Many studies have been published lately on the prevalence of racism in the international humanitarian aid sector. They have ranged from definitions of racial equity in global development, through the experiences of black, indigenous and other racialized people who work in the sector, to delayed investigation into racism in the British Government as part of a larger study on the culture and philosophy of UK humanitarian assistance.
I know very well that racism is real. As a long-time humanitarian aid worker, I also know that in the global south we are not reflected in these studies, because they focus almost entirely on the infighting and structures of humanitarian aid institutions and their teams in the world. North. This completely omits the perspective on racism analyzed from the south, which is undoubtedly fundamental to closing the gaps between those who give and those who receive.
While concerns about racism within the work teams themselves are undoubtedly genuine, they fail to acknowledge that in reality the humanitarian aid sector is itself a racist tool, rooted in colonial structures and power inequalities. , which disparages countries based on their wealth, history and global positioning. By default, those who control these power structures – donors, international NGOs, charities, private foundations – perpetuate racism towards their fellow southern people.
For the global south, racism in the international development sector comes from anyone who is associated with northern agencies – be it white, black or brown – by virtue of their location in the north and their position in the sector as founders, implementers and intermediaries. Who see themselves marginalized in the north [por sus rasgos étnicos o raciales] they wield as much power in the South as their white counterparts.
In the South, we see and experience racism in a different way, because our history of racism is very different from the identity politics of the North. We perceive and perpetuate racism according to historical notions of class, caste, religion and ethnicity, within and between different societies, while the North sees racism as white against those who are not.
The fact that the industry overlooks these prospects is a red flag. It ignores the racist attitudes that the northern sector perpetuates against its southern counterparts and instead focuses the discussion solely on itself. In the South we must speak out against the racism we face to focus on ourselves.
There is great potential for collaboration between southern countries in the exchange of economic and social resources, which is already partially visible in new emerging donors such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. Given the cultural, historical, and religious similarities, there is less scope for racism in these new relationships.
We must oppose the myth of the north that everyone in the south is a recipient of aid, as well as the narrative of the “local”. Nobody in the south is a “local”. We are natives of our own countries and aid professionals from the South must reject the fact that their counterparts in the North see them as such.
We must also oppose another common practice in the northern humanitarian sector, which is to constantly position ourselves as administrators, implementers, intermediaries and supervisors of aid, whether they are white or people of color. This practice works in favor of the racist assumption that southern countries do not have the ability to manage external resources. We must be in control and accountable for the help we receive.
We also have to look at our own stories of racism and find ways to develop our credibility in the areas of religious tolerance, gender equality, ethnic diversity, and minority rights. Otherwise, our behavior could end up being similar to that of our northern counterparts.
Racism in humanitarian aid cannot just revolve around racialized people in the north. The focus must be on ending the great inequalities between North and South.
Note: Themrise Khan is a freelance international development professional specializing in humanitarian aid effectiveness, gender, and global migration.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies.