The costs of our neutrality

The challenge of confronting racism and colonial legacies in the development sector

Sophia Robele
16 min readAug 5, 2021
Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

As ‘anti-racism’ has increasingly entered the mainstream lexicon, new pockets of collective reckoning have emerged from the baseline acknowledgment that neutrality (i.e. to be non-racist) is not simply undesirable, but in fact impossible if we accept that we all operate within racist systems. Against this backdrop of widening acknowledgement, the many manifestations of our systemic denial — the places where we fail to extend this logic — appear all the more striking.

The more immersed I have been in experiments to shift the culture and conversation around racism and power within the development sector specifically, the more I come back to this question of the harm that is borne out of neutrality itself. While combatting structural forces of racism is a complex endeavor in any context, there is something uniquely challenging in the work of loosening the hold of systems of oppression in an industry that is in many ways organized around neutrality as a guiding principle. There is something uniquely pernicious about the pervasiveness of the veils we use to erase reality and history with good intentions and mainstream injustice through the very structures that are meant to (and might very well) contribute to social good.

Neutrality is a powerful tool of oppression to the extent that it enables us to justify, distance ourselves from, and find normalcy in status quos built from dehumanization and dispossession. In all the moments where a conversation, an opportunity to step back, a moment of introspection reawakens me to the vehicles of inequity, White supremacy, and dehumanization in my midst — not just as forces that exist around me in my industry and organization but as the waters that I am knowingly swimming in — I am reminded of the vigilance required to continuously see the system for what it is. I am reminded of the danger that lies in the vast and constant invitations into complacency offered up by the values and principles against which we can define our identities and perceive our work, from our mandates to fight all forms of inequality, to our pledges to ‘leave no one behind’, to our commitments to uphold ‘non-discrimination’.

The harm in aiming for “no harm”

Among the barriers to transformation is the binary ways we often frame and interpret our responsibilities and impact as development actors and organizations. This is largely reinforced through the indicators and accountability structures we use to define and demonstrate progress, and in a similar vein, to define, assess and mitigate ‘harm’ in the path towards such progress.

What do we really mean, for instance, when we invoke a principle like ‘do no harm’ in development or humanitarian work?

In a sense, how we interpret and apply our understanding of harm mitigation speaks to the end game of our efforts. It defines the scope of responsibility we are willing to assume. Often, to strive for a position of no harm (or its equivalent in different forms) implies an orientation that is about mitigating the visible, measurable, directly attributable negative effects of a particular programme or policy from a particular actor or set of actors in a fixed time and place. To even posit that achieving no harm is a theoretically feasible goal is a claim about our own positionality and role as development practitioners in itself. If we were to really situate our programme or policy in the broader systems within which we have defined the intentions and rules of the work, or derived the power and influence to execute it — including the paradigmatic, normative, structural, epistemological, political frameworks of power that have persisted across generations — how would we draw the lines between the harm that is borne of our own actions or non-actions and the harm that simply ‘exists’ in the world around us (the harm that we are ‘neutrally’ responding to)?

That is, if we were to truly ground our harm analyses in the historical and enduring systems of inequity that shape and are shaped by our development efforts, can we actually ever lay claim to no harm? Is it even helpful to have this as a benchmark? Could the aspiration in itself become a source of perpetual denial that breeds further damage?

Can we arrive at a starting place of both/and ?

Often, because of the mainstream paradigms that define the economic and political systems, governance frameworks, and social contracts within which development work is funded, validated, and prioritized, the lines of accountability we are held to as individual development practitioners make it near impossible to separate ourselves from the inequity produced by many of these systems. To ground this in a simple example, having previously worked in communications in several humanitarian and development contexts, I was often struck by the challenge of pushing beyond the confines of the ‘beneficiary success story’ model that my work seemed to demand of me. While I could do my best to nuance the story, mitigate against stereotypes, avoid defining people by their vulnerability, it didn’t change the fact that there was a certain type of story most likely to attract funding, most likely to appeal to the supposed limited attention of the public, most likely to please our [mostly Western government] donors and most ‘strategic’ partners. To do my job ‘well’ — to help my organization generate resources in order to literally save lives — inherently required me, at least to some extent, to work within the norms of broader systems of power, even if that meant contributing to reductive narratives of a population or the contexts by which vulnerability or empowerment truly function.

I share this example not to justify nor vilify the dynamics that are in one way or another embedded within the daily work of many development actors, nor to deny the progress and heightened consciousness of these issues in many organizations, but simply to illustrate that it is rarely a black and white situation. In most cases, we must still reckon with the fact that insofar as our work exists within wider historically-rooted social/political/economic structures that govern the distribution of power in society, the actions required of us to immediately save lives or redress the effects of unjust systems might simultaneously be actions that on some level reinforce systems (including systems of thought and relationships) designed to uphold injustice. And insofar as we can’t simply ignore the immediacy of the symptoms of deeper systemic, human issues — whether manifested as dire food insecurity, environmental crises, disease, conflict, etc. — and the capital and influence required to mitigate them, we have to reckon with the multi-dimensional nature of harm and acknowledge the varied timeframes and scales of change that we have chosen to prioritize (and the costs associated with that choice) through any given policy or intervention. We must recognize that the fact of saving lives, creating jobs, reducing environmental degradation, or genuinely improving wellbeing for some in the short- to medium-term, for example, does not negate the possibility that we have also contributed to harm: particularly long-term future harm resulting from our reification of the processes and [colonialist, capitalist, White supremacist] power structures that enabled us to achieve those results, even if in the name of very real need.

This is not to say that a future in which we no longer have to work within structures that perpetuate power imbalances and injustice is out of reach, but that our capacity to conceive and create the path towards such future fundamentally requires us to first genuinely and openly acknowledge the grounds on which we currently stand. What would it look like for a development institution, for instance, to openly assume criticism and take on responsibility for its stakes in colonial legacies — not as something that negates its positive impact and value, but as a necessary reckoning and entry point to shift the locus of its impact from tinkering within systems to actually shifting power in order to overhaul them? What would it look like for a funder to allocate resources based on metrics of success that make space for truth-telling and generative failure, or milestones based in unlearning and deconstruction as much as learning and quantifiable outcomes, to carve pathways towards future systems for equity and justice that are not yet known? How might we conceive of harm and risk analysis frameworks that actually bring us to account for both past and future systemic damage: to not only factor in the positive and negative outcomes of a programme on a target population, but to seriously weigh in the non-linear, indirect effects of the processes that get us there (including the processes by which we decided upon our goals and priorities in the first place, and the space we made or failed to make for deconstructing our assumptions)?

The nature of our institutional/industry-wide denial has a lot of parallels to what plays out at an individual level when, for instance, we invest more attention in whether or not we will be perceived or labeled as a ‘racist,’ implicitly treating the label as a fixed identity or an individual trait, rather than in the work of reflecting on what it means to not be immune from or exist beyond the influence of racist systems. For a development organization, or those of us who constitute such organizations, the question of whether or not we have a role in perpetuating power imbalances and racist structures through our work is not a question of being a force of good or bad in the world: it is simply about widening the lens (temporally, relationally) through which we understand our impact and place within interconnected social systems.

The complexity of addressing that which is “hidden” in plain sight

A reaction I had to a recent conversation about equitable evaluation in a Design Justice working group in many ways feels like an apt encapsulation of so much of the challenge, complexity, and nuance of what is required to confront harm that is at once highly visible and simultaneously invisibilized in our work.

At one point in the discussion, someone noted, “Programmes are working to just show that what they are doing is successful. You have to be successful to get funding and be seen as a good organization,” adding, “We ‘design’ programmes to make them fit the logic of our existing success metrics and evaluation models. Professional evaluation often just becomes surveillance.” Something about the simplicity and directness of these words to capture something so ubiquitous and problematic in its implications for innovation and structural change, and yet so basic and accepted as the paradigm within which we operate, prompted me to step back for a moment to marvel at the absurdity — the blatant denial of reality at the core — of so many of the frameworks and processes that define the enterprise I feed into on a daily basis. All I could think (and voice) in response in that moment was, “When you really think about it, this is wild. This is truly wild.”

The “this is wild” reaction is one I find myself having more and more these days, not so much from new discoveries, but from moments of reacquaintance with my own complicity and the normalization of it. So much of the work of combatting structural racism and colonial power dynamics deeply embedded in the development sector is the work of fighting something that is ‘hidden in plain sight.’ This isn’t simply the work of finding and holding the ‘racists’ to account, or rooting out some ‘power-holders’ who refuse to let go of systems that serve them, or changing a few recruitment criteria, or even expanding the mechanisms for ‘awareness raising’. It is the work of pushing against forces that are deeply woven into our job descriptions, our institutionalized operating models, our longstanding partnership and funding structures, our predominant global development paradigms, and in some ways even our raison d’être. It is dealing with structures that are so all-encompassing that even when we have recognized and acknowledged the problems, our line of sight still vacillates between moments of astonishment when we step back to consider the system from a different angle, and states of compartmentalized cognitive dissonance when we fall back into autopilot and the day-to-day ‘normalcy’ of our work and individual roles within those broader structures.

The examples of the issues (or their manifestations) that continue to occupy a place of normalcy or neutrality, even as many have called out and long worked to address them, are countless. To name a few:

  • The ways we benchmark ‘development’ — of countries and people — against a largely Western, White, capitalist understanding of progress.
  • The way we divide up the world into developing and developed as though a neutral observation of a phenomenon that just is, and position countries from the Global North as developed simply because they can claim a higher GDP and greater capacity for consumption: as though development and progress lies in material measures.
  • The ways that even when we strive to be more holistic, we revert to definitions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘freedom’ in dominant human development paradigms that derive from specific worldviews yet continue treat them as universal. Or we co-opt ways of knowing and being that have long been practiced by many communities or traditions, treat them as novel, and fail to properly attribute their origins (or ascribe value and expertise only to those who have translated such knowledge into jargon, tools, and frameworks that conform to existing development norms).
  • The plethora of problematic terminology that enjoy central positions in our vocabulary, and in this, infiltrate our perceptions, relationship to other people and modes of operating— from ‘developing’ countries, ‘vulnerable populations,’ ‘beneficiaries,’ ‘the field,’ and ‘capacity building’ to the ways we apply concepts like ‘rationality’ and ‘effectiveness.’
  • The way we describe other people or countries as being ‘left behind’ on material dimensions of development as though this was by chance, or a result of inefficiencies or gaps in knowledge or technology: as though there are not deliberate architectures of power that were designed to exclude and disadvantage; as though these systems don’t still exist; as though we have no role in upholding them.
  • The ways we not only discount indigenous knowledge systems or impede the inclusion of a plurality of ways of knowing and experiencing the world within our development processes, but actively deny the role that epistemologies/worldviews/mindsets/relationships/intangible factors have on our processes and outcomes in the first place (thereby enabling us to continue treating the existing goals, practices, and ways of knowing in the development enterprise as a given, and everything else as alternative).
  • The way we invest little time, energy or resources into the kinds of practices and research that actually help to make our assumptions and logic models explicit and compel us to deconstruct and work with the many drivers of power in any systemic issue.
  • The paternalistic ways we (well-funded development institutions) often work with ‘local’ organizations or communities, and in many cases apply an understanding and rhetoric of ‘local’ or ‘community’ that in itself reinforces the otherization of those at the forefront of development efforts.
  • The hierarchies of humanness that are manifest and palpable at every turn: from who is present in and expected to speak first in a meeting room; to who we regard as the experts or dignitaries even in a dialogue about equity; to the pay disparities we normalize between ‘national’ and ‘international’ staff that are often not justified by differences in levels of experience, specialization, or expertise; to the formal and informal mechanisms we use to assess professionalism, intelligence, and capability that are far from neutral/generally privilege those of a certain language, skin color, gender, class, etc.
  • The fact that we talk about aid instead of reparations; of empowering instead of giving back power.

In thinking about what kind of dynamics serve to perpetuate or combat visible paradox at large scale, it is also helpful to consider how:

1.Many of our ‘accepted’ problematic concepts are extra complex to confront because they can serve either as vehicles of structural racism, or entry points for anti-racism and even decoloniality, depending on how we understand and wield them. Take, for instance, the concept of capacity development: this practice that has come to symbolize our attempt to honor the authority and agency of those most immediately affected by or implicated in an issue in the ways we enact development. Even if it is true that in a certain context, there may be an issue of lacking capacity to execute something in a government system, organization, or among a group of people, we often frame it as though the particular capacities deemed as insufficient — whether they be technical, financial, technological, or knowledge based — are representative of some broader, neutral form of ‘lack’. We also rarely consider what it means that we are applying a specific lens on the problem, and thereby arriving a specific interpretation of what capacities are relevant to the solution and who is in the greatest possession of them. And more importantly, even when it is true that certain material capacities and technical solutions are a part of the equation and a certain institution or country may be in a better position to transfer them to another, we rarely contextualize why the gap is there. And this lack of contextualization is not benign. The historical ‘why’ behind the existence of certain kinds of capacity gaps, the contextualization of why we are prioritizing investments in certain capacities over others, the power dynamics that have come to shape the present directionality of the capacity transfer, the way all these factors have influenced how we understand the purpose, end goal, and theory of change in our capacity development efforts all matter. To not make this context explicit — to not systematically incorporate that awareness into the ways we design and carry out (and measure) our approaches to capacity development — is often to further entrench power relationships in which we frame certain people or places as the “objects of development.” This ultimately undermines our capacity to cultivate the relational conditions that make transformational, systemic change possible.

Similarly, processes that strive to embody co-creation or participatory methods with diverse stakeholders to address development problems in theory could serve to correct power imbalances. But in practice, these often become tools to consolidate power and gaslight, whether or not this is the intent. We might claim a process to be participatory when in reality no decision-making power has been shared: rather, an institution or donor with resources has already for the most part set the goals, and the purpose of involving those closest to the issue is to check boxes or validate existing priorities.

2. It is not enough to simply ‘wake up’ to what is in front of us. Learning, acknowledging, naming — this is all critical in the work of building more just and equitable development frameworks. But the work of staying awake, particularly when the sources of harm are nuanced and hard to disentangle from the bread and butter of our work, requires a conscious collective effort to be continually asking, naming, acting, reflecting. And critically, it requires forms of reflection that go beyond the question of what needs to change, to what it actually feels like, and the discomfort that will be inherent in, acting into any meaningful changes we propose. It is easy, for instance, to all agree that a recruitment process should start from a place of gender and geographic parity, or that we should work with more organizations that are embedded in communities and grassroots movements on equal terms as partners. It is another to recognize that in practice, embodying these goals will likely slow down our processes and take more effort, resources and intentionality on our part because it generally requires counteracting systems (internally and societally) that were not intended to equally distribute power and opportunity. Working in this way may also challenge the basis on which we define some of our own identities, derive legitimacy, or exercise power (or require us to face pushback from colleagues or an institution), and this will be uncomfortable.

This distinction between waking up and staying awake, as an embodied state, underscores the value and necessity of our collective containers for reflection and exchange. As the example of my own reaction to a simple conversation about equity in evaluation illustrates, honest and vulnerable conversations about equity and justice are not just exchanges of words and information. They are where we transmit and generate energy for transformation. They are the holding spaces where we continue to return to ourselves as much as to each other in order to become more accountable to that which we, at some level, already know and feel. In this, they are not simply about education and awareness-raising or ‘changing the mindsets’ of those who are not yet ‘woke.’ They are the processes by which we remain conscious of and start to collectively excavate the many forms of harm that hide beneath the guises of normalcy.

Where we situate hope

Just in case anyone reading this might be wondering, “if you think your sector is the cause of so much harm, then why are you working in it?” I want to be clear that what I have been describing here, while articulated through the lens of the development sector, is really just a description of societal forces at large. And, as is true in other realms of human endeavor, to speak of what is broken is not to discount or diminish the value and possibility that lies within certain structures, intentions, and networks of energy. In fact, I think it is precisely in our willingness to stay close and attentive to what is the most paradoxical and troubling that we tend to find what is most transformative within what we already have.

And so, I want to conclude with a note about hope. Because where we choose to situate our hope, and the ways we understand and work with optimism as a vitalizing force, has a lot of implications for the ways we shape the space of possibility for different kinds of futures.

In the multilateral sector in particular, we often place great value in aspirations and treat the articulation of end goals or desired futures (e.g. the SDGs) as the ultimate catalyst of motivation and inspiration for our work. While no doubt, the vision of what could be is necessary and motivating, we too often discount the equal and necessary motivation that can be derived from giving our wholehearted, fully embodied attention to what is. I sometimes sense a fear — often manifested in the dichotomies we erect between what is inspiring and what is negative, or between what is forward-looking and what is in the past — that if we direct too much attention to what is broken or uncomfortable, we are somehow admitting to our own inadequacy and irrelevancy as a sector to advance the kinds of changes most needed in the world.

What I feel most disheartened by is not the spaces where we engage with what is ‘negative,’ but rather in the spaces where we remain unwilling to unpack the multidimensionality of our lofty intentions, aspirations, and goodness within the realities of our complex and imperfect human existence. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I suspect that I am not alone in drawing some of the greatest sources of inspiration, pride, energy, and affirmation of the unique value latent in multilateralism in the very places where we are able to reckon with our own failings. It is in witnessing, and feeling the effects of, the willingness of my colleagues to speak truth to power, to continue asking questions, to naming what is broken, to acknowledging what we don’t know, that I can most see the contours of possibility for the impact and necessary role of our work. This is where I situate my hope.