Many years ago, the late C. Payne Lucas, co-founder and longtime president of Africare, said we needed more African Americans in international development. He believed that African Americans were well suited to work with our partners and allies in developing countries because of our common history and experience of disenfranchisement, poverty, civil rights, and community economic growth. This background, he went on to note, strengthens the relationships required for effective global partnerships because it is grounded in understanding and solidarity; what we now call emotional intelligence.
As we in the United States move forward with our discussions on decolonizing aid and our attempts to address “solutions privilege,” we specifically need more women of color in international development. Often, women have answers and solutions to community and country development challenges, and too often, these solutions go unsought and ignored. It is past time for that to change and to ensure that women’s knowledge and expertise count.
Twenty years after hearing Mr. Lucas’ proposition, Black women and women of color make up a small proportion of professionals in international development and an even smaller proportion in leadership positions. Data on these staffing patterns are almost non-existent and organizational leaders are rarely called on to account for this continuing disparity. The people leading our country’s international development sector are “so white” in a country that is one of the most diverse in the world.
Being a Black woman in international development makes a difference, particularly to the members of the communities we are assisting. I recall heading to Ghana to make a presentation on the importance of integrating a gender equality perspective in microfinance programing for an international NGO. The organizers assumed I was a White woman and put me on the agenda for 30 minutes. Once I arrived and the staff realized that I was a Black woman, their response was, “Oh my sister, we must add time to your presentation. We want to hear your thoughts on this issue.” One year, when I traveled to Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to visit a country office I managed, the women in the program were elated when they saw me. They had heard that the head of programs from the Washington office was coming to visit and they assumed she would be White.
Too often we overlook the immense impact of the role model effect on the sense of self of those for whom we model. These women in Bukavu were some of the most resilient women I have ever met, and my being there let them know that someone like them could lead a response to their needs and their development. Some time ago, I traveled to Afghanistan to address an important personnel issue. Once I had resolved the issue, the majority local female staff in Kabul shared something I have carried with me ever since. They said, “Today you have shown us that women have power.” This statement is profound and meaningful coming from a place where women fight daily for a voice and a say in their own lives and in the decisions of the day—and where, too often, women who speak their truth are murdered.
As we celebrate all the wonderful contributions women make to our families, our communities, our nations, and the world, let’s be sure to recognize that women are not homogenous. Having a greater diversity of women from different backgrounds informing policies and programs will change international development for the better. Black women and other women of color—Hispanic women, Asian American women, Native American women—have much to offer to the international development sector. As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, let us all commit to bringing more of these women into this most noble of enterprises. Let us recruit more women of color and let us promote more women of color. Let us ensure that women’s diverse voices, perspectives, and priorities for global development are heard, heeded, and reflected in global development policy and practice. Let us also commit to tracking our progress on this front because what we track counts. We need more women of color in international development. When we do, our programs and policies will reflect who we are—powerful women—and who we want to be: powerful nations. Happy International Women’s Day!
Photo c/o Tine Frank/USAID on Flickr