Beth Alexion

Beth (she/her/hers) is a master’s student at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she focuses on conflict resolution, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and gender. Prior to Fletcher, Beth served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia teaching high school English and organizing teacher development programs. She extended her time in Ethiopia to work with the International Rescue Committee on women’s protection and empowerment programs in Eritrean refugee camps. Beth holds a bachelor’s degree in Government and Classics from Wesleyan University, and she wrote her undergraduate thesis on community-based courts as mechanisms of transitional justice in ancient Greece and Rwanda. At Fletcher, she is on the organizing committee for the 6th Annual Conference on Gender and International Affairs and enjoys playing soccer with the Fletcher Fútbol team. She is very much looking forward to working with NEFAD and gaining a deeper understanding of transitional justice issues in Nepal.



International Development, Humanitarian Aid, Anti-racism and Black Lives Matter [Part 1]

22 Jun

UN Photo/Albert González Farran

 

Over the last few weeks, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey, among many others, have brought discussions of anti-racism, systemic racism and white supremacy to the fore of social media, politics and the press. National outrage and mass mobilization have led state and city governments across the US to adopt resolutions to reform, restructure, defund and potentially dismantle police departments, and there appears to be a national reckoning with just how deeply entrenched racism is in all aspects of American society.

As a student of international affairs who spent three years working in and alongside development and humanitarian aid agencies in northern Ethiopia, I have been grappling with how racism, anti-racism, white supremacy and white fragility shape the study and practice of international relations. Just as mainstream conversations have highlighted the ways in which the legacies and origins of US policing in slave and labor patrolling continue to uphold a racist status quo in the present day, I have been trying to understand the ways in which racist attitudes that were used to justify the Slave Trade and later colonization by Western states continue to permeate the study and practice of international development and humanitarian aid today. Here, for my first blog post, I want to share some of the literature I have been reading on these topics as well as some of my own thoughts and observations.

There have been, unfortunately, numerous instances of overt racism in the development sector, but we rarely hear about or discuss how racism is embedded in the structures of foreign assistance. In her op-ed “International development has a race problem,” Angela Bruce-Raeburn, a former senior policy advisor with Oxfam, writes:

“Inherent in the very concept of aid is race and racism because only in this system can majority white societies with ample resources determine what poor black and brown people need, how much they need, set up the parameters for delivery of what they need, and of course create an elaborate mechanism for monitoring how well they have managed the donated funds to meet their needs.

How many hours have we willingly offered to the mind-numbing monitoring and evaluation tools created in headquarters, without local input, to assuage donors that local aid organizations are diligent stewards of the generous taxpayer dollars of mostly white donors in the developed world?

As a result, the very people who are in need of the help that development aid is designed to elevate are stripped of agency over their own lives, normalizing dependency in their own eyes.”

Elsewhere, Bruce-Raeburn has written about how a failure to understand power dynamics, sexism and racism has contributed to the persistence of sexual abuse and exploitation in the development sector (I encourage everyone to read more of her writing).

Image: Sophie Williams, Author of Millennial Black.

 

As INGOs enter countries to fill the gaps left by “weak” or “failed” states, we often fail to examine what has caused these states to fail, or why, for that matter, “statehood” came to be something we value and measure in the first place. Little attention is given to the fact that colonial powers left behind institutions that were never meant to be democratic, and often were enforced through violent, coercive and racist policies. We may also fail to notice that the very presence of international aid agencies might be contributing to the weakening or displacement of the state, as they act as substitutes for local government agencies by providing services such as healthcare, water, food and education, all of which are heavily branded with the emblems of INGOs and foreign donors. Governments in the West have reduced bi-lateral aid under the pretense of corrupt government officials and mismanagement on the receiving end, without recognizing the harm that these (often racist) assumptions perpetuate. It has also been well documented that foreign assistance, particularly in the form of food aid, can actually cause more harm to local livelihoods by inflating the prices of local commodities.

To be fair, many INGOs have adopted and integrated Do No Harm principles to minimize the risks they pose to host communities, but some might argue that this hasn’t been enough to address deep underlying structural inequalities entrenched in the international system.

At the end of her op-ed, Bruce-Raeburn outlines recommendations for international development and aid agencies to confront systemic racism, including committing to diversity at all levels of organizational leadership, allowing those affected by racism and sexism in development to design the safeguarding systems that are meant to protect them, and ensuring that there is meaningful consent and buy-in of aid recipients at all stages of program design and implementation. As students, it is important that we critically engage with and question the status quo of international development and how it is taught. I have included below a list of resources that I have found enlightening as I grapple with these questions, and I hope readers will post their thoughts, responses and any additional resources. I intend to continue this discussion in my next few blog posts, including a discussion of post-colonialist theories of IR, knowledge and language as sites of power, and the issues surrounding human rights discourse and international criminal justice.

 

Resources:

Angela Bruce-Raeburn’s Devex Op-Eds

No White Saviors

Population Works Africa

This podcast on Consent in Development

This podcast on feminist monitoring and evaluation practices

Also, a plug for my colleagues at Fletcher who are working on the 3rd Decolonizing International Relations Conference, which will be held virtually in November.

Posted By Beth Alexion

Posted Jun 22nd, 2020

6 Comments

  • Iain Guest

    June 24, 2020

     

    Beth – this is a really interesting first blog! Really well written and researched. As you say, these racist murders force us all to think very deeply about the structures that support racism, including aid, as well as our own views and practice as people. That will be the theme of my own blogs over the next few weeks. AP will also start to review the way we work. Hopefully, we’ll come up with some serious recommendations for change that we can share with our Board and partners. We’re very grateful to you for getting the ball rolling! Look forward to blog #2!

  • Alexandra Mayer

    June 25, 2020

     

    Beth, thank you for this post. I agree with everything you’ve said. I also think it’s important to analyze the money trail of foreign aid. I think Haiti is an exemplary case study on unsuccessful foreign aid. After the 2010 earthquake, the international community pledged $13.3 billion to help with recovery efforts. Yet, results have been so lackluster, the country is sometimes called a “black hole” for aid. For reference, between 2010 and 2015, just 9,000 houses were built . People are quick to blame Haitian government corruption – especially given the recent protests – but I think this take is uninformed.

    Of the $1.5 billion disseminated by USAID within the first five years after the 2010 earthquake, less than one percent went to Haitian organizations such as local nonprofit groups, private enterprises and government. Meanwhile, a whopping 50% found its way to consulting and contracting firms from DC, Maryland and Virginia. One of which, Chemonics International, racked up more than 200 million in just five years.

    This mode of funding is not only exclusive and inefficient, it’s also harmful. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office titled, “USAID Infrastructure Projects Have Had Mixed Results and Face Sustainability Challenges,” lamented that one US contractor charged roughly 500% more than local contractors, claiming it took $33,007 to build one housing unit . Some of the differential in price may be due to the fact that international companies operating in relief zones generally pay for workers’ airfare, housing and in-country transportation.

    However, like you stated, the root of disparity goes deeper. Jake Johnston – a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CERP) – noted that the U.S. government inflated contractor salaries by 50% as a form of hazard pay . Meanwhile, the minimum wage in Haiti is 24 cents per hour . (According to a Haïti Liberté, which published multiple cables between US officials obtained through the Wikileaks scandal, the Obama administration actively sought to keep Haitian wages low).

    I think there is also a lot to be said about the importance of transparency and the dangers of top-down structures. While I’ve focused on USAID, I am not forgetting that UN Peacekeepers are responsible for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The aid and development ‘industry’ have a lot of work to do, but I am grateful for people like you who are taking initiative to dismantle inequitable power structures.

  • Beth Alexion

    June 30, 2020

     

    Thank you Iain and Alex! I’m glad AP is opening space for these discussions to take place.
    Alex, thank you for sharing this example – your point about the money trail is important. I’ve also been wondering why and how consultants for big (I)NGOs make so much money, and you’ve illuminated insight on that as well. Both the USAID and UN Peacekeeping examples bring up an important discussion about blame and responsibility. It took a long time for the UN to acknowledge the serious damage and loss of human life that resulted from its role in the cholera outbreak (not to mention the widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in Haiti and elsewhere), and although the UN Secretary General promised a trust fund to compensate cholera victims, they were not able to raise sufficient funds for it. Like you said, an earnest discussion of responsibility, accountability and reparations is overdue for international aid agencies, as well as the UN.
    And to your point about transparency – I think this is an important step but definitely not the end-all. When I was working with a large international humanitarian agency, the project budgets included the breakdowns for salaries of all employees, including ex-pat staff and national staff, and the discrepancies were, as you can imagine, astounding. (I was actually volunteering with them and getting living allowances from Peace Corps at the time, but still. Also, I wish I had paid more attention to the amount of money that was allocated for external consultancies and performance reviews… I imagine it was quite high.) Despite the transparency of the budget, there was still a huge pay gap, and while many of these organizations pride themselves on having country offices mostly operated by national staff, the highest positions often remain occupied by ex-patriates. Anyways, thank you for bringing up this discussion, Alex!

  • Louis Schwartz

    July 1, 2020

     

    Hey Beth:
    Great blog. Question: What do you mean by “white fragility?”

  • Brigid Smith

    July 1, 2020

     

    Beth, I appreciate this post and your ability to put into words many of the same issues I struggle with. Having been drawn to the international development world, I am trying to recognize the complexity of the work that is being done by governments, INGO’s, etc. I will definitely continue to explore the several resources you’ve provided.

  • Ezoza Ismailova

    July 6, 2020

     

    Beth, I really appreciate your thorough and well-informed post on racism in the developmental sector. This topic is not one that I personally hear too often, and thus am glad that you have shed some light on to it. With that being said, I also know that addressing these types of issues need to continue because the roots to these issues can be traced back quite some time and is not something that appeared overnight. While I was reading your blog, I was also reminded of a class that I recently took on the history of colonialism and what you said about “racist attitudes that were used to justify the Slave Trade and later colonization by Western states continue to permeate the” same study of international relations that I am also in, has some truth to it. To be more specific, there are clear racist tones that can be found in colonial-time writing such as ones by Sir Henry M. Stanley in “How I Found Livingstone” (1871) and Paul du Cahillu’s “Travels in Africa”(1869-1870). Overall, acknowledging the past is important, but dismantling the roots that continue to penetrate society is arguable just as important (if not more). Therefore, similarly to Brigid, I also hope to dive into some of the resources and links that you have provided in your post!

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