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Racism in humanitarian action: a call to action

by Stuart Katwikirize
6 July 2020

As George Floyd’s racially-instigated murder by uniformed US police officers continues to shock millions around the world, leading to ever-increasing multiracial and international calls for change, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience of racism in humanitarian responses. In my more than 20 years working in the sector, I have encountered unpleasant racist practices, the majority subtly engineered by influential individuals embedded in the strategic arms or departments of organisations I have worked with.  These individuals are so effective at keeping their white supremacist attitudes and approaches under the radar that the organisation’s top leadership never notices.

Let’s start with INGO recruitments for deployable surge capacity. I don’t think I’m the only one who has worked in large-scale humanitarian responses where all, or at least the majority, of an organisation’s surge team comes from the Global North. For some in the Global South, this represents a form of neo-colonialism.

If you work for an INGO that has a global surge mechanism, to what extent is the Global South represented in your organisation’s global surge team? How do the North and South ratios compare? If your answer is an indictment of your agency’s hiring practices, ask yourself whether this is accidental. Then ask yourself if the Global South is devoid of people qualified and experienced enough to be recruited into these teams.

During a high-pressure, large-scale humanitarian response, large INGOs will often deploy a 10–20-strong surge team. For some INGOs, this team will be dominated by people from the Global North. One INGO I worked with sent a first-wave surge team to a context where a huge humanitarian response was being mounted. The team and its Emergency Response Manager (ERM) were almost all from the Global North.

The hosting country team had already started the response before the international team arrived. But instead of building trust and good relationships with the hosting country team, and supporting and augmenting their efforts, the ERM brushed them aside suggesting they didn’t know what they were doing. While the majority of surge team members didn’t necessarily share the ERM’s white supremacist attitude to power and control, they lacked the courage to challenge their leadership. The surge team’s dismissive attitude towards the local team, which had been managing key relationships with government, suppliers and local partners, seriously undermined the local team’s morale and sense of purpose.  This negatively affected the speed of the response which in turn adversely affected people in need of assistance.

Most humanitarian INGOs encourage surge teams to work closely with peer local staff to foster a smooth transition, transfer skills and build operational confidence. However, this can only happen when the response leadership makes it their job to create a conducive and cohesive working relationship between surge and local teams. In the example above, there was no meaningful interaction between the two groups, hence no real transfer of skills. And for organisations whose real-time reviews of humanitarian responses are largely conducted by teams dominated by ‘experts’ from the Global North, such failings never make it into response review reports. End result? The pattern gets repeated during subsequent surge deployments.

For many humanitarian action INGOs, it is established good practice to ensure that every surge team member is given terms of reference (ToRs). These ToRs are used to guide end-of-deployment performance reviews, and the results are used to inform future deployment suitability. In another response where a large surge team was deployed, again predominantly from the Global North, the emergency response manager (from the Global North) gave extremely poor performance scores to the handful of direct reports from the Global South. Yet these were known to be high-performing individuals who had been commended in previous responses in the same region.

This situation was made worse by the fact that some of the members of the Global North-dominated surge team lacked the required technical skills for the positions they filled. The question was how did these unskilled people get on to the surge team, and what were the results of their end of deployment performance reviews?  Whoever assigned them to the team also ensured they got good reviews. And the cycle repeats itself.

There have also been situations where people I know in the Global South have forwarded names and contact details of high-calibre candidates for field-based international positions. On a number of occasions, these Global South candidates were quietly dropped. When questioned, recruitment officers responded saying ‘we wrote to the person, but they didn’t respond’. But after checking with the candidates concerned, they reported that they had never been approached.

A call to action

While there is no humanitarian INGO I know of that explicitly embraces or promotes racism, there’s ample evidence to conclude that racism is alive and well in humanitarian action. I have been in situations where well-placed gatekeepers employing racist practices have created an unhealthy imbalance in staffing ratios between the Global North and the Global South and have assessed staff performance unfairly.  INGOs with big operational footprints in the Global South should endeavor to balance their North-South staffing ratios on key operational teams, including surge teams. But this will only be possible when organisational leadership awakens to the need and takes the following action:

  • Leaders must intentionally balance North and South representation on humanitarian response real-time review teams.
  • Leaders must proactively seek feedback from local team members on the status of their working relationships with surge teams, ensuring that any issues are addressed immediately and that lessons learned are applied in future responses.

White power and privilege will persist in humanitarian operations until INGO leaders acknowledge and foster a culture and approaches to combat it. As we grapple with the senseless murder of George Floyd, humanitarian actors should remember that silence and inaction in response to racism is complicity.

Dr. Stuart Katwikirize is currently the Regional Head of Disaster Risk Management:  Middle East, Eastern and Southern Africa, at Plan International.  This blog was written in a personal capacity and reflects on his more than 20 years of experience working with various humanitarian response organisations and consortia in different countries.

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