Evaluating the UK Government’s response to the IDC report on racism in the aid sector
As members of the UK Development Studies Association who study, research and teach the field of global development, we eagerly awaited the publication of the report on Racism in the Aid Sector by the International Development Committee of the UK Houses of Parliament in June 2022. The report concluded that racism is a significant and structural feature of the aid sector, and makes concrete and incremental recommendations about increasing diversity, ensuring pay parity, promoting inclusivity and guaranteeing transparency in the aid sector. The government was supposed to respond within one month but only did so in December 2022.
Despite being late, the government’s response is, at least, thorough and makes several worthwhile points that help offer a more rounded picture. For example, it was useful to be reminded that despite the controversial, and, in our view, damaging policy of reserving UK-based FCDO postings for UK nationals, most FCDO staff based in the global South, including at senior levels, are country-based staff, and that FCDO is committed to “context-appropriate interventions” developed ‘in collaboration with stakeholders in country”. The statement that “Governance advisers’ work must be underpinned by an understanding of the context and power structures, including race” in global South countries may reassure those who have argued for aid to be adaptive and contextually-grounded in local realities rather than driven by priorities established in London.
However, some of our members who studied the government’s response to the IDC report find it to be inadequate in at least three important respects:
Implementation and impact
The government response offers a list of existing policies which relate to the charges made in the IDC report on racism, without reflecting on the ways in which these are implemented, with what success or on whether they are having any meaningful effects. As indicated above, this includes reference to some important commitments that would, if implemented properly, go some way to addressing the concerns raised by the IDC. However, a key indicator of commitment to any agenda is not only to have some of the right measures in place but to ensure that they are enforced, evaluated and learned from. The absence of this from the response undermines the sense that the government wishes to convey of being truly committed to tackling racism in the aid sector.
The response is remarkably conservative in failing to identify new approaches that the government could adopt to meet the challenges identified by the IDC. All of the approaches have already been identified and opportunities to commit to new approaches are ducked; for example, in response to IDC recommendations on ending the use of Eurocentric narratives, the government merely says it is “exploring taking part” in the growing conversations on the topic, thus making no firm commitment to abandoning the use of patronising language of ‘aid’, ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘recipients’ in favour of language that recognises the agency and dignity of the people with and for whom they work. However, perhaps the most glaring omissions are apparent in the IDC report as well as the government’s response. Neither party makes direct reference to reparations, restitution, distributive justice, rights-based claims, or investing in membership-based organisations in the global south. Addressing these directly could help offer correctives to the difficulties in which the aid industry finds itself.
The government’s response is very difficult to square with how we know FCDO operates and the strategic direction it has set out in the past year. The response makes brief reference to those elements of the International Development Strategy that suits its purpose here, whilst ignoring those that seem to contradict any commitment to ensuring that aid is driven by local priorities. As discussed at the DSA’s webinar on the international development strategy after its belated launch in 2022, the International Development Strategy is unabashed in placing the UK’s strategic and economic interests at the centre of aid. The much-publicised misuse of aid under this government – we now know that around two-thirds of UK ODA (not including multilateral commitments) is actually spent in the UK rather than in the global South – is also impossible to square with the argument presented here that aid spending is driven by local priorities identified within the global South.
Indeed, this response is perhaps more aligned with the UK government’s broader approach to issues of race, including its shameful role in stoking fear around immigration and the controversial UK government commissioned report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report, which came under heavy criticism from the United Nations’ working group of experts on people of African descent for its refusal to acknowledge institutional racism in the UK. The credibility and implementation of the UK government’s recommendations to the aid sector are invariably tied to the adequacy and progress on race relations in the UK. For those committed to racial equality and to reframing aid in the more equitable terms of solidarity, the government’s response is not only inadequate but also, and sadly, hardly a surprise either.
Response authored by:
- Pooja Jain, Adjunct Lecturer at Sciences Po, and Research Fellow at Asia Centre, Paris.
- Dr Indrajit Roy, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of York.
- Sam Hickey, Professor of Politics and Development, Global Development Institute, The University of Manchester.