I am white and I work in international development. The industry is dominated by white faces and white voices.
White faces who see the crises suffered by black and brown people around the world. White people who see the pain etched on faces and people fleeing from the worst lives. Lives that most of us couldn’t even imagine living. White voices, who decide how “we” handle these crises suffered primarily by black and brown people. White voices who speak only from work experience and not life experience on which projects we implement and how we intervene as the aid sector. White voices who decide which crises we respond to and subsequently, which lives we save.
In my previous job working in humanitarian crises I worked on the Africa team, we were all white. Very rarely do you see a CEO who is not white, or management who are not represented mostly, if not entirely, by white people. This is so problematic and indeed I was part of the problem myself, I am a white woman. I left that job because of the lack of diversity and the lack of representation, while also acknowledging this can seem hypocritical as I continue to work in the sector although without a regional focus. You cannot convince me, no matter how hard you try that Black people do not want to work in international development in the UK or that Black people do not have the education to do so, or that they lack the technical expertise. You cannot convince me that the whitewashing of international development is unintentional, an accident, and not based on bias. I have worked with many amazing African organisations through partnerships, where the large majority of staff are from the local area, and if not, regional. These organisations do the most amazing job, they see the need on the ground, and they meet it, knowing all of the cultural, religious, societal norms and respecting them. However, the Western world continues to see Africa as a continent ravaged by corruption and fraud, seemingly expecting all money which goes in to be mis-spent, siphoned off by corrupt governments or used to fund terrorism, but this isn’t the case and this thought process is fuelled by the notion that white people know best and need to be “responsible” for any expenditure and decisions which are made. It is a diluted version of the view that Africans need to be civilised by white people. A view which we would hope has been eradicated but lives on in the corners of many white people’s brains in some way or another.
The aid sector can be an exploitative one. That sentence seems contradictory on the surface level, because surely, we are trying to minimalise exploitation? Have you ever seen an African baby on the TV with a swollen, malnourished belly, with a white voiceover begging you for money? Course you have. White babies are also born into poverty, white babies die of diseases in the UK, including cancer, but are white babies portrayed the same way on the TV? When the west African Ebola pandemic was at its peak, we could see countless dead and dying Africans being used as a means of fundraising. I remember one televised “advert” (using the word advert fills me with a sickness, what exactly is being advertised here) where two people in hazmats carried a half-naked, emancipated elderly person out of the house by their arms and legs. Where is the dignity in showing an elderly person like this? Do you think you could ever see a white person presented like that?
Currently, in most organisations based in Europe and North America, there is a western response to, for example, an African crisis. Among these organisations, we say we do the research, we ask people what they want and we give them that. Arguably, we don’t. Well, we do, but we don’t waste time on the detail. We give people jerry cans which don’t fit under communal taps, seed which isn’t necessarily the most fitting with their agricultural environment and will be lost after the harvest, hygiene kits which are very much needed but shrouded in plastic in places there is no possibility of recycling. We give them soap even when they don’t have water and one mosquito net for an entire family. Because we say it’s the best we can get our hands on. There’s no doubt that in most emergencies, cash is the best option for the survivors, but so many aid organisations do not trust the intentions of the recipient. The person who is actually going through the crisis and knows exactly what they need. But we would rather give them too-large jerry cans and plastic, instead of just giving cash so families can prioritise their most urgent need. What use is a mosquito net when your child needs the hospital immediately to save their life, but you don’t have the money to pay for it? How can we argue that this isn’t self-serving and that white savourism isn’t at play?
The sector needs to trust more in the people who are receiving aid while ensuring diversity in organisations who deliver aid, including black people in leadership as well as junior levels. When I say diversity, I don’t just mean an effort to hire black people. More specifically, I mean refugees and people who have emigrated to the UK. Black people born in the UK as well as black people who did not get their degrees in this country. Without doing this, the aid sector can in some cases only be seen as a way to further the dominance of the white person and the notion of “white saviourism” and ultimately becomes another glorified money pit.