Opinion: Why we can't separate sexism from racism in the humanitarian and development sector

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A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the resurgence of the sexual misconduct allegations against former Oxfam staff in Haiti. Although the story originally surfaced in 2011, it has taken on an entirely new perspective in 2018 unfolding against the backdrop of the #MeToo and #AidToo movements.

I entertained this vague notion that I would write in a way that would ever so slightly nudge the conversation from the wailing and the hand wringing that often accompanies these types of scandals. My hope was to interject my lens, which perhaps might be incongruent with our world-view of aid workers as the ultimate “do gooders.” The lens from which I observe the world around me is very specific — woman, black woman, many might say angry black woman, Caribbean born, raised in Brooklyn (not the hipster new Brooklyn, but the old one from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”), with a profound belief that humanitarian development is in dire need of a wider lens that includes my voice and those of many other people.  

As I read comments on the blog, When the fox guards the henhouse, I got to thinking of why I was so certain that my experiences in Haiti reinforced my belief that we do not all “do good,” and more importantly, that the aid sector was deeply racist, sexist, lacking in diversity, and completely unaware of itself. I wanted to peel away some of the obvious answers to these questions about how recurring incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse of power take place over decades, and even worse, how and why did it go unpunished?  

I got push back mostly from white women who felt compelled to confidently challenge my experiences, while also informing me that they did not agree with my premise that racism and sexism were the root causes of these problems. I also heard from white men who wanted to extol the virtues of Oxfam (mind you, I have never said that Oxfam — an organization I served for over three years — did not do good work) and to remind me that Oxfam was quite diverse as the head of Oxfam was an African woman. 

For one brief second, I asked myself questions about whether I was over-thinking, over-analyzing, and generalizing? Or missing the point entirely? Or all of the aforementioned?  For one minute, I wanted to return to my silence on this matter. Maybe I was just plain wrong and my lens was clouded by my acute sense developed from being the only black expatriate representing Oxfam in the room.  

I often wondered about the presumptuousness of aid organizations proclaiming that somehow they could “build back better” in Haiti? What did that mean? How do you fix history when there was almost no understanding of the cultural and social constructs that gave birth to this island nation and its place in Caribbean history? Haiti is important to the psyche of the Caribbean despite all the problems, because the Haitian war of liberation stands as a defining moment in Caribbean history. Haitians represent that all of our enslaved ancestors chose and fought for liberation over bondage.

In fact, when I was in Haiti, I would often dismiss people and organizations that started out their conversation by letting me know, quite proudly, how long they and their organizations worked in Haiti — upwards of 50 years! Many couldn’t wait to let us know in the NGO cluster meetings or other stakeholder meetings of the many decades that they had spent using the same tired old model. I wondered if they understood that they had failed? Why didn’t they consider a new or different approach, maybe a less donor-driven approach to the work? Did they think that perhaps — for one brief second — Haitians could tell them a thing or two? Was it possible that the Haitian government officials with all of their education, perfect English, and knowledge about their own country could teach aid organizations about what was needed? Could humanitarian and development aid actually be re-imagined through the lens of the people?

I said and I believe that the core issue for humanitarian and development aid is racism because we accept as legitimate only aid modalities that come from donor countries and then we impose it on recipients. And here is the kicker: we send people from donor countries to lead the imposition because we are convinced that local people are not qualified to manage themselves. This lives underneath the beautiful language of the mission statement, but it is certainly how it manifests itself in countries on the receiving end of aid. Abuse, bad behavior, exploitation, and sexual misconduct are the result of a system that is owned and managed by white men who have no need to be accountable. It’s a vicious circle of quid pro quo and cronyism. How can there be real accountability in the system when in a reality we are operating in a sixth grade friend group? How can there be equality in the system when there is such a power differential between expatriates and local people?

I once attended a meeting in Haiti that was supposed to start at 8 AM as was stated on the meeting agenda. I arrived with an Oxfam colleague at 7:45 AM and there was no sign of the meeting organizers. So we waited thinking that perhaps we were mistaken. At about 8:45 AM some of the organizers arrived and I asked them (all expats) if the time had changed and we were somehow left out of the email chain. The humanitarian response manager who was the leader of the team in Haiti told me privately that she decided to schedule the meeting time one hour earlier than the actual meeting time because, you know, “Haitians are always late.” Many who read this anecdote might think this an innocuous comment, a not so serious micro-aggression perhaps, but in the big picture, a policy was created. The larger point is that this type of stereotyping and prejudiced thinking impacts local staff on a daily basis.

If a Haitian person were in the leadership role and calling the meeting, they would know about the chaotic traffic after the earthquake, when the streets were filled with debris, when traffic lights no longer functioned, combined with the miles of roads that were completely destroyed. Staff of Haitian organizations and local staff of international organizations struggled to get to work on time as many came from long distances and relied on various modes of transportation such as the “tap tap,” not just chauffeur-driven Land Rovers, to make it to work. Oxfam staff like us had access to a car and a driver every morning, so we had the luxury of never being late.  

As we move through this time of #AidToo, let us step back from the quick defense of individuals and organizations. We have a problem in the development sector — aid mechanisms and organizational models that come from white, Western culture that render “locals” as recipients, rather than whole and dignified people, with full agency in their own lives.

At the root, it’s racism. It’s the lack of representation by people of color. It’s the disparate treatment between local staff and expatriates.

That’s why “doing good” in today’s world means speaking up.

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About the author

  • Angela6%2520%25281%2529

    Angela Bruce-Raeburn

    Angela Bruce-Raeburn is currently the associate director for advocacy at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, which provides strategic support to local advocates in low- and middle-income countries to enact and implement laws that promote public health and safeguard from injuries. Previously, Ms. Bruce-Raeburn worked as the senior policy advisor for the humanitarian response in Haiti at Oxfam in the aftermath of the earthquake from 2010 to 2013.