Opinion: Development starts here — a pledge to action for diversity and inclusion

The development sector has a crucial opportunity to lead the charge for diversity and inclusion. Photo by: fauxels

So often international development professionals facilitate incredible change in the most challenging environments, yet it can be difficult to practice what we preach. By the very nature of our work with people from all parts of society, all over the globe, international development firms — including Chemonics — have, and truly benefit from, a diverse staff.

Rather than take that diversity at face value, it is important that we in the development sector look beyond numbers and engage that diversity for the good of the communities we serve. We must examine where diversity sits across our organizational structures and ensure our diverse staff feel included and supported. I believe the development community has the opportunity to lead the charge for diversity and inclusion, and I invite leaders and members of our industry to actively engage and collaborate on this effort.

We cannot, however, do the work of diversity and inclusion without deep reflection. Diversity and inclusion efforts do not simply comprise a practical set of approaches. Rather, this work requires acknowledgment of historical and current discrimination, injustices, and power structures, and a strategy for sustained commitment.

All stakeholders should understand where they come from and why they perceive the world the way they do. This, in turn, helps us to understand others’ perspectives or the potential narrowness of our own perspectives — as individuals, as organizations, and as a sector — to take effective action to foster and expand diversity and inclusion.

“Diversity and inclusion efforts do not simply comprise a practical set of approaches. Rather, this work requires acknowledgment of historical and current discrimination, injustices, and power structures and a strategy for sustained commitment.”

— Susanna Mudge, president and CEO, Chemonics

For example, an individual reflection: I spent most of my youth in Latin America. As a white American living among primarily Latin and indigenous peoples, I often did not consider the privileges my race, nationality, and socioeconomic status afforded me in that context. At that time, I was taught to see everyone as “the same” and to overlook differences.

Much later, I learned that only emphasizing commonalities ignores the cultures and experiences of nondominant groups and denies the reality that the social conditions and structures that we all navigate do not create equal outcomes for all people. Such reflection constitutes a key step for me as a president and CEO in laying a meaningful foundation on which to build the organization-wide diversity and inclusion goals I share below.  

From an organizational perspective, never was the importance of reflection and acknowledging different perspectives more apparent than when Chemonics sent a delegation of senior leadership and board members to visit projects in Nigeria several years ago. Greeting the delegation, the mission director asked, “What are you doing about diversity?” as he observed the five white men that we sent to represent Chemonics. Despite the diversity of our staff overall, the homogeneity among our board and senior leadership demonstrated a blind spot, particularly for communities of color.

A lack of diversity afforded a license not to think about others, which is antithetical to development. If our company — at all levels — does not reflect the diversity of our partners and the communities we serve, we will miss out on the innovative ideas, cultural, and regional knowledge, and valuable life experiences that are essential to the work we do. My colleagues and I learned that change must occur at the top, and representation and inclusion truly matter. This experience, among others, helped us to identify the following diversity and inclusion goals to ensure intentional and lasting change.  

1. Develop inclusive leaders

To effect lasting change, an organization’s leadership must take steps to become more consciously inclusive and future-thinking to strengthen the workforce, enhance its services, and discover new opportunities for development impact. This includes increasing board and executive diversity, advancing commitment through accountability, setting clear and measurable expectations for leadership behaviors, disrupting bias, and leveraging diversity and inclusion in decision-making.

In the past two years, Chemonics’ board has committed to increasing the diversity of its members, building a system to identify the future board member profile. While we’re far from finished, we’re proud of the strides we’ve made in developing board diversity to include more women and people of color.

Additionally, more than half of the Chemonics’ executive team is now made up of women and comprises people of color and of various faith traditions as well as members of the LGBTQ community.

2. (Re)design sourcing and talent management strategies to attract, develop, and retain diverse talent

To develop more inclusive leadership, we must build a more inclusive pipeline to feed into those board and higher-level leadership positions. We aim to change the fundamental orientation of the organization to reflect the communities in which we are based — whether that’s here in Washington, D.C. and its African-American and Latin American communities, or in the countries where we implement projects.

We’re creating a pipeline for future candidates at all levels — from the board to mid-level leadership to entry-level roles — so that our staff is more representative of Chemonics’ global community. For example, we’re strengthening and expanding internship and outreach programs to create a more robust and diverse entry-level pipeline. As a part of this effort, we realize it’s essential to mitigate unconscious bias in talent acquisition and development and to devote more time to training and hiring new professionals with a focus on attitudes and behavior versus skills and exposure.

3. Increase inclusion acumen and create affirming spaces

In recent years, Chemonics has received external scrutiny and internal feedback, which has served as opportunities to examine our diversity and inclusion gaps. These lessons arrived during a time when differences in identity and ideology have been exacerbated in the United States and abroad, and I’ve witnessed how that social climate can affect our staff through the open forums we’ve convened at Chemonics to discuss diversity and inclusion.

My colleagues and I wanted to create a work environment where all people — regardless of identity and background — can feel psychologically and physically safe and supported to be their authentic selves. To foster such a workplace, it’s important that all staff build their inclusion acumen — the knowledge, skills, and ability to create an inclusive environment where those around them feel safe, welcome, valued, and empowered to do their best work without compromising who they are. Together, stronger inclusion acumen and affirming spaces create opportunities for all staff to learn, grow, and support one another. And ultimately, such change will strengthen our ability to do business more thoughtfully and effectively.

While none of these goals are easy to accomplish, they are infinitely easier if a company’s highest leadership actively supports and participates in their implementation. This, in part, is why I have chosen to sign the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion Pledge, as a signal of Chemonics’ ongoing commitment to this work and a call for cross-industry collaboration, mutual accountability, and the sharing of best practices. I do not sign this pledge lightly.

One of Chemonics’ values is integrity, and we want to honor this commitment responsibly, serving as a leader in the development industry to make change that matters. I am eager to work with leadership across the development community to learn and grow together to ensure we are both a strong and inclusive industry.

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

About the author

  • Susanna Mudge

    Susanna Mudge is the president and CEO of Chemonics International. Mudge is the fourth CEO and first woman to serve in this role since the company’s founding in 1975. She joined Chemonics in 1992 as a director of some of the company’s larger programs, and later served as acting chief of party, senior vice president of the Latin America and Caribbean region, and executive vice president. She has in-depth global expertise in strategic private sector development, organizational development, trade and investment promotion, and sustainable natural resource management.