On June 23, Parliament’s International Development Select Committee (IDC), the committee responsible for the scrutiny of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA or ‘aid’) spending, released a long-awaited report on ‘Racism in the Aid Sector’. This report is the first publication from the IDC’s broader inquiry looking at the ‘Philosophy and Culture of the Aid Sector’. The IDC’s report on racism in the aid sector is a significant call to action for both the UK Government and the organisations and people working in the international development sector, and contains language and perspectives that are seldom found in publications from a Parliamentary Select Committee. 


Let’s have a look in more detail at some of the key recommendations and conclusions the IDC have drawn:

Language of the development sector

Language is an energetic carrier of meaning and knowledge; but the way we all use language is not universal. Each culture, state or community has unique languages and means of communication, developed over generations, to convey experiences and histories. The development sector is uniquely situated in the middle of all these communities. International development works across traditional state borders and community boundaries, working to tackle poverty and injustice wherever it occurs. Few sectors have such an all-encompassing mission – one which requires regular engagement with a range of actors from every different walk of life and with such varied life experience. As such, it is paramount that the sector understands the importance of language and the means of communication that we use. 

The IDC has included a number of examples of problematic language and communication strategies within the UK development sector in their report. The fundraising campaigns that some NGOs deploy perpetuate negative images of development, often portraying recipients of ‘aid’ as passive beneficiaries of generous donors. The IDC specifically criticised fundraising campaigns that involved predominantly white, European celebrities going to Africa to highlight poverty, a type of communication sometimes referred to as ‘poverty porn’. The problematic framing that white Europeans are needed to save poor, helpless Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) living in poverty, is rooted in and perpetuates a narrative of white saviorism.

While it was recognised that many NGOs have moved away from such harmful communications, we as a sector still have a lot more work to do. Moving forward, the IDC has called for local film-makers and activists to be at the forefront of shaping the narratives used in the sector, helping to tell a more positive story about the impact of NGOs, and avoiding development stereotypes rooted in colonialism, replacing them with a narrative rooted in social justice.

A video from ‘Radi-Aid’ challenging perceptions around issues of poverty and development.

Much of the terminology we use within the development sector has a colonial legacy. From the ‘developed’/’developing’ country dichotomy, to the ‘Global North’/’Global South’ divide; much of our language is loaded to suggest a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The IDC recognises this, and calls on the sector to work with community leaders to develop a new vernacular to describe development and its associated activities. By using language that is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy, we are perpetuating harmful narratives and conveying the experiences and histories of European nations at the expense of African, Latin American and Asian countries.

How the development sector needs to change

Racism exists across society and that includes within the international development sector. The IDC report makes for uncomfortable reading for many of us, but it must act as a call to action to bring meaningful change to our work. As Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, former Chief Executive of Christian Aid, said during her oral evidence to the Committee, the sector needs to be “comfortable with not being comfortable”. 

A recent National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) survey found that only 9% of charity sector staff were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ‘BAME’ backgrounds, compared with 12% of the private sector and 11% of the public sector, despite making up 14% of the UK population. Many charities are based in London, where People of Colour make up 40% of the population. The IDC has recognised that this is a significant issue, and has called on the Government to compel organisations that receive Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding, and who employ more than 50 staff, to publish their diversity data. Only greater transparency, including publishing racial pay gaps, can drive meaningful change across the sector. 

However, increasing the diversity of staff starting a career in the sector is only part of the picture. The IDC references a Thomson Reuters survey which found that half of respondents who identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority had experienced racism at work in the last year. The IDC also reports that 68% of respondents to a recent survey from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) said they had “experienced, witnessed, or heard stories about racism in their time in the charity sector”.  It is clear that the sector needs to do much better in dealing with racism. The IDC calls for all organisations to have effective processes and policies in place to sufficiently address racism when it occurs.

Senior leaders within organisations need to show leadership tackling racism and in taking action to decolonise the development sector. However, the IDC highlights that “boards and senior leadership of NGOs and private sector contractors who hold decision-making power are still mostly White and based in high-income countries such as the UK.” As such, these bodies are completely unrepresentative of the people they seek to support and collaborate with in their work, and this leads to less-than-best decision making.

Often, decisions around development funding are made independently of the communities that will receive the funding, which reinforces a colonial mindset that ‘we in the West know best’. There needs to be a significant shift of power away from these European headquarters to the communities and activists who are making the difference within their communities – most of whom are Black, Indigenous or People of Colour. More power, money and resources should be transferred directly to local civil society organisations who are in a better position to understand the needs of their communities rather than ‘internationally experienced development consultants’. 

The IDC proposes some ways that the development sector can become more equitable and inclusive. Firstly, the sector should end unpaid internships, as these privilege those with good contacts and the financial means to work for no remuneration. All employers should pay at least the living wage and should remove burdensome academic requirements to work in the sector, recognising that lived experience and knowledge gained outside of academic settings is extremely valuable. Secondly, the sector must confront racism head on. The IDC notes that many diversity and inclusion strategies seem tokenistic at best and to achieve meaningful change, “we must move past tick-box exercises and welcome a diversity of ideas and values”.

Organisations need to create safe, supportive spaces for honest and open conversations about racism and discrimination. To start to do this, the IDC suggests that organisations can take actions such as conscious and unconscious bias training, establishing working groups and panels to address racism and inequality, and recognising the value of contextual knowledge. Finally, each organisation should have a named, senior leader with a specific remit to tackle racism and increase diversity, equity and inclusion within their organisations. 

How the FCDO needs to change

As one of the largest, most influential and most powerful bodies operating within global development in the UK, the FCDO must step up to the challenge and help to drive meaningful change across the development sector. 

The IDC deals head on with the recent reduction in the UK’s ODA budget, from 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5% of GNI. The report states: “the manner in which the cuts to UK aid took place, with little or no consultation of downstream partners, or the communities where they are implemented has sent a harmful message that the UK does not care about the people affected, many of which are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.” Implementing partners were suddenly faced with reductions in funding, with the biggest impacts felt by smaller organisations. This reeks of the most pernicious power dynamics of colonialism; a far off country with control of the purse-strings dictating – without consultation or favour – to less economically powerful countries whether they can provide lifesaving treatments for their populations. This is unacceptable and deserves to be called out for how regressive a step it is.

Moving forward, the FCDO should be planning for a return to an ODA budget of 0.7% of GNI as quickly as possible, and should introduce provisions within their contracts that funding cannot be withdrawn at short notice and without consultation with local NGOs and communities. 

More broadly, the FCDO can use its role as a conveyor of global development to help promote best practice across the sector. In the first instance, the FCDO needs to improve its own diversity and inclusion. Whilst the FCDO is increasing the number of senior managers from ‘BAME’ backgrounds, it must do more to ensure a consistent supply of talent from under-represented communities. In the short term, the FCDO should review its policy of ‘reserved departments’, which prevent non-UK citizens from working for the FCDO. The FCDO should also publish its own inclusivity data, including data related to race, ethnicity and income.

The IDC notes that the “FCDO has significant influence on the culture and standards of the aid sector” and if they fail to proactively address issues of racism, the sector will only partially address it too. To begin with, the FCDO could introduce stipulations in their contracts to set standards for due diligence, similarly to what is already in place for gender equality considerations. Additionally, the FCDO must ensure that their staff are fully committed to tackling racism in their own work and across the sector, for instance by introducing new training to highlight the underlying factors that have enabled power imbalances across the aid sector. Unfortunately, the FCDO has already pushed back on this suggestion during oral evidence, arguing that discussions on tackling racism in the aid sector should be generated from the grassroots – something that is already happening. We need to see the FCDO taking part in and learning from those discussions.

The IDC recommends that the FCDO “should use its position to facilitate sector-wide conversations about how aid actors can improve diversity, equity and inclusion and being anti-racist. The FCDO still has work to do internally and will not have all the answers, but it can create the forum for these conversations and provide funding to develop best practice guidelines for its partners.” There is an important opportunity for the FCDO to use its position and make a real difference in tackling racism within the sector, but this opportunity needs to be seized boldly.

Final thoughts

The IDC’s report is one of the strongest Select Committee reports that has been released in recent memory. From directly referencing the colonial legacy of the development sector to highlighting the ongoing racism in the day to day operations of the sector, this report must act as a wake-up call for NGOs operating in global development to do more. The report directly addresses uncomfortable truths in the development sector using language that is rarely found in Parliamentary reports. And it challenges the Government’s own Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which denied that systematic racism in the UK exists.

But what happens next now the report has been published? The FCDO will have to formally respond to each of the recommendations laid out in the report, indicating whether they accept or reject them. This process can take some time, but RESULTS staff will be keeping a close eye on this process. What happens after the FCDO’s formal response is more uncertain. The report is a strong call to action, but as a recent blog post from Lena Bheero and Jon Cornejo highlights, ‘we need accountability and action, not more recommendations and statements.’

While there are plenty of examples of positive, inclusive change, now is not the time to be complacent. We must continue to ensure that we’re challenging and confronting racism in all its forms and in every place and practise that racist narratives occur. For too long, NGOs operating in development have fallen back on their altruistic missions to cover for poor diversity, equity and inclusion practices and for being rooted in, and perpetuating, racism. This can continue no longer. Some of us will find it uncomfortable; we won’t always get it right, and RESULTS UK has to make changes too – you can  read about some of those here, though there is much more to do. But to quote pre-eminent civil rights activist Rosa Parks: “To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.”