Promoting anti-racist narratives in development sector research

Reflecting on a recent IIED review, Natalie Lartey explores common challenges in tackling racial bias in the storytelling that underpins international development research and identifies opportunities for change.

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Insight by 
Natalie Lartey
Natalie Lartey is IIED's advocacy and engagement manager
19 May 2022
A masked protester holds up a sign saying "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"

A protestor at a Black Lives Matter march in Washington DC in February 2020. It's not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist (Photo: Yash Mori, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Storytelling in the aid and development sectors has for many years been criticised for perpetuating racial stereotypes and bias. In the main, this critique has focused on public affairs content from big brand charities, with less time spent considering whether storytelling in knowledge production organisations drives the same racialised narratives.

IIED recently concluded an internal review that asked ourselves an uncomfortable question: "Are we perpetuating racism in the narratives that drive our own knowledge production?" We defined narratives as being our ‘system of stories’, and to start the process of answering our uncomfortable question we did two things.

First, we developed a narrative analysis framework designed specifically to assess four pieces of our own content against six dimensions of racism that we think dominate in aid and development storytelling: colour blindness; White gaze; Eurocentrism; neutrality; saviourism; and exclusion.

These dimensions were drawn from a review we commissioned of academic work from leading global South and African and Asian diaspora scholars and activists, summarising the racism already observed as being present in aid and development storytelling.

Then we worked in small groups to apply the framework to a blog post, a short video, a briefing paper and a segment of our organisational strategy. We aimed to start critical conversations about what we found, how that felt and what change we were going to make.

The insights from this review process are available to read in our new report: 'Discomfort to discovery: exploring racism and antiracism in development narratives'.

Common challenges

To mark the UN day of cultural diversity for dialogue and development we have drawn together what we feel are common challenges for researchers wanting to address racial bias when creating knowledge products, and are sharing some thoughts on what change could look like.

1. Seeing saviourist storytelling as an NGO issue

Saviourism in aid and development storytelling is deemed problematic because it positions White people as rescuers of Black people and people of colour. Thus 'rescuing' is often seen as saving lives and livelihoods. But it can also be involved when knowledge derived from majority White, western sources is positioned as pre-eminent and the optimal way of tackling development challenges.

The challenge inherent in saviourist storytelling, whether in knowledge leadership or frontline programmes, is that it fuels a broader set of practices and processes in development that offer White people a reinforced sense of power and privilege while doing the opposite for Black people and people of colour.

2. Leaving racial injustice out of the research and development context

Most of the stories we tell through development research consistently mask - and by default deny - the race-based oppression, injustice and exploitation that underpin the inequality issues we write about.

This lack of voice on racial oppression and injustice past and present creates narratives that lack explanations about how and why economic patterns of wealth and poverty correlate so closely with the experiences of people living in majority white and black countries respectively.

3. A position influenced by the White gaze

The White gaze in development, a term coined by Liberian academic and activist Robtel Neajai Pailey, is a way of (often unconsciously) looking at the world and finding White western culture, its intellectual achievements and ways of organising society as the norm that other cultures ought to aspire to - while finding cultures of Black people and people of colour as inherently lacking.

Both the White gaze and Eurocentrism (centring western concepts and creating no room for other perspectives to be valued) influence our philosophical and political positions when we create content.

4. Exclusion through authorship and ‘selective’ storytelling

The lack of prominent Black researchers and researchers of colour creating knowledge products in the international development field is a visible challenge.

Also, the topics that rise to the top of research agendas, and donor-driven approaches to sharing research insights, can undermine the telling of stories about development done solely by, or under the leadership of Black people and people of colour - leaving their stories marginalised or untold.

Opportunities for change

So, what are the opportunities for doing things differently? Acknowledging that to change big things, you need to be able to first change small things is a good start.

This could mean starting to talk more openly about racism in storytelling - including in research. Creating knowledge products that speak to issues that link racism and development is also critical. For example, exploring the lasting impact colonisation has had on global South economies and governance, or the injustice of post-colonial debt relief.

More broadly, changing the way we present majority White organisations can be powerful too: we can aim to continually create opportunities for the Black people and people of colour in our organisations to define themselves and increase the visibility of their contribution to development research. 

About the author

Natalie Lartey ([email protected]) is advocacy and engagement manager, in IIED's Communications Group. She has designed and is leading work to better understand how the analysis of research and content products can be used to explore issues of racial identity and representation, and is a member of the IIED anti-racist working group

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