Institutional Racism in the Aid Sector and how Oxfam is responding

lydia Zigomo General

Institutional racism in the aid sector interconnects with colonialism, and in turn links with the promotion of intersectional feminism. This is due to the role patriarchy plays in defining who is marginalised and discriminated against, by these intersecting systems of oppression.  

But what about the aid sector? From my 25 years in the sector, there are two parts – the development sector and the humanitarian sector. The development sector often focuses on the empowerment of people and communities, while the humanitarian sector centres on saving lives by responding to crises and emergencies.  

The humanitarian sector has been slower, to respond to the changing world, but having said that the aid sector as a whole has certain common characteristics, being steeped in colonial histories, racist and sexist cultures and worldviews. These present in the form of the “white saviour” mentality, and the tendency to push on the global South, “Western” democratic and “liberal capitalist” economic models, that are premised on the assumption that “White is Right”. This superiority complex permeates through many aspects of the aid sector. Here are a few examples from my own experience. 

When working in Zimbabwe, my country of origin, it was common to host ‘capacity building’ visits from INGO partners from the West, (my organisation was actually a partner of Oxfam). Donors likewise provided capacity building initiatives, to help local partners adopt Western approaches for planning and implementing projects, and for monitoring and evaluating impact, framed within Western models of good governance and democracy, disregarding the rich local cultural and indigenous knowledge systems. When I moved to the UK in December 2002, I was now on the other side of the international aid sector, and often felt like a messenger of the dominant worldview (read here “White man”), to continue working in the same manner. 

The move to the UK revealed further unpalatable aspects of the aid sector. In particular, whose knowledge and expertise is valued and how this impacts the professional progression of many people, especially women of colour, like myself. My academic qualifications being a bachelor’s degree from Zimbabwe, and a master’s degree from the UK, combined with professional experience solely gained at that time from the global South, were seen as ‘less than,’ thus inferior. 

This essentially meant beginning at the bottom of the ladder and climbing back up again, negating my 10 years of experience in Zimbabwe, (5 of them in the aid sector at a leadership level). Interestingly, after 15 years based in the UK, I was able to return to Africa in a regional leadership role, with an international organisation, Oxfam. I wonder how possible it would have been to achieve this if all my experience had been only gained based in Africa? Even now, I find myself sitting in many fora at regional and International levels where I am one of the few black women leaders in the room.   

“I was able to return to Africa in a regional leadership role…I wonder how possible it would have been to achieve this, if all my experience had been only gained based in Africa?”

So why is the aid sector, which should be at the cutting edge of dismantling these systems of oppression and marginalisation, lagging behind? In all my recruitment processes (bar two), the selection panels were dominated by white, often male members, who would ask me about my commitment to diversity and inclusion!  

Equally worrying, I have encountered very experienced white colleagues who question the appointment of national African country directors, based on sentiments that they cannot be trusted, and are less capable than expatriate country directors. Disappointingly, I have heard the same views expressed by national country staff…showing how colonialism has permeated our collective psyche.

When working with global policy and advocacy colleagues (often white and male), there is a tendency to view investing in influencing African governments and institutions as a waste, because they are considered dysfunctional and corrupt, a view shared by some donors. Yet no one questions the significant investments in lobbying efforts to the EU, UK government, US government and UN institutions. 

Neither do we recall the colonial legacy steeped in racism, that has shaped much of the African continent, which was extractive and violent in the extreme. The media has not helped with its depictions of Africa as the “dark and uncivilised” continent, riddled with disease, conflict and poverty, which the humanitarian aid sector has often reinforced. The recent media storm around the appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the new WTO chief, and an article which called her a “grandmother”, was widely criticised, reflecting how African women are still depicted as “beasts of burden”, defined by maternal and care obligations.  

Therefore, what is Oxfam doing to contribute to decolonising aid and tackling institutional racism? Oxfam has appointed, including at leadership levels, roles focusing on culture, diversity across the gender and racial justice spectrum, integrity and safeguarding. Feminist principles have been affirmed with a directorate to lead on the work on building feminist futures. Formal and informal working groups are actively engaging in racial justice and gender diversity issues. We are working with partners on how to decolonise our own knowledge production practices.

We are also focusing on our relationships – with our staff through culture and employee engagement surveys, with our partners through partnership surveys, changing the ways in which we partner, and the quantity and quality of resources we dedicate to partners, including increasing investment in Southern knowledge institutions, women’s rights and youth organisations and those of other under-represented groups.  

However, this is not enough. Tackling institutional racism and decolonising aid, while embedding feminist principles is a journey. A life-long one, because there will always be another hill to climb when you think you have reached the summit. It requires courageous leadership to make strategic difficult choices and it requires persistence to deploy the right resources to support that journey.  

To dismantle this system, while also beginning to build a new and transformative future-focused one, involves working on your policies (which Oxfam has been doing), working on your practices (through effective implementation of policies), and working on your people, your most important resource, (so you mirror the change you are trying to create in the world). For those of us who have been at the coal face of racist attitudes, behaviours and practices, it requires patience, and the willingness to go on this journey too, for there can be no spectators, we all have a role to play.


lydia Zigomo

Lydia Zigomo is Oxfam International’s Global Programme Director, overseeing seven regions across the world and over 70 countries where Oxfam has a presence and programmes with partners. She is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe with 25 years’ experience in international development across a number of INGOs and national organisations.