Opinion: On equity in the international development sector — we need more intravists

Intravism involves internal efforts to change organizational structures. Photo by: fauxels from Pexels

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of commentary about how the world cannot go back to normal post COVID-19. Recently, protests for racial justice have erupted across America over the brutal police killings of black people including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and too many others — some who will never get a hashtag. Perhaps, you are wondering what all this means for the international development sector, or how you can respond.

Here’s an invitation: Become an intravist.  

Please do not bother googling this term: Intravism is a term I began to use when I realized that as a Nigerian-American woman climbing the ladder in the international development sector, some of the most valuable activism my background had prepared me for would not happen in the streets, but in closed meetings and email chains.

Change requires a broad range of actors, who all move movements in different ways. While activism involves external efforts to bring about systemic change in society, intravism involves internal efforts to change organizational structures.

Here are some of the issues that have become a focus of my intravism journey.

1. Policies

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Intravism involves developing and advocating for internal policies that ensure organizations walk their talk. So much of the work we do in the international development sector is about policies, but far too often, the internal policies of our organizations do not match the external policies we advocate for externally.

We speak on panels about intersectionality but have our gender equality initiatives designed by teams of white women. We advocate for governmental transparency but have no policies within our organizations on resource allocation transparency or pay transparency. We promote social inclusion policies, without having tangible diversity and inclusion policies within our own organizations.

By the way, if you think your organization is diverse because you hire black people in your Africa offices, think again. What do your America and Europe offices look like?

Intravism is a term I began to use when I realized that as a Nigerian-American woman climbing the ladder in the international development sector, some of the most valuable activism ... would not happen in the streets, but in closed meetings and email chains.  

2. Power

Intravism concerns advocacy for organizational power to be distributed and wielded equitably. Empowerment is a ubiquitous term in the development sector, but we don’t talk about power nearly enough.

Empowerment is gaining a platform to share your story. Power is deciding the stories that get told. Empowerment is participating in a fellowship that accelerates your career. Power is selecting who participates in the fellowship program. Empowerment is receiving a grant. Power is deciding the ideas that get funded and the people who implement them.

Empowerment is not wrong — there are millions whose lives depend on it. The problem is a certain type of people are often the beneficiaries of empowerment, but rarely the custodians of it. What does your senior leadership team look like? What does your board look like?

3. Privilege

To be an intravist is to be conscious of your privilege. Privilege can be uncomfortable to talk about, so I’ll start with a few of mine: I was able to do a slew of unpaid internships thanks to economic privilege, and the passport privilege that allowed me to explore scholarships and opportunities on two continents — something many of my peers who were interested in development careers could not do. Unpaid internships are pervasive across the sector, barring entry for many.

To be an intravist is to spend your privilege. When you put in a good word for a qualified candidate who lacks connections, you are spending your privilege. When you as a white person, disclose your pay to a person of color, you are spending your privilege — too many of us are devalued. When you speak up for a junior colleague who is being mistreated by their manager, you are spending your privilege. When you speak out about a microaggression a colleague of color experiences, you are spending your privilege — too many minorities carry the burden of silence to be deemed professional.

To be an intravist is to relinquish your privilege. Decline a speaking gig and nominate a minority you know would be overlooked. Ask if a qualified person of color in your organization who could use the exposure more than you can attend a conference in your place. Give up the board chair you’ve kept warm for a decade and nominate a young person, a black woman — the type of people who don’t make it to the boardrooms of the organization you advise.

4. Pay

Intravists advocate for pay justice. Money is one of the strongest measures of value, and you pay for what you value. What types of labor does your organization value? Think about this when your organization utilizes the talent of freelancers, consultants, and activists who will not have the time they have given to your organization compensated by a traditional employer.

What types of expertise does your organization value? If your organization believes in gender equality, it should not have a gender pay gap. If your organization values black lives, it should pay for black expertise commensurately.  

Empowerment is a ubiquitous term in the development sector, but we don’t talk about power nearly enough. Empowerment is gaining a platform to share your story. Power is deciding the stories that get told.

5. Programs

Intravists decolonize program designs. When international development organizations develop programs, there is often a focus on countries in Africa and Asia. But if there is one lesson this sector can take from COVID-19, it is this: The binaries of developed and developing countries are outdated. This idea is not new — it has led to acronyms like “LMIC” and has been the focus of several theses and panels over the years.

It is not enough to change our rhetoric and acronyms though: The way we design programs should change too. When you develop indexes and campaign graphics, be sure to reflect the poverty and inequities in America and Europe. Engage black experts in America and Europe, not just in Africa. And in Africa, don’t just make Africans the faces of your programs — pay them to be the brains that lead it.

The American context currently weighs heavy on my heart, and my vantage point will always be that of a Nigerian-American woman, but there are several other vantage points to be considered. Organizations like Charity So White are tackling institutional racism within the charity sector in the United Kingdom. Organizations like Population Works have developed courses on decolonizing development. They are two of many. Listen to them. Learn from them. Financially support them.

But please remember that listening and learning is not the work. Remember that conversations and courses are not the work. These things are preparation for the work. Prepare, and then decide to do the work.

Decide, and then do the work.

About the author

  • Blessing Omakwu

    Blessing Omakwu is an international development consultant, women’s equality evangelist, and lawyer. She advises philanthropic and international development organizations and runs The She Tank, a think-tank promoting the realization of SDG 5 for black women.