Opinion: How COVID-19 could help create more diversity in the aid sector

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How can global aid organizations advance on more inclusive practices in the new normal? Photo by: Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Global aid is not diverse, and while criticism for its racist and colonialist power structures has been long-standing, decisive actions to diversify voices and transfer power have been limited.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, may just provide the opening we need to transform these entrenched systems.

COVID-19 has disrupted business as usual in the international development sector in many ways, but one of the most visceral has been the suspension of international travel, stemming the usual flow of aid workers from the global north to the global south and forcing donors in headquarters to rely on local organizations for intel and input into decision-making.

As organizations reckon with the reality of a new normal and rethink how to do business in the post-pandemic world, it is an opportune moment for us to think more intentionally about how diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, can be advanced in the new structures we build. For many organizations, especially those headquartered in the U.S., the pressure to respond in the wake of Black Lives Matter may make these shifts all the more urgent and necessary.

We need to reckon with the question: Who are we relying on right now to drive decision-making on the ground, and why can't this model continue even once things return to normal?

For leaders looking to take up the DEI mantle and drive change in their organizational practices, three key levers are available.

First, double down on inclusive practices made possible by a virtual world.

The need to not be in a physical office has democratized distance. Now, colleagues in Mumbai, Nairobi, and New York are on equal footing when on a virtual call together, instead of the usual occurrence, where colleagues in New York are in a room together while the others are hardly getting a word in edgewise over a conference call — which likely has a lag.

As we think about how we change the way we work in the future, we need to find a way to carry forward this spirit of inclusion. Different solutions may work here — for example, meetings across time zones can always be virtual or conference rooms can be upgraded to better enable video conferencing. But it is important to recognize that simple solutions exist and can make a big impact on maintaining and growing inclusion.

Second, capitalize on this opportunity to increase diverse hiring.

As organizations design policies and practices that define their future way of work, retaining the flexibility of remote work can be a powerful tool to improve diversity.

By removing the constraint of an employee’s physical location, organizations can cast their hiring net wider when searching for candidates with specific DEI criteria and are no longer limited by narrow pipelines of talent willing to move to HQ. This means we have a better shot at improving the DEI makeup of staffs and bringing in voices from across the globe.

Reverting back to old ways will miss this critical opportunity to open the door for more diverse talent that we did not have access to before.

Third, shift power away from HQs to country offices.

Advocates call out lack of diversity in global development

We will not achieve inclusive development without workforce representation, advocates say.

The concentration of power in global north headquarters is a root cause for lack of diversity in aid staff and seeping of racist or colonialist values into giving. With COVID-19 limiting the traditional span of control for organizations based in Washington, New York, or London, now is an opportune time to test models for decentralized decision-making and begin to shift power more permanently on the ground to offices in low- and middle-income countries.

This solution not only attempts to correct the power imbalance but will also work toward closing gaps in aid staff's representation of the people they serve. We need to reckon with the question: Who are we relying on right now to drive decision-making on the ground, and why can't this model continue even once things return to normal?

As you head back into conversations on the future of our work and how we can design a post-COVID-19 workplace, consider carefully whether you are building an equitable system for the future and what more you can do to prevent reinforcing an entrenched system of the past.

Regardless of which tactic you employ, the underlying message is simple: Now is the time to seize a unique window of opportunity to make meaningful and lasting progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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

About the author

  • Shweta Suresh

    Shweta Suresh specializes in nonprofit strategy and has experience working across philanthropy, social enterprise, and the private sector. She has a dual degree in business and development economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and is especially passionate about closing gender gaps in development.