Confronting racism and discrimination in development
Confronting racism and discrimination in development
The 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police sent reverberations from Minneapolis across the world. For many, it was a turning point that sparked intense reflection about race and social injustice within our lives and in the societies we shape. Massive outward demonstrations were coupled with introspection by individuals and within organizations, including UNDP.
And while millions poured into the streets demanding racial justice, the same systemic biases were playing out, less visibly, in a global health pandemic.
From the invidious remarks based on the virus’s origins to the unequal vaccine distribution, the pandemic has been marked by racial animus and disparity, at both the individual and institutional levels.
COVID-19 provided a convenient excuse for those with the pre-existing condition of bigotry to act out xenophobic attacks against people of Asian descent. At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups suffered the greatest harm from the pandemic, in terms of higher infection rates and deeper economic distress.
The recovery also has been marred by an imbalance of power that has left poor countries unable to vaccinate their populations. The World Health Organization has made it clear, vaccine inequality harms the entire world, not just those countries consigned to wait at the back of the line for doses. And in 2022, as the world was taking tentative steps out of the pandemic, the outbreak of war in Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis raised serious concerns that not all those fleeing the violence would receive the same treatment, based on the colour of their skin.
Racism is a stain on our societies. And the pandemic is a visceral demonstration of how racism and discrimination impede development, with disastrous consequences for all of us.
It has been critical for our growth as an organization to allow space for listening, sharing, learning and challenging each other and ourselves.Photo: UNDP
Like gender inequality and all other forms of discrimination, racism exacts a toll on human development. And it doesn’t just harm those pushed to the margins. By limiting opportunities for segments of their populations, societies forfeit a portion of their human capital and miss out on the talent and creativity those excluded might otherwise have contributed.
This is why UNDP puts great focus on ending inequality and exclusion. Whether it’s investing in women entrepreneurs, promoting political participation by ethnic minorities or countering LGBTQI+ stigma, UNDP works with countries and communities to create the conditions for all persons to realize their full potential.
In Asia and the Pacific, UNDP is tackling the rise in online hate speech that has accompanied the pandemic. In Thailand, home to more than 60 ethnic groups, UNDP partnered in the “You Me We Us” exhibition, celebrating diversity through the stories of people from ethnic minorities and how they’re helping their communities recover.
That UNDP must be an anti-racist institution – in spirit and in practice – is non-negotiable. For at the core of racism is a primitive and uncivilized rejection of the humanity in others.Photo: UNDP/Sumaya Agha
In Latin America, UNDP is helping countries confront discrimination, particularly towards Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. In Brazil, UNDP and partners promote actions to curb racism in the criminal justice and social-educational system and launched a call for proposals for projects promoting racial equality. Among the submissions, five are now being implemented by the Centers for Afro-Brazilian Studies.
“If countries want to successfully ‘leave no one behind’ in implementing the 2030 Agenda, they must take steps against discrimination,” wrote Luis Felipe López-Calva, UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We must think about how to change the harmful social norms that these processes are embedded more broadly within and change the informal institutions that foster discrimination.”
If countries want to successfully ‘leave no one behind’ in implementing the 2030 Agenda, they must take steps against discrimination.Photo: UNDP/Sumaya Agha
Yet the field of development is not immune from the racial biases that infiltrate many of the institutions that govern our lives, from policing to healthcare and economic policy. Present power structures, rooted in colonialism, often influence how progress is defined and what development strategies are pursued.
“Nobody would say overtly, ‘I believe in white supremacy’, but the assumptions in our work often reveal implicit beliefs that White societies, White ideals, White forms of social organization, are inherently superior, and that the job of development is to support the global majority to better imitate those societies of the global minority,” said Anisa Khadem Nwachuku, a sustainable development and global health consultant and one of the organizers of an internal reading series on decolonizing development.
“This idea that some 90 percent of humanity should strive to imitate the other 10 percent is a misconstruction and, in fact, is doomed to failure,” she added.
“The reading series has, for me, created a safe space where we discuss issues critical for development,” said Amitrajit Saha, Team Leader for HIV, Health and Development in Africa. “That goes beyond racism and looks at questions of dominant modes of production, the failure of legacy ideologies and economic theories and practices to address challenges to our human and non-human world and the environment.”
This idea that some 90 percent of humanity should strive to imitate the other 10 percent is a misconstruction and, in fact, is doomed to failure.Photo: Anisa Khadem Nwachuku
In part, decolonization means recognizing that development isn’t one style fits all, and progress doesn’t mean countries in the global South emulating those of the North. Each country must choose its own course to achieve its own vision for sustainable development.
In many cases, the best solutions can be found in the country’s history and culture. In confronting the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, many countries are learning from their Indigenous communities, borrowing from the traditional knowledge and practices that have maintained ecological balance for generations. To showcase this wealth of wisdom, UNDP’s Equator Prize recognizes Indigenous and local communities that achieve exceptional development outcomes using nature-based solutions to address climate change, preserve biodiversity and green the economy.
For Anisa, the popularity of the decolonization reading series signals that people are ready to grapple with complex ideas and challenge long-held assumptions about what is right in development. “We note people’s appreciation that this is not a fringe issue we have to deal with for cosmetic reasons, that decolonization is development, that they are inextricable.”
While challenging conventional wisdoms about development, we’re is also looking within. In July 2020, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner kicked off a transformation process with a townhall meeting addressing the organization’s efforts to confront racism.
“We started a conversation about how we can become an actively anti-racist organization. It marked the beginning of a commitment – by all of us – to step up efforts to promote equality, justice and inclusion within UNDP and through our development programming across the world,” the Administrator said. “I am proud to work for an organization that stands up for human rights and tackles the root causes of racism and discrimination.”
A Corporate Anti-racism and Discrimination Team was established to lead the process of uncovering systemic bias. Joan Manda is a Senior SDG Investment Advisor and one of the co-chairs of the committee, which compiled a report including recommendations for how senior management can confront racism in staffing, operations, procurement and other systems. The report resulted in the endorsement of a detailed anti-racism action plan for the organization.
For Joan, the bottom line is the basic affirmation that every individual has value, no matter their background. “People come in with their walls up and their defences up, but an honest conversation from a place of true compassion and vulnerability will always get those defences down, and you can actually find where the real issues lie,” she said.
We know that cultural change takes time. We have a team that has been incredibly engaged in our work with anti-racism and anti-discrimination along the way.Photo: UNDP/Sumaya Agha
UNDP also has a dedicated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team that is working to ensure that anti-racism efforts are part of a broader organizational shift. As stated by Angelique Crumbly, Director of the Bureau for Management Services: “We have begun developing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy that will enable UNDP to create a more respectful, inclusive and safe environment, in its workplace and programme activities in support of UNDP’s development mission.”
In parallel, staff-led dialogues aim to create an avenue for colleagues to exchange ideas on a range of topics, from the impact of racism on organizational culture to anti-racist leadership strategies.
The reading series has, for me, created a safe space where we discuss issues critical for development… These conversations are crucial for the UN in general and UNDP in particular.Photo: Amitrajit Saha
“UNDP has begun to have deep, vulnerable and frank conversations around racism,” Tiffany Moore, Finance Sector Hub Associate and member of the UNDP Corporate Anti-racism and Discrimination Advisory Board, wrote about the discussions. “It has been critical for our growth as an organization to allow space for listening, sharing, learning and challenging each other and ourselves.”
Addressing a discussion on anti-racism and allyship, Ulrika Modeér, Director of UNDP’s Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy, said the aim is to create a “speak-up” culture throughout the organization. “We know that cultural change takes time. We have a team that has been incredibly engaged in our work with anti-racism and anti-discrimination along the way,” she said.
To eradicate poverty, we must eradicate racial injustice and inequality. To this end, anti-racism efforts are central to UNDP’s development support across the globe.Photo: UNDP/Michael Atwood
“Wherever we see racism, we must condemn it without reservation, without hesitation, without qualification.”– António Guterres, UN Secretary-General
UNDP has joined with our fellow UN organizations in a global call to #FightRacism as an imperative to uphold the UN Charter and ensure that all people enjoy their inalienable human rights. Ending discrimination is essential also for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the organizing principle, “leave no one behind”.
“That UNDP must be an anti-racist institution – in spirit and in practice – is non-negotiable. For at the core of racism is a primitive and uncivilized rejection of the humanity in others,” said Ahunna Eziakonwa, Regional Director for Africa. “There is no place for such behaviour in the United Nations.”
Our #FightRacism efforts are based on the premise that it’s not enough to be non-racist; we need to be anti-racist – actively creating systems to dismantle structural racism. In collaboration with communities and partners around the world, through the recommendations of our anti-racism committee, through frank and open conversations among colleagues, we are working to define what that means and how to achieve it.
“The fact that, as an organization, we've paused long enough to acknowledge that this is an issue that needs addressing is a great achievement,” said Joan Manda. “Without that pause, that acknowledgement and that intention, we’re not going do much about it."
People come in with their walls up and their defences up, but an honest conversation from a place of true compassion and vulnerability will always get those defences down.Photo: Joan Manda
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