Becoming an anti-racist organisation: what we’ve learnt so far

Structural racism in the international development sector requires systemic change. Our executive director Tom Mitchell reflects on IIED’s ongoing journey to tackle this within the organisation and in our work.

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Insight by 
Tom Mitchell
Executive director of IIED
03 July 2024
Members of IIED staff sitting in a circle, discussing

IIED staff discussing the future of the organisation at a staff retreat in June 2024 (Photo: IIED)

The horrific murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement triggered a wave of reflection on and recognition of structural racism across the international development sector, both within organisations and externally in their work.

Rightly, many organisations undertook searching reviews of their positioning, leadership, culture, policies and practices to identify ways they were compounding racism, and to develop systemic responses.

Our race and racism audit 

As a first step to understanding and learning how we could challenge structural racism, IIED’s race and racism working group commissioned an extensive independent audit of our own policies, staff experiences and organisational plans. Over 70% of staff contributed to the audit.

The process identified major gaps in IIED’s readiness to be an actively anti-racist organisation and revealed the extent of our staff’s experiences of discrimination, including based on their race. The audit laid out 18 recommendations for the organisation to action over the short, medium and long term.

As a senior management team, and in partnership with our board of trustees, we accepted the findings in full and, in January last year, we shared them with our staff members, acknowledging and apologising for the harm caused, and committing to learn and act systematically to be an actively anti-racist organisation.

But we also want to talk about IIED’s experience and journey publicly, to help others and to reinforce our own commitment to hold ourselves to account. Today we are publishing a comprehensive summary of the race and racism audit (PDF), with an update on the key actions taken since. 

We hope the report explains the journey we are on and that others will find it useful.

Recognising privilege, shifting the iceberg 

Over the last 18 months we have taken important steps in implementing the recommendations from the audit but know we have much further to go. The changes we need to make are structural and cultural, needing consistent leadership and deliberate attention over many years.

As part of a wider change to our governance structure, we have established an equity, inclusion and justice committee within our leadership team, which will hold the strategy and leadership council and IIED’s trustees accountable for the progress IIED has committed to. And by September 2024 we will agree a new equity, inclusion and diversity strategy and publish our work developed with partners on equitable partnerships.

But it is easy to point to actions and outputs. Yet these are only the visible tip of the iceberg. More fundamental change only comes when the bottom of the iceberg starts to shift: the mindsets, worldviews, rules and laws, and unconscious biases that maintain structural racism.

For me, and for many other White colleagues in IIED who have enjoyed huge privileges through our ancestors and our families and backgrounds, and through means of colonial exploitation, addressing those issues that lie beneath the surface means recognising them and taking responsibility.

Speaking personally, while I had participated in anti-racism training before, I am now conscious that it is only since coming to IIED that I have actively sought more learning opportunities about racism, talked to people about their experiences of racism, understood more about the damage caused by racist micro-aggressions and confronted my own multiple privileges and mindset biases. 

I’m only just beginning to understand how far I’ve got to go to be a great ally, but I’m committed to keep working hard and do my best to ensure IIED maintains energy in its path to be actively anti-racist.

Everyone at IIED owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the persistence, resilience and tenacity of a small group of people in the organisation, many of whom are Black and people of colour and most of whom are women, who fought and continue to fight for IIED to be actively anti-racist and trigger the changes I am describing here. They carried a huge emotional burden for the organisation as well as forming the backbone of our race and racism working group. Thank you.

About the author

Tom Mitchell ([email protected]) is executive director of IIED

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