You might instinctively want to say that it isn’t, because you would never use racist words or phrases. That is an understandable reaction.  However if you engage in advocacy in international development then there is a very strong chance that at least some of the narratives or framing you frequently use are racist. Words and phrases commonly used in the ‘development’ sector can add to, reinforce and compound racist rhetoric. They can also deny a person’s expertise and power to change their own situation. Like many in the sector, including Bond and Oxfam, Results UK has been on a journey of interrogating the language we use, challenging ourselves to change and embedding anti-racism into all aspects of our advocacy. 

Anti-oppression – the term we use to describe not just anti-racism but opposition to all forms of discrimination – is central to Results’ mission. Our membership of the ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership means that we have strong relationships with civil society partners in the Global South and are influenced by them directly. However this doesn’t automatically mean that we do or say the right things at all times. We don’t and we haven’t always lived up to our values. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a group of Results staff with personal experience of racism came together to challenge the organisation to do more and to engage more meaningfully in anti-racism. Their openness about their experience of racism in the sector was critical to deepening our thinking and mobilising action.

One of the key requests was that we create a guide for staff on how to ensure we are using anti-racist language in our advocacy. The process of developing this guide began not long after I joined Results and is genuinely one of the most rewarding projects I have been involved with. I know I benefited enormously from the process. The language and framing guide was developed alongside our new strategy  which for the first time explicitly includes anti-oppression as one of our values and as a key area of work for us. It also built on previous work we had done on anti-racism including submitting evidence to the International Development Committee’s inquiry on racism in development, introducing a half day of leave for anti-oppression learning that staff can choose how to use, and  setting up a staff working group. Of course,  this is a long term process and we still have a long way to go. Addressing anti-oppression internally is critical but ultimately we are an advocacy organisation, and we want to change the world around us as well as ourselves. 

A big part of the success of the language and framing guide process was investing in working with an external consultant. Examining your own biases and the language you use yourself is challenging and it is common to feel defensive or uncomfortable. We understood that any guide we produced would need to be the result of deep thinking and reflection. Without external support and perspective, I do not think we would have made the progress we did, or been able to develop a shared understanding of both the problem and the solutions. 

42 534 768x432 1

There is no one way to challenge the use of racist or oppressive language. There are different approaches which have their own strengths and weaknesses. I think some staff were hoping that our guide would give them a list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ words, so they could be confident in the language they use. So for example don’t say a country is developing but you can use the term Global South. 

While this certainly gives clarity and is easy for people to use, there are difficulties with labelling language as good or bad. Language and meaning is often contested and changes over time. Words we may consider ‘good’ now may not stand the test of time. Often how people self identify changes over time or there are disagreements within groups about what language should be used. 

As a Disabled person I’m very aware of the nuances and differences between describing myself as a person with a disability or a disabled person. It signals different conceptualisations of disability – am I disabled by the medical conditions that limit my sight or a society that fails to be inclusive? Some people prefer describing themselves as a person with a disability because it puts the emphasis on the person rather than the disability, others prefer the term Disabled because it emphasises that the problem is not the medical condition, or the individual themselves, but the way society fails to to include people who are different. The use of the lower or upper case D also matters – using a capital letter signifies that it is a political and collective identity. There are equally contentious debates about race and identity.

Ultimately we didn’t take this approach. We took the view that racism in our language is not accidental – it is based on our colonial history, biases and cultural understanding. It may sometimes come through in subtle ways, but it is deeply rooted and entrenched. Changing words is necessary but not sufficient to disentangle development and racism. We need to be able to deeply question where the narratives we currently tell are from, and what stereotypes they are perpetuating. We have to be willing to challenge ourselves and our world-views. This will help build the culture, policies and practices that enable change. 

As well as creating the guide, we have run training for both our staff and board members on what anti-racist narrative and framing are and have focused on six concepts that we need to focus on: saviourism, colour blindness, neutrality, exclusion, eurocentrism and the white gaze. 

This list is obviously not definitive but we believe it to be a good starting point. As we have implemented the guide and shared it with new staff, it has started important conversations. Why didn’t we challenge the concept of race itself? Should we be examining the concept of development? Are we still willing to use the word ‘aid’? Although the guide now exists and is in use, it is not the end of the process or the conversation. 

The language and framing guide encourages learning, critical thinking and deep engagement on anti-racist narrative change. It is something we deliberately revisit and engage with in our teams, in our advocacy strategies and our resources. It is an invitation to be part of the change that is needed, and to listen, learn and act.  

The honest, open and frank conversations that we had with staff in 2020 asked us to examine our language. Many of those staff have since left but the impact of their work is still very much felt. I am excited to see where the current conversations with our staff and board take us and am looking forward to the next steps in the conversation.