Racism in aid sector is a hangover of colonialism, says scathing report by MPs

Senior roles still dominated by white people while appeals depict countries as inferior to UK, says international development committee

Volunteers help teach an outdoor class of schoolchildren in rural Mozambique

Volunteers help teach a class in rural Mozambique. The report highlighted differing pay rates between UK staff and their locally employed colleagues. Photograph: Christopher Scott/Alamy

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Sarah Johnson

Thu 23 Jun 2022 06.30 BSTLast modified on Thu 23 Jun 2022 09.40 BST

British MPs have issued a scathing report on racism in the aid sector, warning that colonial mentalities are pervasive across charities and in government.

In their public appeals, international aid organisations depict the communities they serve as “helpless and needy” and “strip them of their dignity”, implying the countries in which they work are “inferior to the UK”, said the international development committee.

Its report, released on Thursday, found UK staff working under Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) contracts who were overwhelmingly white, were paid significantly more than people hired locally. One UK staff member was paid 10 times more than a locally employed colleague.

Government rates of pay are widely replicated in the aid sector and held up as good practice, said MPs.

Lorriann Robinson, from international consultancy firm Advocacy Team, told MPs she had seen examples of projects where applying the FCDO’s rates meant it was possible to have a professional with 15 years’ experience working alongside a graduate from the UK with two years’ experience who is paid more. “That is an example of what we would say is a policy that is producing inequities between racial groups,” she said.

An FCDO spokesman said: “The UK government has played a key role in addressing power imbalances through the way we support development … We recognise local people should lead on setting their own aid priorities and work in partnership with others to support development.”

Boards and senior leadership positions in NGOs are dominated by white people and based in high-income countries such as the UK, underpinned by false assumptions that best practice originates in wealthy states, the report said.

Themrise Khan, an international development professional from Pakistan, said aid was “yet another vehicle to indulge in racist practices”.

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She said aid was meant to rebuild countries after the end of colonial rule but had ended up being “a vehicle for former colonisers to continue to control most of their former colonists by holding them ransom to aid”.

“If we want racism in aid to end, we must accept the fact that the northern system of aid and everyone in it also abets racism,” Khan said.

The report called for the FCDO and international aid organisations to shift decision-making power and resources to the communities in which they work. At present, decisions around aid spending are often made in the headquarters of European and North American donors. They are detached from the communities they serve which can lead to their work being less effective, the report said.

Recent cuts to the UK aid budget – from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% – were implemented by a top-down approach, with little or no consultation. This, the report said, sent a harmful message that the UK does not care about the people affected – many of whom are black, Indigenous and people of colour.

Sarah Champion, who chairs the international development committee, said: “The aid sector exists to help those in need. But it cannot do that effectively until it addresses the fundamental power imbalances that exist within its structures that allow racist practices to perpetuate … Racism is real; it must be challenged at every level.”