Beyond Rhetoric: The Need to Tackle Racism and Discrimination

October 2020

By Dr. Amjad Mohamed-Saleem

Manager, Protection, Inclusion and Engagement

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)


The global anti-racism protests have caused all of us to collectively reflect on some difficult truths regarding racism and discrimination.  The humanitarian sector is not immune to these discussions, with calls for reflections about long-standing problems of systemic racism and ‘de-colonizing’ the aid system.  As the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, we must be involved in these difficult conversations and should not shy away from serious reflections.  There are no boundaries in terms of where we can go based on our Fundamental Principles, and what we should do as individuals and organisations. This is our moral responsibility.

The Story

The repercussions from the death of George Floyd in the United States, which triggered the subsequent anti-racism protests globally, has caused all of us to collectively reflect on the difficult truth that there is still not a level playing field in the world according to the colour of one’s skin. 

Whilst there is an academic argument about whether ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ or other words are ‘correct’, the fact of the matter is that these arguments stem from people and positions of privilege.  Regardless of whether it is scientifically proven that there is only one human race, the lived experience of people that ARE discriminated against based on perceived race, or ethnic origin, or physical ability, appearances, gender identities – is very real. People are discriminated against based on the layman’s understanding of race, ethnicity, colour, gender identities, and physical and mental abilities.

The humanitarian sector is not immune to these discussions, with calls for reflections about long-standing problems of overt, hidden or unconscious systemic racism, in addition to a wider discussion around ‘de-colonizing’ the humanitarian aid system. Anecdotes from the humanitarian sector point out the overt experiences of racial discrimination, everyday micro-aggressions and unsafe workplace cultures. Much has already been written around how racism and decolonization within the humanitarian sector is related to a legacy from the colonial-era systems and structures of ‘civilizing missions’ which humanitarian agencies, often from the same countries as the colonial powers, still perpetuate.

In addressing racism as humanitarians, both our narrative and our actions matter.  If we are speaking on issues such as diversity and inclusion, we need to ask ourselves these questions: “Can all people see themselves represented here? Does our organizational culture speak to the very real experiences of people?”. Furthermore, our narrative must support our actions, starting with developing an equity-based understanding of humanitarian action which advocates for ‘adapting humanitarian work to each individual’s needs and background [to ensure] those affected are being treated equitably’.  This means understanding the intersectionality of oppression.  Racism is rooted in power hierarchies that often do not operate alone but intersect with gender, religion, socio-economic status, geography, sexual orientation, and numerous other social markers, creating layers of oppression that are inextricably intertwined.

Crucial to this conversation within the humanitarian sector has to be one on decolonising Eurocentric knowledge systems and tools, and their role in challenging the enduring effects of colonialism (and racism).  Hence, we need to break the ‘white gaze’ in our work as we question whose expertise we value, who we listen to, who holds the levers of power, who sits at the table and who gets a vote. 

A decolonisation of the narrative illustrates the need to reflect that we can no longer use the humanitarian principles “as a shield” to prevent more difficult reflections on our institutional biases and inequality.  For example, whilst the principle of impartiality remains the driving force towards genuine inclusion and diversity in the humanitarian sector, it is important to remember that the demand that humanitarians make no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions extends to who we are as much as whom we serve.   

We must also recognise that “neutrality does not mean staying silent”, in the face of racism and violence.  It means speaking out and transitioning from a passive stance of not directly engaging in racist behaviours (i.e. not acknowledging differences and not actively addressing systems of oppression) to fighting and dismantling the systemic racism and other forms of inequity leading to systemic oppression and subordination.  We have to become anti-racist to challenge the passive approach towards the institutionalization of racism that creates systems and structures in organizations that ‘maintain privilege for some groups or individuals while restricting the rights and privileges of others’.

As the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, we also need to ask ourselves serious and difficult questions about the issues of racism and related discrimination and power imbalances that are and could be present in our institutions at every level.  We have to move beyond just statements.  Whilst our Fundamental Principles dictate our actions, and our values motivate our compassion with local communities, we cannot hide behind the fact that we are products of our own contexts and environments and, as a consequence, we can be influenced by the related thinking and attitudes.  We need to be conscious that our history, our principles and our work does not make us immune to perceptions, misperceptions, power imbalances, privilege, racism, and discrimination.

At the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2019, we recognised that trust was the most critical currency for the future of principled humanitarian action as we seek to systematically engage with and be accountable to the communities we serve.  Moreover, the Movement Statement on Integrity adopted at the 2019 Council of Delegates reaffirmed our commitment as a Movement to these communities by ensuring that our workplaces are safe for all and that the dignity and integrity of our staff and volunteers is preserved, safeguarded and promoted.  Building a supportive, safe and inclusive environment is a commitment we need to make to continue fostering honest conversations around racism and discrimination. At the same time, we must also encourage difficult questions that help to improve trust between each other, respect and acceptance of each other’s diversity, and enable an understanding and support for better practices within the Movement. In turn, this will also allow everyone to have their voices heard and respected.

There are no boundaries in terms of where we can go based on our Fundamental Principles and what we should do as individuals and organisations.  The fundamental argument for the fight for diversity, equity and inclusion is a moral one.  We need to DO better and we need to BE better -not because it is the good thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do –  and to treat people with dignity, respect, and humanity.  This is our moral responsibility.

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