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We Need to Talk about Racism in the Aid Sector

ArticlesWe Need to Talk about Racism in the Aid Sector

Casual racism, implicit bias and jobs offered over beer. Two humanitarian workers reveal the ugly side of the international aid sector.


After seven years of hard work in difficult locations we have some things to say about racism in the humanitarian aid profession.

Before We Begin, Some Background

Back in September a 25 year old aid worker was killed after being held captive for several months in north-east Nigeria.

Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa was a midwife and nurse working in the town of Rann, Borno State, an area ravaged by the conflict between militant group Boko Haram and Nigerian government forces. Millions of people in the region have been displaced, forced to live in camps. They face a near constant risk of kidnapping, bombings. There is a severe shortage of basic social infrastructure.

Back in March, at least three aid workers were killed while working in Rann town during a suspected Boko Haram attack on a military base. During the same attack, Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Korsa and other workers were abducted.

The aid workers were all Nigerian nationals, long-serving contractors with UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration.They worked in health and camp coordination. One was a celebrated doctor, well known in the area. He saved the lives of many.

The aid workers had lived in basic conditions, forced to rent ramshackle accommodation from locals. At night, they slept on mattresses placed on the floor. They had access only to outdoor toilets. They had no office from which to file reports, access the internet or do the admin that was a necessary part of their job.

Such conditions are not uncommon among contracted aid workers. Most days from dawn until evening they would be out in the field saving lives, ensuring the community has access to services. Then, they’d be required to file reports and work on admin until late at night. Difficult to do without even a basic office or working internet connection.

One Rule for Us, Another for Them: Racism in the Humanitarian Aid Sector

We believe, based on our years of experience in the field, that a European field worker would not be obliged to live in such conditions. Their organisations would have built a compound (or whatever is usual in the area) with access to computers, internet and office equipment.

The three Nigerian aid workers had no access to a working area at the end of a day. Still, they were expected to file reports to set deadlines.

It is our belief that is why they were forced to befriend military officers. They needed to use their internet. And that’s where they met their death, at the military barracks.

Over years we have seen, experienced and heard stories of staff on casual contracts with limited access to safe, secure working conditions. Bad things happen in insecure locations. Ours can be dangerous work.

Ours can be dangerous work. One way to protect staff is to offer them secure job contracts.

One way to keep aid workers as safe as is possible, is to employ them as permanent staff, even if the contracts are short term. We understand that when aid workers are given casual contracts, there is no obligation for the UN agency employing them to provide decent accommodation and ensure working conditions are adequate.

In our experience and what we have learned from colleagues, workers on casual contracts have UN staff identity cards, but aren’t considered permanent staff, and so lack access to the infrastructure that comes with that. But they report to various UN agencies, implement UN programmes, and the UN may own any success from their work.

Why We Are Speaking Out

No one is blatantly racist to your face. It isn’t overt. But the careless treatment of professional black aid workers by humanitarian aid organisations suggests a hierarchy of worth, with workers from the Global South, especially if they are black, valued the least.

We came to this work naively thinking everyone would be treated equally regardless of race, gender or religious affiliation. It didn’t take us long to discover that equality is a charade in this sector.

The realities:

Hazardous conditions — black workers more likely to be put in harm’s way.

Housing conditions —  better for whites than for black colleagues.

Promotions — white workers promoted over more competent black colleagues with years more experience.

Complaints about these and other injustices — ignored and dismissed.

About Us

We are both from humble beginnings. We were brought up to respect every human being regardless of race, class or religious creed. Neither of us had family members or friends in the humanitarian sector.

Between us, we have two masters degrees in Human Rights Law, with more than eight different fluently spoken languages including English and Arabic, UN working languages.

We have specialised in both international development and humanitarian response work via positions with a number of organisations in countries including: Egypt, Liberia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan and Iraq.

One of us has grown up in war and involuntarily fought. We have both ended up having a decent upbringing and decent lives.

We found our way to the sector because we are passionate in what we do, full of energy and have buckets of joie de vivre.

We had no idea that the colour of our skin would define our work so deeply.

We are not unusual. National staff and Global South expats bring particular skills, competencies and experience to the sector. Often we can offer special insight into the dynamics of a conflict, borne of our lived experience. In some cases we speak local languages. Our backgrounds can mean we’re adaptable in maddening conditions.

Clearly black aid workers have a lot to offer the humanitarian sector. When given the chance. Still we’re not valued by the powerful agencies and their western staff who run the sector.

We had no idea that the colour of our skin would define our work so deeply to the extent of questioning our ability, enthusiasm and purpose in life.

Things We’ve Seen

Here’s a story:

A western organisation in the Middle East hires a young chap, white and European. It’s a Monitoring & Evaluation internship, a role typically offered to a new university graduate, an introduction to the sector.

At the end of his six-month contract, he’s
offered a finance assistant role. He’s never done any finance work, but he hangs out with the country’s head of finance over a beer every other evening. Four months later he’s head of finance for the organisation’s field office.

In that same country office, another man has worked for a couple of years without a promotion. He’s highly educated and African. An inexperienced South American is brought in to manage him. The African has to train his new manager.

That’s how it goes. Along with ‘beer connections’ and ‘shag connections’, which can take you far. Local staff shrug it off, jokingly referring to this type of behaviour – the obsession with power, awarding jobs and promotions to each other  – as a European or American cartel. It becomes their mirthless conversation over Shisha pipes.

Another story. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by the World Food Programme, claims to be “the only humanitarian air service that gives equal access to all humanitarian entities”.

About that “equal access”…

In northern Nigeria, in precarious situations, we’ve relied on UNHAS helicopters to whisk us away to the field in the morning and pick us up in the evening hours. We from the Global South may find ourselves on standby while seats are reserved for white colleagues. At organisation level and at UNHAS, we’ve rarely seen white colleagues on standby.

In north-east Nigeria, an aid worker’s flight was booked under the name of the wrong aid organisation. Just an administrative error. He had the correct documentation, presented it at check-in, explained the mistake. Half an hour’s negotiation. No progress. The man’s colleague turned up, explained the matter in identical terms. Sorted. The first man was black, his colleague white. That’s how it goes.

Implicit Bias in Recruitment and Evaluation

Of course aid agencies must monitor the effectiveness of their work and the performance of managers in the field. But we’ve noticed how that scrutiny can vary.

We’ve seen field-based offices or sectors led by black managers accused of under-performance. Somehow a white person with a vague understanding of the context or doing an appalling job tends to get away with it.

In one case, in a Middle Eastern country, there was a Scandinavian organization. They employed a white employee to do logistics. She made a mess of things. And got away with it. In fact she was promoted and offered a new job. A ‘beer connection’ got her poached by a rival organisation to run their country office.

Her post went to a Pakistani national. He struggled too, but did a sterling job in comparison. Yet he was routinely ridiculed by his white expat colleagues.

In Nigeria, according to the dominant white narrative, organisations or sectors led by black personnel do not perform. Black managers can find themselves the subject of complaints to donors. The implications are severe.

According to the dominant white narrative, organisations led by black personnel do not perform.

Recently a sector coordinator from a New York head office was sent to investigate a certain sector led by a black coordinator, accused of underperformance. The guy from HQ tried collecting testimonies and evidence but found nothing to back up the rumours of poor work.

Sometimes It’s Subtle, Other Times It’s a Slap in the Face

We have become wearily accustomed to witnessing dismissive and supercilious attitudes towards national staff and beneficiaries who have little or no recourse to justice.

Some things we have witnessed:

A holier than thou American white chap, a team leader, who rebuked beneficiaries up in Bentui – north of South Sudan – for referring to themselves as ‘niggers’. He excluded the young men from any decision-making entirely because of self-speak that the white man considered unsavoury. He failed to see the bigger picture, failed to see their potential to help solve the problem of violence in their camp.

Such occurrences are common place because there is a power imbalance between the nationals and white expats that is structurally embedded in international NGOs. It makes any recourse to a fair hearing when conflicts arise almost non-existent. Contemptuous conversations about the laziness or un-seriousness of nationals are so common place that it can feel as though we’ve stepped into the pages of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”.

In all duty stations — South Sudan, Liberia, Nigeria, Iraq — we have worked in, we have yet to witness a genuine inclusive participation of national staff. So many decisions that affect them seem to be made over a beer between white staff, then presented as a fait accompli to national staff. At other times some badly bully and patronise national staff. As in the case of the overbearing, acerbic North American woman who managed a rapid protection response project.

Her bullying of fleet staff (drivers), national protection assistants, all locals, was legendary. She dismissed their local knowledge and expertise. She would threaten to fire people on a whim, giving flimsy reasons like, returning 10 minutes late from a lunch break. She even tormented fellow expats.

National staff compiled a dossier of complaints about her and raised it with human resources. She was never reined in, always got away with it. National staff were petrified of losing their jobs. We saw them cry because of the bullying culture. The threat of losing their jobs weighed heavy. Without income, their families and extended families would starve.


We’ve heard the excuses.

Big funders are from the global north. Naturally, their people will be represented in the leadership of humanitarian aid organisations. Funds need to be protected from all that corruption in the Global South. Not forgetting those “gaps in expertise” that can’t be filled by recruiting locally.

These are tired arguments. We believe that it is time for the sector to promote more recruits from the Global South to positions of leadership.

There is a pool of talent in developing countries which is largely ignored, whether for reasons of history or of racism. Look at the calibre of graduates in the Global South, the diaspora returning to the southern hemisphere, people who have honourable intentions and an acute understanding of local conflict dynamics in particular fragile environments.

The aid sector must acknowledge that existing networks favour awarding leadership roles to white European executives who lack the in-depth understanding and experience of seasoned local workers.

We need to see the talent among local workers, not imagine dependency.

There is still a touch of well-meaning, missionary zeal in the attitude of the northern aid workers towards the developing world. We need to see the talent among local workers, not imagine dependency. The ultimate aim must be to hand over control to local agencies. This would involve setting in place exit strategies for ex-pats and implementing transparent career ladders for local workers.

How Should We Rid Aid Organisations of Their Racism?

Corruption will remain a problem until we can set up systems which protect whistle-blowers. This would mean that complaints are fairly heard and listened to and acted upon. Significant decisions that would affect staff should not be made informally, over a beer or a shag. Hiring and promoting personnel must be a transparent process, with conflicts of interest declared. There must be genuine inclusivity in decision making.

The higher echelons of International NGOS and UN agencies must include individuals who are either national staff or from the Global South. They must hire more people from the Global South to make decisions, handle complaints and coordinate hiring.

That way we start by challenging structural racism at the very top.


Shine A Light contacted UNICEF and
IOM for comment on the authors’ specific concerns about the working conditions for aid workers serving contracts with them. At the time of publication we have received no comment from UNICEF. The IOM response is below.

We contacted UN Humanitarian Air Service for comment on the standby system mentioned in the article. They chose not to comment before publication.

Shine A Light editor Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi asked the IOM for a response to points made about aid workers in Rann town. IOM answers to each query are published below.

Rebecca: The aid workers captured and killed while working in Rann town, all Nigerian nationals, long serving contractors with UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration) slept on mattresses placed on the floor, they had access only to outdoor toilets.

IOM spokesperson: Those working for IOM since September 2017, were living in the facilities described above. Note that they were not used exclusively by national staff but by all humanitarians who had visited Rann. The accommodation situation was temporary given that all the infrastructure in the town had been destroyed during the conflict. Rann had been cut off from humanitarian aid for months following the rainy season in 2017 and the scale of humanitarian needs was dire. The temporary arrangement was made in line with the  humanitarian imperative to assist vulnerable people.

Rebecca: They had no office from which to file their reports. They did not have their own office space to access the internet.

IOM: The working area was adjacent to their accommodation. The lack of office space was due to the especially operational constraining factors in Rann as described above.

Rebecca: They had to go to the military barracks to use the internet there.

IOM: Internet access in Rann had been extremely poor due to the conflict, but whether that was the reason our colleagues took the fateful decision to go to the barracks at that particular time is unknown. What is evident from this and other tragedies in which IOM national and international staff have been killed, is that the mere fact of doing humanitarian work no longer provides the protection from attack it once did.


Related: We need to talk about structural racism by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Tindyebwa Agaba holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from Exeter University, an MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a Human Rights Law Fellowship from University of Tehran. A former child solider and refugee, he has worked in over seven different countries in Humanitarian Protection and started Social entrepreneurship projects to help ex-combatants become more productive in their respective African societies.

Author withheld.

Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

Shine A Light exposes injustice, challenges official lying, and provides intelligence and ammunition to people working for policy change.

Go to Original – opendemocracy.net

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