On posh white blokes in NGOs

The world of development NGOs is full of white men from well off backgrounds. One of them wrote about how this is a problem in the Guardian last week, and here, one of their employees responds, looking at who speaks about these things and how; who is heard, and what should be done about it?

Guppi Bola
16 October 2013

A posh white man

Last week, the man who makes most of the decisions at my workplace released an article about posh white blokes in our sector - development NGOs. To his credit, it was an open and courageous piece that took the sector by surprise. So, is there problem with too many posh white blokes in social justice movements? Maybe a more pertinent question here is; what does he do about being a posh white bloke? You can't change who you are – but you can control the situation you are in. Just opening up a discussion on diversity without suggesting how we tackle oppression risks adding to more rhetoric, and a dangerous apathy around transformative change in the workplace. Here’s my take on what could have been said instead.

My boss, Ben, isn't the first white male to publicly question his position of power in the “doing-good” field. From his own admission, part of his learning about privilege was influenced by another powerful white male; Peter Buffet. It strikes me that it takes someone who looks like you to encourage a response to a problem that marginalised people have been talking about for many many years. In understanding what's needed for a free and fair world, maybe my boss would have noticed the hundreds of other articles, emails and conversations that spoke of oppression, privilege, diversity and respect way before Buffet scored an article in the New York Times.

Take Teju Cole for example, who tweeted a series of phrases about the White saviour industrial complex after the Kony débâcle more than a year earlier. Cole, an effusive novelist and passionate equal rights campaigner, speaks vividly about the role of the white male in many different movements. His article only made it to The Atlantic, but its relevance is no less significant.

For starters, Cole speaks of the normalisation of nurtured/political language as a cause for people calling out oppression to be viewed as radical or extreme. As a novelist he supports and encourages the use of emotive words to express the gravity of our current systems of oppression. There is an air of diplomacy and politics to Ben's choice of words that fits the current NGO discourse, one that I imagine is accepted by the audience responding in the comments box. It may have been a tactical decision, or it could be that very demonstration of who speaks and who is being spoken to. Whilst writing with emotion and empathy is difficult to master, what would have happened if Ben cried out for change? He didn't – and that I think says enough for itself.

The second point I noticed is trickier to tackle because at some point, someone has to speak out; but it raises the concern of voice. Might it have been possible that by writing the article, Ben reinforced the fact that white men are the only group powerful enough to bring about change? What I don't see often enough is people giving opportunities to those outside the already "powerful" to voice how they feel. This isn't just about offering up your seat at the table, this means using your position to challenge your peers and colleagues by insisting someone else's voice is more important than yours and that they should listen.

The Guardian pointed out the voice of the white powerful male encouraged more responses than any other article on the Professionals Network. Hit a nerve? Or validation? My point is when marginalised voices wish to speak they have to fight for their space. And when they get that space, they're ignored. Taking a space that is already available to the white powerful male reinforces that level of status. A more significant demonstration of leadership might have been giving that space to any employee from a so-called "diverse background". They would have had the chance to express their thoughts and feelings on the organisation, have their efforts for speaking out championed in the same way, and then maybe receive a commitment to address their concerns from their management. This article won't get in the Guardian, but let's see who shares it and what responses it gets back (214 Facebook post and innumerable tweets to beat – here's counting!)

Lastly, and probably more importantly, was there an issue in Ben concluding on and accepting his position of power before even asking for a response. What I have learnt over the last decade of campaigning is that asking more questions and learning to listen is a genuine act of selflessness over making a statement or conclusion on your own position. As Teju puts it "His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated disasters." Read in to the many comments generated by the article and there is an uncomfortable agreement the “white male” complex exists, but less of an acknowledgement about who is speaking and who still is silent. This is where the concern still lies.

The feeling from some of my very close (white male) counterparts, is either you say nothing and get called out for not saying anything, or you speak out and get called out for speaking! Actually, that's not true; I think it was a big step to begin a conversation to such a mainstream audience. More importantly is if Ben, and other individuals in positions of power are sincerely concerned about this – acting before preaching will provide honesty to their words and ambition to their actions. This response is something we should be expecting and encouraging, but it's what is done with these responses that are the greatest measure of that leadership.

Before shaking things up and leaving however, I wanted to look more into some particular examples of policies and practice that could be adopted to make change happen for real. To me they relate significantly to diversity in the workplace, although to many they are bundled under "issues to do with HR". Tackling oppression isn't about having a few nice words written down on the intranet, it's about culture change and active dismantling of power structures between colleagues. This is a small step in turning an article's rhetoric into something pragmatic, giving those intrigued by what has been said something to adopt as methods of organisational change. Let's start with organisational change first, and then ask some bigger questions as we go forward. Small steps, big ambitions sincere hearts and honest words – it would be great to know what others think is possible and how we can make it happen.

a) Internships- It is wholly unacceptable for any social justice organisation to take on unpaid interns. To proclaim “without them we can't do half our job” is the perfect demonstration of their value – so let's be sincere about it and make it possible for everyone to take such opportunities. Paid internships are not the answer to “becoming a more diverse organisation”, but they are step on in breaking the cycle of entry that most NGO's run by at the moment.

b) Pay inequality – Within most NGOs in the UK, there is a gross inequality between the unpaid intern/living wage workers and the CEO of the organisation. CEOs work damn hard and that’s how the high pay is justified. What if the job was shared by three? Decisions wouldn't rest on one person; the work load would be distributed. Some CEO pays level in at the top 10% of global pay – fair? I’m not so sure.

c) Rights of short-term contract workers: Most NGOs suffer from resource uncertainties. However for many short-term contracts the money was always there to extend – but the security and support that most full time staff received was not. From confidence, training opportunities, professional development, the ability to feel ownership and autonomy with the projects – the impact on worker morale is profound. Union support and training all need to be addressed sincerely, and a policy to end short-term contracts under 6 months.

d) Decision making and hierarchy: It seems impossible to some but flat non-hierarchical structures actually work. If we're not going to chop the CEO off from the top job at least begin with breaking down management groups and creating open forums for all staff to submit and partake in big decisions. Some NGOs are already big, clunky dinosaurs that are slow to act – forums don't need to slow things down - they can provide a space for staff to regularly express ideas and opinions in the workplace and so allow managers to act fast to resolve issues before they become problems.

e) All male panels - The more often we accept sitting on all male all white all fully-abled/educated panels without questioning why – the harder it will become to make that change. Accepting all male panels as a fair representation of the development sector is wrong, and needs to be challenged by NGOs. To my knowledge, Platform has an excellent policy on this among many others – it would be good to hear of similar organisations and how they tackle this.

f) Training for solidarity- If you're going to run a diversity review at work, consider adopting an external facilitator to lead this. It might be worth arranging a series of training offered by many external consultants on transformational change, anti-oppression and privilege. It takes a lot of commitment to take on such a process - the training is challenging, uncomfortable and often very emotional. It is also essential to recognise that training is not the only route to understanding what oppression is and how it manifests itself in everyday life. Organisations need to explore the issue of solidarity and how it encourages its staff to exercise that on a day to day basis. How do we run campaigns, who do we target, do we really know our movement and what their needs are? We want to answer these questions but we often answer them alone, in our well-ventilated office in middle England. Get out there, the diverse struggle is not far from your home and many need support.

g) Equal opportunities? Lastly, much like the gini coefficient vs GDP – it's not enough to say that the vast majority of staff in your global organisation are from developing country backgrounds. Even if this is true – what's the distribution like across the organisation and compare that with where the power is.

Disclaimer: It's important in all of this to note who I am and what has happened since Ben wrote that article. Firstly, there is no way I would identify myself as the voice of the oppressed. I am a British born Asian with a middle-class upbringing who studied her masters at Oxford. So you can attack me for any of those things if you feel offended by what I have written. Secondly, this article is an adaptation of an email conversation I have been having with Ben this week – which I felt couldn't be confined to our inboxes. To his credit, Ben took my suggestions whole heartedly and has agreed to meet up to discuss them further. I can't fault his leadership on that, so even by singling out him as the author of the article, my comments are really more general. Lastly, I have used the term “white male” several times but I wanted to reaffirm that power expresses itself in many ways – be it through class, gender, disability or race. So don't feel attacked white men – we know there are many other forms of oppression out there. Read well.

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