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Race, equity, and neo-colonial legacies: identifying paths forward for principled humanitarian action

Analysis / Gender and conflict / Humanitarian Action / Humanitarian Principles / Sexual Violence 18 mins read

Race, equity, and neo-colonial legacies: identifying paths forward for principled humanitarian action
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the United States, and the protests that have swept parts of the world since, we find ourselves face-to-face with a long overdue racial reckoning. We are now at the stage where institutions are transitioning from hearing out employees’ experiences to deciding what they will publicly commit to doing in order to combat discrimination and systemic inequities. But what does it mean to operate equitably and be anti-racist? And how do these terms apply to humanitarian action? In this post, Saman Rejali, Thematic Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross and lead for the ICRC’s Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Committee[1], argues that by acknowledging the role neo-colonial legacies continue to play in the humanitarian sector, and interpreting the humanitarian principles to account for equitable treatment, over equal treatment, the humanitarian sector can tailor its operational and institutional systems to better serve people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.


This moment of racial reckoning is long overdue. The Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism protests across the United States and beyond have brought with them a renewed and intense focus on deeply ingrained historic and systemic racist attitudes and discrimination against black people and people of color – including in the humanitarian sector and in our own organizations.

A broadened understanding of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence in humanitarian action (NIIHA) can guide humanitarians in the drive for dignity in the treatment of all people, ‘those whom we serve and those who serve with us’. For example, the principle of impartiality, arguably the driving force towards genuine inclusion and diversity in the humanitarian sector, demands that humanitarians make ‘no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions’. It also stresses that they endeavor ‘to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs’.

A principled interpretation of impartiality entails fostering more equity, over equality, in providing protection and assistance to affected people. For humanitarian action to be equitable and anti-racist, it is necessary to acknowledge that neo-colonial issues of racism and compounded inequities gripping communities all over the world extend to the humanitarian sector as well. Without this understanding, we are building on quicksand, trying to transition to being anti-racist, for example, whilst clinging to structures that can be perceived as racist. Instead, we must forge a new path towards ‘power with’ humanitarian action, working with people affected by conflict and violence and elevating work focusing on diversity, inclusion and accountability.

What do equity and anti-racism mean for humanitarian action?

To define equity, we must first differentiate it from equality. As outlined in the IFRC’s ‘Minimum Standards for Protection, Gender and Inclusion in Emergencies’, equality is based on the assumption that ‘everyone will benefit from the same support’. Thus, providing the same service (equally) to affected people will render the same outcomes across the board. Equity, however, accounts for how ‘individuals may need different types of support and approaches’ in varying degrees in order to benefit from equal outcomes. An equity-based understanding of humanitarian action advocates for ‘adapting humanitarian work to each individual’s needs and background [to ensure] those affected are being treated equitably’. In this respect, ‘equity leads to equality’; for example, when we talk about ‘equal rights of men and women’ within a human rights-based approach, we need to take equitable measures to ensure those equal rights can be met.

Focusing on fostering more equity in the humanitarian sector starts with the understanding that manifestations of oppression, such as racism, are rooted in power hierarchies that often do not operate alone. They intersect with gender, religion, socio-economic status, geography, sexual orientation and numerous other social markers[2], creating layers of oppression that are inextricably intertwined. Thus, addressing one facet of inequity is not enough. Effective action requires an intersectional, operationally-rooted approach to humanitarian action.

Often, affected people facing one form of inequity face compounded pressures from multiple, other intersecting factors. We see this, for example, in the way the COVID-19 pandemic has directly affected different populations. In this case, relatively higher fatality rates for men and older people are also compounded by race, ethnicity and socio-economic status, illustrating the intersectional way by which multiple systemic factors compound inequity and require targeted anti-racist measures addressing the unique needs of a subset of affected people.

This means that providing humanitarian assistance  ‘equally’ often helps those facing fewer drivers of oppression more than those who face multiple drivers. Addressing this requires comprehensive, ethical and disaggregated monitoring and evaluation frameworks that identify these ‘hidden’ subsets of affected people, who are otherwise the most excluded and yet the least engaged with by the humanitarian sector.

The concept of acting equitably applies to the difference between being ‘non-racist’ and ‘anti-racist’. Being ‘non-racist’ means not directly engaging in racist behaviors; it is a passive stance, whereby differences are not acknowledged and systems of oppression are not actively addressed. It is like seeing a crime happen and not contributing to it, but not stopping it either. This is not enough. Organizations and people must fight actively against racism and other forms of inequity leading to systemic oppression and subordination. To be anti-racist involves proactively taking steps to address systemic racism at an individual as well as an organizational operational level. Being anti-racist falls under the umbrella of acting for equity, by accounting for the specific needs of people facing multiple intersecting forms of oppression.

When a passive and inactive approach to equity and, as part and parcel of it, racism, is institutionalized, it yields what Joan Acker terms ‘inequality regimes’. These are ‘loosely interrelated practices, processes, actions, and meanings that result in and maintain class, gender, and racial inequalities within particular organizations’. In the framework of  structural intersectionality, systems and structures are created in organizations that ‘maintain privilege for some groups or individuals while restricting the rights and privileges of others’. This means that the disadvantages and or disabilities faced within an organization are compounded by and negatively spill over to how the mandate of the organization is carried out. For example, if a humanitarian organization is facing issues of discrimination and racism within its own ranks, these inequitable treatments of staff based on their social markers can carry over to how the institution’s staff then treat affected people who are also from different backgrounds, impacting how well the NIIHA principles are carried out.

For the humanitarian sector, this effect is two-fold: not only are staff within the organization impacted by such unequal power dynamics, the affected people humanitarians serve can also be impacted. The hierarchies and systems of oppression at work within humanitarian organizations affect external perceptions, including the level of trust bestowed by affected populations and vice versa. The question can then arise: why should we trust you, when you cannot even treat your local employees equitably and provide them with the same rights and privileges as staff ‘imported’ from New York, Geneva and London? Why should we trust you, when the black, indigenous and people of color in your organization, and others standing at the intersections, are not treated equitably?

Neo-colonial legacies: who are we listening to?

There’s no question that humanitarian organizations have saved millions of lives, operating on the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous places. However, some aspects of humanitarian action remain rooted in neo-colonial legacies, weighing down efforts of fostering genuine progress. In order to create more equitable and anti-racist institutions, the humanitarian sector must first acknowledge the role neo-colonial legacies continue to play in humanitarian assistance and protection activities and within humanitarian organizations, which are most at need of equity-driven systemic changes.

In this respect, neo-colonial legacies refer to laws, policies and actions instituted in humanitarian organizations which re-enforce the colonial power dynamics of people and institutions from the global North systemically oppressing and exercising domination over those from the global South.

A vivid example of this was flagged in a statement last year, appropriately titled ‘We must listen and act, not impose’, by the President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, who noted that ‘we must change the way we, the ICRC and the humanitarian sector, engage with people affected by armed conflict and violence’. As Maurer outlined, ‘surveys from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Haiti showed that overall affected people feel they have little say in the assistance that reaches them. While, broadly speaking, those surveyed felt relatively safe and respected by aid providers, they consistently gave low rankings to the relevance and fairness of aid’. In Haiti, for instance, over 70% of the respondents said they didn’t know how to make suggestions or complaints to aid providers, and 90% reported that they didn’t feel that their opinions were taken into account.

The neo-colonial legacies influencing humanitarian assistance and protection activities are one of the major structural reasons why affected people feel that the services provided for them are not programmed with them, with their input and according to their needs. This type of feedback indicates a problem with how affected people tend to be treated, and described, in essentialized monolithic terms. Every time an affected community or person is described as ‘vulnerable’, ‘powerless’, ‘helpless’, ‘disempowered’, or ‘victim’, it ascribes a certain level of dependency and lack of agency to them.

This  grammatology – the study of the relationship between written and spoken language on society – along with the analysis of the concomitant modes of behavior that come with the use of language, enforce what VeneKlasen and Miller term ‘power over’ dynamics, rather than fostering ‘power with’ dynamics of operating. As Hugo Slim notes, ‘In humanitarian grammar, the preposition “with” must be our moral guide.  We should always prefer a practice that does things “with people,” and avoid a practice that does things “to people,” decides “for people” or acts “on people”.’ The great strap line from the global disability movement (via sixteenth century Polish constitutionalism) is evidently right: “nothing about us without us.” Wherever possible, people should be the subjects of humanitarian action and not just the objects of its aid.

Much like how affected people feel the humanitarian sector is not listening to or working ‘with’ them, third world feminists have written about how subaltern women have been ‘muted’ by their colonial/neo-colonial counterparts. This muting process has the negative spillover effect of one party, standing at fewer intersections of inequity, ‘speaking for’ the ‘oppressed’ subject, such that the subject undergoes a ‘re-presentation’. This means the subject is not presented as they are, but rather presented again through the colonial/neo-colonial gaze of another. As such, the reality of the subject and their views is not adequately reflected in how they are presented by their counterpart.

This is sometimes witnessed, for example, in humanitarian reporting, when we read entire reports or articles about specific humanitarian actions or initiatives, but the only voice carried through is that of the humanitarian ‘reporter’ or organization, perhaps with one or two de-contextualized, short pull quotes from affected people themselves, often focusing on their victimization and/or their gratitude for the provided support. As such, the humanitarian report is not reflecting what an affected person said; it is what the humanitarian(s) took away from the interaction. The initial voice is muted, and the humanitarian speaks for the affected person.

In turn, such narratives and views, which mute the voices of affected people, can re-enforce neo-colonial legacies of the ‘white saviors’ going in to provide help without engaging much with the people they are helping, speaking on their behalf, and making certain assumptions about their needs and priorities.

Systemic inequalities, manifested in intersectional forms of ‘difference’ from the Western norm, often lead to a hierarchy of knowledge and experience that is exported from the global North to ‘the field’ and rewarded more, and more consistently, than local knowledge and experience. This is often exacerbated in the humanitarian sector by other systemic inequalities, such as differential levels of access to internal reports between resident local and non-resident international staff, opportunities for advancement, access to trainings, and myriads of intersecting institutional barriers that elevate non-resident colleagues, often from the global North, over resident ones from the global South.

As the ICRC’s President Maurer stresses, we must change how we engage with affected people. For example, we can further draw from knowledge of local cultures, and reduce top-down assistance and protection efforts. This entails addressing the biases that come with what we consider ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’. As Spivak notes, when patriarchal/colonial practices reign, there ends up being ‘a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their tasks or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’.

Yet, without accepting local knowledge, and respecting the expertise of resident colleagues, the account by the humanitarian from the global North becomes the account, continuing the process of how ‘one explanation and narrative of reality [is] established as the normative one’. This is particularly problematic when we consider that while most of the funding for humanitarian operations is geared at the Muslim world, the composition of the humanitarian sector – particularly those in leadership positions – remain dominated by people from OECD countries. To remedy this, we can monitor and evaluate whether proposals to include affected populations do in effect involve ‘communities in every step of humanitarian action’.

Given the humanitarian sector, especially the leadership of international humanitarian organizations, is predominantly comprised of staff from the global North, we can also take steps to systemically analyze the social factors affecting vulnerability in order to avoid inherent bias by humanitarian workers. These biases can even be unconscious, and yet present themselves systemically and routinely both through the lack of diversity in profiles of humanitarians, as well as the lack of diversity in recruiters and hiring managers, who then can engage in affinity bias, and recruit ‘more of the same’ humanitarians from the global North, with very similar educational and professional experiences.

These factors all point to why it is vitally important to work toward more accountability and reduce the hierarchies of power that discriminate against those standing at the intersections. This hinges on including an understanding of equity into how we interpret and operationalize the fundamental humanitarian principles.

The path to ‘power with’ humanitarian action

When the argument is put forward that we must account for the religion, gender, race and other social markers of affected people in order to tailor humanitarian action, the most common reply is that this approach can interfere with the humanitarian principles. When it comes to impartiality, for example, this analysis has unpacked how not discriminating on the basis of race, gender and other social markers is not the same, and should not be the same, as not ‘seeing’ race, gender and other social markers. An equity-based interpretation of the humanitarian principles allows us to account for how differences between affected people create levels of inequity, which require us to tailor how we provide assistance and protection.

In terms of the way forward, for the most part, the critical next step is complementing organizational press releases of solidarity and ally-ship with concrete and measurable actions for how the institution aims to operate in an anti-racist and equitable manner, in keeping with the humanitarian principles. The resources and answers are, for the most part, already in place but do require systemic backing and support by each humanitarian organization.

First, we need to elevate and fund work focusing on diversity and inclusion and accountability to affected people. If the humanitarian sector is genuine about being people-centred and equitable, this means allocating the funding and human resources necessary to elevate the parts of the house working on organizational diversity and inclusion, operational accountability to affected people, and operational diversity and inclusion.  It is necessary to acknowledge that diversity and inclusion is important, but the critical step is allocating the resources for implementation and ensuring those tasked with such portfolios are not ‘overstretched’, with too many competing priorities.

Within humanitarian institutions, it is necessary to fund organizational diversity and inclusion, which would tackle the lack of diversity in both recruiters and staff in leadership positions, both in the field and in headquarters.

In parallel, the work of teams focused on operational diversity and inclusion and accountability to affected needs to be elevated and prioritized across the board in each humanitarian organization, so that the recommendations they make as to how we can truly be accountable to diverse groups of people in affected communities is operationalized. At the ICRC, for example, the work of being accountable to affected people is being carried out by the Accountability to Affected People and Community Engagement teams of the organization. Together with the Operations Diversity Inclusion team, they operationalize the organization’s commitments to a people-centered approach in the 2019-2022 ICRC Institutional Strategy. The ICRC has commissioned an assessment of diversity inclusion in its operations, due to be completed by the end of 2020.  It will guide us in deepening our understanding of the why and the how of an intersectional approach and in developing a cross-organization collaboration that recognizes the synergies between being an inclusive organization and really doing people-centred inclusive programming. It will also help mobilize and equip leaders and managers to address diversity, equity and inclusion across policies and practices on local and global level.

Second, we need to actively engage in systems change management. If we want to be anti-racist humanitarian organizations, we need to put in the work. There is a wealth of knowledge and expertise on how we can systemically change our organizations; let us draw from that and dedicate human resources precisely for such tasks, over trusting that the change will happen naturally if we put out the right press releases.

Third, we need to engage in equity-driven ethical and disaggregated monitoring and evaluation work that actively seeks out the subsets of affected people standing at multiple intersection of inequity. Being people-centered can only be carried out through actively and quantitatively analyzing who and where the most marginalized affected people are and working with them in formulating and planning our operational and assistance activities. This requires a capacity and a reflex to collect, analyze and use sex-, age- and disability-disaggregated data.

Fourth, we must let affected people speak for themselves and depart from neo-colonial practices of reporting on and speaking for affected people. We can start by at least featuring the direct voices of affected populations, over short, curated and de-contextualized quotes. As well, let us use language that is inclusive and step away from neocolonial language that describes affected people monolithically as ‘vulnerable’, ‘powerless’, ‘helpless’, ‘disempowered’, or ‘victim’.

And fifth, we need to broaden our understanding of what we consider knowledge and whose expertise we value. This means adopting an equity-based approach in humanitarian operations and assistance work that includes and values local knowledge and the contributions of resident staff. It also means promoting a view of diversity that is not just hiring and promoting more BIPOC staff, but harnessing more diverse views that drive innovation. This includes diversity in the profiles, backgrounds and knowledge bases of both recruiters and staff. Whilst this process is undergoing, we can start by making sure current staff, especially those managing teams, are aware of their biases and undertake mandatory anti-bias training.

As with all other times in the history of the humanitarian sector where changes were necessary, the most critical step comes in making the words on paper a reality. In so doing, we can mark a more accountable path forward, where we actively seek out the affected people we are not currently reaching, we amplify their voices, we collaborate with them and the communities to which they belong, and we chart a new chapter of ‘power with’ humanitarian action.

[1] The ICRC’s Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Committee is an informal staff and Associate network working for increased gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

[2] These other intersecting social markers include, but are certainly not limited to: age, class, ethnicity, caste, race, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

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