Allegations of institutional racism
have been raised in an audit of HR practices in aid agencies. The results have
shocked the sector and sparked moves to address the issues raised
We are now quite used
to seeing organisations labelled institutionally racist. The police, the Army –
it seems that most of the upright pillars of society are riddled with it. But surely
not aid agencies? The brave people who go out to help the wounded and dig out
people from the rubble of earthquakes?
Sadly, it seems that
even they are not immune, as a report published last month has shown. The
first-ever audit of HR practice in the sector, Ahead of the Field, looks at how
seven agencies have implemented a code of best practice in HR management.
Central to the process
was consultation with staff. When the agencies piloting the code asked field
staff whether their HR policies were effective, efficient, fair and
transparent, the answer came back "no". And for many it was the
difference between the treatment and opportunities offered to expatriate and
locally recruited staff that was at issue.
The report puts it
delicately, saying, "With its traditions of voluntarism and inheritance
from colonial or missionary institutions, as well as the diverse stakeholder
environments within which it operates, the aid sector is not immune from
prejudice or institutional racism."
Let us be clear. This is
not another Stephen Lawrence racism case but the rather more routine story of
different treatment meted out to staff recruited back home in the UK compared
with so-called "national staff" – the people recruited locally.
The surveys and
consultations carried out by agencies throw up concerns about differences in
training opportunities, salaries, job opportunities and the use of appraisal
systems. One comment in the report brings the issue right down to brass tacks:
"Staff [in Nairobi and Kigali] felt that the statement, ‘The organisation
does not care equally about national and international staff’ was generally
The notion that they
could be considered guilty of institutional racism strikes at the heart of what
aid agencies stand for. Many organisations have long-cherished statements of
principle that enshrine equal treatment for all, regardless of race, creed,
colour or gender. They stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised and
Ivan Scott, director
of the International Health Exchange, a small agency that specialises in
recruiting and training health staff to work in developing countries, is
unhappy with the racism label. "I think that’s a strong way of putting it
and a lot of people in this sector would be offended by that," he says.
"It is a very difficult issue."
The Ahead of the Field
report does not overplay this finding and in fairness it is only a small part
of a report that focuses on a much wider range of HR issues such as health and
safety, training and support and general good management. Nevertheless, it is
an important point and one that many in the aid world feel uncomfortable
Martin Bell MP, the
former BBC journalist and now independent politician, urged the aid agencies
not to buck the issue when he addressed the report’s launch conference on 23
March in London.
"One issue that
troubles me is the difference in duty of care as it applies to your expatriate
staff and your local staff," he said. "Sometimes there is nothing you
can do, and I am thinking here of March 1999 in Kosovo when agencies left their
local staff to their fate. But more broadly we have to think of the whole
family of aid workers and not just the people we bring in. We have to think of
the local staff who risk their lives just as much."
The report points out
that different living standards account for some of the difference in salaries
– supporting a family in a developing country just does not compare to the cost
of supporting a family in the UK. But the agencies found some common prejudices
and fears which, it says, need to be addressed.
Members of the public
who donate money want to see their own nationals delivering the aid, for
example. Governments which fund the majority of aid work are also perceived to
want one of their expatriates in charge. There is a fear of corruption if host
country staff are recruited to senior positions.
Other issues arise
from the nature of the agencies, such as faith-based groups who only recruit
people from specific religions, some from gender issues in developing countries
where certain professions are only open to men. There may also be skills gaps
among host country staff.
Scott says, "This
is a tough business to break into and even tougher for people from poorer
countries. In some ways the sacrifices they have to make are even bigger than
for Europeans and they have fewer choices.
"It is a question
of trying to get a balance between good equal opportunities – being inclusive
and seeking to develop your staff from whatever source you can get them and
planning your workforce – and finding the supply of workers you need in a tough
Scott feels that many
agencies have begun to address the issue and the evidence from the pilot
agencies – of which IHE is one – backs him up. The British Red Cross has begun
to sponsor delegates from developing countries through its training programme.
Tearfund is also addressing differences in the way it treats its staff (see
director of another of the pilot agencies, engineering specialist RedR, is also
looking to the wider recruitment pool. Many European countries are now
experiencing shortages of specialist professionals prepared to work in disaster
areas, yet agencies need all the skilled staff they can get.
"Our approach is
that we will recruit on merit and deploy according to need," he says.
"RedR engineers from the Democratic Republic of Congo are now working in
Kosovo, for example, while an Indian earthquake engineer is now working in El
Salvador. You do run into glitches, such as donor countries looking to fund
their own nationals. But if there are people capable of working in other areas
of the world we are keen to have them."
The seven agencies
involved in Ahead of the Field – the British Red Cross, Concern Worldwide,
Health Unlimited, International Health Exchange, Missionary Aviation Fellowship
Europe, RedR and Tearfund – are all pledged to an ongoing cycle of action plans
and audit. Oxfam is about to finish its own audit soon and another 13
organisations are members of the Independent People in Aid charity which
designed the code of practice. Each of them will be under scrutiny to see how
they perform in future.
When Tearfund asked
its staff about its HR policies with a questionnaire sent out to more than 100
staff, very few of the national staff responded. That was possibly the first
indication that something was wrong.
the questionnaire and began to get the responses," says international
director Ian Wallace. What they found was enough to prompt a major rethink to
begin to address inequalities.
"We had done
quite a lot of recruiting in recent years of quite senior staff overseas to act
as regional advisers," he says. "But they were coming under different
contractual terms from the people we recruit here. These people felt, quite
rightly, they were not being cared for as well as staff recruited in the UK."
It was not simply a
matter of putting everyone on the same salary and that being that, he says.
"It has been a difficult issue to address. How do our terms and conditions
relate to the local environment and the local market?
"We have said
nationals and aid workers should be on identical terms and conditions but that
we need to find a way to relate the UK-equivalent to their overseas equivalent.
We are working on that at the moment."
Another problem areas
was the degree to which information about Tearfund as an organisation filtered
down to national staff. "That was probably a more important issue and also
one we are working on."
The third issue was
training. While expat staff might be flown out to a training course with their
expenses covered, the same was not true for national staff. Tearfund has
stipulated that future disaster response budgets must include provision for
By Daloni Carlisle-Pesic,
a journalist who was working for the British Red Cross during the time of its