Diversity & Inclusion in International Development

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favorite writers and thinkers, recently penned one the best post-presidential election essays I’ve read, Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About (The New Yorker, December 2, 2016). If you read it and it hits home for you the way it did for me, you’ll do what I did: print it out, highlight the title and post it to your cubicle wall.

In a recent conference discussion on diversity and inclusion in international development, this essay title continued to haunt me. When are we going to start talking about what we’re actually talking about? In other words, let’s get to the real meat of the conversations and actions around the challenges many international development organizations face with diversity and inclusion– both in addressing the gross lack of racial and cultural diversity in its headquarters and how it leads to the stratification of power across racial lines between field and head offices. Without talking directly about what we’re actually talking about, sure it feels good for some to pat themselves on the back for participating in a discussion without facing real truths about our personal and organizational complacency and willful ignorance. For others, it can be a frustrating let down- a forum to talk about race, race relations and challenges with inclusion that still dances on ice without breaking through.

What I’d like to present here are a few of my thoughts in response to some points that were made during the discussion, with the hopes that it will not only help me advance in my thinking and presentation of these issues, but also stimulates deeper thought and action for those who read it:

  • Disrupt the paradigm of “hard” and “soft” skills
  • Push beyond diversity as good business sense for stakeholder relationships
  • Directly address the challenge of discussing social identities across countries and cultures
  • Resist the seduction of individual stories to address bias
  • Do not try to change hearts and minds
  • Make your definitions clear
  • Put your money where your mouth is
  • Challenge assumptions about talent acquisition
  • Create the expectation that it’s everyone role to uphold organizational goals, values and approaches to diversity and inclusion.
  • Understand your role.

Disrupt the paradigm of “hard” and “soft” skills. 

I heard a story on some podcast the other day, likely on NPR (like the proper pretentious liberal that I am). There was a woman recounting a conversation with a principal who was lamenting about how he knows for a fact that there are teachers who honestly believe that their black students aren’t able to learn like their white counterparts. “Isn’t that crazy?” he said to her. But what she heard was just confusion- “so what I’m hearing is that these teachers that you know don’t think their black students can’t learn still have their jobs?” If you’re a great teacher, but don’t think that your black students can learn… well then you’re not a great teacher, are you?

Same goes for our organizations. Whether you’re an expert software developer or project manager, you cannot be effective at your job if you lack cultural competency. Especially in working in international development, where we constantly champion how critical trust, rapport and relationships with stakeholders are key to our work, cultural competency rests at the very foundation of what we do and how we have impact. How can you be effective at your job without the skills of understanding and relating to differences (acutely aware of perceived and actual differences and the values we ascribe accordingly)? How can you be effective at your job without understanding the history and culture and sociopolitical dynamics that impact the communities where we work (and our own countries/cultures)? How can you be effective at your job without the core competency of bringing other people’s ideas, experiences and perspectives to the table with equal weight? Without cultural competency, you cannot be good at your job. Period.

We need to disrupt this paradigm of hard and soft skills. They work in tandem. Technical skills deserves the same weight as cultural competency. To be effective, one cannot exist without the other. Moreover, you can google HTML coding. You cannot google how to engage with colleagues and stakeholders equitably.

Push beyond diversity as good business sense for stakeholder relationships.

Where does the power exist in organizational decisionmaking and management? Hiring a local person as your Country Director to represent and influence the organization from a local perspective dangerously dips into tokenism, especially when the real power of decisionmaking, budget management and strategic leadership still rests behind the closed conference room doors of a Western head office.

Directly address the challenge of discussing social identities across countries and cultures.

Our understanding of race is incredibly local. Organizations must work in open, direct and equal partnerships across its offices (HQ and country offices) to create a shared understanding, goal and definitions of diversity & inclusion, social identities and how those influence both the process and outcomes of our work. Work must be put into identifying key terms and their meanings to empower staff within headquarters and across the organization with a shared language to talk these issues. Without shared language, conversations and actions around diversity and inclusion will remain at the surface, without teeth and without action.

Resist the seduction of individual stories to address bias. 

Initiatives and programming that attempt the nebulous task of “getting to the heart of the individual” are certainly seductive, easy and most critically, lack the potential for scale and sustainability. Let’s hold our organizational approach to diversity and inclusion to the same rigorous standards that we hold for our programs and interventions. What will we need to do to have reach and impact?

Do not try to change hearts and minds.

There are some people who are head of nutrition teams, who themselves practice poor nutrition. There are people who advocate for safe sex practices among youth, who themselves do not. We do not expect people’s personal behaviors to influence their work for these and other health practices, so why do we expect staff to personally adopt better behaviors and beliefs around diversity and inclusion? I have no interest in transforming someone’s personal feelings or individual approach to diversity and inclusion. This is not what I’m talking about. If someone wants to be racist, then let them be racist by themselves over in the corner of the room or behind a door (hopefully the front one).

It’s not about individual identity; it’s about the organizational identity. What I am focused on is establishing and clearly stating the organizational goals, values and approach to diversity and inclusion. Who you are or what you think individually must stay at the door when working within and representing the organization. It’s critical to develop clear and stated goals and values of diversity and inclusion that are integrated into the core values of the organization as well as operationalized in its approach. Everyone becomes responsible for sustaining that organizational culture. Most importantly, it helps reduce risk for those who speak out, who are also more likely to be people of color (perpetuating their marginalization). If I see my colleague engaging in a way outside of our stated goals, values and approach to diversity and inclusion, I have something that I can point to that has been institutionalized by the organization and does not rest with my personal (too often invalidated) feelings about the issue. Those who feel or operate otherwise can either stay in the corner or walk out the door.

Having a strong organizational culture, with stated, shared and operationalized values, goals and approaches to diversity and inclusion becomes integral to the too often coded qualification of “fit”- but now will help ensure that existing and future staff align in that regard.

Make your definitions clear.

When people promote this extremely problematic idea about colorblindness and post-racial identities, they usually use some form of: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, purple, green or have polka dots and stripes”. It’s an insanely peculiar statement that puts people’s historical, racial identities on the same level as cartoon imaginings of aliens. Back to original statement of this piece: now is time to talk about what we’re actually talking about.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, there is definitely a space to be broad, including diversity of race, gender, class, sex, thought, experience, etc. But here you can get into a slippery slope of talking about something real to talking about nothing at all. It’s also an excuse to hide the real issue and end up with a board of directors filled with middle-aged white men who come from different fields of study. There’s your diversity (of thought)!!

There’s a space to be broad AND ALSO a space to be specific and direct about needing to increase the racial and cultural diversity of our headquarters offices. There’s a space to be specific and direct of the history of colonialism, neocolonialism and international aid and development, so we can use that information to avoid perpetuating these dynamics both interpersonally and organizationally. If you want more talent of color, state that and plan for it. If you want more people who culturally represent the geographies where you work to occupy leadership positions throughout your organization and offices, state that and plan for it.

This, of course, requires time and resources to identify the framework of diversity and inclusion appropriate for your organizational needs and to develop shared definitions, goals, values and approaches, and operationalize them accordingly.

Put your money where your mouth is.

I always think about the backlash against teachers when they ask for more pay. Why do they deserve less than someone selling widgets around the world? Not to go down a rabbit hole of teacher pay and how we value education, but I raise this to say that mission-driven or mission-related work does absolve financial responsibility and compensation. Warm do-gooder feelings can’t pay my salary.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives and programming requires money and people should not be expected to put in hours outside of their jobs to go to talks and planning meetings. Diversity and inclusion, as core elements of the organizational values and culture, need to be formally integrated into organizational budgets. For organizations that use timesheets and direct program billing, funding must be allocated to support staff time and activities for the work of diversity and inclusion. If not, when new grants come in and work ramps up, of course diversity and inclusion work will mirror its position in budgets and planning. If it’s unallocated time, time will not be dedicated to this work. If it’s marginal to your operational plans, it will be the first thing dropped (and unfortunately not picked up again).

In my early days, I used to oppose positions like “diversity officer” within an organization for a number of reasons. However, if that person (even better if it was a team) had a budget and the primary responsibility for integrating diversity and inclusion practices within the leadership and operations of an organization, I think that’s a great idea and can prove effective in making real gains.

The donor/grant structure for non-profits must also be assessed. If you agree that diversity, inclusion and cultural competency has a direct impact on the effectiveness and impact of our work, dedicated funding for diversity and inclusion work, or at least more unrestricted funding, is critical for engaging with and sustaining this work.

Challenge assumptions about talent acquisition.

When it comes to talent acquisition and recruitment of more people of color, the conversation is usually followed by: 1) excuses about lack of diversity in the applicant pool and 2) adjusting qualification standards. There are a few issues here. First, there’s an assumption that your organization as-is is attractive to talent of color, regardless of their qualifications. When an organization already lacks racial and cultural diversity (apparent from staff photos online) and how they visually represent the work with problematic images of people of color in the project areas and savior-complex-like tone in the external collateral (website, blog, images, papers, etc.), what message does that send to potential applicants of color? What motivation would they have to apply? Do you think they would think that your organizational culture would allow them to grow and develop professionally, helping to bring out their best work? No.

Assess your organization to determine what can you do to attract, hire and retain talent of color. Where do you currently fall short? What can you do to improve?

Actions to improve the diversity in the applicant pool extend beyond adjusting (read: lowering) qualification standards. Can assessing whether certain positions require advanced degrees or international travel help the applicant diversity? Maybe. But why do we go there first? There are so many highly qualified, if not overly qualified, people of color who excel in their fields AND can provide a high degree of racial and cultural competency who do not want to work for you or do not even know you have a position open (read: nepotism, good old boy groups, old-fashioned job posting strategies). What are you doing to attract, hire and retain these people?

Create the expectation that it’s everyone role to uphold organizational goals, values and approaches to diversity and inclusion.

People tend to get excited in a discussion around race, diversity and inclusion, but less so when it’s specific to our organizations and personal role and stake in these issues. Yes, white people don’t like to be called racist. Men don’t like to be called sexist. But guess what? People of color, women and other marginalized groups don’t like to have to say it, experience it, or try to convince you of their shared humanity while taking reputational and professional risks in trying to create environments that help them do their best work. As another one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Claudia Rankine, once wrote (The New York Times, August 25, 2015, “The Meaning of Serena Williams“), that “the notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is that white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism”. How can we structure our organizations in a way that are truly diverse and inclusive, creating opportunities for historically (and organizationally) marginalized groups to flourish, thrive and contribute their best work?

Understand your role.

Too often when we talk about race, it’s the people of color who need to bleed for others to understand. I totally reject the notion that awareness, dedication and true insight into diversity and inclusion work has to come from trauma. White people often remark that “they don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color”. Why would they? Likewise, people of color do not have the experience of engaging in the world with white skin privilege. However, you would be more likely to find a person of color who understands the realities of racial privilege than a white person who understands the realities of racial marginalization. This is not okay.

The answer to diversity and inclusion includes and must go BEYOND increasing racial representation. The answer to diversity and inclusion includes and must go BEYOND shifting balances of power with these historically (and organizationally) marginalized groups. Everyone has a role to play. That requires that we unite under one organizational identity. One organizational goal, value and approach to diversity and inclusion. Only then will it be easier and a lot less self-sacrificing to, in a sense push your seat back from the table instead of assuming that the table will magically enlarge.

How do you operationalize that? And the answer rests in how you define your organizational identity, goal, value and approach to diversity and inclusion. Staff at all levels have a role in developing and creating the culture. At the same time, enforcement is needed. We do not have honor systems against for sexual harassment and financial embezzlement. Similarly, there’s needs to be a space and process for managing behaviors and practices that do not align with the organizational policies and standards of diversity and inclusion.

Final thoughts… for now.

By continuing to shirk the real work of diversity and inclusion, we do ourselves and our organizations and ultimately, the impact we seek with our work, a grave disservice. We perpetuate the cycle of ignorance, microaggressions and other issues that further isolates opportunities for people of color to contribute. This is not okay. And if you agree that it’s not okay, you need to risk feeling not okay during the hard discussions and work to make our organizations truly diverse and inclusive. When you’re uncomfortable, you learn. And when you learn, you act.

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