Racism in international development encounters

The development workers who are in a relatively powerful position – allocating resources, deciding on priorities – tend to come from countries with a history of perpetrating slavery, colonialism and now, once again, racist immigration policies. This spills over into international development encounters. It has become urgent to talk about this.

I talked about this week with fellow panelists William Cunningham (Creative Investment Research) and Conor Shapiro (CEO, St Boniface Haiti Foundation) at the lovely Middlebury College, Vermont. We were invited by Prof. Tamar Mayer and her colleagues from three departments – racism needs an inter-disciplinary approach after all.

We began from the same starting point: racism can be found in endless everyday micro interactions and given that these are so numerous, they form global patterns with pernicious consequences for all. Conor talked about how donors in Haiti use racist arguments to justify limiting their funding, the implication being that some lives (white ones) matter more than others. William brought light to bear on why and how this happens: the whole discipline of economics skews value in racist and ethnocentric ways.  He proposes a radical rehink and has recently published a book about how to make this happen: the JOBS Act.


Hierarchies of expertise

While doing doctoral research on aid in the 1980s I noticed that the knowledge of women living in poverty was referred to by British engineers as ‘cultural’ or ‘traditional’ knowledge. And yet talking to these women (mostly in East Africa and South Asia) over several years I realized that their knowledge about how to use simple tools – wood, fire and cookstove technology – is of course highly skilled. This is hardly surprising since they do it for 1-3 hours a day. French anthropologist Maurice Bloch wrote about how it is only through practice that you learn to develop skills and expertise, rather than accumulate knowledge (1991). You can’t learn the violin or chess from a book or a teacher alone – you have to do it yourself, over and over and over. The same is true of using fuel for cooking.

Some women I met in Sri Lanka innovated hoods and chimneys so that the smoke was funneled out of the house but this was described by the British engineers disparaging as ‘traditional’ even though they had only invented fairly recently. One of my colleagues made a drawing of the idea and marketed it to donors as ‘improved’, modern technology.

So technology is often rated by its source not its effectiveness or utility. The expertise of Black and Asian and Latino women living in poverty is rated at the bottom of the global hierarchy of expertise – in a painful combination of racism, sexism and class inequality – and the elites at the other end, whose knowledge is highly rated and valued, are predominantly male, white and rich. So that is my first pattern of racism, or ‘silent tradition’ as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls them because they are taken for granted and hardly spoken about: – a racist hierarchy in how knowledge is valued. If we expand the definition of technology to embrace the idea that it is about the use of expertise and organization of tools, rather than narrowly as hardware, we recognize the technical skills and innovation of Black, Asian and Latino people (including women) living in poverty.

The SOAS logo is knowledge is power. But it is no guarantee. And it can also be true that power gives you the false appearance of wisdom.

This is just one example of everyday micro racism, which creates a global pattern. But over the years I have realized that the whole development industry is founded on this racist hierarchy of knowledge. The transfer of knowledge through training, toolkits, sensitization, and manuals from Global North to Global South, from urban to rural, from old to young rests on racist assumptions in conversation with sexism, ageism, class, religion, and nationality.


Social hierarchy and separation

The second racist global pattern is simple. White visitors to Eastern Africa and South Asia tend to segregate themselves into different areas, social events and even exclusive clubs, just as they did during the colonial era. When I lived in India a few years ago a Dutch businessman explained about a club that only allowed expatriates to join: ‘the international organization has been a blessing. We have a whole life here within weeks because they provide everything. Without them we would be lost’. Lost in a city of many millions with apparently no Indian people to advise? Really?

Expatriate and international can be a euphemism for white. This message in the club’s newsletter provides an example: “come along to our new happy hour this evening. If you’re not yet a member, just show your complexion and they will let you in. If your complexion does not make it obvious that you are an expatriate, then explain that you are going to the happy hour”.

I was seriously puzzled by this segregation. Why live in a different country and then distance yourself from people despite their extraordinarily welcoming attitude? The pattern is similar to the one Norbert Elias desribes in his brilliant book Established and Outsiders but in reverse. In Elias’s English village the established families kept apart from the newcomers and rubbished them through gossip but in colonial encounters it is the outsiders who keep their distance. In both cases the group who see themselves as superior maintain their status through separation.

I was travelling with a young white man, a work colleague, from the UK to a country in Asia and he said one afternoon, “can we refuse dinner when our colleagues ask us to join them as I’d really like an evening off, I need a rest. Could we just be on our own?” But an evening off would mean an evening with me – his boss! Surely this was work? I insisted we ate dinner with our Asian colleagues and as we drank beer and talked about family, films, books and politics I watched him. My colleague looked uncomfortable. Talking to people you perceive to be different is an effort for many. But was he also uneasy about establishing a form of intimacy with people he felt superior to? (By the way I’m being vague about the place to protect anonymity).

Whenever people start treating me with automatic respect, I notice that I talk about my daughters and ask about their family members. I think I’m saying, “we all mind about our families, or people we are close to, because at heart we are emotionally equal.” I’m asking for social intimacy. (If this sounds insufferably self-satisfied, don’t worry – I’ll get to the confessions at the end of this blog).

It is not only white people who experience ‘the other’ as different. Priyanthi Fernando and I have written about the endless configurations of racist stereotyping in an article in 2004. I have heard Africans talk about white people – distinguishing between the strange habits of Germans versus Dutch versus Brits – but the effects don’t usually damage white people in the same way as white on black racism. (Although when an African boyfriend told me his family wouldn’t let us marry because I’m white I was rather indignant). The problem with the aloofness of white people, who tend to be in relatively powerful positions when encountering black people in development encounters, is that it can make us whites both arrogant and ignorant. That so few write about this is revealing in itself.

Here is an example of white ignorance. I was recruiting with two other white middle class British women to choose a programme manager for an INGO. We narrowed the candidates down to two: a white middle class British woman and a black middle class Ugandan man. The other two wanted the white woman, I thought the best candidate was the Ugandan man. I knew that patterns of recruitment tend to mean that people recruit people they think are similar to them. They said that he wasn’t concise. I’d spent time in Western Kenya, where President Obama’s father came from, and knew they have a tradition of public speaking. I wondered whether his long speeches were his way of performing his best, showing us respect. (Or maybe I just thought he was like me – after all, I talk a lot). So I said let’s set him a task – ask him to speak for 5 minutes precisely. We called him back, we gave him the task, he spoke for 5 minutes exactly, we gave him the job and he turned out to be a superb programme manager. It is so easy to judge people according to your own norms and values without realizing the merit in theirs.


Hierarchies of power

Finally I talked about the third type of hierarchy – racism based on power. The explosion of audit around the world rests on distrust. Accountability for how you spend money given by others is entirely fair but the way planning, evaluation and audit are organized means that international development grant-makers and donors control how their money is spent. Although ‘donor’ countries has got complicated – with India, China and Brazil all giving aid – we are still in a post-colonial era where huge swathes of Africa, Asia and Latin America have the decision-making of their own development hugely circumscribed. For example, the predictions of national NGOs need to be made and trunkloads of paperwork produced to document your vision, hierarchy of objectives and then your indicators and reports to prove your predictions were right and money spent as promised. The result is that those on the receiving end of aid are relatively powerless, at least in how development is represented in documents, but also limited in their power to do development that allows democratic participation as initiatives emerge and policies are put into practice. Of course sometimes in reality people in aid-receiving sites manage to resist this nonsense and spend the money according to need and evolving rights, persuading the donors to accept variance. But these contortions waste huge amounts of time and money.

This global pattern applies to universities as well. Opportunities, grants, and intellectual property rights in international development research are disproportionately controlled by people from aid giving countries and, therefore, mostly (although not entirely) white people. Over 10 years ago a British manager of a consultancy firm employing me to do a piece of research said to me: “…we have two research programmes managed by organisations in the South and they are both a disaster. I mean, it is nothing racial, it is just that they don’t work at that analytical level… We need an expatriate for the conceptual thinking, then the local consultant can do more of the running around for you.” I probably should have walked out but I did the job (I needed the money) and made sure that the ‘local’ was a genuinely equal partner in the research. This experience sowed the seed in me to prove him wrong.

For the last few years I have been coordinating a grant to enable researchers in Bangladesh and Ethiopia to study their Parliaments. It took me ages to convince them that unlike other UK researchers I was not contracting them to do research for me, and then I’d publish the findings as my own, but that it is their research. They get to publish their findings because they have been doing all the fieldwork. All nations need scholars to take a close look at what is going on in political institutions and encounters because democracies around the world remain shallow. US anthropologist Arjun Appadurai wrote about how deep democracy needs an active civil society and a transformation in the relationships between decision-makers and citizens. Unsurprisingly, my colleagues are producing fascinating and innovative work about this and demonstrating the value of research as a form of political scrutiny. (We will be presenting the findings at a conference in the Westminster Parliament in May this year). There are signs that some powerful players want change. The Arts and Humanities Research Council/Global Challenges Research Fund are announcing calls that insist on a far larger proportion of research funding being allocated to national researchers in low-income countries. There is hope but only if there is a concerted and collective effort to recognise racism in ourselves (and others), challenge it and transform these racist hierarchies.

I don’t pretend to be immune. I recently went to China with some assumptions that I hadn’t really thought through. I picked them up mostly in Ethiopia – where I had learned that Chinese aid workers are there to promote Chinese interests and keep themselves to themselves – but during my visit to Kunming I realized how utterly ridiculous this was. My Chinese colleagues in the China office of Health Poverty Action (an INGO whose Board I chair) were as diverse as any other group of development workers, but shared one thing in common. They helped me unlearn everything I thought I knew about Chinese people.