Starting a journey – reflections on race and racism and the work to do in our organisations and our sector

Andrew Norton reflects on deep challenges of enduring racism within the sustainable development sector and IIED’s ongoing work to contribute to progress.

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Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
15 December 2021
A group of women laugh and smile as they stand and dip their hands into two large buckets on a table

Indigenous women of Aldea Campur, Alta Verapaz in Guatemala’s Polochic valley make, market and package their own shampoo, earning extra income for themselves and for their families (Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Today we have published a statement on the progress we have made over the last year towards becoming an anti-racist organisation. The statement outlines the work we have done, the processes we have gone through, and our plans for the future – under three headings: review, learn and reform.

IIED’s responsibility to address racism is inextricably intertwined with our mission to help build a fairer, more sustainable world.  In our current five year strategy 'increasing inequality' is one of the five global challenges we are focusing on and racism is a key driver of this – along with other intersecting inequalities including gender, class, caste, disability and other identities subject to discrimination and oppression.

The sectors and challenges we work on are deeply marked by legacies of racism, historic power imbalances and injustices, and the oppressive histories of colonialism and imperialism. These legacies affect every aspect of our work as a research organisation that seeks also to be an actor for justice and an agent of change:

  • The production and reproduction of knowledge in the fields of development, environment and conservation is still colonial, racialised and gendered (and the intersections between these two forms of disadvantage are powerful).

Cultures that value nature and manage it effectively often have belief systems that are radically different to western approaches. Without recognising the value of different knowledge systems, environment and climate action risk losing the value of these local and Indigenous cultures – both their intrinsic cultural value as well as for the carbon they store and the biodiversity they protect.

We need to reflect on and challenge the legacies of colonial power relations, inequalities and injustices that continue to pervade the production and reproduction of knowledge in the areas in which we work.

  • In relation to the climate crisis, we need to recognise the responsibility of developed economies as contributors to climate change.

    The colonial surplus extraction that enabled countries such as Britain to start on the journey of early industrialisation fostered the early growth of carbon emissions – still hanging around in the atmosphere now and devastating countries and communities that have done next to nothing to create the damage they now face. So the legacy of colonialism needs to be at the heart of the way we see climate justice.
  • The power relations, human resources and relationships in our fields of work are skewed in ways that empower white Northern actors and disempower people of colour both in Northern environments where many organisations are headquartered, and on a global scale. Confronting and changing this is often uncomfortable to do, but fundamentally necessary.
  • The structure of business, contractual relationships and partnerships through which much of our research and policy work is delivered often embodies power relations that disadvantage Southern partners.
  • Above all, the outcomes of global development processes are profoundly unequal in ways that reflect the legacies of historic racism now embodied in global structures of inequality. 

    The recent failure to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to most of the global South on anything like the scale of delivery to rich countries is an alarming example (only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, while the figure exceeds 60% in both high-income countries and upper-middle-income countries).

There is work to do in the fields of development and environment both within our own organisation and in the sector as a whole. In IIED up to now we have taken the following actions:

  • Created a race and racism working group to drive forward our work, with cross organisational membership including senior representation
  • Held organisational-wide discussions on how our staff feel racism is impacting our organisation and ways or working
  • Funded and developed an anti-racist action plan that will guide our work over the coming year
  • Created a position at senior management level (filled by Tracy Kajumba) to lead our work on intersectional disadvantage and inequality
  • Started a process to analyse our narratives from the perspective of race and racism led by Natalie Lartey and Emilie Beauchamp
  • Reached out to other organisations, seeking to share approaches and learning on the journey towards becoming an anti-racist organisation, and
  • Engaged our trustees in this work so we benefit from their commitment and experience.

We feel we have made a strong start but are aware there is a long way to go – both for IIED and for the sectors in which we work. An important way to take this work forward will be to embed it in our strategic approach, and we will be working on that over the coming months. 

We are seeking ways to improve and learn − please be in touch if you would like to engage with anything in this blog or our statement.

About the author

Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022 

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