I’ve just stepped down at the end of my 4-year term on the body responsible for signing the UK up to the very worthwhile Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). As I’d spent years watching NGOs appoint a succession of exclusively white (like me), London-based men who just happened to be paid staff of those very NGOs, I was determined that my replacement would be someone who isn’t any of these things. I’m happy to say that’s in progress after the UK and Scottish governments, and other board members, gave full support to a new policy of bringing on truly representative people, in all the ways.

What struck me even more than the NGOs’ resistance to the changes, though, along with their uniformal London perspective (in a body supposed to represent UK-wide communities….) and of course their delegates’ single gender, was how astonishingly white they all are. Bear in mind, this is in a sector where most of their business relates to Africa and other parts of the world peopled by folk who aren’t white. And not forgetting how amazingly diverse the UK, and especially the London, workforce is.

Here’s the all-white board of Global Witness, for example. Three of them are the owners and the board was only created recently after over 20 years of operations. Here’s the white CEO. In fact, Global Witness has never had a board member or CEO who isn’t white and European or North American. Here’s Transparency International UK, where every senior appointment holder is white. Here’s Christian Aid’s all-white top executive team. Here’s Oxfam’s  all-white leadership team. Here’s Article 19’s all-white senior management team. Another NGO – Involve – which ‘co-ordinates’ the UK’s open government network (which turns out to be almost entirely white) somewhat remarkably seems to have an entirely white team! Sure, get involved, but only if you’re white?

Some NGOs involved in the initiative I mentioned at the top, NRGI and One for example, claiming to represent UK civil society exclusively from London, bad enough,  are really little more than webpages of huge North American NGOs. Click on their websites and you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s ‘One UK’s Twitter account – it simply directs followers to One’s international website. Here’s ‘One Campaign UK’s’ Companies House registration – hilariously, every single director is listed at an address in the United States. And although they have staff at an office in the UK – inevitably, run by white folk – while they claim to be ‘civil society’ they’re actually closed corporate organisations no-one can actually join. ‘One’, in particular, claims millions of members yet what they really mean is they’re a top down, billionaire-funded organisation with policy set at the very top and if you’d like a newsletter from them you’re welcome to sign up. What kind of ‘civil society’, what kind of ‘membership’, is that?

It’s not just these organisations, of course. Comic Relief, whose Africa coverage misfired badly this year, has an all-white executive team. And the one black person on its large board, a marvellous individual, looks pretty tokenistic given the fact that much of Comic Relief’s work in concentrated in Africa, no? And that’s another amazing phenomenon. When you look at who these NGOs employ, they almost invariably employ non-white people only either in more junior appointments, or in appointments which is specifically operational in their own part of the world.

Here’s big North American NGO NRGI, for example. Its employees look multicultural, but all, or virtually all, jobs without a geographical focus or location appear to be held by white people. NRGI was founded and is still run by a Chilean-American economist and there’s no doubting his and its integrity. So why can’t they see how there’s something terribly wrong here? Here’s Article 19s international board – every UK-based member is white. But why? London is the most diverse city in the world.

I could go on, of course. The hideously white BBC’s Africa editor and chief correspondent are both white Englishmen. Indeed, over the last few months I’ve been contacted by around two dozen journalists covering Africa for UK and international publications – EVERY SINGLE ONE has been a white man. Aren’t there any BAME journalists in the UK or, God forbid, elsewhere in the world, who could do these jobs? And does the whole of civil society, all the local communities of the UK, have to be represented by people who never leave London?

Well here’s a clue. Christian Aid’s board includes Central Scotland’s Mukami McCrum – one of the best people I met in my whole time in politics. While Oxfam The White is currently in the midst of a full-scale sex abuse scandal.

No, there’s something badly wrong in NGO-land. And it extends to the media covering it too. it feels like well-intentioned white people have missed the woods for the trees and, by the way, represented their own interests by sticking to the hellish old template which involves white Londoners and Americans knowing what’s best for everyone. In any case, how is it possible that people in the UK could run bodies claiming to represent civil society but fail to wonder why all their colleagues are white? The answer must be that they are aware but they just don’t think it’s important. That’s shocking and it’s high time it changed.

Funders need to be asking serious questions of organisations which work ostensibly to help the lives of primarily non-white people across the world, full of people getting very good money for it by the way. What are they doing to get more non-white people in place at the top?  Why are some pretending to be ‘community’ or ‘membership’ organisations when they’re anything but? Oh, and by the way, apart from making big lists of things in London and meeting each other as you move between jobs and board appointments in the same small clique of London-based white people, do you REALLY make a difference?

And governments, of course, need to ensure they’re dealing with real representatives – not just a self-sustaining small group of people who are anything but.

So here’s a thought. Why don’t all the big, white NGOs get together and ask David Lammy, or Mukame McCrum or Lenny Henry or Karan Bilmoria or, well you get the drift, to chair a short-and-sharp study into the shocking whitewash which is our NGO sector? That’d be a start, anyway. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses to London’s hideously white ‘UK’ NGOs
  1. Just about the only way to meet a black person within the NGO universe is when they have been flown in from Sub-Saharan Africa.

  2. I work in Finance and we have exactly the same issue. The vast majority of Senior Exec position board and level or two below are made up of predominantly white males, (more progress certainly being made with gender balance though but it is slow). At an event earlier this week at the BOE and there is some good work at grass roots but unfortunately it is scraping the surface and I fear it will take years to change make inroads into the balance……

  3. From my own observation the people who appoint to NGOs fill the positions from their own circles. Which just happen to be white, London based and Oxbridge educated.

  4. Yup – its like watching a supertanker turn around, then seeing that its not, its just ploughing through normality with its WHITE ‘in charge’ and ‘in a suit’.

    FFS – Scotland might produce pasty blueish people, but it sure produces white/ black/ brown et al as well. We can set the tone in our new independent nation.

    London will never change.


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