Co-constructing an anti-racist agenda for Canada’s international cooperation sector

Over the last year and a half, Canadian international development organizations have been crafting a sector-wide Anti-Racism Framework, with the goal of creating a springboard for collective transformation. This second article in our Rethinking Philanthropy series reflects on the process that led to the adoption of the framework.

Over the last year and a half, Canadian international development organizations have been crafting a sector-wide Anti-Racism Framework, with the goal of creating a springboard for collective transformation. This second article in our Rethinking Philanthropy series reflects on the process that led to the adoption of the framework.

International cooperation, in its most romantic definition, stands for solidarity-based efforts to better our societies. Those who join humanitarian and global development charities, non-governmental organizations, and other sector institutions generally do so because at some level they care about contributing to something bigger and better than themselves. This assumption of altruism, however, has long served to mask the colonial legacy of the sector and the dynamics of exclusion it reproduces.

In late May and June 2020, international cooperation organizations in Canada issued public statements of solidarity with the anti-racist mobilization that was happening across the country and around the world, committing to listening and learning. Guided by the belief that the future is the past we all get to rewrite, Cooperation Canada, as the national council of international cooperation actors, invited colleagues across member organizations to co-construct a deliberately anti-racist way forward. An informal advisory group on anti-racism designed a roadmap and called on the sector to engage in a collective project.

Co-constructing foundations of collective anti-racist commitments

Over six months, a 13-person team of sector colleagues volunteered their time and mobilized hundreds of practitioners, allies, academics, and global experts in formal and informal consultations. After three rounds of drafting and editing; an open letter; more than a dozen webinars, panels, workshops, and presentations; and countless bilateral discussions and email exchanges, a framework emerged. This framework encompasses commitments to advance racial justice in organizations’ staffing and governance, storytelling and communications, and programs and operations.

An additional overarching commitment centres Black, Indigenous, and racialized people and those from historically disadvantaged countries in the process of a continuous anti-racist transformation. To keep organizations accountable to each other, the sector, and the communities they aspire to engage and support, an indicator framework was developed. Seventy-one organizations became signatories in the first year, with more than a dozen pre-registered to join in 2022. By becoming signatories, organizations committed to compiling annual progress surveys to monitor collective progress.

In June 2021, a task force of volunteers from signatory organizations produced the first report, offering a baseline for future analyses and a set of recommendations to guide this agenda forward. Additionally, the advisory group led a process of signatory engagement that informed the structure of the Anti-Racist Cooperation (ARC) Hub, whose launch is imminent. Through these efforts, the sector has made strides in setting up a foundation for an intentional, inclusive, and collective transformation in line with its anti-racist principles. While time will be the real test of this initiative, the following four lessons identified throughout this process can help guide the work before us and inform similar initiatives within the social justice sector in Canada and abroad.

1/ Recognize the systemic nature of racism

The first – and an indispensable – step toward any reconciliation is a coherent narrative of racism as a systemic mechanism that permeates our institutions and perpetuates bias and discrimination. Explicitly recognizing the colonial legacy of Canada’s international sector required a lot of dedicated effort. This involved emotionally charged collective and bilateral conversations, vulnerability, and willingness to learn, explain, listen, lead with empathy, and show grace.

This effort paid off as the Anti-Racism Framework now recognizes the colonial legacy of international cooperation, which assumes the superiority of industrialized countries and uses technological progress to justify denying the agency and self-determination of people around the world. This acknowledgement serves to identify how systemic racism is perpetuated through our institutions, unexamined assumptions of effectiveness and progress, and ways in which we relate to one another, within our organizations and the sector more broadly.

2/ Centre the perspectives of women, men, and gender-diverse groups with lived experience of racism

The acknowledgement of systemic racism in the sector also signals to everyone – but especially Black, Indigenous, and otherwise racialized women, men, and gender-diverse groups who engage in and with the sector – a commitment to a transformative approach. By remaining critical of our policies, biases, and institutional structures, we are able to recognize that we need to change them.

To drive this transformation, the Anti-Racism Framework recognizes the importance of uplifting the perspectives, ambitions, and knowledge of people with lived experience of racial injustice – but recognizes everyone’s responsibility to contribute to this collective agenda.

3/ Define anti-racist commitments as a collective invitation to change

Centring people with lived experience of racism but also framing the pursuit of racial justice as a fundamental responsibility of every actor within international cooperation was the guiding principle throughout sector consultations. This was needed to account for the overrepresentation of white narratives and to avoid further adding to the emotional burden of racialized staff within organizations. For this to happen, the consultative process was designed and communicated as an invitation to everyone, including the executive management, to partake in collective learning, ask questions, share concerns, and suggest improvements.

The advisory group’s empathy-led approach helped ensure that the champions of this initiative (including the executive directors who acted as informal ambassadors and mobilized the sector’s executive management) were not expected to coddle white colleagues, but also allowed for a genuine exchange. Confidential peer-to-peer support calls, literature and resource sharing, good-faith debates among long-standing colleagues, and other forums of meaningful exchange made a difference. It is through these efforts that a traditionally risk-averse sector agreed to shift the tone and the scope of its anti-racist commitments.

4/ Ensure the accountability of anti-racist commitments

Unstructured attempts at social and institutional transformation rarely succeed. For this reason, the framework commitments are accompanied by indicators of progress. These are operationalized in the binding element of the Anti-Racism Framework, which requires signatories to answer annual surveys and report on their efforts. To ensure accountability, the survey data will then serve as a basis of a public annual report on sector-wide progress.

Annual reporting is led by the task force of volunteers from signatory organizations that produced the June 2021 baseline study, offering recommendations for the way forward. Organizations are called to trigger institutional discussions on their own approaches to these recommendations but also to work with other signatories and capitalize on economies of scale by sharing resources and learning and investing in a sector-wide capacity to advance racial justice.

As many organizations lack the know-how and financial resources to engage in this agenda, Cooperation Canada will host an independent Anti-Racist Cooperation (ARC) Hub. Led by racial justice experts with lived experience of racism and professional experience of driving organizational and social change, the ARC Hub will function as a resource centre. It will also be a safe space to convene and an accelerator for sector collaborations across multiple dimensions of this agenda. As such, the ARC Hub will nurture sector resources and the capacity to collaborate and make deliberate investments in anti-racism.

Charting future avenues of change 

Progress made toward anti-racism within Canada’s international cooperation has only just begun. The ARC Hub will have a unique mandate to support organizations in this critical stage, to maintain the momentum, but also to go further than before. Ensuring that racial justice is embedded in other core areas of sector transformation, such as gender equality agendas (including those focused on gender-diverse groups), the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, and self-determination of historically marginalized communities will be of fundamental importance. Currently, the ARC Hub is calling on international cooperation organizations to sign the framework in its crucial second year and strengthen this collective process of change.

How organizations will integrate different agendas of social justice will depend on many factors, but that is the strength of social transformation: it needn’t be uniform or stable. Recognizing anti-racism as a never-ending transformation toward better systems can be empowering. Some tools exist, however, and many are outlined in the baseline report, Collective Commitment: Emerging Anti-Racist Practice for Canadian International Cooperation. These will be unpacked in the next article in this series, helping us reimagine a deliberately anti-racist sector that serves us all.


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