraordinary moment to fully address equity issues that have long hampered our impact, limit the community from institutionalizing equity across teams, and tapping the potential of diverse staff.

Here is a roadmap outlining five key approaches to address structural racism and advance equity across INGOs.    

1. Equity assessment

INGOs already are equipped with the practices and tools required to assess current diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. These are the same tools used to evaluate project effectiveness. A robust equity assessment is a critical starting point and will provide the data needed to examine shortcomings and key issues such as: the number of interns, mid-career and senior-level staff of color, national staff who hold leadership positions, consultants and experts from underrepresented groups, rate of promotions for employees of color, compensation for all employees by race, gender and ethnicity, and the diversity of the board.

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The data will help to inform strategies needed to reflect the rich demographic diversity in the U.S. across INGO institutions. In addition, just as INGOs set specific benchmarks for the effective delivery of programs, data from the assessment are useful for identifying equity targets and metrics of success.

2. Partnerships            

INGOs can build on their capacity to leverage strategic relationships by collaborating with partners who could fast-track equity efforts and teach us important lessons. For example, my experience as a Posse Foundation scholar cemented my interest in the nonprofit sector and at the same time provided me with much-needed exposure to the field through internships and mentors.

In addition, the International Career Advancement Program — of which I am a member — focuses on promoting diversity within the international development community. These are two out of many organizations that INGOs should collaborate with to attract, identify, and recruit potential hires for staff and leadership positions. Finally, historically Black colleges and universities are strategic partners for reaching diverse candidates.

At the same time, it is important to recognize efforts to expand the talent base should not be about tokenism and checking a box. There is no shortage of diverse talent capable of contributing to the INGO community, but there are limited mechanisms to meaningfully integrate Black and brown staff into the sector and ensure their advancement along their professional journeys.

When you have diverse candidates with different perspectives, including life and work experience in countries where INGOs operate, they will help to strengthen our analysis of the local context, improve the design and delivery of programs, and deepen relationships with communities.

3. Culture

Organizational values are all important factors in determining whether employees of color thrive in the workplace. These values are often not operationalized within the workplace culture. When I started out my career in international development, I was fortunate to have a supportive boss and that made all the difference.

INGOs should focus on retention and promotion strategies to foster a culture of representation and inclusion. Mentorship opportunities are important for connecting employees of color with INGO leaders who can help with expanding their networks and supporting their professional growth. In addition, INGOs should prioritize the creation of affinity groups to advance support systems for underrepresented groups.

Throughout my international development career, I could count on one hand the number of other Black and brown colleagues at meetings and would make it a point to introduce myself to fellow colleagues of color. Affinity groups are important professional networks and create a sense of belonging and community. Lastly, career advancement opportunities are critical to making sure the skills and contributions of Black and brown employees are valued. Giving employees from underrepresented groups a seat at the table and ensuring their voices are heard is part of a strong and vibrant workplace culture.

At the country-level, INGOs are committed to building resilient systems. With their skills, talents, and knowledge of the country context, national staff play an important role in supporting the sustainability of these efforts long after a project has ended or when an INGO exits a country. Promoting national staff to senior management and leadership positions is key to building a thriving workforce that can help the INGO community achieve the ultimate goal of working itself out of a job.

4. Internally focused monitoring systems

INGOs have the monitoring, evaluation, and learning tools and practices required to track the effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies.  Data collected from the internal accountability systems on equity should be shared and discussed on a quarterly basis within INGO decision-making structures, including in meetings with leadership and management teams, board members, and country directors as well as strategic planning sessions and retreats. Diversity and equity work should be included in annual reports and disseminated widely among donors, goodwill ambassadors, and public supporters.

5. INGO working group on equity

An INGO working group on equity should be developed to serve as a key platform to allow INGOs to promote best practices, identify challenges, and advance solutions that can increase equity and inclusion across all organizations.

A way forward

To sustain the momentum, the INGO community must continue to discuss structural racism, develop robust equity assessments and evaluation tools, leverage partnerships, and utilize opportunities at INGO conferences to put equity at the forefront. Let’s seize this historic moment to build more inclusive, just, and accountable equity systems across the INGO sector.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Roxanne Paisible

    Roxanne Paisible is an international development professional with 13 years of professional experience in spearheading advocacy and communications campaigns and managing strategic partnerships. She recently served as the advocacy, branding and partnerships consultant with the African Development Bank’s Human Capital, Youth and Skills Development team.