Development needs an intersectional lens

Article Date

06 August 2019

Article Author

Camille Ampey

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]
By Camille Ampey

It seems like everyone wants to be an intersectional feminist these days. Recently, the term has been used widely to explain that our interwoven identities should be appreciated in movements, in the workplace, and in everyday life. But while calls for intersectionality are well meaning, they represent a drastic watering-down of Kimberle Crenshaw’s conceptual framework created to explain structures of violence against black women. This becomes particularly critical in the field of international development, borne itself of colonialist structures, and the ways in which the United States’ failure to address its own racial inequalities are perpetuated through our foreign assistance.

In current usage, intersectionality has evolved to incorporate other marginalized identities, not just black women. For example, just as black women have been marginalized in antiracist and feminist organizing, people with disabilities who are of low socioeconomic status have been obscured in disability activism (in the developing world, 90% of children with disabilities do not even attend school) and trans people of color are often overlooked in the LGBTQ movement. Among children with learning differences, white children receive more attention than black children.

Diversity and inclusion, like intersectionality, are buzzwords that have masked meaning. Inclusion initiatives are often created within exclusionary spaces, adhering to white guidelines of how to design the racial equity process. To understand intersectionality as it was conceived is to recognize that proclaiming “diversity” and “inclusion” for “people of color” is not adequate. We must work to examine the societal structures that allow marginalization to happen in the first place. An organization’s diversity and inclusion initiative, for example, will not mitigate the discrimination the employee of color experiences when she walks out of the office, or the treatment a person with a disability experiences on the street. It will not erase the fact that hate crimes in Washington, D.C. have almost doubled since 2016, with LGBTQ people being primary targets. It will also not alleviate the microaggressions levied toward these marginalized groups within the walls of their well-meaning nonprofit.

The racial gaps among leadership and staff in nonprofits has implications for how issues of racial or gender equity are addressed in the workplace, as well as in the communities they are serving, which are not only domestic. About 84 percent of nonprofit board members are white, along with 90 percent of nonprofit board chairs.

In international development, this raises the specter of ongoing colonialization. A researcher in Uganda noted that during her three years in the sector, Ugandans frequently reported to Americans who were at their same level. On paper they had similar backgrounds, but the American was presumably more competent. If this happens among staff within the partner country, it’s not hard to imagine what happens in the board rooms back in the United States. One study found that the larger the nonprofit organization, the more likely the board chair is to be white, over 40-years old and male.

When experts convene to decide what the poor need, whether here in Washington, DC or globally, they are overwhelmingly privileged, while the people they discuss are not. Excluding individuals from leadership positions who are representative of partner communities can only hurt organizations and hamper their mission. A recent Harvard study found that companies with more women on their board of directors had a 42% greater return on sales. Companies in the top 25% for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have above average financial returns. In organizations where the goal is humanitarian rather than profit drive, this lack of inclusion at the leadership level could mean ineffective programs that waste millions of dollars and help no one over the long term.

Diverse perspectives allow organizations to see their blind spots. For Western NGOS working in developing countries, this is especially important. People with different backgrounds bring new information and ways of thinking. Input from a Ugandan researcher on a project in a Ugandan community will be more valuable that a white American’s advice.

Organizations that seek to do good must do better. Diversity and inclusion initiatives must go deeper than the buzzwords. U.S.-based NGOs working in their partner countries most collaborate with local experts who are familiar with their communities and may offer the best insight into what they need. They should incorporate a close reading of history that recognizes the historical structures working against black people in America and the global development apparatus built under colonialism. Black women, along with individuals of other marginalized identities, need to hold nonprofit leadership positions so organizations aren’t at odds with their missions. And diversity programs should teach the unabridged meaning of intersectionality. That is what it will take to truly be an intersectional champion.

Camille Ampey is a rising senior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy Studies with a Certificate in Human Rights and a minor in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. She was a Policy & Advocacy intern at ICRW during the spring of 2019.