The elephant hasn’t left the room: Racism, power & international aid

After Sasha Rabsey, Founder and President of The HOW Fund (yes, obviously I love the synergy with!), came back from an international conference on poverty reduction at the end of last year, she called me and wanted to talk and learn more about racism, privilege and development. Unfortunately in terms of ready resources, I didn’t have much to share with her other than this 1981 essay, “Development aid and racism” by Jacob Holdt and a post on the now retired TalesfromtheHood blog explaining the inherent harm embedded in any “perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions about whom the poor are, what they need, and how they should be helped.” (Note: If readers have any other resources or articles, please do share them in the comments section.)

Discrimination is rife in the aid industry. I don’t think that many people would refute the lack of local staff in positions of decision-making power in international NGOs, nor the grantmaker/grantseeker power imbalance in philanthropy.

But is this a problem or is it just the inevitable? To serve the poor isan endeavor of the privileged. Sasha’s experience at the conference demonstrates how aid workers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and do-gooders have the opportunity much too often to act in ways that are completely oblivious to racism and their participation in it. As a donor, her honesty is refreshing and a call to all of us involved in international assistance.


I attended the conference with two grantees, both African women engaged in grassroots work for adolescent girls. I was excited to be able to introduce them to potential funders and collaborators—after all they’re doing superb work on a critical issue. Yes, their financials checked out, their impact assessments looked good, their stories were compelling. But for me it was about the work they were doing. Both women are deeply thoughtful and respectful of the community they serve, critical qualities of successful leaders. So I was looking forward to validating their efforts. That is exactly what did nothappen.

For most of the conference I was on an emotional roller coaster as I watched both women come up against the subtle, yet unmistakable signs of white power and privilege in the world of donors and grantees. I squirmed when the light bulb of donor’s unintended condescension turned on. I felt terrible as one grantee said to me, “I don’t know why I came. I would have learned more doing my work at home.”

I started to wonder if I am as guilty as any other donor. Aren’t I in a position of power and privilege in regards to my grantees? Is the support the How Fund offers more about me blowing my own horn for having this great grantee, rather than about the girls being served or the work being done? What about the language I use to describe our grantees or speak to them?

We, with power and privilege, want to appear to be polite and respectful. But how often do we end up sounding condescending, as if we are talking to a child, putting grantees in a position of having to be grateful?

I don’t believe the intention of any donor at the conference was to hurt or run roughshod. But here it was—my grantees sharing with me the evidence of donors’ paternalistic attitudes. And here I was—aware of how discouragingly easy it is for donors to adopt these attitudes. It starts when the conference participants are encourage to say, “What can I do for you?” Asking this question implies a power imbalance between donor and grantee. When I started to work in philanthropy, I considered this question to deferential. What I’ve come to understand from my grantees, though, is that the question actually elicits a sense of the “Other.”

So how do we shift the conversation, right the imbalance? As donors we need to have the humility and honesty to be clear about our contextual and cultural lens, the “default assumptions” we use when we interact with grantees. This is an uncomfortable exercise because it forces us to face our whiteness, our privilege, and all the less-than-pristine laundry that comes with these labels. However, I want to be able to have an open conversation with grantees that allows me to be who I am. That is the only way I know how to use my power and privilege to support others, to carry philanthropy out in a way that knocks down the hierarchy and promotes teamwork.

Why do I do this work? Let me be frank. It’s because it makes me feel good. But I can’t feel good if I am behaving in a way that’s anything but collaborative. Yes, I want my grantees to make me look good by doing stellar work, but I can’t tell them how to do that, so my half of the partnership is to be supportive. To me that means providing funds, but also establishing a relationship that assumes I will listen, learn and do my damndest not to make a fool of myself.

For all of us to be the best we can be, we first have to look deeply at ourselves and where we come from. When I started The HOW Fund, I began my journey as a white woman of privilege. I am still a white woman of privilege. What I know now is that to create a true partnership with those two powerful African women means that we must walk the journey together. The right question is not “What can I do for you?” It is, “What can I do withyou?”


This post originally appeared at:


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Tags: aid, and, assistance, community, community-based, development, donors, effectiveness, enterprise, entrepreneurship, More…foreign, grassroots, international, organizations, ownership, participation, philanthropy, privilege, racism, social, workers


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Comment by Ida Beth Malloy on January 18, 2012 at 9:45pm

The language that we address "others" in is often times unintentionally offensive.  Although words like donor and grantee sound harmless...if you are the recipient of the donation it might not feel so good.  Words like partner, collaborator and collective work sound like all parties are on equal footing.  Three books that I recommend:  "Faces at the Bottom of the Well" by Derrick Bell, "The Measure of a Man" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin.  When we connect with members of our global community, we must learn to connect in a way that it not dehumanizing and belittling.  The "others" must feel that they have the loudest voice in the conversation that seeks to offer them assistance.  It is not a white privilege dilemma, but a human dilemma that can be solved through listening and putting ourselves in the shoes of the others. 

Comment by Orach Godfrey Otobi on January 18, 2012 at 3:56pm

Aid is a conspiracy for self-perpetuation - a complicit of misery in developing country. He who pays the piper calls the tune...

Comment by Jane Barry on January 18, 2012 at 3:03pm

Great post, thanks for sharing! You may be interested to join the dialogue on New Tactics in Human Rights on Fundraising for Human Rights, it is dealing with a range of similar questions. Check it out, join and feel free to post! Thanks, Jane

Comment by Jose Tenga on January 18, 2012 at 2:33pm

Thanks again for another honest, thought-provoking posting. If all development professionals were to adopt the same open and honest attitude toward their work, our world would be a much better place but alas, this is not the case.

Having worked at the frontlines of development assistance for many years, and seeing the same recurring narrow-mindedness and condescending approach to aid recipient communities, it saddens me that we are causing de-development, a reversal of local potentials and opportunities, for which we would not take responsibility. That is why Dambisa Moyo in ‘Dead Aid’ is so right!

As development professionals and donor representatives, we have to show the humility that we don’t have all the answers to the questions out there, nor do we have all the solutions to the problems we encounter. But we don’t take this attitude because if would mean ‘transferring’ power to the locals, whom we are supposed to ‘develop’. Instead, we adopt a superiority complex and ask them ‘what can we do for you?’ as if it is within our purview to provide for all their needs.

Our world can be a better place but we need to take a look again in the mirror of the work that we do and ask ourselves; ‘is this best that we can offer? That is a hard question.  

Comment by Antonia Zenkevitch on January 18, 2012 at 12:42pm
  1. I love your deep questioning and analysis in your blogs and this is another classic, thank-you!
  2. Lack of local staffing positions is upped by UN policy of plucking talent from local and international NGOS, arguably leaving economic, skills and autonomy gaps. Some NGOS do similar but this could be a complex issue, recognizing and promoting talent on one side, whilst potentially undermining worth and human agency on the other. The Federation of the Urban Poor (FedUp) is one international example of grassroots empowerment whose strength lies in its members' work and not we privileged pilgrims of persuasion. 
  3. I am beginning to think the age of privilege is coming to an end. In the UK homelessness is up 80%, childhood poverty is rising alarmingly, fuel and food poverty issues are next door, down the road and in our own homes. I am trying to look at this as positive for human capacity building, because it requires us to see, to co-learn and collaborate more and restructure how we give and receive.  
  4. Your article has inspired me to focus my thoughts on racism within NGO and international governance structures reaction to conflict in Israel and Palestinian Territories, whose often short-sighted, blinkered approach fosters hatred and mistrust of diplomatic process and motives and caveats of aid and even abuse of such systems by elements of all sides of this human vulnerability epicenter. I will write some gubbins on some of these issues soon myself.   

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