Pulse check: Anti-racist practice in international cooperation

In the third article in our Rethinking Philanthropy series, Musu Taylor-Lewis, co-chair of a task force from Canada’s international development sector, shares the main take-aways from the Collective Commitment report, produced in the first stage of a sector-wide initiative to create an Anti-Racism Framework.

In the third article in our Rethinking Philanthropy series, Musu Taylor-Lewis, co-chair of a task force from Canada’s international development sector, shares the main take-aways from the Collective Commitment report, produced in the first stage of a sector-wide initiative to create an Anti-Racism Framework.

Emerging Anti-Racist Practice for Canadian International Cooperation is the subtitle of a 2021 report, Collective Commitment, on what the Canadian international cooperation sector is doing to counteract a well-documented legacy of racism. This legacy assumes that people from European cultural perspectives can provide superior solutions for challenges in historically disadvantaged countries. The Canadian international cooperation sector operates within a country founded on racist structures and ideas that dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of their land, suppressed their culture, and denied their right to self-determination. The same ideas of racial and cultural superiority have undergirded the approaches to work internationally and have been embedded into the narratives and systems that it operates from. What emerged in the report is a picture of a willing sector that has much work to do to overcome these roots and live up to its values of justice, equality, and dignity when it comes to matters of race and racism.

How organizations are doing on anti-racism

Informed by data from 71 organizations that signed an Anti-Racism Framework, the report – compiled by a volunteer task force – examined existing anti-racist efforts in three areas of operation:

  • administration and human resources
  • communication, fundraising, and advocacy
  • program design, implementation, and evaluation

First, the report found that organizations did not have a clear or consistent definition of what anti-racism is, or what it should be achieving. For example, training on “diversity,” “accessibility,” “inter-cultural sensitivity,” and “anti-discrimination” were all cited as examples of “anti-racist” training in survey responses. While important, these efforts do not specifically address racial inequity and can lead to unfocused efforts. Ultimately, this kind of uncoordinated approach dilutes efforts within a more general equity agenda and has not been found to work to address racial inequity.

Second, data showed that organizations do not prioritize anti-racism in core operations or leadership. Sixty-five percent of surveyed organizations have no staff with explicit anti-racist objectives in their job descriptions, and 71% lacked any mechanisms for confidential feedback on their own adherence to anti-racist guidelines and practices.

Encouragingly, however, the survey found that signatories to the framework had a recent uptake in anti-racist initiatives, likely prompted by a global uprising against anti-Black racism following the public murder of George Floyd. The same 2020 incident led Cooperation Canada to initiate the examination of the international cooperation sector. In the 24 months prior to completing the survey, just over half had received or allocated funding specifically for anti-racist projects or program activities, and 62% had undertaken communications, advocacy, or knowledge-sharing activities with explicit anti-racist objectives.

Next steps on the journey to an anti-racist future

The last finding offers reasons for optimism about the sector’s anti-racist agenda, and the report outlined seven recommendations for concrete first steps for a ready sector.

1/ Define a coherent organizational anti-racism strategy

Organizations need a defined, critically reflective, intersectional, and specifically anti-racist strategy. Without one, leaders of organizations run the risk of stunting the potential for meaningful collaboration and change. Staff left unsure or uncertain about what anti-racism efforts are intended to achieve may not engage with processes or may lose enthusiasm partway through. By taking the time to think through what needs to be achieved and how to go about doing it, leaders also minimize the risk of unintended harm from tokenism or lack of follow-through.

2/ Create an enabling environment for productive dialogue within organizations

More than half of respondents reported not having safe, transparent, and formal mechanisms for reporting and addressing racism and discrimination. Organizations must recognize that discussions about racial injustice can feel physically and psychologically unsafe, especially for those who have been directly harmed or discriminated against because of their race. Organizations must be explicit about having zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination and provide training to all staff to support respectful discussions about racial bias and discrimination.

3/ Collaborate with international partners in the design, development, and implementation of new approaches

Staff working for Canadian organizations in countries of operation must be involved in determining the shape of anti-racism efforts to avoid the chronic mistake of creating initiatives that are rooted in and actively reinforce a singular dominant worldview. A little less than half (48%) had official guidelines or procedures regarding the decision-making roles of local staff working to implement projects, and 71% had no established mechanism for obtaining feedback from staff working in projects abroad regarding adherence to anti-racist guidelines in project activities and operations.

Dialogue with and challenge from partners across the Global South will support racially equitable practice, make programming more effective, and improve communications. Local Indigenous staff understand their contexts and the particular ways in which discriminatory practices have affected their communities. They also are best placed to determine practices that will more respectfully and reliably address communities’ felt needs.

4/ Measure and use data to track racial representation at all staffing levels

A staggering 71% of organizations reported that they did not track employee data by race. Only 1% of respondents tracked salary data based on race, and only 3% reported, collected, or analyzed promotion and retention rates of staff by race. As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.” To be anti-racist, the international cooperation sector must reflect the multi-racial, multi-ethnic communities it sets out to support and within which it operates in Canada.

Collecting data on race can help organizations monitor the extent to which they are attracting and retaining a representative workforce – one with the necessary cultural interpretations and lived experience to effectively work toward reversing the history and practice of privileging one racial group. Workplaces that adopt a colour-blind approach to employee management will likely reproduce racial inequities, reflected in the current lower levels of racial diversity across the international cooperation sector’s upper management.

5/ Prioritize and establish a regular cycle of anti-racism audits

Only 10% of respondents had conducted specific anti-racism audits to understand if their communications, fundraising, or advocacy content reflect organizational anti-racist commitments. To move from policy to practice, organizations must commit to a regular cycle of anti-racism audits across all three areas to identify gaps and anti-racist measures that need to be put into place.

6/ Invest finances, staff time, and a demonstrated commitment from leadership

Anti-racism work takes time, money, and emotional energy, yet very few sector organizations have staff with official responsibility for anti-racism work, and so anti-racism efforts are being led by internal staff on a voluntary basis. Only 37% of organizations reported offering anti-racism training, and most of what was offered was delivered by organizations’ own staff or boards. Very few made the training mandatory, but a whopping 84% reported having staff or volunteers who participated in anti-racism-related training wherever they could find it, indicating a workforce that is very engaged on the issue. For institutional commitments to anti-racism to be deliberate and credible, organizations must dedicate staff time and invest finances toward anti-racism efforts. Leaders can also set a powerful tone, by prioritizing anti-racism efforts and establishing anti-racism as normative within the international cooperation sector.

7/ Integrate anti-racism into internal structures across all operations and management

Only a small minority of respondents reported having anti-racist principles in any, let alone all, of their core policies and guidelines. Anti-racist principles must become embedded in every level of organizational operations and not be treated as optional, complementary, or a side project. Policies may simply require addition of specific anti-racist principles, but in other cases, they may require completely new frameworks.

Moving forward

The main title of the baseline report, Collective Commitment, provides the way forward for the international cooperation sector. In starting off with this honest self-examination, organizations can leverage the willingness to learn and grow within the sector, and journey together, stronger and more effectively.

In addition to the recommendations, the report provides suggestions for how organizations can support each other and the support that signatory organizations will need from the Anti-Racist Cooperation (ARC) Hub, hosted by Cooperation Canada.

Although the process may be slow, the potential will be realized if organizations take the posture that it is unacceptable to perpetuate racism on individual or systemic levels. Acknowledging the existence of racism within the international cooperation sector and actively and collaboratively working to dismantle it will serve to put individual organizations and the sector on a path to being proactively anti-racist.

The reality is that anti-racism work is challenging, slow-moving, and continual. It requires a committed effort and a willingness to integrate anti-racist principles into core modes of operation, to champion anti-racist work at all levels within an organization, and routinely examine organizational impact. This initiative has the potential to herald a cultural shift in the sector that may begin to be felt only three, four, or five years from now, if the organizations that sign the framework remain persistent and resolute in their efforts to effect change.


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