As a child of a Nigerian immigrant and an African American, I grew up in the US crossing and navigating many cultural lines. For the past seven years I have been living and working across Africa. In my time here, I have watched from afar, helplessly, as the numbers of our African American brothers and sisters—victims of extrajudicial killings, continue to grow along with the lack of verifiable action on the part of the US government.
Over the past decade, I have worked with a range of international development practitioners in Africa and in the Americas. While some development organizations and individual practitioners are aware of the current and historical context in which they are operating, others are very unaware of terms, behavior, and perceptions that make up neo-colonialism and the preferential treatment which one of my taxi drivers in Kenya terms “white magic”.
White privilege goes hand in hand with the injustice minorities face in the United States. If development organizations don’t face and address the significance of this privilege in Africa, they will export similar issues worldwide (and arguably are already doing so). In Kenya, for example, NGOs are being asked to justify overpayment of expatriate staff—particularly those being paid sometimes three to four times more than Kenyan staff filling the same roles
This is not about white people or whiteness but about a system of white supremacy that no development organization working in Africa should be on the fence about. I am most impressed by organizations that take an approach to program design and particularly to senior leadership and organizational composition that says—we care about the people we are trying to empower or support so much so that they need a voice at the (leadership) table.
One of the reasons some Kenyans and Africans in the diaspora don’t trust the Nairobi social enterprise scene is that it has often been disconnected from the day-to-day politics, challenges, and realities on the ground. This is changing. African entrepreneurs are speaking up, crowdsourcing platforms like Homestrings and Emerging Crowd are democratizing fundraising so you no longer need to be Harvard or MIT trained with connections to US investors to make it work. African institutions are training and developing the next generation of African leaders, who are becoming more aware and critical of aid and interests.
Recently, the Ford Foundation wrote about “Why black lives matter to philanthropy” on the role of philanthropy in social justice movements. The article calls out the need to have public services focus more attention on those populations that have historically been excluded, and the need for philanthropic organizations to invest in social justice organizations.
#BlackLivesMatter should be central to any organization operating on the continent. It should be central to the policies and procedures with which we operate. Black lives matter is about equality and human rights. How can you claim to be an organization fighting to help people and countries that are less privileged than you are, but ignore inequality in your backyard? Illicit financial flows occur many times with the knowledge and support of wealthier countries and account for as much as ten times the amount of aid Africa receives. Children under five should not be dying of malnutrition in developing countries when the world produces more food than we need. This is not about idealism, but about a shift in the way we view our work, operations, and our impact on creating a better world for ourselves, our children, and for others. If we are serious about “development”, we must be serious about black lives mattering and what it means for the world.
Ignoring what “black lives matter” is about in the context of development work misses a direct, clear link to the core of the movement “a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized”. Black lives matter should be reflected as a call to action and for self- and organizational reflection on the interconnectedness of our world and the need for intentionality in actions and addressing consequences.
For our individual selves: How critical are we of the behaviors, strategies, perceptions we use in our work day-to-day? How sensitive are we to ensuring our African colleagues have a voice at the table? What are we doing to support our colleagues in the US that experience now more visible injustices day-to-day? Let’s learn more about BLM, support the movement, and reflect its values and vision every day. Let’s influence those in power to change the policies, processes, and perceptions that have led us to where we are. In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, ““If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Let’s break the silence and complicity.