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Improving Diversity and Creating Inclusive Spaces

This is part of a series of recap blogs on our experiences at the Women and Girls Africa Summit (WAGS) which took place virtually November 16-18. Bringing together over 3,500 participants, the summit aimed to foster crucial dialogue that will lead to the development of initiatives, programs, and institutions that address the challenges of women and girls in Africa.

Each year, we await the announcement of the word of the year selected by the lexicographers at Oxford English Dictionary. In 2020, however, they were overwhelmed by picking a single word to encapsulate a year that felt like multiple years mashed into one, so they selected “words of an unprecedented year” including: “cancel culture”, “BIPOC” and “lockdown” among others. I would guess if Oxford were to name a word/phrase of the year for companies across various sectors, it would be “diversity & inclusion.” Amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the conversation moved beyond individuals and sought to hold companies and the sectors they belong to accountable for their complicity in perpetuating systemic racism.

“Aid organizations and donors are often reluctant—make that adamantly opposed—to placing a focus on race and racism in the aid sector, especially as donor countries are often quite proud of their giving practices and therefore, ‘not racist.’ The simplicity of this belief merely places the blame for the extraordinary failures of the sector on a few ‘bad apples’ and individual organizations allowing larger systemic problems to go unchallenged.”

Ahead of our second panel, “Improving Diversity and Creating Inclusive Spaces for African Women in International Development,” we revisited these thoughts from one of our panelists, Angela Bruce-Raeburn, that have only become more relevant to the international development sector since she penned this opinion article in May 2019.

Kicking off the panel, our moderator, Evelyn Sallah, led an interactive poll with the panelists and audience to field our perceptions of D&I-related issues in the workplace. What are your thoughts?

Tamara Cummings-John, HR Specialist with UN Women, shared some insightful data and findings about D&I at the United Nations, which is often viewed as the poster child of international development work. She took us through the UNPAD (United Nations People of African Descent) Survey on the perception of racism within the UN system, conducted earlier this year. She explained the complacency within the UN fueled by the hollow sense of diversity brought on by the diversity of nationalities represented.

We also heard from Angela Bruce-Raeburn, who reflected on what she learned in her time working in post-earthquake Haiti:

Hearing her chronicle her experiences was an eye-opening realisation that aid organisations act in their own self-interest before prioritizing the needs of those they claim to be helping because they ultimately view them in an inferior manner. In her article, she explained that “the very people who are in need of the help that development aid is designed to elevate are stripped of agency over their own lives, normalizing dependency in their own eyes.”

It was refreshing to hear some key steps on how to make D&I work from Muna Idow, a DEI Strategist & Consultant. She asserted that we cannot continue treating instances of bias in the workplace as outliers in a perfectly good system; instead, we must believe those actors or “bad apples” when they show their true colours and work to tackle the systems they uphold and conversely, uphold them.

At this point in the panel session, the conversation was lively as the countdown began ticked away. Before we were completely out of time, we managed to hear from Lucie Amadou on whether the onus falls on black employees to remedy the discrimination they face.

She firmly explained that we ultimately must hold these organisations to the standards they clearly set themselves to but often fall short on. Amadou was clear, though, that sticking it can only go so long if it takes a toll on you personally:

Before we could explore this salient advice further, our time slot for our panel ran out! As we shuffled to stay on, we were ultimately cut short—but that was not the end of it. The organisers of the Women and Girls Africa Summit agreed to co-sponsor a continuation of the lively panel with all the panelists in December. Email to sign up and we will send you the details!

The full recording of the panel session can be viewed here.


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