"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I recently read an interesting article by Crewe and Fernando, “The elephant in the room: racism in representations, relationships and rituals” (Progress in Development Studies, Vol 6:1, 2006, pp. 40-54). The article looks at the (possible) impact of racism in the international development industry and how even with the best intentions, through working-methods, culture and practices discrimination and exclusion can occur within and throughout the working relationships. While I find that the article rests a lot on anecdotal examples by the authors, some of which is also very much a case of perspective, it does raise some important questions and issues.
This has been of interest to me since I started working in development cooperation, back in 2004. I even think it is something that has been with me since my youth. Being mixed-race, raised first very much as a “Guinean” and then as an expat, to end as a “minority” in Europe and then working in development cooperation has given me a range of experiences and perspectives. For example, being a Dutch donor representative in the Philippines and Indonesia was confusing for many of the NGO partners – they expected “standard” Dutch people. This resulted in not being recognized when you were going to be picked up to “feeling” like we were more on the same side (i.e., I was also “non-white” like them, versus “the North”). I have also been in a fair share of meetings where colleagues make general comments about Africans to only quickly and uncomfortably apologize to me. (Of course, many Africans also discriminate between each other, racism / discrimination is a universal phenomenon – just thought I’d note this here).
I will avoid getting into a debate on what racism is – that requires an essay and not a blog post – and opinions can differ on the matter. What I found particularly interesting in the article was the focus on language, timing, place and consultation rituals and symbols to understand the “systems of exclusion”. Donor agencies are in the lead on the language used in development cooperation (SDGs, logframes, aid effectiveness, etc..), the decision-making process and timing (funding decisions and project cycle management), the consultation rituals (PRSP’s, donor conferences, etc…), and the symbols of expertise (what is considered “knowledge” and important). Especially when I worked in a Dutch development NGO that was very sensitive to developing co-ownership with local partners and really worked to invite the participation and influence of those it worked with, these were difficult issues. How do you marry your own needs (financial responsibility, your own donors / politicians / tax-payers, communication and marketing in a competitive environment, and your own policy analysis) with those of your partners? I remember working in Uganda, trying to develop a joint program with several local partners, but several did not want to work with one of the others because that NGO was openly for gay rights… Hence, I’m not entirely convinced that these issues of power imbalances are the result of racism (though there is some of that) or rather structural power issues in the development industry.
Niamey, Niger, 14.12.2018