Updated: Jan 19
Let’s not allow INGOs' racial justice rhetoric to pass for real change, because we know this industry profits from white supremacy and western domination.
Here’s my experience working at the INGO-International Rescue Committee and the racial injustices I witnessed at an office and organizational level, just prior to and during the Black Lives Matter global resurgence.
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International Racist Committee
By the time I got to be a coordinator with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), I was ready for revolutionary change within humanitarianism. I had years in the sector, a Masters degree where I was able to study global refugee resettlement and had worked closely with a US state refugee office. Moreover, I am someone fortified in my blessed experiences with people around the globe who’ve shared part of their life journey with me.
It’s about us not me.
We cannot be free until we all are free.
I was ready to go to work.
Given IRC’s early socialist and communist ties and the fact that the IRC is one of the largest humanitarian research centers, I thought I was about to walk into an office that would be ready for the revolution! Unfortunately, that is not what I found... Some employees and volunteers knew what was up and were ready, others I think could have been persuaded. But the most status quo of them all were unfortunately in management positions.
Since the time is always now for change and I was being personally and creatively stifled at so many levels, even through Human Resources... I inevitably quit. During a pandemic.
I thought I had joined an international, evidence and human rights based organization with socialist and communist origins. As I came to find out, however, it was really just a nasty corporation--complete with a CEO who votes for war and “humanitarian intervention,” a board full of wall street and big pharma execs who don’t believe in universal programming, COVID policies denying employees hazard pay, weak employee rights and a vague Human Resources system that prioritizes the organization's interests.
Beyond all this, my biggest disgruntled employee concern is what I believe to be the most important and the focus of this piece--
Corporate rhetoric showing fake solidarity with the BLM movement, when IRC and all INGO’s are perfectly situated to play one of the biggest roles in establishing opportunity for actualizing human rights and racial justice.
INGO’s cannot stand with racial justice if they are benefitting from racial injustices.
Point. Blank. Period.
Let us take up the call that humanitarian leaders Degan Ali and Marie-Rose Romain Murphy’s set forth in July 2020- to “ensure that the response to this watershed moment ignites a reckoning for our sector, rather than becoming yet another technocratic exercise with more ineffective, top-down monitoring.”
Listed are ways in which INGOs should be accountable to actualizing racial justice:
Get rid of the idea that the sector should be politically neutral.
Dismantle failed international institutions that have kept countries and people in deep levels of disparity
Power in the hands of local community groups, not major INGOs.
Don’t be so comfortable that you are not holding yourself accountable to the communities you claim to serve. Question your “own complicity in poverty, injustice and disempowerment.”
Organize against INGOs to ensure recipients of aid are not passive recipients but “equal actors in movements... for universal justice and shared survival.”
I would also like to add to the list of mobilizing demands that INGOs must:
Advocate and provide reparations and restitution to program recipients, in forms of land and money and any other way decided upon by recipient communities impacted by slavery, colonialism and neo colonialism.
Exit operations in countries while ensuring local community groups are well funded and resourced.
Pay all employees within each level the same salary, regardless of the employees country of origin.
Pay a higher salary to all entry-level and internship positions to attract diverse talent and not just those who can primarily afford to take these positions, which historically have been white women.
These are all important available options INGOs could take, but only if they reckon with the reality that they both benefit from and perpetuate systems of white supremacy which keep white wealth on top and black lives in the ground.
Racism exists at an organizational level
It is a humanitarians’ job to be concerned with global injustices. So when IRC held an employee morning webinar meeting to discuss racial justice in light of the global Black Lives Matter protests/movement resurgence, employees were chomping at the bit to express their concerns to IRC. Someone even questioned why IRC hadn’t had similar meetings prior to BLM resurgence? Clearly everyone had a lot to say about racial injustices as was evident by how fast the meeting’s webinar chat box filled up.
I can’t disclose staff questions verbatim for privacy concerns but broadly these were peoples expressed concerns:
Ensuring any new change came from experts in BIPOC communities and consultants.
Ensuring staff at all levels came from communities the org claims to assist.
Time off of work for mental health and political action, a request that was met with IRC saying it already provides a great time off plan.
If IRC plans to take a stand against racist injustice outside of the organization, not just focus internally. Their response was that IRC is establishing a new Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team that would focus itself on systematic racism within IRC.
This is an international humanitarian organization announcing they only care about how racism affects the organization internally and no plans to address the systematic racism that sustains IRC. In IRC’s public statement they said “the IRC can commit resources to righting the injustices that are occurring within our organization and in areas across the globe.” What exactly does across the globe mean? Why can’t the new DEI team focus on matters externally as well?
IRC also confirmed that they had already begun the process of sourcing small minority owned consulting companies to form the new DEI team and in addition CEO David Miliband committed in to the following:
ongoing listening sessions
seek the engagement of outside expertise to facilitate these meetings and for the organization to progress
hold webinars around issues of racial bias
Systematic efforts to diversify voices in key decision making
Having internal workplace conversations and trainings on systemic racism is absolutely warranted. However, these internal operations to combat racial injustice must work in concert with external initiatives for decolonization to take place.
I stress the call to be critical of INGO’s BLM and racial justice rhetoric because these orgs need to prove that they will put their money where their mouth is. Racism deserves real solutions.
Currently we know that many diversity trainings of late show no effectiveness and current diversity hires have already expressed deep concern over feeling like they are just racial justice show ponies as many have been unable to employ effective strategies due to management disapproval. Additionally, we know companies can use these new diversity teams to legally escape employee discrimination claims.
I mean how can management be racist if they attended a racist training!?
Racism exists at an office level
My experience at IRC is a powerful example of why talking about racial injustices and adding diversity isn’t enough to change actual racist behavior that happens systematically.
In January 2020, my IRC office had a work retreat in the mountains, where we had a number of trainings including, racial equity and had the opportunity to ask questions to office management. Their response to the question “why the staff wasn’t more reflective of clients served?” was answered by a shitty excuse that they had not been able to “find any,” and then pointed to two people of color who were in senior management.
Less than two months later, one of the two people of color in senior management was hastily fired. Without notice. Without presenting evidence. Because apparently humanitarian organizations fire their employees “at will”, especially if they are black. In my experience if a black woman stands up for herself in a racist professional environment, she is labeled “defensive.” This is exactly what happened to my colleague, who was hastily fired. Further, when she informed office management that the “defensive” label is often a racist sexist trope, the response was “oh I am not saying it, other people are.” In comparison, office management told me directly that I was being “argumentative.”
Without evidence, the only African American woman in the office with experience that more than qualified her for the position she occupied and had moved her family across the country for, was fired within six months.
The experience of my colleague being fired at IRC was a valuable teaching moment for me and a building block to Contrarian Humanitarian. When my colleague was fired she told me that she wished fellow employees would stick up for her. Perhaps in my Becky-ist of moments, I didn’t really grasp what she meant at the time, because I hadn’t grasped the full extent of the situation. I didn’t realize humanitarian employees' rights could be so little—getting fired without cause or notice and I didn’t realize the level of racism that had occurred, or the evil Karens in office management. My heart and mind eventually put the pieces together and I realized the support my colleague sought. I then began speaking my mind about the office’s mismanagement as best I could--to fellow employees, to office management their selves, to superiors at other offices and to Human Resources. Nothing changed. And all the while office management hired no people of color while positions were being filled by white women. These events were an obvious disregard for the inclusion rhetoric management spewed at multiple racial equity sessions, but the level of disrespect for our fired colleague displayed management’s abhorrent racist blind spots.
No change. No justice.
So yeah, the new office racial justice book club or new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team wasn’t going to cut it for me.
The time is always now.
Call to action
We cannot afford to fall prey to racial justice rhetoric over substantial change. Employees and service recipients must organize to ensure they are the decision makers in any new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, not millionaire consultants. IRC and INGO’s can’t pay millionaire consultants to right racial wrongs instead of giving cash payments, reparations, restitution to their predominantly black and brown service recipients. IRC already acknowledges that cash assistance is the most efficient and effective form of aid for uprooted individuals.
Questions for audience
If you work at International Rescue Committee or any humanitarian organization, what demands do you want to see your org do to actualize racial equity?
How do you believe employees should hold their organizations accountable moving forward?
What requirements do we want for our employees, managers, directors, and CEO?
Do you believe someone who believes and votes for violating international law through “humanitarian intervention” should be a decision maker for a humanitarian organization?
Ali, D., & Romain Murphy, M. (2020, July 19). Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and international NGOs. Open Democracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/black-lives-matter-also-reckoning-foreign-aid-and-international-ngos/
Billing, L. (2021, January 11). So you’ve hired a diversity and inclusion expert? Here are six ways you could be undermining them. Medium. https://leila-billing.medium.com/so-youve-hired-a-diversity-and-inclusion-expert-here-are-six-ways-you-could-be-undermining-them-5f0b47b1c522
Elliott, J. (2012, March 22). Why the World Bank has no real intentions of reducing poverty. The World Public Radio Program. https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-03-22/why-world-bank-has-no-real-intentions-reducing-poverty
International Rescue Committee. (n.d.). Greater need, better aid Cash Relief Overview. International Rescue Committee. https://www.rescue.org/topic/cash-relief
International Rescue Committee. (2020, September 22). IRC Leadership Board creates a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. International Rescue Committee. https://www.rescue.org/announcement/irc-leadership-board-creates-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-team
Pan, J. C. (2020, September 9). Workplace “Anti-Racism Trainings” Aren’t Helping. Jacobin. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/workplace-anti-racism-trainings-trump-corporate-america
Sunkara, B. (2020, July 8). Stop trying to fight racism with corporate diversity consultants. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/08/diversity-consultants-racism-seminars-corporate-america